In his remarkable 2010 debut film, Monsters, director Gareth Edwards worked with no budget and a crew of only seven people including two actors. He created his monster special effects on a home computer in his bedroom using software you can buy off the shelf. What a difference four years and a well-received independent film that cost comparatively nothing can make.
In Godzilla, Edwards has all the big studio toys he can play with, and for the most part it’s his approach of successfully mixing the human element with the monster that goes a long way to forgetting how bad the 1998 Godzilla was.
In this new version of the same name, the famous Japanese monster is neither the villain nor the hero; he kind of arrives out of the ocean to save the day, and the world, from a couple of really clunky looking hammer-head creatures called Mutos who can fly, even if everything in its path is crushed to a pulp while doing it. “The world thinks it was an earthquake,” shouts David Strathaim’s Admiral William Stenz, referring to the giant radiation explosion at a Japanese mining plant, “And we need to keep it that way.”
Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are nuclear physicists at the Janjira nuclear plant and it’s here where everything goes wrong. A radiation explosion in 1999 causes a shutdown. It’s not until fifteen years later after years of demanding answers and sounding like a crazy guy that physicist Cranston tries to re-enter the quarantined plant to find out what actually happened all those years ago and why.
Of course, we already know the answer… well, to a degree. There’s a monster down there, feeding off the radiation, and those same radiation readings that were recorded back in the nineties are starting up again. Only, this time the result is going to be even more devastating. What has been buried is now about to burst free and stomp all over nearby cities, and there’s more than one.
What surprises in this new re-boot is how director Edwards kills off some of his big name stars early in the story. Just when you thought you had someone to relate to – the person or persons with whom you think you’re about to take the journey – they suddenly die. Hitchcock did it in Psycho, and it effectively throws you off. Edwards does something similar here. Those you think will survive are suddenly gone. In the end, it’s not so much the adults with all the knowledge that take the human center-stage, it’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson (better known as Kick-Ass) as a young military officer and his equally young wife Elizabeth Olsen as a nurse. There’s also Ken Watanabe as a scientist who has trouble pronouncing the word Godzilla and Sally Hawkins as his dedicated assistant, and even though their presence is felt throughout most of the film, they appear to have little to do other than ran around looking perpetually concerned.
In truth, it’s the build up that works better than the outcome. Following the humans from the first two thirds of the film as they race around, trying to work out what’s going on while putting themselves in jeopardy keeps you glued. The early, race-against-time scenes in the power plant have a keen sense of urgency, plus the tsunami that hits the coast of Honolulu and devastates the city is hugely effective. But the crowds are there to see the monsters fight, and the whole of the third act does just that. It’s more than sixty minutes until we see Godzilla rise from the depths, but once it’s there, the attention is all on the monsters; humans take a back seat.
There’s a ton of devastation that follows as a giant lizard battles flying hammer-heads among the sky-scrapers, and if that is what you’re after then you’ll get your fill, though frankly, it all starts to get a little dull after awhile. The nail-biting tension built in the earlier scenes give way to a lengthy fight, and while there’s no denying the outstanding look of the effects, with no more actual story to tell, technical aspects well executed can go only so far.
Like several of the super-hero movies of late, the big showdown tends to go on longer than required. Studios feel the need to give an audience its money’s worth by delivering too much in the final act, but it comes at the expense of the rest of the film. Once Godzilla concludes you’ve all but forgotten what made the film work. The final impression as you leave the theatre is the image of giant monsters continuously reducing buildings to rubble while the volume of the soundtrack continues to ring in your ears.
The gimmick of 3D is not as effective, either. Chunks of the film take place at night or underwater, while many of the daytime scenes are cloudy, colorless and dull with lots of rain. The overall dreary quality of the picture often makes it difficult to determine what’s happening. Putting those glasses on only makes the lackluster images darker. Your best bet is to see Godzilla on a regular screen; it won’t improve the final act but at least it will look a whole lot brighter.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)