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Review: Godzilla’ Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston & Elizabeth Olsen

Review: Godzilla’ Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston & Elizabeth Olsen

Popular culture has obviously changed dramatically since 1954 when Toho Studios released Ishirō Honda’s inaugural kaiju movie, “Godzilla.” Originally a horror/science-fiction movie, “Godzilla” and the subsequent Toho Studio movies (all 28 of them), were never really big on character. Various scientists were always tasked with stopping the gigantic monster—or assisting him when he veered toward hero, facing off against rival “evil” monsters—but the draw was always the visual spectacle of Godzilla destroying and battling his way through each movie. Times have changed; the atomic age and post-Hiroshima fears that bore the monster movie in the first place are long gone, and today’s audiences demand something different. Even when modern monster battle movies fail (“Pacific Rim”), they at least appreciate that it’s the humans the audience has to ultimately connect with—otherwise all you have is empty visual bombast (and as poorly written as it was, “Pacific Rim” made the humans the focus).

The Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Godzilla” reimagining demonstrates early on that it has an excellent grasp and understanding of character, emotional stakes and human value. Which is perhaps why their “Godzilla”—an initially character-rich movie about relatable ordinary humans in extraordinary circumstances—is ultimately so frustrating as the picture inadvertently turns its back on those core principles.

Unfolding across several continents, “Godzilla” begins with a terrifically engaging and multifaceted prologue that sets up the heart of the movie with a surprisingly emotionally-layered father and son story. Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) cannot let the tragic events of 1999 go; a mysterious disaster at a nuclear plant where he worked in Japan caused the death of his wife and leveled an entire city. 15 years later, Joe is deeply estranged from his son, Ford, now a man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a father, a husband, a soldier and Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert living halfway across the globe in San Francisco.

Still living in Japan, Joe remains haunted, seen by his son as a crackpot conspiracy theorist trying to prove the calamity was not a natural disaster. So when Ford is suddenly obliged to fly to Japan and help Joe, he is not only forced relive a past he has worked an entire lifetime to forget, but confront his consumed, possibly deranged father, who is fixated on the tragedy and what actually caused it.

Their schism is rich and detailed, with Cranston firing on all cylinders throughout, and when Joe finally convinces his reluctant son to enter the irradiated forbidden zone where this nuclear catastrophe occurred, their discovery begins to convince Ford that his obsessive father had not been crazy for all these years.

These revelations soon unravel the backstory and the meat of “Godzilla” begins: an apex King of All Monsters predator that is awakened from the deep when two radio-active-feeding monsters—the ones responsible for the Japanese atomic incident—threaten to destroy the planet. The layered “Godzilla” film thus focuses on the military’s plan to save mankind, the scientist’s order-of-nature theories that understand the creature’s behavior, and Ford’s journey home to his family amidst a harrowing level of 9/11-like destruction. But lost in all this is the dramatic, engaging father and son story. Inexplicably, “Godzilla” abandons the complex motivations, vendetta, and obsessions of Joe that had become the heart and soul of the film and becomes a standard operating modern monster movie. A fairly decent one for what it is, but also relatively hollow and empty, especially compared to what came before.

“Godzilla” makes a critical mistake when it shifts POV. The movie has sold itself as being Bryan Cranston’s movie—his motivations are easily the most multi-faceted of any single character—and when it attempts an admittedly ballsy POV pass, the picture drops the baton. Its second crucial error is having Aaron Taylor-Johnson take over the movie from Cranston. Compared to Cranston, he is wooden, dull, and uncommanding, and the movie begins to deaden with his lead weight (the emotional and dramatic transference the movie tries to give Taylor-Johnson simply doesn’t resonate like Cranston’s lead). Thus, as the countdown to the ensemble’s collaborative efforts to stop these monsters from destroying the world begins, one has to struggle to care because the lead is so generic.

The first act of “Godzilla,” which admittedly might be a little slow for general audiences, is otherwise perfect. Cranston and scientists Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins suck you in with commanding performances and the realistic world-building is urgent and dramatic, with a tangible sense of calamitous consequences (Elizabeth Olsen is also absolutely terrific in her few scenes, but isn’t given much to do). Director Gareth Edwards’ world building is excellent and even on par with the exigency of Christopher Nolan’s genre films, a tone and ideal that “Godzilla” seems to strive for in its opening act. But when the monster movie kicks in, all this earned goodwill goes out the window.

As monster spectacle, “Godzilla” is fine and should please any monster movie fanatics. It looks good, sounds good, the creature looks totally convincing and the scale of it can be awe-inspiring (though Alexandre Desplat’s score gets a little too melodramatic when Godzilla shows up). So if you’re looking for a good monster fight movie where Godzilla mashes other villains, you’ve probably come to the right place. But if you’re engaged in the emotional story the filmmakers have set-up for the audience—one that should ride throughout the entire movie—on that level the picture totally fails itself to a really disappointing degree.

Godzilla gets a lot right, hiring excellent actors even in bit parts to sell every inch of the story, focusing on characters, the emotional stakes of the leads and even embracing the atomic-age fears and allegories that the Toho Studio films utilized while putting a modern-spin on them—the casualties and cost of life within such disasters (there is a 9/11-esque disaster-porn tinge to the film, but it’s certainly not as thoughtless as it is in “Man Of Steel”).

Director Gareth Edwards knows character is the core of any spectacle. His low-budget debut “Monsters” put an intimate twist on the giant-creature genre focusing on an unlikely pair in otherworldly danger that arguably borrowed the tried-and-true dynamic from “It Happened One Night” within the frame of world full of monsters, and so it’s doubly frustrating when his movie drops the ball.

At times “Godzilla” feels like a cut above most mindless summer fare; it has great intentions, admirable ambition and most fan service moments are mostly kept at bay (until they’re not). But its radiation-eating monsters are rather silly and unimaginatively look like monsters borrowed from “Cloverfield” only with wings. More crucially, when you don’t care as much, all the fighting becomes noise.

Featuring a story by Dave Callaham, a screenplay by Max Borenstein that Gareth Edwards helped shape and then an (uncredited) rewrite by Frank Darabont (“The Mist”), “Godzilla” doesn’t feel as if it was written by committee. However, the idea to switch from Cranston’s character to Taylor-Johnson’s as the lead is not only miscalculated, but has a vague odor of studio heads wanting to place a 30-something, good looking white male as the lead of their movie.

Themes in “Godzilla” are myriad, but the strongest ones (reconciliation) are forsaken and the most reoccurring one (nature must restore balance to Earth via its top predators) is really more expository dialogue than anything.

“Godzilla” begins as a character-based movie that quickly shifts to a plot-based one, with a far less compelling lead character representing human courage in the face of titanic calamity. But ultimately, this blockbuster’s undoing is that the movie promises something different, at least at first. “Godzilla” asks you care about its characters, achieves that aspiration, earns your trust, and then not only pivots towards a far less interesting character, but abandons most of its absorbing emotional legwork for a fairly rote and straightforward rock ‘em, sock ‘em monster movie. [C+]

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Comments

Juan Czarmar

To the annoying author and the annoying "Godzilla(2014)" hating commemtors who dislike this film because it didn't reach there chessy expectations or preconceived notions. Do me and the entire GODZILLA fanboy nation a favor and leave your opinions to yourself.

MegaSolipsist

This movie was so boring, criminally wasting the only good actors it had and focusing on the bad ones (even Kick-Ass was bad in this), showing nothing of Godzilla to the point where I got irritated at the constant teasing and relegating the big guy to a cameo at the end. And when he did show up he looked terrible, a waddling, badly animated monster with terrible, cartoony facial expressions.
At least the 1998 movie was fun in a campy kind of way. I could enjoy it as a bad movie, but this one was too good to enjoy as a bad movie, too bad to enjoy as a good movie and far too boring to ever re-watch.

Kate

So bad. So so so bad.

MS

Maybe there is some version of this movie in an alternative universe where Joe Brody (the Bryan Cranston character) is the POV. If so, the alternate universe movie reviews report that his obsessive focus on his wife's death quickly becomes tiresome. Multi-faceted motivation? Didn't see it. Ford was motivated by not wanting to repeat his father's fate – thus his quest to return home and save his wife and son. But hey, this is a way better than expected Godzilla movie, best ever since the original and Destroy All Monsters.

loudrockmusic

Why didn't Kick-Ass just fight Godzilla hand-to-hand? That's a fight I'd like to see! Kick ass!

jkdm

nailed it.

Double bait and switch ruined it for me (was really enjoying myself)
After 30-45 minutes its all war room meetings, oceanic travel and COD wrapped around pacific rim.

Druzya

i still can't understand why the movie takes so long to bring in Godzilla. It's the protagonist. The main character. All the others, meaning all the actors, are mere witnesses (if they're lucky) of the might of the King of Monster. I loved the part when they say directly that Godzilla is a force of nature, implying that manking can only stand and watch, trying to contain the damage. What i didn't like is that it took a huge amount of time to get us there because the focus is on the humans, like they actually meant something in that scale of events.

Matt

"but has a vague odor of studio heads wanting to place a 30-something, good looking white male as the lead of their movie."

He's 23, research please.

kthanks

Mirco

Dude! I'm in it for the monsters. Please tell me you didn't go into this thinking it was going to be about people. We didn't care about the people in the originals (i sure as hell didn't waste time trying to read text at 7 years old) and we don't care about people in the this one! At least I don't… As long as they're being squished and their cities destroyed, I'm good! WE'RE IN IT FOR THE MONSTERS!!!

Noelle

Apparently this reviewer didn't want to see a monster movie. His critique is meaningless to those of us who are going to see what the title of the movie implies, Godzilla. Honestly I couldn't care less about the interaction between the humans. I want to see monsters fight, and the Big G prevail.

Jim

I think the reviewer does not understand what the Director is trying to say. People are at the center of all things but sometimes, people and their own stories, whatever they may be, get swept aside by events of calamitous proportion.

Ron Rowan

Why is it that movie critics like Rodrigo Perez think the general movie goer gives a crap about his opinion of a film. I for one don't Mr. Perez, and at 63 year old have probably watched a lot more films that you have. I can't even find you on Wikipedia. That's how important you are. So, you have an education and can write well, and even pick a film apart for what YOU think is wrong with it. Big deal! People like myself go to a film to have a good time, to be entertained, to have fun and escape for awhile from the mundane and banal activities of everyday life. But what do I read here? Another mundane and banal opinion of a film that's unfortunately, just like the rest. Perhaps some day you film critics will come up with something new. Or is it in reality that you write this reviews only for the elite cognoscenti, which probably aren't going to watch this film anyway. Grow up!

Brin

After reading all the reviews of Godzilla, there is only one way the critics would have liked this film. In the second act show Godzilla "briefly" and then continue on with the human characters as the film morphs into "The Notebook" or "The Butler". This is a "Popcorn Movie" for Godsake! It may have earned and "A" if after Godzilla appeared, they cut to the French film "Amour" and after the end of the film; we have a Morgan Freeman voice over about how Godzilla defeated the monsters, humanity would learn its lesson as we see the Big G returning to the sea. Cut and roll credits.

billblack

Pacific Rim, a fail?
Godzilla, expected an engaging emotional story?
You don't even know what you're talking about, do you?

Mike

"Pacific Rim" wasn't remotely a fail, it took in $110,000,000 in the USA and well over $450,000,000 worldwide. It was positively reviewed by 75% of those who reviewed it. Please, as a journalist, do a little research before making blatantly wrong statements as fact.

Coxy

I love this movie but I have to agree, as soon as they moved from Cranston that human element just dropped like a lead balloon. Aaron-Taylor Johnson's character just wasn't very interesting. Loved the monsters and the action was amazing but yeah they screwed up the character side of things big time.

likeucare

I think the reviewer like many no name,self important reviewers would never give a monster movie a good review. It is obvious that when you are talking about a Godzilla picture there is a certain amount of human development required,but it is not going to be Shindler's List. The audience for this film is going to be what all of the pompous douches who critique cinema like to call derisively"fanboys" or are at least interested on some level in seeing a monster movie. If the reviewer is forced to go for his job it is hardly a good barometer of how the film will be received by it's actual audience. And anything short of a scathing indictment should be viewed as a positive review.

Anurag

Wow aaron johnson is the godzilla and he failed the movie!!!!!was it a review or Spoiler!IDIOT

Derubael

Stopped reading after the reviewer attempted to claim Pacific Rim was some kind of failure. I wasn't aware that over 220million in profits was a failure.

Try harder.

Thomas The Tank Engine

Just seen the film and can't argue with any of this review. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was just really bland. It's worth mentioning how awesome Godzilla is as a monster though; they really tease his reveal and it makes it all the more exciting when we see him let rip.

Naveed

Actually, the editing for Monsters was $15,000. The budget for the actual film was $500,000. Still folds under Godzilla's $160 million budget.

Blifeds76

No lie, from reading this review, sounds like you want the transformers version of Godzilla. He's a super star! He should be doing super star things! Let's Micheal Bay-i-fy him!

Slow build creates suspense. This is good that they didn't show him till the end.

Jack

Good review. Sounds like they got a quarter of the film right. Better than I expected. Don't mind the fanboy and plant attacks. It's what they do…

David

Well thank god the movie isn't called Aaron Johnson!

It's called Godzilla.

Brent

"As monster spectacle, “Godzilla” is fine and should please any monster movie fanatics. It looks good, sounds good, the creature looks totally convincing and the scale of it can be awe-inspiring (though Alexandre Desplat’s score gets a little too melodramatic when Godzilla shows up). So if you’re looking for a good monster fight movie where Godzilla mashes other villains, you’ve probably come to the right place." ok so why did you give it a rotten on rotten tomatoes? Its a movie called Godzilla and you said yourself its a great monster flick "But if you’re engaged in the emotional story the filmmakers have set-up for the audience — one that should ride throughout the entire movie — on that level the picture totally fails itself to a really disappointing degree." then you go on to say that… which doesn't make sense. Its a movie about a giant monster? Did it do that right? if yes… which it appears then you should have given it a fresh, if no then why? All other flaws of the movie don't really matter that much because of the former question so does that bring it to a rotten? Or are you just being a snob?

SilkyRay

Its freaking Godzilla! Your looking at it wrong.

ray

i got words for you: proof reader!, your grammar makes your review look look it was done by a 1st grader

Greg

Now here's a review that's trying too hard. Sophomoric, and trapped within a myriad jumble of ill conceived prose, the reviewer writes much like a Junior College student trying to impress his teacher. I give this review a C-.

josh

Ever since the trailer showed that shot of Aaron Johnson saying "Can you kill it?" in as bland, self-serious and wooden a way as possible, I was always a bit worried his would be the performance that pulled the movie down a notch.

lee

Hollywood needs to get its leading actors s**it together, far too many bland young male leads, pretty but indistinctive, charisma free zones, they fail to connect with audiences yet are still given leading role after role. Women have been making great strides evolving complex screen personas – on the small screen mainly – time now for a male lead reinvention.

Nick Thomason

I thought this was supposed to be a review, not a plot synopsis.

Jorge Clooneigh

Monsters was not that great a movie. Plenty of potential and promise but let down by a poor female lead and poor execution. The bar isn't exactly high for Edwards.

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