British director Gareth Edwards' 2010 micro-budget science fiction drama "Monsters" achieved a magical blend of homemade special effects and intimacy by achieving much with very little, implying the aftermath of an alien attack with real world disaster sites and glimpses of towering aliens that the filmmaker crafted on his laptop. Upgrading to the studio arena with "Godzilla," Edwards again manages to show more than tell, even as his substantially upgraded resources allow him to show much more. With its legendary creature given a matching scale, the titanic story of the world's most famous deep-sea invader doesn't always gel with Edwards' greater interest in the story's human elements. But it's exactly this component that creates a radical contrast to the cartoonish 1998 version of the story from master of overstatement Roland Emmerich. Edwards' "Godzilla" has its fair share of plot holes and questionable twists, but just as the reptilian beast keeps battling ahead, the movie attempts to wrestle outrageous material into something worthy of serious consideration.
While there's no doubting the prominent role of its eponymous figure, "Godzilla" spends nearly an hour building up to its first, gratifying reveal. Before then, its predominant focus is the tale of an American physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) stationed in the late nineties at a Japanese nuclear power plant with his wife, fellow researcher Sandy (Juliette Binoche), and their young son. Following a traumatic event with cryptic origins, the family is torn apart — at which point we shift to modern times, when Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has grown into a young lieutenant for the U.S. military and attempts a normal life with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). Drawn back to Japan after hearing about his disgraced father's ongoing attempts to determine the cause of the accident years earlier, Ford finds his father in mad scientist mode, spouting theories about echolocation and the presence of a giant being somewhere beneath the waves. In these introductory scenes, "Godzilla" retains the aura of mystery associated with Steven Spielberg's better spectacles, hinting at ominous forces and relishing in the excitement of possibilities lurking just out of sight.
Yet for all the mastery of its build, "Godzilla" can't possibly satisfy our curiosity as well as it generates it. As soon as the first supernatural creature comes to life, the movie automatically loses touch with the sophisticated characters at its center. After poking around together at the site of Joe's former employment, the pair comes across a research facility harboring a huge, dormant being feeding off radiation that the scientists have termed M.U.T.O. (an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). While incarcerated by Japanese authorities led by the researcher Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the creature wakes up, revealing a large, shadowy winged entity that suggests Mothra by way of the Batplane.
From there, the plot neatly falls together: Another M.U.T.O. arrives from the depths of the planet and the two creatures set on a path toward San Francisco, presumably to mate; detecting their activity, the ever-elusive Godzilla shows up to intervene.
Government authorities track their every move and strategize about desperate measures, but despite the implication that many smaller events are taking place around this massive showdown, no amount of intelligent pacing can fully obscure the basic elements in play: Ultimately, "Godzilla" involves a gigantic lizard fighting other huge beings and destroying the city in the process. But it's fascinating to watch Edwards and his collaborators attempt to work around the movie's inevitabilities. The atmosphere is grimmer and the dialogue less blunt than the generally cheesy Toho-produced Japanese installments, but "Godzilla" is especially notable for how often it turns away from the central events until there's no other choice but to allow them to dominate.
A snazzy opening credits sequence stretches back to the dawn of the nuclear age, using 8mm film and military documents to hint at a clandestine attempt by the American government to eliminate the monster with nuclear devices decades ago. Culminating with a sudden blast and only a fleeting glance of the beast emerging from the waves, the slick collage seemingly addresses the countless viewers bringing a set of expectations to the table: By effectively positioning Godzilla as a mythological figure shrouded in vagaries, it sets us up for an entirely new way of looking at him.
That's an ideal scene-setter for the following two hours, which attempt a realistic immersion into the outcome of cataclysmic developments. Every seemingly prominent character is buried in the pileup of backroom strategy sessions and military prep work as millions trace the monsters' path of destruction on innumerable screens.
While the original "Godzilla" smartly echoed nuclear fears at the time, the new installment has more of an apolitical element, exploring the unfocused means by which globe-spanning events are processed by the mainstream media: In multiple circumstances, Edwards cuts away from tidbits of showdowns between Godzilla and the two M.U.T.O. creatures to play up the ripple effect of their behavior, with snapshots of blaring news headlines on televisions often spotted in the background of dire conversations. The effect is at once enthralling and frustratingly muddled, chopping up the suspense instead of allowing it develop urgency.
The screenplay (credited by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham but reportedly tailored by several others over the last two years) contains the usual blend of made-up scientific blather and military gobbledygook, and it struggles from setting up too many ingredients, leading to several loose ends. But Edwards seems far more interested in taking this silly premise as seriously as possible, a mandate that's particularly notable in the movie's look. As he did before with the New York showdown in "The Avengers," cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures the grey-toned cityscape of the climactic San Francisco battle in impressive wide shots that reflect the sheer helplessness of human defense measures.
Unfortunately, with the monster-on-monster action almost exclusively set at night, the finale of sparring of silhouettes leaves much to be desired. While the spindly creatures of "Monsters" maintained a cryptic poetry that matched the movie's subdued means of depicting a broken world, "Godzilla" doesn't have that workaround, so its dark-hued climax feels like something of a cheat.
Still, the path it takes to get there contains a number of startling visual details. The strong suit in "Godzilla" isn't coherent storytelling so much as the individual moments sprinkled throughout. Edwards finds poetry in the pauses between the battles: an ant-sized human locks eyes with the ginormous Godzilla as he tumbles into dust and fog; a spectacularly-rendered parachuting sequence includes one jumper's perspective of Godzilla through the man's goggles.
Naturally, "Godzilla" must deliver on the promise of its title, and even with its nighttime workarounds, it doesn't entirely disappoint. A lengthy pan upwards of the 30-story figure capably foregrounds his hulking presence. Once it gets there, however, "Godzilla" becomes the very movie it consciously avoids — a spectacle in which the people barely matter at all.
Even as Edwards keeps pushing his cast back into the picture, disaster-laden images overwhelm the human element. Only Cranston delivers an expertly textured performance, veering away from his lunatic on "Breaking Bad" to convey an equally tragic figure driven by obsessive tendencies. When the story turns away from him after the first act, his absence is felt through the mechanical qualities hindering the rest of the cast: Watanabe generally just looks shocked and amazed, while Taylor-Johnson's one-note hero barely emotes at all, and the brilliant David Stathairn surfaces as a barking admiral on autopilot.
But the most frustrating aspect of the uninspired cast is a strange neglect of the story's female characters: Both Olsen and the recently Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins (who plays Watanabe's assistant) hardly do more than express worry when the camera calls for it.
The actors' underdeveloped aspects make it hard to care much about the stakes at hand: We hear minor characters chatter about the prospects of nuclear defense mechanisms, but the possibilities come and go so quickly that they never develop any genuinely thrilling qualities. Still, Edwards manages to sustain a grim, cerebral atmosphere all the way through, as if fighting the inevitable demands of the material. The movie contains enough basic money shots to please hardcore Godzilla fans without indulging in them at every opportunity. By contemporary blockbusters standards, it's practically a minimalist enterprise.
As with "Monsters," Edwards' newest project requires careful consideration, albeit for different reasons. What it lacks in plot development in makes up in a series of unstated implications, particularly with respect to the motivations of the big guy in question. Godzilla may look like a threat, but as anyone versed in various installations of the franchise knows, he's often closer to a solution when other colossal horrors enter the picture.
The project's intentions are rendered in similar shades of ambiguity: Is it a layered form of big budget artistry under the guise of simpler concerns—or a typical CGI-heavy tentpole with some modicum of ingenuity? Edwards certainly displays a penchant for working against the expectations of crass product. That valiant struggle casts the battle of art and commerce in a curious spotlight: Like Godzilla himself, the movie's substance is simultaneously alien and familiar.
Warner Bros. releases "Godzilla" nationwide on Friday.