Roland Emmerich’s 1998 incarnation of Godzilla has a lot to answer for. With the Japanese company that own the giant reptile, Toho, allowing Hollywood an adaptation of their most famous Kaiju for the first time since his appearance in 1954; the Independence Day director was tasked with the project. Sadly what was delivered was a very disappointing story, cast and especially the titular big-bad himself. So awful was their vision of the slimmed down, more human-like Godzilla that he was disowned by Toho and lead to the Japanese renaming him as Zilla. At least he wasn’t as bad as the cartoon’s Godzooky.
This time round at least the Japanese are on board with the character, despite dubbing him as “Fatzilla” and the reigns were handed to British director Gareth Edwards after his excellent debut Monsters. His self-shot first film featured giant behemoths roaming peacefully about the earth as more of a background device, allowing the human characters to develop and come to the forefront.
The opening half of Godzilla is similar to this style, with Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and his son, Ford, (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) being the main focus of the piece; the monster himself not being fully revealed until almost an hour in. In this aspect it tries to break the blockbuster mould but Edwards doesn’t manage to pull it off; having a rather dull set of characters filled out by criminally underused cast including Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe. Olsen particularly is an emerging up-and-comer and is frustratingly wasted as Ford’s wife.
The only actor that gets more than half an hour screen time is Taylor-Johnson. Slightly more than the usual uninspired Hollywood Army officer, his Ford is a bomb disposal expert who goes with his father (Cranston) to a quarantined zone where Cranston worked 15 years earlier at a now obsolete nuclear power plant. Here they discover that the authorities have secretly and preposterously contained the monster that destroyed the plant. Inevitably it hatches and unleashes something horrific that threatens humanity as we know it. Scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) then explains the origins of Godzilla and how the nuclear testing that we see in the superb opening credits is in fact an attempt to kill the beast, not how he was created.
Serizawa’s affinity to Godzilla is never really clarified and neither is his knowledge of how or why he knows that Godzilla is not bad, but an anti-hero who is going to defend the city. The mythology of previous Godzilla movies needs to be known to accept the beast adopting this mantra and working alongside mankind instead of destroying it because Edwards doesn’t do enough to express this.
Once the first half is out of the way the spectacle of giant monsters fighting each other can begin. There is devastation and destruction on an epic scale and unsurprisingly here is where the film excels. Having been wowed by Guillermo Del Toro’s monster film, Pacific Rim, last year, Edwards and co. had a lot to live up to in this regard. The special effects are incredible and Godzilla is his biggest yet at 110 meters tall. He also looks feature-wise like the original stop-motion character from the early films and Edwards has been quoted as saying that this was a necessity for him, stating: “It was important to me that this felt like a Toho Godzilla”.
These scenes are sparse nevertheless and it’s really only in the finale that we get to see the beasts duel. Before that, whenever there is any hint of a contest there is a cut-scene before they get going. This does effectively build suspense, but for a blockbuster of this type there needs to be more monster-on-monster action. A couple of brilliant scenes involving a train crash and the sky dive from the trailer are amongst the set pieces that just about keep our attention from waning before the gripping final exchanges.
It can be speculated that in actuality Godzilla’s thunder is stolen in his latest manifestation and that he isn’t even the star of his own show. With Edwards initially announcing that he wanted to make a stand-alone film, conversely it seems that the finale has been cynically engineered by the studio to allow the potential of sequels. Whether Edwards will return is not yet known, but in reality this may be beneficial in the long run for the franchise because next time hopefully there can be a bit more of what the fans came to see, giant Lizard action.