Action Adventure

A Monster of a Film Review: Godzilla (2014)

May 16, 2014Ben MK

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He's big in Japan... and everywhere else

By Ben Mk

There's something about Godzilla that keeps us coming back for more. It could be his loveable personality, his charming roar or his minty fresh atomic breath. Or maybe it's simply the fact that it never gets old watching him go toe to toe with other gargantuan kaiju, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Whatever it is, it's the reason why we've stuck by him for all these years, through thick and thin. And it's the reason why moviegoers are being blessed with a new Godzilla film, helmed (fittingly enough) by Monsters director Gareth Edwards.

This second attempt at Americanizing Godzilla begins not in the US or Japan, but in the Philippines, where an accidental discovery at an archaeological dig site draws scientists — and apparent Godzilla groupies — Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). But instead of finding evidence of the legendary behemoth, they find the remains of something equally mammoth and even more ancient, as well as foreboding signs that something has survived.

As the film progresses, that something comes to be known as M.U.T.O. (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism); and as it turns out, there isn't just one of them, but two — a male and a female. Vaguely resembling a cross between the monster from 2008's Cloverfield and a pterodactyl, the M.U.T.O. thrive on radiation — in fact, they're attracted to it like bees to honey (a crucial plot point that will come into play later in the film, as the US Army hatches a risky plan to destroy them). There's one more thing that the M.U.T.O. crave though, and that's to mate. And in attempting to do so, they awaken something else that's been lying dormant beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean: Godzilla.

Enter Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a pair of American researchers stationed in Japan, along with their young son, Ford. After a deadly accident at the Janjira nuclear power plant leaves the surrounding area uninhabitable due to radiation contamination (bringing to mind the Fukushima disaster of 2011), Joe begins to suspect that a government cover-up is afoot. Fast forward fifteen years, and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a military bomb disposal expert, with a wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and son of his own, living in San Francisco. But when his father's passion for finding out the truth lands them both back on Japanese soil and brings them face-to-face with the M.U.T.O. and Godzilla, it of course falls on him — with a kick-ass name like Ford Brody — to help bring an end to the prehistoric beasts' reign of terror.

Surprisingly, the ultra-serious (bordering on dour, at times) story by screenwriter Max Borenstein spends a lot of time dwelling on the human characters — who, frankly, aren't all that interesting — making early scenes with the monsters themselves frustrating for their lack of follow-through in the carnage-and-mayhem department. At the same time, even though the flick boasts an impressive cast, much of that talent goes underused. Watanabe and Hawkins have little to do other than issue expository snippets of dialog and gawk at the sheer enormity of the situation, while David Strathairn (who portrays a military commander) doesn't fare much better. Cranston does his best to channel a Harrison Ford-eque kind of angst and frustration for the short amount of time that he and Binoche are on-screen, leaving Taylor-Johnson and Olsen to carry most of the film's emotional weight. Their more-platonic-than-romantic chemistry doesn't quite spark as much as it should — especially considering the fact that his American accent has the unintentional effect of making him sound like an adolescent — but it's sufficient to keep audiences invested in-between the bouts of destruction.

But when the film finally gets to the good stuff — those prolonged sequences of monster-on-monster action — it pays off in a big way. Unlike Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, this 2014 iteration of the iconic character strikes the perfect balance between CG creation and the classic man-in-a-rubber-suit look, and it's made even more perfect by the inclusion of that unmistakable roar. Watching the Big G — in all his building-stomping glory — lay the smack down on his monstrous opponents makes it worth sitting through two acts of build-up, as Edwards' orchestration of the climactic battle is nothing less than operatic. The film's visual effects magnificently convey the scope and magnitude of the destruction, occasionally evoking the passé disaster epics of the late 90's. But Edwards never forgets that it ultimately boils down to the audience rooting for Godzilla to emerge as the champion. That serves as the key differentiator between this new Godzilla film and his previous American incarnation, and it makes all the difference in the world.

The Bottom Line

As Godzilla lumbers towards its generally predictable conclusion, you can't help but wonder whether this will be the film to get North American moviegoers to truly embrace the legendary monster. Because even though his popularity as a cult character has soared for decades, he hasn't had the mainstream box office draw to match. As it stands, this latest incarnation is a promising start to what will hopefully flourish as a new franchise. And though it isn't perfect, it should turn its fair share of audience members into true-blue kaiju believers. [★★★½]

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