“Godzilla” is a Somewhat Royal Return for the King of the Monsters

After a decade of hibernation, the King of the Monsters has reawakened in Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ modernized reboot of the world’s most famous kaiju. And while the film takes the monster on his 60th anniversary and contemporizes him for today’s fears, it also goes too far into the real world. Yes, a film focused on Godzilla is actually too humanized.

If there is one aspect that keeps Godzilla from being completely enjoyable, it’s that the film is simply too slow. While Edwards, who came onto the scene with 2010’s Monsters, a film that was all about a real world approach to kaiju, tries to make the reboot all about rediscovering who Godzilla is, it takes far too long to get to what we all came to see: smashing, crashing, and bashing.

In fact, Godzilla is far from the star of his own film. The King of the Monsters actually gets less screen time than any human and even less than the brand new monsters that set the story in motion. But first, a brief look at what this Godzilla is all about.

Starting in 1999, a nuclear plant disaster in Japan causes the death of Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, who becomes convinced that the government has covered up the true nature of the deadly accident. Jump to 15 years later and his son Ford, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, is dragged into his half-crazed father’s continued pursuit of the truth. But when the same mysterious circumstances that led to the nuclear disaster begin again, the truth is finally discovered and Godzilla is awakened from his ancient slumber. But who is humanity’s true enemy?

It’s clear from the very beginning that Edwards is trying to tell a human story. Ford is the real star of the movie, and it is his struggle to get back to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son that informs the narrative of Godzilla. But do we really want Ford’s story to be the one we doggedly follow throughout the film? When it comes at the expense of seeing humongous monster fights, it begins to get frustrating. Actually, Ford is not much of a character. But while he’s too much of an everyman, he seems to magically end up everywhere that disaster strikes and superhumanly survive while everyone around him dies. The first few times are excusable, but by the fifth or sixth chance encounter, it becomes ridiculous.

It also doesn’t help that Cranston, a big draw after his acclaimed run on AMC’s Breaking Bad established him as a huge name and a sensational actor, gets so little screen time. He puts on a wonderful, layered performance with the time he gets. But it also makes the characters that fill the rest of the movie, played by accomplished actors such as Ken Wantanabe, David Strathairn, Olsen, and Taylor-Johnson, feel flat and cookie cutter.

Yes, ridiculous in a film where a 100-story-tall lizard fights nuclear-hungry insectoids.

Speaking of the Beast from the East, let’s focus on the reason why the movie was made in the first place.

Godzilla himself is awe-inspiring. He’s bigger and badder than ever and feels real, making him that much more intimidating. The earth quakes beneath his feet, tidal waves are created when he rears his head out of the water, and his classic roar rattles your bones. His opponents, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are quite scary. These radiation-starved ancient beasts are made to be a challenge for Godzilla, and their powers (they suck out nuclear power and can create E.M.P. waves that disable all technology) are perfect for the modern adaptation. Human weaponry is useless against them. Which conveniently makes Godzilla the world’s only chance. The setup also solidifies the King of the Monster into one humongous antihero. He’s Earth’s protector, he just knocks over a lot of buildings and causes deaths along the way. However, the MUTOs are bland when it comes to personality. They’re basic and animalistic, all feeding and breeding. Compared to Godzilla’s many colorful foes across the decades, they’re rather forgettable, even though they look cool on screen.

When these massive beasts clash, it’s exciting and visually impressive. Godzilla fights like we’ve come to know across his dozens of monster mashes, just translated into a more realistic manner. Choking out his enemies, devastating them with his spike-covered tail, and smashing them into paste are enough to make you feel like a giddy kid. Best of all, his atomic breath looks fantastic. Without spoiling anything, the atomic breath is easily the best scene in the film. It’s exactly what Godzilla should be.

Unfortunately, it’s so little of what Godzilla actually is. If there’s any film outside of the Toho Studios monster series that Edwards’ film should be compared to, it’s director Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (read my review of that film). That was a film that was all about the giant fights. So much so that it became overly bombastic to the point of being numbing. And the scenes in between those battles were filled with forgettable caricatures and plot lines that meant nothing compared to the kaiju brawls.

Godzilla goes in the complete opposite direction. This is a deadly serious film that focuses everything on the humans that scamper between the giant monster legs. But where’s the fun? Where are the genuine thrills and chills? Only a few of the scenes reach those heights, but make up only a few scant minutes of the movie’s two-hour runtime. Yet, somehow, the film still manages to cling to clichés. Children are in peril, dogs run from disaster, and all the main characters somehow end up smack dab in the middle of danger. Bringing a much more human element into focus is definitely what Godzilla needed to feel relevant in the modern age of dark and brooding blockbusters, but it goes so far in that direction as to literally cut away from the monster fights.

Audiences are only allowed to see brief glimpses of battles on news coverage in the background of scenes where we see people we don’t care about leave each other messages on the phone. Or see the aftermath of a humungous monster tearing up the Las Vegas strip. Or follow a squad of paratroopers attempting to disarm a bomb as fantastic beasts beat each other up in the smoke-obscured distance. It’s meant to be tantalizing. But when the only battle seen in full is at the very end, it becomes infuriating.

Maybe it’s because of budget limitations. Maybe they wanted to ground the story before Godzilla goes off to fight Mothra, Mechagodzilla, or King Ghidorah in a bigger sequel. But when the silent, fire-breathing, scaly monster is more complex than the bland protagonist, the movie has a problem.

If Godzilla and Pacific Rim had compared notes and split up their fights and characterization equally, it would have probably resulted in two stronger, more satisfying movies.

Who knows where the next Godzilla film will go. Whether it is a direct sequel to this reboot or a return to Japanese production, the future is wide open. Let’s just hope they put the big guy front and center.

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