Film review: Godzilla steps out of the blockbuster gate

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Bryan Cranston stars as a nuclear plant supervisor in the summer box office stomper Godzilla. Photo credit: Warner Brothers Bryan Cranston stars as a nuclear plant supervisor in the summer box office stomper Godzilla. Photo credit: Warner Brothers

George Carlin used to a do a bit about his favorite movies: westerns in which a bunch of cowboys face off with a bunch of Native Americans. “You know what the big scene is going to be, right? It’s going to be the attack the Indians finally make on the cowboys. You wait for it to happen for an hour and a half, and then it’s over. And they show us for 90 minutes how the cowboys get ready for this attack.”

That sums up Godzilla. Ninety minutes of prep work followed by 30 minutes of Godzilla facing off with two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).

It feels as if the filmmakers, including story writer Dave Callaham (The Expendables), screenwriter Max Borenstein, and director Gareth Edwards (who has spent most of his time as a visual effects artist) were going for a more nuanced Godzilla, like the film that started this whole mess, Gojira (1954). Because Godzilla eventually spends a lot of time battling Mothra and Ghidrah and other ridiculous monsters, we sometimes forget just what a sincere movie Gojira is. Sure, it looks dated, but it’s a deeply felt rumination on the aftermath of war and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. Plus, Godzilla stomps on a lot of shit.

Tone-wise, there’s a similar sincerity to Godzilla, but Borenstein and Edwards forgot to put any effort into making their characters human. If they’re just going to be lizard fodder, who cares whether they live or die? In Gojira, everyone has a purpose. In Godzilla, Elizabeth Olsen’s purpose is to look beautiful and stand in the rain, mouth agape, before she begins running (slowly). Her character literally does nothing.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as her husband Ford, doesn’t have it much better. He’s a Navy nuclear munitions expert (how convenient) who happens to be in Japan visiting his crackpot father (Bryan Cranston, who gets the early award for Scenery Chewing by a Respected Actor) when the first MUTO appears. Taylor-Johnson is one of the dullest actors of his generation (Kick-Ass notwithstanding), and the script does him no favors.

Neither does the pacing, which is leaden on purpose. In the movie’s first hour or so, we get glimpses of what the big scenes are going to be when Godzilla and the MUTOs meet, but even Return of the Jedi—the least of the first three Star Wars films—knew that when cutting away from action, one should cut to more action. Here there’s lots of cutting from action to pondering and prep work. Has the military ever been so sluggish on screen? And how did no one notice—twice—a 10-story tall monster lumbering around in a major metropolitan area?

Worse, there’s no levity in Godzilla. At first, it’s refreshing. But after an hour of deadly serious people doing deadly serious things, a wisecrack or two may take the pressure off the non-story. There’s also some borderline tasteless 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami visual references that are hard to swallow.

But when the monsters finally fight? Pay dirt. Lots of tail-whapping, screaming, and building destruction.

In the end, Godzilla is good for one thing. It puts to rest the age-old question, “What raises a movie’s rating from ‘Terrible’ to simply ‘So-so’?”

Spectacular monster fights, ladies and gentleman. Nothing more, nothing less.

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