Stop me if you’ve heard this one (and you probably haven’t, because it’s probably a dumb idea), but in some ways the new Godzilla movie works best as a spiritual sequel to last year’s Man of Steel. If you saw Zack Snyder’s take on Superman, you’ll recall his story was less a conventional look at the indestructible Kryptonian superhero, and more a consideration of how such a being could single-handedly redefine life on Earth. Snyder’s Superman wasn’t a good guy as much as a force of nature that we could be grateful was on our side, despite the massive property damages and body count racked up by the final reel.
The most jarring part of that perspective was that Superman’s otherness – the unavoidable way in which he is just plain different from us – remained wrapped up in an appealing package of cape, costume and perfectly styled hair. In Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, that’s been “fixed”: There’s simply no way to regard a 350-foot radioactive lizard as anything other than That Which Is Not Us. Edwards puts the God in Godzilla, positioning the beastie as something we can’t stop (or even control) and shouldn’t even try. Some things are just bigger than humanity, the film seems to say; when those things appear, we should settle for hoping they’ll do more good than harm.
I’m no Godzilla scholar, but I understand this interpretation hearkens back to the creature’s earliest days; the film legend was born in Japan, of course, as a cultural response to that country’s understandable nuclear paranoia following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus it follows that Edwards would start his film in Japan, circa 1999, as a visiting husband-and-wife team of nuclear scientists (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are caught up in an unexplainable underground disaster. Cut to 15 years later, and the action shifts to their now-grown son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives expert who regards his aging dad as a conspiracy-fearing crackpot.
But Ford’s pop isn’t crazy. Soon more signs of devastating subterranean activity are discovered, and a team of scientists team up with the military to go after … Godzilla? Well, that would be telling. Suffice to say that if the Earth’s radiation-laden core can sustain one giant monster, it can feed two or three. (Or more?)
If you find that gentle tease annoying, you’ll hate Edwards’ Godzilla. A whole hour goes by before the title character is allowed to take up the full screen – and even then he’s gone in an eyeblink, as the film cuts away to Ford’s family watching the commotion on TV. (Maybe they should have called it “Waiting for Godzilla.”) The filmmakers have adopted a less-is-more philosophy, choosing to keep the drama at our level: More CGI funds are expended on scenes of onlookers reacting to monster-caused devastation than on scenes involving any actual monsters. The goal in this is to keep the tension on a human scale, and it works, but at the cost of downplaying the hot monster action. All the foreplay in the first two acts should by rights lead to something earth-shattering in the final reel – but it’s ultimately not worth the wait. (I didn’t watch the film in IMAX or 3D, but if you have to pay extra to see table-stakes Godzilla spectacle, your blockbuster has a problem.)
The cast is packed with highly qualified actors: Look for David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, each bringing as much of their A-game as the B-movie script will allow. In the hands of, say, Jurassic Park-era Spielberg, we’d get to know these characters just well enough to feel invested in their survival. But no one’s given enough to work with, and without a compelling creature or engaging humans, what’s left? Carnage? We can see that by watching the news.
Ultimately, it’s hard to call Godzilla a failure when everyone involved seems to have made such an obviously sincere effort to take this remake seriously. (The last American production, from 1998, was laughable in all the wrong ways.) Edwards and crew approach their honored cinematic property with something akin to reverence, and that should never be discouraged. But maybe next time – and leapin’ lizards, you can bet there’ll be a next time – they’ll also approach it with something akin to fun.