Has American Cinema Redeemed Itself?
It is with great reluctance that I write this piece. I have not contributed an entire article to the site for some time, and it saddens my heart that this review marks my humble return. That being said, as a longtime fan of the Big Guy, I feel uniquely qualified among the contributors to Monster.Movie.TV to be fair and unbiased about what I watched last night. I did not go in with any preconceived notions of what would be offered up for my viewing pleasure. I did not allow the previous American attempt at bringing the Big Guy back to US screens to taint my thoughts or expectations. I took this film for what it was, and came away both excited and disappointed. I have tried not to give too much away, which may make this review feel a little choppy, but I wanted to help our readers decide whether or not they should see this film without ruining the damn thing. Spoiler alert level: Low.
Let’s start with a few of the high notes. Bryan Cranston delivers a great performance, no real surprise there. He proved quite competently that he could handle a dramatic role during his tenure in “Breaking Bad.” Ken Watanabe also pulls out an impressive performance as our resident science man. The quiet reserve he shows during some of the more emotional scenes is well played with the restraint I would expect from someone of traditional Japanese heritage. He does not overplay it, and allows those brief glimpses of fear or sadness, that are pulled back at the last minute before they break the surface. Sally Hawkins also gives us a good performance as his assistant/partner.
On the flip side, Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives us a pretty predictable if relatively flat performance. He’s believable to a degree, but I have to agree with my fellow MMTV moviegoer that the performance was pretty “vanilla.” His character also seems a little clueless. There was simply nothing spectacular about it. Elizabeth Olsen’s performance also left a little to be desired. She starts out strong and appealing, but falls short by the midpoint. I’m not entirely convinced that this is the fault of Olsen. It seems her character became an afterthought relegated to the stereotypically teary eyed, worrying female. Even her “heroic” choice to send her son to a shelter with one of her coworkers seems stripped down and unimportant.
There is a lot of drama in this film. We are given shot after shot of the human condition as the creatures in the film wreak havoc on our daily lives. When Cranston’s wife, played exceptionally well by Juliette Binoche, dies we are right there with him. (Kudos to Binoche, in her short time on screen, she still pulls off one of the most memorable characters in the film.) Cranston and Binoche could have been powerhouse characters here, but sadly neither of them survives past the first 30 minutes or so of the film. Coincidentally, this is also where we begin to seriously intersperse the monsters and the dramatic subplot. I am not opposed to drama. I have been watching this particular genre of film for multiple decades and have observed a nice evolution of storyline integration. That being said, I do not watch Kaiju for the gut wrenching emotional storylines. There is a fine line to be walked here, and I’m sure by now all of you are wondering, did director Gareth Edwards cross it?
Our bad guys are not too shabby. Referred to as MUTO (pronounced moo-toe in the film), for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, they are impressive critters. We get two. The male we see first is “small” and sports a pair of wings. I have to say, I did find him “vaguely” reminiscent of Gaos, a name some of you will recognize from Gamera films. Don’t interpret that as anything negative, it’s more of a reference point, and if it was intentional (which I kind of doubt, but…) it is a nice nod to another Japanese Kaiju. The female shows up later, she is much larger and lacks the wings of the male. Our problem here revolves around these creatures’ ability to emit EMP, or electromagnetic pulses. I’m sure most of our readers are well aware of the sci-fi history of the EMP and very familiar with the devastation it creates in the modern, mechanized world. There are some beautiful scenes of planes falling from the sky, some of which are seen in a few of the TV ads.
Godzilla is as amazing as I expected him to be. The big man looks fabulous here, and I have none of the familiar complaints that greeted the first American film. He is BIG! There are some anatomy changes, but none that make him unrecognizable. I have not done my homework to determine if the G-man is done in the traditional Japanese rubber suit or CGI, but I will venture that at least some CGI is used, probably a lot, probably all. The spines are noticeably larger and his movements are done in a gorilla like slump, but make no mistake he is a powerful force in this film. The pattern is done just as Toho would, with Godzilla’s ultimate weapon held till the end. Yes, we get the atomic breath, and it is fairly well done. The traditional glow of the spikes, and then whoosh! It is not quite as spectacular as in some of the more recent Toho offerings, but it is good.
There are plenty of scenes of the big guy and his nemesis, sort of. I cannot say Godzilla is not on screen, we see a lot of spikes breaking the water and a lovely shot of him passing under an aircraft carrier that is very impressive (both times). There are also a LOT of scenes with the MUTO. We get a really good look at ALL of the creatures in this film. Edwards hides nothing. The problem is most of the screen time seems to be traveling to the fight. We are all sitting there waiting for the battles to begin, but most of them are over before they start. The first battle with the male, which takes place in Hawaii, is glimpsed on a TV screen during a newscast. Ok, so our hero’s kid saw G-man fighting the MUTO on the news and mom is now all worried about our hero…who cares. This trend continues once we reach the shores of California. Here comes Godzilla, all set to take on the MUTO and SLAM, the doors of the shelter Olsen has just gone into shut. Done. The most extended fight we get is the climax, and even that is interspersed with so much of what our hero and the military are doing to combat the invasion that you really don’t get too much of it. That being said, what we do get is spectacular!
That brings us back to the big question, did Edwards cross that line? In this fan’s opinion, he did. I left the theater feeling disappointed and a little cheated. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any drama, but it’s a Kaiju film and the Kaiju needs to be the star, not just a backdrop for the latest human interest film. There are honestly some questionable choices made here. I am not saying Edwards did a terrible job, he has potential, but I do think he has a lot to learn. His choice to use multiple shots of the spines above the water becomes almost tiresome by the end. There is also a sort of lean towards the Godzilla of the late 60’s as he became a kind of hero that doesn’t play very well here. I believe Edwards could be a great addition to the family of Godzilla directors, but for that to happen he needs to stop taking his cues from what other directors have done. More than one other reviewer has made reference to Spielberg and Jaws, and I am inclined to agree. There are definitely some Spielberg influences here, as well as some JJ Abrams “Cloverfield” overtones. Edwards gave us an upgrade to the Big Guy, great views of the monsters and the battle scenes we get are everything we want them to be, but despite what some other reviewers have said the balance is NOT correct. We did not get “just the right amount” of Godzilla. Human endurance is great, but that should be the subplot here, not the main event. This is a Kaiju film, and those are supposed to be about the monsters, not about us.