Godzilla (12A/PG-13, 123 mins)
Director: Gareth Edwards
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Director Gareth Edwards caused something of a splash with his no-budget sci-fi from a few years back, Monsters, albeit as much because of its cost than it actually being especially good.
The film’s reception and Edwards’ way with, well, monsters, was instrumental in landing him the gig for this mega-budget updating of a series that’s been a fixture of Japanese moviemaking for 60 years now.
A ropey Hollywood effort from 1998 was as much an excuse for director Roland Emmerich to blow up bits of New York in the style of his Independence Day as it was a remotely successful Godzilla movie, and is best quietly forgotten. But just a year on from Pacific Rim, whether audiences have the appetite for another monster mash remains to be seen.
Tonally this is very sober stuff compared to the cheesiness of the 1998 version, but it remains true to the origins of Godzilla, an allegorical product of post-Hiroshima disquiet and the thirst for nuclear testing in the 1950s.
We kick off in the Philippines in 1999 where scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins discover enormous fossils underground. Meanwhile in Japan, Joe (Bryan Cranston) is an engineer at a nuclear plant which is experiencing tremors. Everyone thinks earthquake, but as Joe’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) dies in the resulting meltdown, he believes something else is afoot.
Fifteen years on from this their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is in the navy, and has just returned to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco. Joe is still in Japan, living like a crackpot and trying to expose the cover up and prove it wasn’t a natural disaster.
This is all part of a lengthy setup that ends up taking up more screen time than it merits because it never really pays off down the line. It’s just one of a checklist of flaws to be ticked off that explain why this is a movie with a debit column bigger than its credits. It offers a commendable centre but little momentum, but the upshot of all the preamble is the release of a pair of insect-like creatures called Muto that feed on radiation.
Like on Monsters, Edwards certainly has empathy for them, which is fine, but it does rather come at the expense of being interested in the humans. For all the effort to add poignancy and emotional depth, there are no interesting characters to speak of.
It also thoroughly wastes a very respectable cast. Watanabe and Hawkins disappear into the background after a while with nothing to do but deliver clunky exposition. Cranston just yells a lot and Olsen barely registers as a presence. We spend most of the time with Taylor-Johnson, as he and the military chase the Muto across the Pacific.
But then all that groundwork is abandoned anyway for monsters fighting, because obviously in a film called Godzilla, you need some Godzilla. The enormous dinosaur-like creature is awakened from the depths and could end up being mankind’s only hope against the Muto.
The first big sighting is just about worth the wait and the one thing Edwards certainly manages to get right are the reveals. As Godzilla or the Muto appear from out of smoke or out of the sky to maul each other or a skyscraper, he’s able to deliver a handful of truly jaw-dropping sequences. Godzilla is huge and really quite unsettling as a presence, and in one or two moments the film touches on being a proper horror, posing genuine danger from these massive Lovecraftian beasties.
And yet it’s often to be found skimping on the action, cutting out early from the scraps and only showing us the aftermath rather than the main event. As a result the first two-thirds consist of an awful lot of teasing, although it could be argued that an all-out assault would be exhausting in a Transformers sort of way.
A little lightness of touch might have worked wonders too. It’s an entirely humourless affair, which makes you question the point of having something as silly as two hours of monsters hitting each other when it doesn’t try to make you smile once.
Enjoy the thrill of the few times when Godzilla lets rip with all his might, but mayhem isn’t really enough if you're not having fun with it.