I'm sorry it's been a while since my last blog post. I've started a new job recently and as it involves staring at a computer screen all day I've not been as keen to spend my evenings doing the same. I've got a couple of other film reviews I want to write (The Raid 2, Seven Samurai and maybe About Time) but for now here's a review of Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.
Monster movies are a tough genre to pull off if you aim for anything more than trashy fun. Too much of the monster and a lot of your audience will complain that they got bored of seeing CGI destruction without enough of a human element to anchor the plot. Too little of the monster and you risk disappointing the committed fans of whatever creature you’re using while also not providing enough action for those who want to see cities levelled and epic action.
It’s a tough balance to strike and Gareth Edwards clearly struggles with it throughout his version of Godzilla, released last week. It is perhaps the toughest of the classic monster movies to pull off because there is a rich back catalogue and passionate fans that have strong expectations of what a Godzilla movie should entail.
However to many cinema goers Godzilla is a bit of a joke, images of a man in a cheap monster suit stamping on cardboard cities in their mind. Then there’s the pretty damn awful 1998 Roland Emmerich version, the memory of which is hardly going to have helped convince people they should give this film a chance.
To be clear from the start, this film is better than Emmerich’s, but that barely counts as praise. And to be honest with you, praise is going to be a little thin on the ground for this film overall.
I wanted to love this film; a big budget blockbuster from a man who did so much with very little was an enticing prospect. Gareth Edward’s first film, Monsters, was a master class in what can be done on a limited budget if you have the skill and imagination. The story of two strangers attempting to make it across a quarantine zone decades after an “invasion” by an Alien race that arrived by accident and were herd animals with no intent to conquer the planet, the film understood two crucial things about making great action sci-fi.
Firstly, you have to care about the characters, they have to be your way into the story even if it ends up having a much wider scope than just them. Secondly that sometimes limiting the amount of time the monster spends on screen makes the moments they are much more powerful (this would not go down well with the hardcore monster fan necessarily, but I reckon most average ones would agree).
So the choice of director got me interested and the cast announcements had me truly excited. Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Sally Hawkins is a really strong cast for the genre. They made me hopeful that this would be a blockbuster with heart and depth, packed with engaging performances.
Finally the trailers promised action set pieces full of drama and suspense, especially the sequence of marines skydiving through the clouds towards a devastated city.
It was all so promising but sadly it added up to far too little.
Edwards is undoubtedly a talented director and I look forward to whatever he does next, but this film struggled for tone throughout, seemingly uncertain about what kind of a movie it wanted to be. Others have commented on this being a post-Nolan’s Batman monster movie, too focussed on being dark and forgetting that films about monsters and men clashing over cities needs a sense of fun as well. It’s definitely true that the film could have done with a bit more humour, a few knowing nods towards the inherently daft concept or the ineffectiveness of mankind’s efforts to stop Godzilla would have livened up the mood as the film moved into the final act.
However I think it could have worked as a darker, grittier take (as over-played as that approach is at the moment) if the characterisation had been stronger and the plot tighter. There’s a lot to like about the opening third of the film as the origins and previous sightings of Godzilla are explored, first through an excellent title sequence that uses archive footage of nuclear tests and redacted documents, then by setting up Bryan Cranston’s scientist Joe Brody as someone unravelling a conspiracy. If they’d ran with that atmosphere for longer the film could have been much stronger, making full use of the stellar cast to bring us a monster movie that looks as much at the impact on real humans, their courage and their personal tragedies.
Instead act two devolves into being the army vs. monsters, with an ever growing scale of collateral damage. Taylor-Johnson is a good young actor (take a look at Nowhere Boy or Kick Ass) but he ends up with a role that could have played by any reasonably athletic, good looking actor. He plays Joe’s U.S marine son, Ford and It’s such a limited role that his performance ends up dull and almost wooden at times. He’s wasted, as is Ken Watanabe who is used to wander on screen at 20 minute intervals to utter superficially deep statements about man’s relationship with nature.
Those two could have been used so much better, but the character that annoyed me most was Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody. She’s such a promising young actress, one of the most exciting out there, starting to break into big roles after her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Liberal Arts. Edwards just uses her as a generic wife/crying woman and that’s a damn shame. To make her such a one dimensional character is a waste of a good actress and another example of the lack of depth in the central characters that ends up spoiling this film.
You can make a fun and stupid monster movie and no one will hold a lack of complex characters against you, but if you aim for serious and intense, you have to provide someone the audience will care about, someone to make you feel the peril. The perfect movie for me would probably be some delicate balance of the two, but I’d happily of settled for a Godzilla movie that was one or the other.
Instead we got a movie that took itself too seriously to be great fun, but delivered such lukewarm characterisation and a generic plot that I couldn’t engage with the drama.
Despite how this review reads, I don’t actually think Godzilla was a BAD film, it was just such a disappointing one given its promise. As mentioned above the first third works well and has some engaging character beats, they’re just abandoned too soon after to build to anything. There are also some excellent action sequences, fully justifying its IMAX release and demonstrating the devastating power of Godzilla whenever he hits land (he spends an awful lot of the film swimming, which I’m not sure anyone really paid to see). The skydiving sequence from the trailer is visually stunning in full, even if the plot justification for it seems a little vague. In fact my only criticism of the action itself is that we see too much of it in the trailer; too many of what should have been shocking, stand out moments already felt familiar if you’d seen any of the several trailers released in the lead up to the film.
It’ll be interesting to watch it again on DVD in a few months, both to see whether the action loses its punchy feel on the small screen and whether I enjoy it more for having already had my expectations lowered.
For now it joins the list of films that, while decent, could have been so much more.