Review: GODZILLA (2014)

In time for the film series' 60th birthday, GODZILLA is back on the big screen. But is it enough to wipe away the pain of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 shitburger?

This time out, British director Gareth Edwards is at the helm, bringing a pedigree both fine and apt – if short – in 2010’s MONSTERS. In that film, as well as writing, directing and editing, Edwards crucially played a key role in forging the special effects – a skill which obviously bodes well for a movie that you just know is going to end with at least one giant creature leveling an entire city.

After some wonderfully forboding opening credits (redacted documents, 1950s Pacific Ocean nuclear ‘test’ footage with a familiar, serrated spinal fin here, a blurry enormous tail there), we follow scientist of some sort Ken Watanabe and his offsider Sally Potter to the Philippines, investigating the discovery of an enormous skeleton and a large, recently hatched pod with a trail leading towards the coast. Some days later in Japan, a married Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche turn up for work at the local nuclear reactor, just in time for that suspicious noise Cranston has been worried about to cause a critical meltdown.

By 2014, Cranston is going batty, still trying to prove that the ‘accident’ was anything but. He’s arrested by Japanese authorities, so his son Aaron Taylor-Johnson (on leave from his job as a military bomb disposal expert) flies from San Francisco to bail him out. Anyone familiar with Gojira’s ouvre will be able to map the rest of the film from here.

Edwards has a great eye for visual storytelling, and crucially a terrific sense of scope. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey know when to go really, really wide with the camera, and their choice of angles in the big finale will feel warmly familiar – the only difference is the budget; we’re a long way from a guy in a foam rubber costume kicking over miniatures. This is big budget mayhem looking its very best.

The homework has obviously been done: the story beats, the delayed reveal of the King of Monsters itself (Toho studios never revealed a gender in their original Japanese language versions, before English dubbing made it a 'he'); keep your eyes peeled for an avalanche of Spielberg homages and nods to the original movies also (yes, there is a young Japanese boy in a red t-shirt and blue baseball cap).

But while GODZILLA (2014) gets everything about its Big Lizard right, it’s the humans that falter. What may seem like simply ‘boring characters’ though, is actually a deeper problem in the writing – there’s very little in the way of inter-character conflict. Once we get past Cranston and his conspiracy theory, that’s about it. There is no villain in this movie under 100 ft. tall – even David Strathairn’s military commander is a very measured individual. Everyone is constantly pulling in the same direction, merely filling in time between (great) set pieces; it’s all so bloody reasonable. It leaves the second act feeling saggy, and strangely craving just a little of the Toho cheese.

One other disappointment: the anti-nuclear subtext of the Toho movies has been diluted into a more general, gentle environmental message. This really doesn’t seem fair to fans of the originals, especially in a post-Fukushima landscape.

But of course those shortcomings take a back seat to what we’re all really waiting for: the final smackdown. On this level it's completely assured, and a pure pleasure to watch the super reptile tear that shit up in fine style, completely worthy of the 1954 original and sure to wipe Emmerich’s abomination out of the collective consciousness.

GODZILLA is released May 15 in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and May 16 in the USA.