Here’s the thing when it comes to any and all Westernized takes on Japan’s most famous movie monster — Hollywood’s just never going to “get it” because, frankly, it can’t. Oh, sure, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is head and shoulders above Roland Emmerich’s 1998 abomination of a film, but the simple fact is that the Big Green Guy and all of his scaly, serpentine brethren that came to us courtesy of the venerable Toho studios were, at their core, celluloid manifestations of a deep-seated atomic angst that only a country that had been on the receiving end of, as Sting put it, “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” could ever really give birth to. And while Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa character does, in fact, explicitly mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki in this flick, it’s pure window dressing — Edwards and screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham didn’t actually live through a time when they had to actively wonder what sort of nuclear fission-induced mutations were lurking beneath the waves just a few miles offshore, so they just can’t communicate that sort of unease with the same authenticity that the original Godzilla did.
And to those who would argue that a young Japanese filmmaker wouldn’t be able to imbue a project such as this with any more immediacy than Edwards does because they wouldn’t have lived though those horrific final days of WWII either, I’ve got one word for you : Fukushima.
There’s also something about CGI in these flicks that always has, and always will, suck, no matter how “good” it is : you know, in the back of your mind, that it’s just not there. To be sure, Edwards and his visual effects crew do a bang-up job of realizing their monster once they do, finally, reveal him, but no matter how “unrealistic” watching the original Godzilla smash cardboard miniatures of buildings may be by today’s standards, it still feels more “real” than the essentially flawless computer graphics of 2014 can ever hope to. But maybe that’s just me —-
Still, don’t get the wrong idea : I’m not so much “down on” the new Godzilla as I am completely indifferent to it. To be sure, Edwards’ heart seem to be in the right place here, and he’s very likely doing the best job that he can do — it’s just that his best is nowhere near good enough. A slow-burn plot doesn’t help matters much, either, and while I’m all for a prolonged buildup that leads to a big payoff, frankly the “character arcs” of all the principal players are so dull and uninvolving that when Compu-Zilla finally does make the scene, it feels more like a relief from soap opera-style tedium than anything else. Thankfully, there’s some effectively-realized mass destruction to bump up the “wow” factor a bit, and Godzilla doesn’t turn out to a solo act (that’s all I’ll say about that), but it’s still definitely a case of “too little, too late” as far as excitement here goes and a smorgasbord of good performances (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and the aforementioned Ken Watanabe) and bad (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves having equally gone, more or less, to waste when the proverbial train finally leaves the station.
Plot recaps probably make as much sense here as they do for a Hulk comic book — sure, the set-up matters on some level, but it’s all about “Hulk smash!” at the end of the day, isn’t it? Suffice to say that the main reason the various intermingling sub-plots here really don’t work is because the film goes from small-scale to so-big-it’s-off-the-scale at the drop of hat, with no transition period in between for either the characters or the audience. It’s all just a bit jarring — but maybe that’s not such a bad thing when I think about it because, truth be told, I was getting a little sleepy.
The “who are the real monsters?” theme that Edwards toys with is frankly a little bit old, too, and honestly represents something of a cop-out ( and here’s where my “Westerners will never get this right” thesis comes into play, by the way) : sure, humans are bad news, we’re destroying everything, etc. I know that. But some of us are worse than others, and any side willing to drop a nuclear bomb and murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people in order to “win” a war is due for some special criticism, in my view . The makers of the original Godzilla understood that fact, even if they couldn’t say so explicitly, while in the franchise’s 2014 iteration we just all suck. No one, specifically, is to blame, and hey, it’s too late for recriminations anyway when you’ve got an overgrown reptile tearing up the town. Or something like that.
Still, the film’s third act is enough to make even a hardened cynic like me gasp in awe on numerous occasions, and the “childlike wonder factor,” for lack of a batter term, really does kick into high gear here as events steamroll toward their conclusion. It’s worth the price of admission for the awesome (even if it is computer-generated) spectacle the final 45-or-so-minutes deliver. Sure, I wish we’d gotten nothing but a bad ride on a bumpy road from start to finish, but I guess I’m still willing to take what I can get. Felling like you’re 12 years old all over again for even a little while is better than never feeling like it at all.
And yet — in addition to being this film’s greatest (perhaps even only) saving grace, perhaps that last act is also its greatest weakness, because it exposes the essential, unavoidable truth at the heart of Edwards’ Godzilla : it’s good enough to make you remember why you love monster movies in the first place, but nowhere near good enough to actually be one of those monster movies that you love.