Something has awakened in the Philippines. Something beyond humanity's comprehension, save one man: Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Not soon after the discovery, a nuclear reactor in Janjira, Japan goes full meltdown with Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear engineer, helpless to stop the disaster. Fast-forward fifteen years later and Brody is still looking for answers alongside son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), a US military explosive ordnance officer. Together, they will learn the truth of the disaster at Janjiria, with the only thing that can stop it being something greater: a “god” so to speak.
It's been ten years since the last Godzilla movie, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). In tha,t we had a goofy yet entertaining send-off for the character. Ten years is much too long a time for such an icon in films to have gone without an appearance. Finally, we have his grand return to film, the second attempt by us Americans to capture this Japanese film phenomenon. That's all I'll speak of the 1998 “effort,” which tried to capture the goofiness a bit too much, and in which the monster was something humanity could control. In that last was the key flaw to that film. This entry doesn't have those flaws and is, thankfully, a superior American effort this time around, comparatively.
Unfortunately, the film carries a different set of flaws. The key amongst them being: you paid for a movie to see Godzilla, not a movie about an entire family named Brody. I get what director Gareth Edwards was attempting to do - something not seen in the franchise since Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack (2001). It tries to put a face to the chaos caused by Godzilla. You see each life taken or affected by the fact there's a giant monster stomping or clawing it's way around them. The only problem is, by doing so, you might neglect the reason why many people actually want to see the movie: to see Godzilla trash cities and take down whatever dares to try cross its path.
Don't get me wrong; it's good tension for the viewer, but it'll upset those who just want to see two (or three) monsters go at it. You do get that, but Edwards teases us for an entire hour and half building toward it. This choice will probably make the viewer (or fan) hunger for that final act more.. Until that point though, you just have to use your old imagination see what happened in the fights prior to the finale . One thing I can GUARANTEE is, when the finale comes, the audience, if they're fans of this genre or of a good whooping, will clap three times as much at what we're given onscreen at long last.
This is a problem that some in the audience won't be able to ignore. The title monster only has fifteen minutes of screen time in the entire two-hour movie. Each moment Godzilla is on-screen, you're glued to it, watching every move of the creature. The fact is, his adversaries in the film share the get more of screen-time than he does. There's precedence for that. In the past, such as in the Heisei Era of the franchise, the movies build up the foe before giving us Godzilla himself. The Mutos are fascinating adversaries in the fact they just want to continue their species, obviously not caring for the primates that currently populate the planet. In that regard, and their design, they were interesting and made for an entertaining use of time before Godzilla decided to smash their attempt at reestablishing life.
Now for my own issue with the movie: it focused on the wrong characters at the wrong time. For a film with very little of a human cast, it feels flooded with them to showcase the actions of the larger kaiju that are beyond them. This movie didn't really need Bryan Cranston's character or Elizabeth Olsen's (who plays Johnson's wife in the film). In fact, there was little point of either other than just to give motivation to Aaron-Taylor's character, Ford. But it's because of that that Ford suffers as a character. This is supposed to be his journey, yet it feels like, at the beginning of the film, it's his father's, only to be pull a swearve and, suddenly, Ford is the actual main character. In all honesty, the film should have opened after the 1999 incident to when Joe had bought it with Ford picking up the pieces. If they had done that, then maybe Ford as a character would have been easier to root for. Aaron-Taylor does the best that he can with the role, but it's a very limited role he's given. He's a witness, and we barely get any emotion from him other than: he has to stop the Mutos and find out if his remaining family are safe.
The other character, Serizawa, played by Watanabe, is someone who I was craving to see more of. For someone named as an obvious homage to a character in the original Gojira (1954), he doesn't do much other than be a historian and guide throughout the movie. We learn a tiny morsel of information when he unloads exposition to Ford on the history of Godzilla. That's all we learn about the organization he represents, Monarch. So those looking for him to be an inventor of an Oxygen Destroyer, you're sadly going to have to look elsewhere. This Serizawa shares more in common with '54 original's Dr. Kyohei Yamane in wanting to study, not kill, these kaiju (for the most part).
That said, I so wanted to see this character explored more due to all his knowledge. He felt more central than any of the Brodys, which I suspect was a studio mandate. I feels like something with this character may have been lost on the cutting room floor compared to the Brodys, who have a more complete story in the film.
As far as setting up for sequels or giving fans of this genre any sort of Easter egg, well, again the movie fails if you're looking for that, unless Edwards kept these things very hard to spot. This movie focuses only on Godzilla and the Mutos. This is a standalone story - one and done. The only sequel material is obviously who survives this war and what this means for humanity now. I respect the choice, but a part of me was craving a hint of other kaiju in those movies Serizawa shows Ford or Joe's wall of the Monarch group covering the Janjira event up.
As for the king himself? Edwards put all three eras of Godzilla in this beast. This is a creature you're clearly rooting for from the moment he hits the screen to the finale. Again, when the climax of the film happens, you will cheer or be giddy at the actions of Godzilla three times. In all honesty, I can see all three eras proudly displayed in the personality of this Godzilla. Heck, during beginning of the climax, this version looked like the Heisei version to the letter.
In the end, Godzilla (2014) feels like “if Steven Spielberg” directed Godzilla. The way things are paced build to the climax where things just go all to hell. This movie is probably going to make people either love it or hate it. No inbetween. Think last year's Man of Steel (2013); not the neck snapping), but another reinterpretation of an icon. Besides the direction being “Spielberg-like”, it feels Edwards was doing this movie following the approach that the Heisei Gamera Trilogy used. It's trying to tell a very adult story while obviously paying great care for what came before this film. This movie isn't trying to be Pacific Rim (2013), which was a love letter to this genre. It's trying to do something else. You're either going to love it or hate it for what it does in the end. Me? It didn't bother me and I enjoyed it.
In regard to everyone else, I can easily see others being bored or frustrated at the film's hour and a half to get to that climatic battle where Edwards finally stops with the teasing and just gives the audience what they want: Godzilla vs. two other kaiju. Again, I just wish the human focus was on other characters than the one's we actually got on film. I'm kind of disappointed in that regard, along with the fact that we didn't get any glorious Akira Ifukube Godzilla theme anywhere in this film (and it SOOOO needed it at the end, even if Alexandre Desplat's score captures the feel of the genre well. It just needed THAT theme, just at the end. Just to hit another note that I guarantee would have brought a fourth big cheer from the audience).
Godzilla (2014) is a safe film that tries some new things but eventually retreats back into its comfort zone. You can't really be all that disappointed by it, if you're in that mindset. On the plus side, this is still a million times better than anything found in Michael Bay's Transformers franchise or Cloverfield (2008). You're just going to have to use your imagination a bit in the middle acts between the prelude and the climax, before we're given the actual main course, which is a joy to watch. I just wish there was more to this “buffet” then what was given: just a good helping, not a spectacular one.
4 out of 5