starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
written by: Max Borenstein
directed by: Gareth Edwards
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
In keeping with the ongoing Nolan-ization of megabudgeted popcorn movies that used to be unapologetically lunkheaded, the new Godzilla is a much more somber and artful affair than the disastrously dopey 1998 attempt, which is mainly notable for having brought us the P. Diddy/Led Zeppelin mashup “Come With Me” (which was good!). Godzilla’s pretensions aren’t a surprise to anyone who followed the film’s preproduction, watching as it took on art-house director Gareth Edwards (who helmed the brilliantly lo-fi creature feature Monsters) and an aggressively prestige-based cast that even included Juliette fucking Binoche (which is how she’s known in Lauren Bacall’s mansion).
Has Edwards’ Nolanian striving produced a genre-redefining masterpiece? In a word: no. There’s much to be praised about his Godzilla, but that praise stops decidedly short of the script, which is credited to first-timer Max Borenstein. The film’s overfamiliar plot structure and almost laughably stock characters (the noble soldier who’s never met a battle he wouldn’t run toward! the conspiracy-theorist scientist who’s proven right! the faithful wife whose sole duty is to look fearful and protect a child!) lack the faintest spark of originality. Unlike Monsters, which Edwards also wrote, Godzilla’s story, characters, and dialogue fail to live up to the ambition and boldness of Edwards’ direction. With the exception of a mid-film fakeout that’s been reported on elsewhere (you think you’re about to see a massive fight sequence, but it happens mostly offscreen), everything unfolds pretty much exactly as you’d expect.
And so, since what was happening onscreen wasn’t especially mind-blowing (although the cinematography, art direction, and special effects are all superb), my unblown mind wandered a fair bit. Here are some of the stray musings that popped into my head while watching Godzilla:
- While the film’s climactic battle between several skyscraper-sized creatures takes place in relatively tiny downtown San Francisco, the monsters still somehow manage to keep their fight sequestered to the Financial District and Chinatown. Even Godzilla knows better than to fight in the Tenderloin.
- Sally Hawkins, who was nominated for an Oscar for her nuanced performance as Cate Blanchett’s sister in Blue Jasmine, finds herself back in San Francisco as the essentially character-free assistant to Ken Watanabe’s worry-faced Japanese scientist. Hilariously enough, despite the fact that this is an effects-driven monster movie, Godzilla still displays a better working knowledge of San Francisco than Blue Jasmine attempted (in that it attempts to have one at all). At least the word “BART” is mentioned, you know?
- On the topic of BART, its stations are designated as shelters for the city’s panicked residents during the big monster showdown. In one of the film’s lapses in local accuracy, the fleeing citizens don’t suddenly find themselves knee-deep in hobos once they rush underground. Because really, when aren’t the BART stations being used as shelters?
- The climactic battle sequence, like all the film’s showcase fight scenes, takes place at night, which is a smart choice on Edwards’ part. But given the San Francisco fog and the smoke from all the destruction, the finale looks not unlike the climax of Zero Dark Thirty: an extended, exhilarating action sequence that plays out cloaked in hazy darkness. And just like in that film, it concludes with the demise of a terrorist!
- In one of the film’s most distracting elements, one of the creatures possesses a large, jiggly, luminescent sack that we first glimpse wobbling around in what is essentially an upskirt shot. Later, the creature takes a nuclear missile (rendered all the more penis-sized in proportion to the creature’s humongous body) and begins to motion it toward the sack. I felt uncomfortable.
- Godzilla’s monsters are capable of withstanding quite a bit of punishment without being slowed down or fazed in the slightest. But even for these titans of terror, there’s one naturally occurring kryptonite that stops them dead in their tracks every time: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s baby blues. On more than one occasion in the film, a creature will pause from all its havoc-wreaking to just stare into his gorgeous, chiseled, cougar-loving face. And really, can you blame them? He’s like a human tranquilizer dart.
- Godzilla has been endowed with a truly rafter-shaking roar that makes the T-Rex in Jurassic Park sound like he’s clearing his throat in comparison. The only scream I’ve previously encountered that could even begin to rival this eardrum-shattering menace is, of course, Vicki Gunvalson of The Real Housewives of Orange County.
- Speaking of the Real Housewives (because I always am), there’s a scene later in the film where a creature grabs Godzilla by the top of his head and yanks him to the ground. This was clearly an homage to Porsha Williams’ takedown of Kenya Moore on the RHOA reunion. The two scenes are blocked almost identically! Maybe the monster will be a guest bartender on Watch What Happens Live next week.
So that’s basically what was floating down my Bravo-polluted stream of consciousness during Godzilla. As far as major-studio monster movies go, it’s certainly better than average. Edwards’ less-is-more approach to showing his monsters, which favors human POV glimpses of a leg or a claw over full-body shots, is a wondrously effective improvement over the standard SHOW THE WHOLE THING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE! GET OUR MONEY’S WORTH! studio movie model. And despite the lack of a single multi-dimensional character, the ace cast imbues the material with their natural gravity. Godzilla may be a basic monster movie on the page, but Edwards’ visionary direction and accomplished actors elevate it above its genre peers.