This review contains minor spoilers
Plenty of films have misleading titles: The Silence of the Lambs isn’t about mute ovines; while Space Jam goes nowhere near the territory of intergalactic conserves. One film that you would not expect to fall into this confusing category is Godzilla, but Gareth Edwards’ stomp into the big, big, BIG time is an ill-conceived muddle which relegates its USP (read: giant dinosaur) to a supporting role.
If the enigmatic trailers were to shed any light on Edwards’ murky cityscapes, we might have assumed that this reboot were about two things: Bryan Cranston and a massive lizard. Bizarrely, it appears to focus on neither of these, instead adding multiple, non-Godzilla monsters and pinning the heart of the film on the thick neck of Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
It all starts well enough, with a top secret opening credits scene which attempts to return Godzilla to his roots in the bombing of Hiroshima. Turns out all the nuclear bomb testing that happened post-1945 weren’t tests at all, but attempts to kill something radioactive under the ocean. Skip to a few years later, and we meet Cranston’s Joe Brody, who suffers personal tragedy when the nuclear power plant at which he works collapses because of a suspected earthquake. The scene is harrowing, not only because of Joe’s loss, but because of the semi-intentional echoes to the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Edwards does well to find some modern context for Godzilla in these early scenes, just as J.J. Abrams experimented with metaphors for 9/11 in Cloverfield.
With his high-intensity conspiracy theorising, Cranston would have been an excellent focus for the human element of the story, but Edwards soon turns his attention to Joe’s son. Ford Brody (AT-J) has such a dull macho name it should come as no surprise that he has all the charisma of a newt, mumbling and bomb-disposing his way through the film while his worried wife (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to un-glue a telephone from her ear. Edwards was praised for the human drama of Monsters, but here it is unengaging, filled with stereotypes: the maxim-sprouting Japanese scientist; the efficient admiral. The boring homo sapiens make you long for some monsters to do some monstering, and this is where our mate Gojira should smash his way into the action, but Edwards has other ideas.
It turns out that the critter causing all that trouble at the plant isn’t Godzilla, but a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO for short), which is basically a huge prehistoric moth. For some reason a couple of MUTOs are about to make a pilgrimage to the Bay Area, causing absolutely no threat to human beings whatsoever (they are attracted to radioactivity, not human flesh). You might associate monster movies with running, screaming and Hank Azaria getting caught between reptilian toes, but there is none of that here, and instead the humans are bystanders, responding to a threat that doesn’t actually seem like it’s going to cause them too much trouble. The monsters knock a few buildings down, but it’s almost accidental, a mere hazard of being so darn big. The result of this lack of focus means that we side with neither the humans nor the monsters, making the whole thing a forgettable conveyor belt of dark, misty encounters with poorly designed beasties.
So where does all this leave Best Supporting Gojira? Well, for reasons no more enlightening than ‘because he wants to’, he swims to San Fran to take down the MUTOs, thus becoming an oddly sympathetic good guy, all sad facial expressions and googly eyes. Unlike the MUTOs, he is decently designed (almost ursine), and there are a few nice shots which express his total humongous-ness, but it is in his screeching, echoing roar that he is most impressive. The best film characters can have a massive effect without too much screen time, so the problem here isn’t the amount of minutes Gojira gets, it’s what Edwards does with him when he does appear. He is certainly imposing, but he’s not scary, and the monster mash climax is reminiscent of the silly endings to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, albeit played with utmost solemnity. The attempt to return Godzilla to serious moodiness is commendable, but there needs to be threat, danger, and doom, instead of the sense that we are watching a spectacle in which we have no part.
Some will find Edwards’ teasing, cutaway style exciting, but to me it displays inexperience with something of this scale. After the carnage, Godzilla, now the hero of San Francisco, wades back into the Pacific, exhausted, battered, and slightly embarrassed that his 350-foot frame struggled to make more than a toe print on his own franchise.