Big on spectacle … short on substance. Gareth Edwards’s ‘Godzilla’ collapses under the weight of its own misguided expectations.
There’s precious little that will get my ass into a Cineplex seat these days. For me to descend (or, rather, condescend) from my state of mountaintop seclusion and mingle with the Free-Range Rude and their ill-behaved spawn requires some serious reputation and/or calculated titillation on the part of Hollywood. I’d still go unquestioningly to see a Peter Jackson movie with popcorn in hand and a couple of loaded, $15 apiece (“Grade-A Angus Beef!”) hot-dogs already greedily consumed and in the process of gurgling digestion. The name of Steven Spielberg (if he can even get a big-screen picture made these days) will always lure me, sight unseen, to darkened recesses where one might dream of giant interstellar death-machines emerging magically from the screen to annihilate the mouth-breathers behind and in front of me who are busy texting or proffering endless streams of inane babble throughout the duration of the movie. To catch the latest James Cameron flick, I will overlook the grim likelihood of glimpsing and/or smelling morbidly obese people packed like barely sentient sausage-meat in neon spandex, milling about a lobby with all the decorum of insecure elephant seals, barking uncouth syllables to assert their presence beyond a shadow of doubt, in case anyone could possibly miss them. George Lucas lost me years and years ago, and I don’t care how many pounds Carrie Fisher lost to reprise her “Princess Leia” role in the upcoming Disney re-mangling of Star Wars … I ain’t getting within ten miles of that blasphemy.
I can’t think of a single movie star today who would get my money due to their mere presence in a general-release, Summer “tent-pole” picture. Nor at any other time of the year, frankly. Will Smith ceased to be amusing in the mid-1990s. So did Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey. I’d pay good money to slap Matt Damon or Ryan Reynolds or George Clooney, but not to watch them perform. Meryl Streep is overacting in way too many vehicles, these days, so she holds no allure for me. Sandra Bullock? Maybe, if it wasn’t yet another attempt at blatant romantic comedy. Julia Roberts? Never. I’d probably still drop everything if Tim Burton made another film and it received praise from critics whose opinions I respected. Anybody who adapts a Cormac McCarthy novel has my blind allegiance. If someone is playing an art-house film or a gloomy foreign-language feature on a big white bed-sheet pinned to the wall of some back alley, I’ll be the first one in line with a bottle of wine and a folding chair from Walmart, but products derived from mainstream Hollywood and its immediate collaterals? No.
Clearly, I’m an unapologetic film snob with little use for crowds and rampant mediocrity. At the very least, I’m a film snob like millions of other film snobs in the sense that I am game to watch most anything remotely intriguing so long as I can hold the remote … so long as a movie makes its way to Netflix and I can pull a blanket over my toes while the chips & salsa are within easy reach. Hell, even Tom Cruise is welcome in my living-room in that capacity. Barely.
Imagine my excitement, then, when not one, but FIVE of my favorite entertainment personalities of all-time gave me come-hither glances via clever YouTube trailers in director Gareth Edwards’s new blockbuster! How could such a thing be possible? Bryan Cranston, the Luminous Juliette Binoche (Yes, her legal name really is The Luminous Juliette Binoche), David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and GODZILLA. FIVE GENIUSES!
Well, Godzilla ended-up being an entertaining disappointment. It grieves me to say so. Mind you, this comes from a dude who knows the words to (and can sing!) the entire chant that those twin fairies of Infant Island use to summon Mothra, larvae or pupae. So, there.
The blame for the big flaws in Godzilla rests squarely with Edwards, who was clearly in over his head, and who should (among other things) have secured a truly outstanding scriptwriter for this reboot. Instead, we see a film that is herkily and jerkily straining to imitate motifs and techniques and styles made famous by Steven Spielberg … and showing every ounce of the strain. Edwards and his bunch made no secret about their desire to pay “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” tribute to Spielberg in crafting this epic, but they forgot or else utterly screwed the pooch when it came to remembering Spielberg’s greatest gift: namely, that characterizations do not have to be sacrificed, EVER, at the altar of spectacle. Some critics are muttering comparisons of Godzilla with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds, but I simply don’t see it, in terms of quality, beyond some painfully obvious cardboard similarities. This movie had a two-hour running time; it damned well could have offered a better overall product. The story stunk to high heaven. Edwards seems to waffle, from scene to scene, between the sort of gravitas this movie could have (and should have) communicated and some need to plunge perilously along through choppy narrative waters without regard for coherence or humanity.
None of the actors are at fault, not too much. They simply aren’t given much to work with. Bryan Cranston and Juliet Binoche are criminally underused: the lethal rift in the story, wherein Cranston and Binoche relinquish what could have been a powerful trajectory throughout the film, and proceedings are taken over by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is the fateful torpedo-shot that sinks any chance this film might have had for true greatness. And it could have been great, instead of just “better than Emmerich’s lame 1998 Godzilla and not quite as engaging as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.”
I simply didn’t care about any of the film’s human characters and was unimpressed by any of the performances, aside from Godzilla’s. The script and the plotting were so bad that even Cranston could not rise above the rudimentary pap of his role (much less his distracting hairpiece). Juliette Binoche was marvelous in a part that couldn’t have lasted two minutes, or perhaps four lines, so that doesn’t do anyone any good at all. Ken Watanabe, quite frankly, looked like he was coming off a ten-day sake-bender; pasty and dazed and bereft of significant words. David Strathairn was flat-out miscast because he looked and acted bored to death with his part. Who cold blame him? Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t deserve all the bad notices he’s been getting for his part as Ford Brody –again, the guy was given a crap script smothered in the artery-clogging gravy of a crap narrative. If anyone thinks that it is “not necessary” for the characters to be engaging in a disaster film, or that “no one wants to see a typical Godzilla-movie for the characterizations,” then they’re as lost as the director clearly was. First, I’ll guarantee you that audiences related to the human characters in Jaws and Close Encounters–films that Edwards & Co. were apparently feverish to emulate. It’s not about the amount of lines the human characters get, or the complexity of the story … it’s about the quality. Second, this was not to be a “typical Godzilla-movie.” This was supposed to be a powerful and epic reimagining. Epic? Sure. Powerful? Hell, no.
But the whole thing was reimagined, alright.
Some of the set pieces and shots are quite stunning, but most of them were nothing extraordinary in terms of innovative thinking or creativity. The CGI effects were admittedly satisfying throughout the film. I had no quibble with Godzilla’s late-arrival to the proceedings, nor with Edwards’s coy pull-away shots: the guy was clearly trying to build to a tease, but because his whole damned story stunk from the very beginning, the “big reveal” did not inspire anywhere near the amount wonder and emotion I was expecting based upon the very clever way Warner Bros. assembled those misleading trailers and teasers. I had to manufacture almost all of my excitement and wonder by myself, watching this movie … out of sheer hope. The Godzilla vs. MUTO battle-scenes were superb and the irony of it all is that the most compelling, human presence in the entire film is Godzilla himself.
The Big G evoked empathy as he fought and struggled against the MUTOs. The Big G, when the center of attention, summoned emotion beyond that of mere nostalgia for Godzillian-adventures past. Godzilla himself was wonderful and worth the price of admission, but I was expecting a damned story to accompany this Godzilla, we were all promised one, and the one we got was half-baked, to say the least. I would have eliminated the whole Elizabeth Olsen subplot, gotten rid of Watanabe and Hawkins, and found a way to make Cranston, Binoche, and their adult son (Taylor-Johnson) the three chief human protagonists and monster-hunters throughout the length of the picture. A Japanese kid separated from his parents ’til the end of the movie would have provided a superb “child’s eye view,” as well. Godzilla nearly dies at the end. Mother Binoche dies at the end: you would’ve had a movie people could talk about for years.
But you don’t, Blanche. You don’t.
Edwards admittedly had a lot of weight on his plate, and on his shoulders, here. I get that, and his movie is not exactly a wreck. The need to get Godzilla and the other beasties from the Phillipines, to Japan, to Honolulu, to Las Vegas, and then to San Francisco was straining an already limp story-structure. That damnation for your narrative trajectory from the outset. I feel for Edwards, because he clearly knows how to make a thoughtful movie for not a lot of money. Maybe they shouldn’t have given him so much for this one, but they should have given him a script. That would have been the Easter Egg to end all Easter Eggs in this visually satisfying, reasonably entertaining, but substantially flawed epic. I’ll buy it on Blu-Ray because I am a lifelong Godzilla-fan, but if I weren’t, I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t go back to the theater to see this a second time in the theater, either.
Here’s hoping someone else (or even Edwards himself) can improve the state of affairs within the framework of the inevitable sequel. *** (Three Stars)
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