Silver Screen: Godzilla **1/2
As it turns out, Godzilla is a fairly inaccurate title for the movie Godzilla, in which the famous monster appears for about fifteen of the two-hour minute-running time. By the same logic, Pulp Fiction could have been called Christopher Walken Gives You a Watch. The big green guy might be the King of All Monsters, but he’s not even the king of his own movie. How embarrassing. This sort of thing would never happen to King Kong.
It’s a bummer, too, because the few, fleeting moments that Toho Studios’ biggest star does get to dominate the screen are blockbuster bliss. The creature is handsomely rendered and finely detailed, bulky and lumbering but so elaborately textured you can almost feel the rough ridges of his scaly skin. Fans of monster-movie imports will have to strain to stifle shouts of childish glee when his ridged tail begins to glow before he bellows out a torrent of radioactive fire-breath. Fans of monster-movie imports will also have to wait a hell of a long time to get there.
The vast majority of the movie is spent on homages to Spielberg and playing up the human element of the story, which is all well and good during the first act, when Bryan Cranston, playing an American engineer working at a nuclear power plant in Japan, dominates it. Cranston’s Joe Brody— Brody, of course, being the last name of Jaws’ shark-slaying sheriff— is concerned about bizarre seismic activity around the power plant, but his pleas to halt production at the facility are ignored. Disaster strikes, and his wife (Juliette Binoche), a fellow plant employee, is killed.
Fifteen years later, in 2014, Brody is arrested for trespassing on the site of the catastrophe. He’s obsessed with finding the cause of the accident that made him a widower. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy man effectively orphaned by his father’s obsession following his mother’s death, flies to Japan to bail the old man out. There the estranged father and son meet scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who reveals the quite literally monstrous truth about the catastrophe at the plant and warns of another imminent attack by a pair of enormous insectoid creatures headed west— with Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son directly in harm’s way.
Serizawa holds out one hope for humanity’s survival: The military might not be able to bring down the rampaging creatures, but he believes a massive, ancient force lives deep in the ocean and will emerge to restore balance to the world.
Finally, Godzilla! Right?
Well, no, not exactly. Director Gareth Edwards, working from a script by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, mimics Jaws in its prolonged tease. That’s all well and good, even though the movie starts to drag when the better-than-everyone-else Cranston and Watanabe are mostly shuffled aside and Taylor-Johnson is left to carry the movie. But it’s here that Edwards commits his mortal sin. At long last Godzilla emerges to do battle with the oversized threat when Edwards cuts away from the action to hollow character moments at ground level. When the perspective shifts back to what should be the action, we see only a scene of devastation. This happens again and again, with the city-smashing sequences we paid $10 to see glossed over or glimpsed fleetingly on a TV in the background. It’s as frustrating as watching a porn movie edited for network television.
Edwards has made only one previous feature film, the nifty, low-budget Monsters, which seemed like a blatant audition to direct a modern Godzilla. Monsters is a terrific creature feature made on the cheap that deals mostly in shadows and implication, which is to be expected from an effects movie without a big effects budget. But this Godzilla has a reported budget of $170 million. It’s time to show, not suggest. Yet instead of focusing on the prehistoric royal rumble, the film spends most of its time establishing a parallel between Brody Sr.’s failure to save his wife and Brody Jr.’s attempt to rescue his, a story not even a bored-seeming Taylor-Johnson and an absolutely superfluous Olsen can get behind.
When, in the final moments, Godzilla stomps back to his home in the sea, you can’t help but wonder if he’s thinking, “Let’s see if there’s something else better on....”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.