Typically when I sit down to write one of these reviews, I take a quick look around the Internet to see what others have said so as not to sound repetitive and help crystallize my own thoughts. With this new Godzilla film, it seems opinions are all over the place. I, for one, thought it was awesome.
Perhaps the most commonly cited criticism is that we don’t get to see enough of the titular monster wrecking stuff. They’re not wrong that the big man’s actual screen time front and center is rather limited, but in this case it’s actually a good thing because destruction porn is getting old.
The reliability of CGI has shattered any limits as to what a filmmaker can put on the screen, and unencumbered by those limitations, they’re never forced to figure out how to sell the movie’s world to the audience. Instead of trying to one-up each other with better stories, characters, or emotional moments, they do it with longer, more explosive action sequences. In essence, they’ve forgotten the art of the tease. They just strip everything off and rub it in your face until one of you is finished.
But Godzilla isn’t a cheap thrill. Godzilla builds an atmosphere. It gives you a glimpse here and a glimpse there, letting your imagination take over and fill in the details. Just when you think you’re about to see it in all its glory, it dances away and you want to shout “oh come on!” Then finally, when the anticipation becomes nearly unbearable and you lean over the edge of your seat in frustrated expectation, only then does it go all the way. In that instant, your imagination merges with the reality before you in a glorious volcanic eruption of blue flame.
I think I may have cheered a little in the theater, even.
Fact is director Gareth Edwards did a fabulous job setting the tone, and I can’t remember the last time I was that tense in a theater. Long, steady shots and slow pans to reveal human characters right amidst the action really help sell the scale of it all, and as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of strategic obfuscation of the monsters to build suspense. That’s coupled with some really great sound design, so even if you can’t see one, you can hear it.
This movie is LOUD by the way. Godzilla’s roar will rattle your teeth, and Alexandre Desplat’s score starts out rather oppressive too. Fortunately by the end it settles right in to put the finishing touch on the ambiance. All in all, it’s impressive just how much Edwards was able to do with a little bit of leg and some heavy breathing to set the mood.
Of course directing includes getting the most out of your actors too, and that leads to the second major criticism out there, which is that, with the exception of Bryan Cranston, the actors are wooden and/or their characters are too shallow. That’s true. None of these people have much more to do than react to things. Most critics wanted the movie to focus on the dynamic character Cranston plays, but it actually centers on his son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is much more sedate.
However, that actually worked for me on two levels. First, not having somebody chewing scenery or droning on for a half hour about their clichéd problems let me ride along with this guy, rather than simply watch him deal with this stuff. Second, since Cranston sets the tone early with such a rich performance, it felt intentional that some of the other characters were not so full of pathos. Given Cranston’s character spends so much time manically obsessed over what happened at the beginning of the film, one could expect his son to distance himself by burying his feelings to the point of constant stoicism. In addition, he’s a soldier whose job is to deal with bombs, and so he comes off as a guy who is simply compartmentalizing, rather than wooden. I don’t think it would’ve worked to have him Shia Labeoufing his way around.
I’d say the only real misstep on that front is with Ken Watanabe. His performance reeks of an incredibly deep back story, but we never really find out what it is and his character has so little to do that he could be cut from the film entirely. Then again, his is the one that officially kills any idea that Global Warming caused this mess, so that’s a bonus.
Ironically, Godzilla himself is surprisingly expressive. He’s not the dancing anthropomorphized kids’ version, but his face does convey a range of feeling from being cranky at being woken up to desperation to stay alive. Despite complaints from the Japanese that he looks fat, I think he was incredibly well realized, a grizzled veteran of a more violent age.
That kind of describes the whole movie: a remnant of a different time brought to the modern era. If you remember what it’s like to worry and wonder about something peeking out from the shadows, I think you’ll enjoy this new Godzilla, but if you’re looking for hardcore monster on monster action like Pacific Rim, this one’s not for you.