This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Gareth Edwards’ remake is full of impressive CGI monsters, but lacks the moral subtext and emotional content of the 1954 original’
It is difficult to stifle the childish enthusiasm that grows inside over a film like Godzilla. There is something gloriously gratifying about seeing an enormous lizard surge dramatically from the ocean and lay waste to all before him. Sadly, in this big-budget American remake, made 60 years after Godzilla first rampaged onto the screen in 1954, a giant monster toppling skyscrapers and roaring gratuitously at every opportunity is the film’s only commendable facet.
Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) plays Joe Brody, an engineer-turned-conspiracy-nut, whose wife (Juliette Binoche) was killed in a nuclear disaster apparently brought on by an earthquake at Janjira Nuclear Plant in Japan. When he and his despairing son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosives expert in the US Navy, discover an active facility inside the deserted zone, they realise that (surprise, surprise) Brody was right all along, and the Japanese government are in the process of inadvertently awakening a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that has lain dormant for millennia.
But this is not Godzilla; it is an enormous winged spider-like creature, that subsequently flies off to awaken its female counterpart in Nevada and, you guessed it, provokes the anger of Godzilla, who has been hiding in the Pacific for decades. The subsequent three-way monster battle rages from Japan to Honolulu to Las Vegas to San Francisco, with us puny humans desperately trying to nuke anything that poses a threat.
The cast is woefully undistinguished, with Cranston supplying the film’s only memorable performance; his endearingly passionate Brody is utterly compelling and the brief scenes in which he and his wife interact are charmingly believable, which only serves to heighten the gut-wrenching sadness of her death. Taylor-Johnson is regrettably miscast as Ford; he seems much more suited to comedy, given his sterling performances in both Kick-Ass films. Ken Wantanabe is under-employed as expert scientist Ichiro Serizawa and Elizabeth Olsen is entirely forgettable as Ford’s anxious wife Elle.
Godzilla is the unquestionable star, however. He is strikingly impressive, as are his alien-looking MUTO adversaries. The film’s slow build-up to the first MUTO’s appearance is masterfully done, helped by Cranston’s excellence and Alexandre Desplat’s thunderously ominous score. There are shades of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim about the various monster battles throughout, and although their lack of imagination occasionally crystallises into repetitiveness, they are undeniably exhilarating nonetheless.
Disappointingly, 2014 Godzilla lacks any of the political relevance of its Japanese original. 1954 Godzilla was a pertinent metaphor for the atomic bombs that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki just 9 years earlier; the destruction Godzilla caused was a reflection of that caused by ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ in August 1945 and the film sounded a cautionary note about the development of nuclear power.
This version, despite the opening sequence’s ill-disguised superficial similarities to the Fukushima incident in March 2011, is comparatively lacking in moral observations. Nuclear power is just the MUTOs’ food source and atomic bombs are just another weapon to be used against them. In truth, humanity itself is entirely missing after the MUTOs appear; humans are relegated to a supporting role, resulting in an unshakable shallowness, and all the audience is left with is some well-realised, if uninspired CGI set-pieces.
Ultimately, director Gareth Edwards has produced a film that forgoes emotional content in its predilection for CGI action. One could argue that the two are incompatible with a big-budget summer blockbuster such as this in which all-out monster carnage is the primary selling-point, but a host of successful ‘disaster’ movies prove otherwise: Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, and even the first two Jurassic Park films. Commendable as it is for its impressive CGI, Godzilla’s lack of humanity renders it disappointingly mediocre.