With Godzilla: King of the Monsters stomping, hopping, smashing and crashing its way into theaters around the world this week, I have a confession to make: I like Godzilla (2014). I like it a lot, in fact, and I don't think it deserves the flack it gets.
Gareth Edwards' assured, commanding sophomore film is a fire-breather of a Godzilla movie, one that surprisingly isn't afraid to bide its time and make the monster movie beats worth the while. It's a carefully-crafted B-movie with A-grade special effects, an expensive genre beauty that fills the big screen at choice moments. It produces a loud, roaring triumph of Spielbergian craftsmanship, complimented beautifully by its boisterous score, with a diligent desire to make the explosive finale a towering inferno of epic-ness. In short, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than people give it credit.
The film does have its flaws — many of them, in fact. For instance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character is a soggy bread of a protagonist, lacking any real depth or nuance to make him worthy of being our central human character. The story structure can be a bit haphazard, favoring set pieces over a firm narrative streamline, and the lack of monster fights in the first two-thirds can be odd — to say the least — for a major American studio Godzilla movie. But its strengths far outshine its weaknesses, in my view, and I believe there's a lot worth celebrating in this big-budget remake. Here's my reasoning.
Perhaps the biggest — and, in my view, most rewarding — surprise found in Godzilla(2014) is that it is an unexpectedly patient film. With Hollywood blockbusters, particularly in an era of massive superhero movies, we're used to seeing a lot of whizz-bang early and often. Blockbusters will jam-pack as many action beats as possible to keep easily-distracted eyeballs focused squarely on the big screen in front of them. You need to bring the masses, and the masses want something that keeps their attention spans stimulated, even if — or especially if — their brain is left unrewarded in the process.
There is nothing wrong with a good popcorn flick. I love them as much as the next guy. But Godzilla (2014) accomplishes something that is a little more dexterous in terms of its plotting and execution. It intentionally teases the audience, keeping the title character at a distance until it's time for the big, famous kaiju monster to make a hell of an impression. The result is a Godzilla movie with fewer action beats than you might anticipate, but one that is, nevertheless, deeply satisfying because the pay-off is so explosively enjoyable that you feel rewarded for being strung along for the last hour or so.
With blockbusters today, we often take the wizardry of special effects for granted. Nearly every blockbuster released in theaters this weekend is filled with spectacles galore, often the work of computer animators trying to meet tight deadlines and massive expectations. Nevertheless, the VFX effects in Godzilla (2014) are truly incredible, not merely for a big-scale Godzilla movie (particularly with other Godzillamovies relying on people in rubber suits to do the job), but for a major Hollywood blockbuster such as this one.
Gareth Edwards made a beautiful looking movie, one that is complimented throughout with strong cinematography and commendable direction. But it is the lavish special effects from the movie's heavy $160 million budget that really make the visual pops in this action flick. Particularly with the very dated special effects found in Roland Emmerich's ill-fated 1998 Godzilla remake, Godzilla (2014) is the first time the big mean radioactive monster was given the proper Hollywood treatment. And he is as beautiful as he's ugly — if that makes sense.
Impressively massive and commendably fleshed-out, Godzilla looks more believable and photorealistic than he's ever looked before, and the reptilian badass is truly a sight to behold. It's a damn shame that Godzilla (2014) didn't even get a nomination for Best Visual Effects. Quite an egregious snub.
While people are often quick to lament about the lack of monster-based action sequences in Godzilla (2014), the blockbuster does contain a wide array of impressive set pieces. Whether it's Hawaii, Las Vegas, San Francisco or the Philippines, Godzilla gets around in this new movie, and we follow him through a nice assortment of different scenic backdrops. Though Godzilla is a big, imposing, menacing dude, the skyscraper-sized creature sure knows how to get around the world in a short amount of time.
As a result, Godzilla (2014) is as expansive as it is expensive, providing audiences with a glorious blockbuster with the budget and means to jump from location-to-location. It provides moviegoers with a chance to see all kinds of locations, even if many — if not all — of them fall victim to widespread destruction in the grasp of Godzilla's fire-breathing reign. Gareth Edwards' first film, the micro-budgeted Monsters, showcased a rising filmmaker with a knack for making the most out of sparse and/or visually-dynamic locations. That filmmaking tradition continued with his next film, Godzilla (2014).
One thing that really makes Godzilla (2014) exceptional is that this major movie tends to prefer the small opposed to the big. While the film is filled with major overtures in the right key moments, it's a film that like to keep the focus on the ground floor. Picking up from the tradition of 2008's Cloverfield, it imagines the citywide destruction and global mayhem of the kaiju attacks from a view that is often closer to the floor than the sky. The result is a huge, gigantic motion picture that knows how to dish out action in a human level — even if it's human characters can often, unfortunately, be a bit lacking.
It's hard to say that Aaron Taylor-Johnson brings a lot to the lead role. And it's even harder to remember much of anything about his character or personality. But through his eyes, we are often witnessing the chaos that springs worldwide in these monsters' wake. The result is a movie that knows how to bring perspective in the fold, and one that constantly keeps the action investing by never being afraid to reveal its hand too early into the game.
Now, listen, I won't say the humans in Godzilla are richly fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters with rich backgrounds and layered personalities. You'd be hard-pressed to find many Godzilla-focused movies with the same high pedigree of actors. Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are excellent in in their supporting roles, while Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Stratharian and Elizabeth Olsen are always dependable talents. Unfortunately, most of the cast is given little to work with, as the humans are often a means to the end, and that end is monster-on-monster action.
Nevertheless, while most of these actors aren't given awards-caliber performances, there are only a few truly underwhelming performances. Everyone is doing the best they can with their often paper-thin characters, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson often gets the worst of it. He's a talented actor who has proven his talents in a variety of different films, including Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy and Nocturnal Animals, to name a few noteworthy examples of late.
Sadly, however, like I said in the introduction, his character in this film is a wet blanket who isn't as much fun as his title co-star. Nevertheless, most of these actors do commendable work to sell the gravitas in this otherwise campy genre exercise, and their hard work and talents can be under-appreciated.
Will I call Godzilla (2014) a perfect movie? No. Because it's not. Like I said, it has its flaws, and it has its shortcomings. While Godzilla: King of the Monsters seems like it will be providing the non-stop, wall-to-wall monster action that hungry fans were expecting from this much-anticipated remake, I don't think it's fair to give this Godzilla movie the cold shoulder in the process.
On its own merits, Gareth Edwards made a well-crafted, exhilarating monster movie with Godzilla (2014), one that should be admired much more than it is. And I hope I provided some compelling reasons for why that should be the case.