Ever since Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was announced, it has been held up against 2013’s Pacific Rim from Guillermo del Toro–even before that film was released. It’s a comparison that’s impossible to bypass; they’re both Hollywood kaiju films produced in the 21st century with the aid of state-of-the-art special effects. When Pacific Rim was released last summer, it received mixed reviews; I can say that I’m largely on the side of that dichotomy that felt Pacific Rim, while being a lot of fun and looking cool, was underwhelming, especially considering the fact that it was coming from a master of fantasy filmmaking like Guillermo del Toro. This did not inspire confidence, for me, in Godzilla; if an amazing director like del Toro couldn’t deliver a big-budget kaiju film with depth, what hope could Gareth Edwards have? Nothing against Edwards, but he doesn’t exactly have del Toro’s track record. With each successive trailer I’ve seen for Godzilla, however, I’ve gotten more and more excited; it actually felt like Edwards had pulled something off. After having now seen the film, it pains me to say that it didn’t quite deliver on what the trailers promised me. With that said, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and at times, honestly jaw-dropping.
First, to get this out of the way, Godzilla is better than Pacific Rim. It just is. First, the acting; I’m a big fan of pretty much everyone involved with Pacific Rim, but the acting was extremely wooden. Godzilla, on the other hand, has Bryan Cranston; it tries its best to destroy him with horrible pacing, but he’s Bryan Cranston, so he perseveres and manages to deliver several scenes that fly off the screen and into your face. Second, the premise; the idea of human-powered robots fighting monsters sounds cool and was definitely fun to see, but that took something away from Pacific Rim: the ominous feeling of dread the characters feel when they don’t know what the hell is going on. Pacific Rim felt like a show the film’s characters were watching with us, as opposed to feeling like a world we were experiencing through its inhabitants. Godzilla has that; Godzilla brings with it the suspense and terror of an unknown threat, and that’s the biggest factor in what allows Godzilla to move beyond Pacific Rim. There’s an inherent pathos in Godzilla that Pacific Rim‘s premise simply couldn’t allow it to have.
Anyway, moving away from Pacific Rim, that pacing issue I mentioned is a huge problem for Godzilla, and it’s something action movies like this struggle with all the time. The action scenes in Godzilla are fucking phenomenal; hands-down, some of the best special effects I’ve seen, and Edwards’ camera devours the massive scale of this film; dude knows how to capture the sheer breadth of awe needed to sell Godzilla and daikaiju creatures. There are moments in Godzilla where I felt the same way I felt when I saw Jurassic Park twenty years ago; that’s what I’m talking about, and that is what should get you into a theater to see the film, if you have any interest at all in it. The issue is, as with 99% of these kinds of films, the scenes that are not action shots–the scenes that are supposed to introduce the emotional and dramatic depth so many of these films lack–are terribly shot, and unfortunately, Godzilla was not able to elevate itself out of this overcrowded pitfall. Every scene that should be taken slowly; every scene where the viewer should be allowed to digest the emotional impact of what’s happening on screen feels like it’s being delivered by someone trying to leave a long message on a short answering machine. The dialogue is so over-caffeinated and awkwardly frenetic, in just those scenes, that it just feels like everyone involved thought “We need to hurry and get this bullshit out of the way, so we can get to the monsters.” You know what? That’s fine; honestly, it is, because I know a lot of people agree with that sentiment. How many times have you heard “What more do you expect from a movie called ‘Godzilla’?” Godzilla more than delivers on what we all expect from a movie like this, but I just thought it showed so much potential to be more. This movie makes me appreciate, even more than I already did, what Christopher Nolan was able to do with The Dark Knight; to deliver such a fantastic action film that also had tremendous dramatic import.
As I alluded to, Gareth Edwards doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot of directing experience; if he can manage to hone his ability to shoot slow, dialogue-driven scenes, he can write his own check, as far as I’m concerned, because he’s already got action shots on lockdown. And Bryan Cranston is, yes, still Bryan Cranston; he carries those terribly paced scenes through the darkness, and then he really shines in the moments where the dialogue feels rushed and bombastic because it’s actually supposed to. I also love Ken Watanabe; huge fan of him. He’s great here; it’s mainly because the scenes he has are mostly suspense-building moments, where the pacing is obligatorily correct. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is serviceable, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The problem is that he, and Elizabeth Olsen who plays his wife, are given fairly one-dimensional characters–which is odd, considering Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character is ostensibly the “leading man”. Both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are very good actors; they just weren’t asked to do very much here. Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn are also in the movie, and they’re all very good pieces of the overall puzzle.
I say Aaron Taylor-Johnson is ostensibly the “leading man” because we all know who the real “leading man” is: Godzilla. On that front, the film really excels. I cannot stress enough how well this film captures the scale of its action. To mention Pacific Rim just once more, there are moments in that film where it wasn’t readily apparent just how large its kaiju and jaegers were, in relation to the world they were a part of; Godzilla does not have that issue; you are always aware of not only the scale, but also the orientation of each scene in Godzilla.
With a story that technically spans several decades, Godzilla does manage to deliver a compelling plot that cleverly combines fact and fiction to drive you through the two-hour film. Is it a great film? No. Is it the kind of film I would say you absolutely must see in theaters (like Gravity was)? Not quite, but it is damn close. In the end, Godzilla may mildly disappoint people like me who felt like it could be a rare gem that escaped the clutches of a typical monster-movie fate, but it should more than satisfy anyone who goes into a kaiju film knowing exactly what they’re getting; I mean, what more do you expect from a movie called “Godzilla“?