With its badass giant monster fights and atomic horrors, Godzilla does justice to the venerable kaiju franchise that began in the mid-twentieth century. I mean that in a good way, but also in a not-so-good way too.
For those who have never seen a Godzilla movie, this flick is the perfect place to start. You don't need any backstory at all, because this movie takes place in a world where Godzilla has never rampaged before. This already sets it apart from most Godzilla movies, where there are a whole panoply of kaiju hanging around just waiting to smash various major cities around the globe. Godzilla is immediately gripping and intense, with two engineers at a nuclear facility in Japan (Bryan Cranston and the criminally underused Juliet Binoche) discovering that the plant is about to be destroyed by mysterious seismic waves of unknown origin.
After the plant collapses, we fast-forward several years to discover that there's an international conspiracy to hide what caused the accident that day. Cranston's character Joe is obsessed with uncovering the truth, while his now-adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) just wants to get on with his life as a nukes expert for the Navy.
It's hard to maintain this X-Files government conspiracy plot, however, when there are suddenly several giant monsters rampaging across Japan and the United States. And what glorious monsters they are! First of all, the elite cadre of monster experts and military honchos call them MUTO, or "massive unidentified terrestrial organism." Monsters known by goofy acronyms are automatically brilliant.
Plus, these MUTO eat nuclear bombs, look like something out of Evangelion, and rampage like the natural disasters they are. There are some truly chilling scenes which evoke images from the 2004 tsunami, complete with the requisite running crowd of screaming humans. Unlike Godzilla's usual foes, the MUTO also have recognizably animal motivations, bringing a nice note of biological realism to the otherwise insane monster antics.
When Godzilla, the "alpha predator," shows up to eat the MUTO, the fights will please everyone who has even an ounce of childlike wonder left in their brains. For newbies, the action will be sheer fun. And for fans, there are plenty of references to Godzilla's signature fight moves and battle cries; everything we know and love about the Big G is here.
That said, this movie hews closely to the Godzilla formula perfected during the 1960s and 70s Toho movies, where the monsters are the most fascinating thing on screen and the humans' roles never stretch beyond yelling into microphones, running around, and doing brave but nonsensical things to save whatever needs saving. Once we leave Joe's intriguing conspiracy plot behind, our main character becomes the blandly heroic Ford, who would fit right into a scene from Destroy All Monsters or Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster. The problem is that unlike these early Godzilla films, this Godzilla doesn't give us enough monster action to make up for the droopy human plot.
One of the things that made later Godzilla movies so fun was that they had a Pacific Rim-like world built around them. In those films, humanity lives in a world of monsters, and these monsters have changed our political institutions and our science. As a result, the human world is as weird and fascinating as Monster Island. And the science is just batshit insane.
But that world doesn't exist in Godzilla, where the science takes place mostly offscreen, and even the weapons we use to fight the monsters feel depressingly pedestrian. A big problem is our main character, Ford, who has absolutely no agency. Unlike his father Joe, who was on fire with a quest for the truth about the MUTO, Ford is just a nice weapons expert trying to get home to San Francisco. He randomly falls into the plot to destroy the monsters, mostly through happenstance, and we never get a sense of urgency out of his mission.
Partly this is due to Johnson's fairly wooden acting, but I think it's also an issue that goes back to director Gareth Edwardschoosing a narrative structure that needed more spectacle to work. If the filmmakers wanted to hold back on giving us lots of monster insanity, that's fine. But in that case, we needed a rich human story to propel us along — and it just isn't there.
In the end, you could say this film's problems are in a sign that it succeeded as a traditional kaiju flick. As we all noticed as kids watching old Godzilla movies, the monsters are way more interesting than the people. Still, the whole thing is worth it for the kaiju — it really, really is.