There's no denying that Godzilla is an iconic character. Since his introduction in the '50s, the massive lizard known to Japan as Gojira has become an integral part of popular culture. There have been cartoons, games, movies, parodies, remakes and toys. The 1998 American "reimagining" of Godzilla was panned by critics for not staying true to the titular monster. While the 2014 version tries to hew closer to "classic" Godzilla, it fails to impress, suffering from a meandering story and poorly developed human characters.
The new film starts out promising enough, with a mysterious carcass discovered in a mine, an empty egg and an entire nuclear power plant wiped out within the first half-hour. Mix in some human drama courtesy of Bryan Cranston, and things are looking good.
Cranston plays the role of Joe Brody, a nuclear engineer at the Janjira power plant. Joe's been tracking some mysterious tremors that were threatening the plant. He's safety-conscious and wants to shut things down, but his bosses won't let him. Disaster strikes, and Joe spends the next 15 years brooding. He's out of work, disgraced and convinced that there was a cover-up, but he has no way to prove it.
From there, things go downhill rather quickly. Joe's estranged son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a U.S. Naval officer who is convinced his father's a crackpot conspiracy nut. The day after bailing Joe out of jail for trespassing in a nuclear exclusion zone, Ford decides to ignore reason and returns with dad to the original disaster site. That's what Navy officers do, right?
Running the show at the old Janjira nuclear plant (or at least what's left of it) is Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Supposedly the top in his field, Serizawa seems to alternate between complete cluelessness and having a breadth of knowledge about the creatures they are facing. Watanabe does his best with the character, but Serizawa is so poorly written that he ends up as little more than a caricature, falling into the Magical Asian trope. He appears on-screen, says a few wise words (which are dismissed), and disappears until it's time to utter more sage advice.
Elizabeth Olsen appears as Ford's wife, Elle, but there doesn't seem to be much of a point to her character. She never really does anything to advance the plot, spending the majority of her screen time worrying about Joe, fretting over her son, or running away from the destruction caused by the monsters. Her character could have been cut from the film, and it wouldn't have impacted the story a single bit.
In some ways, the same is true of Ford. Ostensibly the main character, Ford simply seems to be running through the motions. He's only involved with the unfolding events because Dad wasn't actually crazy and took some good notes. Ford's just a random guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who more or less watches things unfold around him. It's not until the very end of the film that he finally starts to take an active role in things.
For the most part, the monsters in the film fare better than the humans. The ones causing all the trouble are called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Feeding off radiation, these two insect-like creatures don't care about the humans. They just want to get it on and have lots of MUTO babies. Stuck on opposite sides of the planet, the two converge on San Francisco, with Godzilla hot on their trail.
The MUTOs are impressive enough, though the point where the two finally meet quickly turns laughable as it devolves into camp. The male MUTO brings the female MUTO a nuclear missile as a gift. Since both have been eating nuclear weapons, waste and fuel, one might expect her to eat the gift. Nope. Instead, she grabs the missile and rubs it on her egg sac like some sort of radioactive dildo. Apparently, that's what MUTOs do.
As the monster with the least amount of screen time, Godzilla is a welcome appearance when he finally shows up. Well designed, Godzilla maintains enough of the original look to be recognizable, even if it was updated for the newest film.
There are a handful of moments that click as awesome fan service (e.g., Godzilla busts out his radioactive flame breath), though those moments are few. Most of the shots of the monsters fighting are done up close, resulting in combat that feels rushed rather than powerful and majestic.
Ultimately, it is that sense of power and majesty that is missing from "Godzilla." Despite having the right look, even Godzilla suffers from the same sort of randomness that plagues the human characters. There are times when the film treats him as a force of nature, something that cannot be controlled. Other times, he is a force for good. Other times, he is just a predator hunting for his next meal. Still other times, he is a benevolent protector of the main character. If these changes occurred across a series of films, it might work, but to have them all rush out over the course of an hour makes it feel as though the writers were just doing whatever was convenient at the time.
A perfect example of this is the Golden Gate Bridge scene from the trailers. When Godzilla is coming to town, the children of downtown San Francisco are evacuated to Oakland via school bus. Instead of going the short way across the Bay Bridge, this caravan of yellow buses decides to go in the opposite direction and over the Golden Gate, where they get stuck in traffic. It makes no sense, but hey, it provides an excuse for the scene. That's the kind of logic that drives "Godzilla."
Perhaps it's asking too much to expect the film to adhere to the standard set by the impressive trailer, which promised an introspective sci-fi film, but "Godzilla" doesn't even work as a summer popcorn flick featuring big monsters. In the end, "Godzilla" is just a disjointed mess. If you want to see a good Kaiju flick, rent "Pacific Rim." If you are having trouble sleeping, go check out Borezilla.
"Godzilla" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
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