Godzilla's meant a lot of things to a lot of people over its 60 year existence. Hero, villain, a symbol of humanity's hubris, man-in-suit and CGI creation, there are few images as iconic as Toho's King of the Monsters. It's interesting that in 1954 both the original SEVEN SAMURAI and the original GODZILLA were released, and both films encompass what the summer movie season is now - heroes and bravery, or giant disaster imagery. Who knew that 1954 Japanese cinema would be the thematic basis, for all practical purposes, of our current summer tentpole releases?
One thing Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA does get right - it's blatantly old fashioned. GODZILLA is all about the slow build, the savoring of anticipation, and Edwards teases until he simply can't tease anymore. And if GODZILLA couldn't deliver in the final act, I imagine many fans would be upset. Even so, less patient audiences might still be - Edwards seems more interested in sustaining a feeling of tension and intensity rather than making GODZILLA wall-to-wall monsters. Stephen King famously said that once you show the monster, the tension in the reader is lessened because now they know what they're dealing with and can cope with it. Edwards wisely restrains himself, so that when the monsters do come, they are treated with the appropriate level of awe and fear. But some, raised on having everything on their plate when they want it, may not appreciate what Edwards is doing.
There's also no way around the fact that Edwards isn't nearly as interested in the people he fills GODZILLA with as he is with tone, theme, and intensity. There's really nothing for it, either - this is a Godzilla movie after all, and the people have always been caricatures at best. The cast tries, and some get better treatment than others, but the script by Max Borenstein (with story by Dave Callaham) can't get under the characters' skin in a way that makes them come alive in the film. There are a lot of great setpieces in GODZILLA, but the people involved (with one, maybe two exceptions) either become vessels of exposition or people running from the monsters and debris.
That's not a dealbreaker in any way, because Gareth Edwards does such a great job of filling GODZILLA with wonderful moments and imagery. There are moments in GODZILLA that I've wanted to see since I was five years old, watching giant monster movies on Saturday morning. Edwards gets something right that hasn't been right since, perhaps, JURASSIC PARK - his monsters have weight to them. They occupy real space. Perhaps seeing it in IMAX 3D gave even more power to the proceedings, because staring up at that giant screen, I could believe these monsters were real. There is such a level of wonder and awe that is in every frame of GODZILLA that I am certain I will be seeing this again, just to soak up all the beautiful imagery with my eyes. There is massive destruction in GODZILLA, and Edwards gives that destruction an appropriate level of horror and reality. With both GODZILLA and his previous film MONSTERS, Edwards excels at bringing these massive happenings down to a level that humanity can relate and respond to. Edwards knows his Spielberg well.
Spielberg, however, seems to have a better affinity with his actors than Edwards does. The performances range from somewhat sympathetic to wallpaper. David Strathairn's performance in GODZILLA is simultaneously, "Awesome! I'm in a GODZILLA movie!" and "Fuck me, I'm in a GODZILLA movie." You can see the war between the two on his face, and all he can do is deliver his lines with the straightest face possible. Bryan Cranston fares better - of all the characters he seems to have the most consistent emotional arc, and the most purpose, but he's not the center of the movie like the trailers misleadingly portray. No, the center of the movie is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford Brody (the most Spielbergiest name ever in a movie, unless he was Indiana Malcolm Neary), who can best be described as the person things happen to. He manages to put himself in every major event in the film, but until the last act, he's all but insignificant in them. He's just our eyes, and unfortunately he can't seem to put much behind them. Elizabeth Olsen, as Ford's wife, is entirely wasted, which is sad because she's a proven terrific actress. Here, she simply reacts to things. Probably my favorite performance in the film was Ken Watanabe's, because of all the actors involved, he displayed the most energy and love for what he was doing. There's a moment at the end of the film, when Dr. Serizawa shares a quiet moment with our titular hero, that had me smiling ear to ear.
There are script level issues, in regards to these characters, to be sure, but it's also Edwards' job to anchor the emotion in these actors' performances, and he cannot do it on the level that he does for the monsters. There, Edwards is flawless, and Godzilla at last becomes a real character again. If anything else, GODZILLA really illuminates how disastrous Roland Emmerich's GODZILLA really was, which was a fundamental misunderstanding of Godzilla on every level. The elegiac tone of the trailers, for once, thematically conceals what GODZILLA really is, and at its best, GODZILLA is about as Saturday morning as it gets. Edwards takes great joy in showing the power of his monsters, and that joy is infectious. There are resounding audience moments in GODZILLA and if you do see it find the best sound system and the biggest screen in your area, because that iconic Roar is supposed to rumble in your chest, and your neck is supposed to be looking up, up, at greatness. I'll be seeing GODZILLA again, the same way I saw JURASSIC PARK so many times in that summer of 1993. In JURASSIC PARK, when the sign falls in the park lobby and the Tyrannosaurus Rex roars, I felt a chill up my back, and I was reminded, in the primordial part of my brain, what it was like to truly be prey. GODZILLA, for about half its running time, consistently keeps that feeling, and that alone is worth many revisits on my part this summer.