Gareth Edwards's GODZILLA opens at the maw of a cavernous Filipino mine. From a distance, hundreds of laborers clamber up and down its earthen edges like ants, performing menial tasks while, in the foreground, two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) are informed that a recent accident has led to an unsettling discovery deep below the already massive excavation. It's a skeleton - a really big skeleton - and a couple of non-fossilized pods that appear to contain the embryos of whatever this really big skeleton used to be. In other words, these things could still hatch. In fact, one already has, digging its way out of the ground and scampering to the sea, leaving a disconcertingly large trail of destruction in its wake. Humanity's got a whuppin' on the way.
Scale is very much on Edwards's mind in this iteration of GODZILLA, both formally and narratively. Now that audiences have seen almost every city on the planet demolished by asteroids, aliens, kaiju and Transformers (in every enhanced format currently available), they need more than pricey CG spectacle to give a shit. So Edwards does everything he can to present the destruction from a human perspective, trusting that the viewer's investment in the well-being of his characters will amp up the sense of awe and danger. On a formal level, this approach certainly enlivens the experience; Edwards has studied his Spielberg and borrows liberally from the master, crafting a number of masterfully-staged set pieces that make the viewer feel like they're directly in harm's way (particularly if one opts for IMAX, which would appear to be the ideal format for this film). But Max Borenstein's screenplay (from a story by Dave Callaham) strands the audience with underdeveloped characters who blandly move the plot forward by dying and grieving and making shocking discoveries that have been crashing down Broadway like the film's titular behemoth since the opening credits. The film is complete non-starter on a human level, and that unfortunately undercuts a good deal of what Edwards has accomplished here.
The film attempts to hook the audience by building the narrative around a family tragedy. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are nuclear physicists who experience the grave misfortune of working at the Japanese power plant that serves as the Philippines-born monster's first meal. A meltdown ensues, and an agonized Joe must seal off the reactor as Sandra is engulfed in a radioactive cloud. Fifteen years later, Joe is obsessed with uncovering the true cause of the meltdown, which causes him to repeatedly run afoul of the law. Joe's latest arrest prompts his now-adult son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to leave his wife and kid to bail out his papa and perhaps talk some sense to the crazy old man. But Joe, who's wallpapered his home in years of frenzied research because that's what obsessed people do in movies, is on the verge of a major discovery. The pulse that preceded the meltdown fifteen years ago has returned. Something big and bad is about to happen all over again, and only Joe knows it.
This redemptive father-son narrative might've worked had either character been capable of more than stock utterances, but there's nothing for either actor to play here. Cranston gives the wild-eyed cassandra act a spirited go, but once he's been proven right the film no longer has any use for him. This leaves Taylor-Johnson shouldering the leading-man load, and he imbues his lifeless dialogue with a healthy, Hunnum-esque vigor; granted, the character's a cipher on the page (he's a bomb disposal expert for the Army), but put some life into it, man! It's a fucking giant monster movie!
Perhaps Edwards was worried that a more animated performance would clash with the film's tone - which recalls the mounting dread of Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS. Once the energy-devouring monsters (called Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms" or MUTOs) start busting up cities en route to a calamitous San Francisco reunion (where the female intends to hatch her eggs, thus spelling doom for humanity), hope is hard to come by. Edwards sets up the military as a well-intentioned hindrance; led by Admiral William Stenz (a glowering David Strathairn), they'd prefer to nuke the MUTOs. Fortunately, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe), one of the scientists from the prologue, knows better; he believes Godzilla, who's swimming his ass off from Hawaii to the States (with a fleet of battleships flanking him), has emerged to restore balance to nature. In fact, it's Serizawa who, when all appears lost, delivers the film's only rousing line: "Let them fight!"
Godzilla throws down with the male MUTO in Hawaii first, but the battle is only glimpsed through a television set (via Ford's kid, who's watching the news back home in San Francisco). This becomes a recurring bit, and it'll be interesting to see how it plays with mainstream moviegoers. Edwards's bold decision to cut away from obligatory set pieces is a clever one at first, but this exercise in delayed gratification only forces the audience to spend more time with some world-class dullards. When people inevitably complain about the film not having enough Godzilla, their real gripe will be with the absence of interesting characters.
Edwards's first film, MONSTERS, was a modest, micro-budget success that worked primarily on the strength of two appealing performances from Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. A live-wire like McNairy would've done wonders in GODZILLA - frankly, anyone with a pulse would've been nice. And this winds up being a huge bummer. Had Edwards and Borenstein (and the various, uncredited script doctors who tinkered with the screenplay prior to shooting) nailed the human element of GODZILLA, this would've been a classic summer movie, a repeat-viewing masterpiece on the level of JURASSIC PARK. The final Godzilla-versus-MUTO battle, where Edwards dispenses with the subjective camera business and lets 'er rip, is that fucking good! By the end of the film, there's no disputing that the King of the Monsters is back. Maybe next time he'll find some people worth protecting.