james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein
Produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ket Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Goddamn Godzilla, Elizabeth Olsen
Studio Legendary Pictures
Running time 123 minutes

godzilla 2014 gareth edwards bryan cranston ken watanabe legendary pictures

Few franchises hold the cachet of Godzilla. From its cinematic beginning 50 years ago it has spread to just about every medium, from books to comics, videogames and children's TV shows, and Toho's original Japanese series now spans some 30 odd films. Godzilla is a worldwide phenomenon, the most famous of movie monsters, the bar against which all others in the genre are measured.

It's no surprise then that the Americans have repeatedly tried to reboot the franchise for themselves, but the last attempt, 1998's Godzilla, was a flop, a halfhearted attempt that clearly didn't understand Godzilla on the most basic level. Originally conceptualized in the wake of the atomic bombs in Japan as a manifestation of nature, the Earth's vengeance against an arrogant and destructive mankind, the American reboot re-imagined Godzilla as merely a giant animal, a big iguana with no greater purpose than to trample of Human cities. Godzilla in its element is essentially a God, a force of nature that man simply can't resist, the first American reboot missed that completely.

Cue 2014 and the newest American remake which thankfully pays a great deal more fidelity to the original Japsnese version. This version of Godzilla is huge, unstoppable, and tramples buildings with purpose, exactly as it should be. Americans finally have a Godzilla of which they can be proud. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD.

But more importantly, this is a Godzilla movie that aspires to be even more. Produced by Legendary Pictures, the studio that made Chris Nolan's Batman, the presentation for this film has been that of a serious, highly ambitious work of fiction in the same vein as those movies.

To this end, Godzilla has a lot of credibility among its talent, which includes Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Ken Watanabe, all of whom are very capable actors with a track record of fine dramatic performances. But by far the most significant talent involved is the director, Gareth Edwards.

Gareth Edwards has just one prior film credit to his name, the low budget indie monster film Monsters. To be fair, it's a pretty excellent film, and evidently more than enough to convince Legendary Studios that Edwards can make the step up from a shoestring budget indie to a blockbuster with a $200 million budget. It's a decision that is at the same time, brave, surprising, and often downright inspired.

Edwards does a very capable job. Godzilla is mostly gorgeous to look at, and the final climactic scene in particular is absolutely stunning from a cinematographic perspective. It's no wonder that they chose to use the intense opening of this scene as the first trailer, it's by far the best part of the film. The rest never looks or feels quite as good as this final scene, but certainly won't have harmed the young director's reputation either.

In addition the pacing of the film is spot on, building very slowly until the climax, and only showing you just enough of the action to keep you wanting more. A masterclass in "less is more".

Godzilla's aspirations are also reflected in the screenplay, which wisely follows in the footsteps of the highest regarded of blockbusters by focusing on the human and character element of the story. In reality we see very little of Godzilla until the final scene, the vast majority of screentime is spent following the travails of regular people. Unfortunately, this great strength also turns out to be the film's greatest weakness.

Godzilla is undermined by very poorly written characters, with little depth and only superficial development. The entire first act of the film is focused on giving backstory to Bryan Cranston's character and giving the audience reason to care about him, and then SPOILER his role in the film ends after just 20 minutes. It makes absolutely zero sense to get rid of the one character you've actually bothered to develop right at the start of the film, and the result is that you are stuck with Taylor-Johnson's character, who is relatively one dimensional and has very little empathy built with the audience. Many have complained about Taylor-Johnson's wooden performance, but in reality the problem is simply that Cranston's character was more interesting, more developed, and should have been kept as the main character focus of the film. Moral of the story, if you're only going to give one character depth, make him the star of the damn movie. END SPOILER.

It's a shame to spoil what had all the building blocks for a really excellent movie with inexplicably misguided writing, but not surprising when you look at the track record of the screenwriter. Legendary went all out on hiring a top cast and very promising director, and then let slip on the writer. It's a real pity.

Fortunately this is not enough to ruin what is otherwise a hugely entertaining and well made movie. And boy is it ever fun. For any flaws Godzilla may have, the film still has a lot of soul, a great deal of drive and intrigue that compels viewers to keep watching. The wider story is well thought out and engrosses the audience, setting up a world that will serve the franchise nicely for future sequels, while the action sequences are excellent with some scenes showing impressively effective spectacle.

The bottom line is that Godzilla has a lot more going for it than against it. It never quite lives up to its promise or the potential that comes with the talent involved, but nevertheless makes for some of the most satisfying viewing in cinema this year. Godzilla is an excellent genre movie and should be top of your list when it comes to summer blockbusters.

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