The real bummer about not loving the new Godzilla movie is that I liked the character of Godzilla. More specifically, I liked this version of him quite a bit. I’ve never really fallen in love with the franchise (nor have I seen every single installment), but I was pretty taken with this iteration of the big guy. Not only did I care about what happened to him, but I was impressed with the decisions he made during the battles (director Gareth Edwards does a great job of defining the character through action here). I just wish there was a better movie around him.
And it pretty much comes down to one fatal flaw. Gareth Edwards’ direction is never less than decent and often borders on being truly impressive and the cast is fantastic (though Bryan Cranston is turned up to 11 throughout all of his scenes, sometimes uncomfortably so). But the script (credited to Max Borenstein but frankensteined together by around half a dozen writers) is painful. I mean that almost literally. Throughout the bulk of the film’s running time I was shifting in my seat, sort of aghast at some of the decisions (or non-decisions) that were being made.
These choices squander the impressive array of talent on display. Ken Watanabe is made to wander through the film wide eyed and seemingly drunk, spouting theories about the battling monsters to an audience of befuddled military brass. Even though his character is responsible for 15 years worth of ill-advised experiments that helped cause these issues in the first place. Still, the military (and this is primarily a movie about military response) has more reason to keep him around than they do Aaron Johnson’s character, the only thing they know about him is that he’s the trespassing son of an ex-scientist and that he’s a bomb defuser. The movie does an okay job of making these contrivances work in the moment (after all we need Johnson’s POV for the film to work), but the stitches around them are always threatening to buckle. There’s also at least one or two gung-ho dialogue exchanges that are right out of Starship Troopers, which is puzzling since that film is a military satire.
There isn’t a single interesting decision made by any of the characters (save for Godzilla himself). The intentions of the filmmakers and the studio seem (mostly) in the right place, so why not use this fertile ground to do something other than the bare minimum when it comes to getting from point A to point B? I have to wonder if the original script contained at least a few idiosyncrasies, a couple of unexpected character beats, that were sanded off for whatever reason. Frank Darabont was hired to do a pass on the script in January 2013, a mere two months before shooting began in March of that year. I’m not sure if he was the last writer on this but, at that point in the production schedule on a huge project, they aren’t bringing writers on to innovate so much as they are to fix things. Alas, it’s impossible to tell from one viewing if any of his contributions were used. The whole thing is so vanilla it’s inscrutable.
There’s also a tonal issue and it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to it. The trailers for Godzilla sell an intense, beautiful and atmospheric film. And while the actual movie at hand has plenty in the way of suspenseful set pieces and impressive monster on monster battles, it’s also improbably goofy. So much so that I almost feel that the marketing for the film is a bit of a bait and switch. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but Godzilla seems trapped at the halfway point. It should either lean into or away from these inclinations, but it does neither. The result is a mildly diverting mixed bag of a film that only really picks up once we get to the final battle (and an admittedly inspired sequence on a train trestle).
Godzilla still pegs Gareth Edwards as a talent to watch, indicting the practice of setting a release date before finishing a script more than it does any of the creatives involved. While I don’t think this movie suffers from the total wrongheadedness of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 take on the material, it’s likely to be discarded just as quickly. Perhaps even faster. After all, we’re still talking about how bad that film was. This one might just be forgotten.