It begins promisingly by jumping into instant action, rife with jarring audio and emotional discomfort, for adolescent Ford Brody (CJ Adams), his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston) and his mother, Sandra (Juliette Binoche).
Initially, the film only gets better. By leaping forward fifteen years and presenting us an older Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, steady), now a soldier, who must contend with a father he mistakenly believes is crazy.
The disconnect between Ford’s perceptions and the audience’s awareness hooks us, draws us in, makes us dread upcoming proceedings.
Dread upon which director Gareth Edwards and writer Max Borenstein capitalize, by making us uncertain which characters are disposable and which are essentially immortal.
In these early stages, Godzilla builds tension slowly, using shadows and subtle audio to deliver frequent surprises, wildly turning events, all of which promises to give us a rare monster movie, one which we cannot predict.
Then, after approximately fifty minutes, we finally see Godzilla, the famed monster. And what a sight it proves to be, a stunning CGI creation if ever there was one. At that point, we become convinced: this picture will be terrific.
Which is why everything thereafter disappoints.
From that point, Edwards and Borenstein stop developing characters at all.
There’s Ken Watanabe, playing a nameless academic. And Sally Hawkins playing another. And Elizabeth Olsen, looking gorgeous despite ever-building danger. And David Strathairn, charged with portraying a clueless Admiral, whose apparent purpose is making things worse.
Even Ford, who had been nominally developed early, is all-but abandoned. Now he’s just a guy trying to get home, no matter the cost. Too bad he’s unable to escape terrible events, often by sheer chance.
Worse, the writer and director stop surprising us. All of these named actors are surrounded by constant death, of course, but none of them will die. We know this and are proven correct time and again.
In other words, the human characters are now irrelevant and the surprises have stopped altogether.
So what do Edwards and Borenstein do? Continually resort to cheap narrative tricks that supposedly create tension. A school bus is trapped on a crowded bridge! A child has been separated from his parents just as the monsters arrive! And so on!
The tricks don’t work, and we stop caring about the human beings altogether.
Now we just want to see more of Godzilla and his foes, because the monsters are infinitely more interesting than the humans.
Which has something to do with the technical achievements in creating them, no doubt. Watching these monsters is a visual effects spectacle.
The trouble is the monsters aren’t enough to make Godzilla resonate. The characters might have been. So might have been a surprising narrative. Or deeper exploration of the film’s environmental-minded themes.
But we don’t get any of that.
Instead, we view a standard popcorn flick, one without thematic heft or insight into human beings.