‘Godzilla,’ the 2014 version from relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is just about as good as a big fat summer tentpole movie gets these days. It’s fun, scary and awe-inspiring in just the right places. Some of the acting is dull and the dialogue isn’t exactly dripping with nuance, but these concerns are secondary. The set pieces are marvelous, the special effects are terrific and great care has gone into keeping the visual storytelling fresh.
You want a poster quote, cause here it comes: this ‘Godzilla’ is a monster!
The opening credits are a fine indicator of the movie’s tone. It’s a crafty swirl of redacted government documents and old army footage. What we see (and is later explained to us) is that Kaiju (the Japanese term for giant monsters) are real and the atomic tests of the 1950s were attempts to destroy the creatures. We’ll get more details when experts Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) debrief Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) aboard Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn)’s aircraft carrier. But, this is after next to an hour of very tense buildup, once we’ve finally gotten our closeup of the King of Monsters.
Delaying the reveal is just one of the tricks Edwards takes from Spielberg’s playbook. Early scenes of scurrying scientists recall ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and once the mayhem of the third act kicks in, there are moments as solid as ‘Jurassic Park.’
Edwards proves himself to be the real deal, flying (or parachuting) in the face of the current trend toward blurry action and editing noise. There’s a painterly quality to many of his frames. His only previous film, ‘Monsters,’ is no masterpiece, but it was made for a ridiculously low sum and fastened together with a crafty touch. He is an innovator, and while I’m hardly calling this a low-budget indie, there are frequent moments where you’ll step back and think, “huh, that’s an interesting way to shoot this kind of CG battle.”
The current trend in Hollywood is to go in with the intellectual property first and the artistry second. Look toward the mediocre ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ films as the perfect example of an entertaining-but-somehow-off studio hodgepodge. ‘Godzilla’ could have suffered the same fate, but Edwards is a born innovator. This refusal to phone things in makes itself plain.
I’m speaking, though, just of the look and rhythm of the movie. The acting is middling at best. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is cold toast – a bore that evaporates into the background. Watanabe has gravitas but is basically a Japanese stereotype. He does three things: warn about nuclear weapons, say some half-baked things about “nature in balance” and stare off in wonderment with his mouth open. Strathairn could have benefitted from some John Sayles dialogue, but he’s fine. Elizabeth Olsen plays the worried wife who has to cry and look worried. She maybe even has a line or two.
Eh, it’s okay. It would have been nice to have some memorable zings (Lo, for the days of Will Smith welcoming aliens to Earth!) but that’s not what you get here. Ken Watanabe’s declaration to “let them . . .FIGHT!” is a great valve release and will get applause, but it’s the best line in the movie because it’s what we’re all thinking, not because it’s that crafty. Nevertheless, the picture delivers on what truly matters: terrifying imagery like planes dropping out of the sky and screaming soldiers getting turned into toe jam. There bits and pieces of this movie that will give kids nightmares for a generation. (Also: the up-sell for 3D may be worth it, even though this was a post-transfer. Edwards shoots a number of key scenes through windows and the planar effect works nicely.)
I’m bending over backwards to avoid giving out spoilers, but I’ll just let you know there were four (four!) moments in this movie that gave me genuine chills and I heard myself say, “Oh, sh*t!” multiple times. I saw this at 10 am in a virtually empty screening room with a handful of strangers. I can only imagine what Saturday night opening weekend with friends will be like.
‘Godzilla’ opens in theaters on May 16.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.