by Sherry Lipp
With Godzilla, we have now checked off the first of our most anticipated summer movies, and we have also had our first major disappointment. Despite a promising start, the big-budget extravaganza ultimately fails on nearly every level. The storytelling coherency is virtually nonexistent, the characters are not interesting, and (worst of all) the film is just a mind-numbing destruction of a major city much like we have seen time and time again.
The film does get off to a decent start, setting up the possible return of the giant monster with mysterious seismic activity under a nuclear facility in Japan, coupled with a monumental find of some fossils in the Philippines. One thing this film does right is that it’s not an origin story. As a nod to the 1954 film, we are treated to some brief flashbacks of our first contact with Godzilla. Forty-five years later (this film begins in 1999) something has awakened. We don’t know what’s going on, only that the nuclear plant has melted down and a scientist there has lost his wife in the disaster, leaving him to raise their young son alone.
It’s not a bad setup. We don’t know what went on at the plant, because whatever awakened has gone back to sleep. Flash forward 15 more years and we realize we have already seen the most interesting part of the film. From the point where we’re aware that the monster is back, Godzilla saddles itself with ever disaster movie cliché in the book, throwing out any idea of originality or interesting storytelling. The widowed scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has spent the last 15 years obsessed with figuring out what really happened to his wife. He is estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is now a military man (and bomb-defusing specialist) with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son of his own.
What this disaster movie is missing is any reason to care about the disaster itself. The characters presented here are one-dimensional plot devices that are mere conduits to move one scene to the next. In fact, not one thing any given character does affects anything that happens in this film. They could have literally barricaded themselves in their homes and the events would have unfolded exactly the same way. But we need to have something to make it seem like a complete movie, so we have Ford globe-trotting around the Pacific Rim trying to get home to his wife, we have a couple of scientists (Sally Hawkins and Ken Wantanabe) who pontificate about why Godzilla has returned, and we have a beleaguered Navy commander (David Strathairn) who gives out orders with the urgency of someone who is on a Sunday drive.
In the meantime Godzilla and – SPOILER ALERT – a couple of giant winged creatures wreak havoc upon Las Vegas, San Diego, and Hawaii. There are a few cool scenes, but how many buildings do we need to see demolished to absolute rubble? What I find tiring these days is the idea that we are seeing what in reality would be thousands of people dying, but we only need to feel anxious when we see one of the characters we are supposed to care about. Maybe that would have worked if I had been given a reason to root for any of these human characters.
Disaster imagery that reminds us of 9/11, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsumani, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami has become so commonplace (particularly 9/11 imagery) that it’s no longer shocking. We have seen some very real disasters, each captured on video, happen in recent history. We know what it looks like, so seeing a bunch of monsters perpetuate similar events doesn’t have the impact it might’ve once had.
I wish this film had capitalized on some of the ideas introduced early in the film instead of devolving into a big destruction fest. Especially coming after last year’s Pacific Rim (which suffered from many of the same problems), there wasn’t anything original here. Big monsters, crumbling buildings, people in panic – give us something new please.
Images: Warner Bros.