In 1954, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios decided to make a film that reflected the true horror of the atomic bomb that the japanese people had experienced in their own flesh after the attacks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Working with scriptwriter Shigeru Kayama and director Ishirô Honda, the result was the birth of one of the greatest horror cinema icons: Gojira, better known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. After its release in 1954, "Gojira" kickstarted a whole horror sub genre (Kaiju eiga) that dealer with giant monsters fighting over cities, creating a mythology in which Godzilla played the central role. Either as brutal destroyer or as heroic defender of humanity, Godzilla is now part of out pop culture, representing how small we are in the face of nature's fury. After 50 years of cinema history, Toho Studios decided to let Godzilla rest for 10 years, and in 2014 the return of the Big G is in the hands of an American studio, in an attempt to resurrect the mythical monster and erase the previous American remake from memory.
The story begins in 1999, when scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watabanabe) and Vivienne Graham (sally Hawkins) discover the skeleton of a giant monster, and two eggs deep at the bottom of a mine at the Philippines. One of the eggs is broken and there are traces left by what came out from it reaching the sea. Meanwhile, at Japan, a series of earthquakes shake the nuclear plant of Janjira. Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) and her team of engineers check the state of the reactor when a huge explosion releases the radiation. Her husband Joe (Bryan Cranston), the plant supervisor, is forced to leave his wife to die in order to save the city from a major disaster. Years later, Joe is still convinced that what happened in Janjira wasn't a normal earthquake, as access to the Janjira zone is forbidden. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a marine, and lives away from Joe, considering a madman. Nevertheless, when Joe takes Ford to Janjira, they discover that what has been hidden in the zone is the existence of terrible giant monsters, and they have been awakened.
Through the years, Godzilla film have touched themes that range from nuclear horror to the destruction of ecosystems. This time, the story written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham (and David S. Goyer and Frank Darabont, uncredited) presents Godzilla as a nature's force of equilibrium in the wake of human action. However, the thematics the story tries to uphold lose strength given the fact that Godzilla takes the back seat and the spotlight is in turn given to the other giant monsters that the human beings have resurrected, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Given that the story circles around the threat that those monsters present, Godzilla gets reduced to be almost a living deux ex machine of sorts. While there's an attempt to develop a human story as a counterpart to the giant monsters, the character development is so poor that it's limited to explain the story to its audience. Certainly, Godzilla films have never tried to be serious dramas, but the problem is that in this version, the poor human drama in the screenplay plays (or tries to play) the central role.
The reason for this is that director Gareth Edwards (who rose to prominence with 2010's "Monsters") decides to focus his attention in the human characters that live the disaster left by the MUTOs and Godzilla. As in his previous dil, Edwards keeps his monsters in the dark, showing only the devastation that's left after every fight between the monsters. To be fair, in "Monsters" this approach worked quite well given the carefully constructed relationship between the human characters (not to mention the convenience of it for an extremely low budget film such as his), in Godzilla this becomes useless as the human roles are unidimensional empty characters with no real personality or sympathetic traits. While the special effects are magnificent (it's worth to point out that Godzilla has never look this great, and the original design by Toho is respected) and manage to capture the grand scale of the monsters' titanic fights, Edwards doesn't allow that tremendous work of effects to be fully seen, as he opts to cut to his characters' reactions anytime the monsters fight. Reactions that aren't performed that well by the cast.
While acting has never been the strength in Godzilla films, the work done by the cast in this incarnation of the franchise is particularly mediocre. Despite having respected actors in the cast, the performances are far to be the best this group of artists can deliver, and a lot of this is to be blamed to Gareth Edwards' poor direction. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, as Joe and Sandra Brody, deliver an admirable performance that manages to create the only real moment of human drama in the film. Unfortunately, their role in the film is too short and they are soon forgotten by the story. The real protagonist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as their son Ford), fails to escape from the typical American marine stereotype, to the point that it seems that he doesn't really care for his parents or his own family. Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his wife, limits her role in the film to scream anytime the monsters are on screen. The most unfortunate thing is to see actors Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and specially Sally Hawkin sin meaningless roles whose only dramatic function is to spoon-feed the plot to the audience in long explicative dialogues.
The truth is, "Godzilla" is not really a bad film, it's simply an extremely mediocre movie that's sadly not really memorable. The disappointing result of the film makes it fell as if director Gareth Edwards had taken the Godzilla name and all that it represents to make a spiritual remake of his previous film, "Monsters". But without any luck. While the respect for the original design and "Gojira"'s mythology are welcomed, as well as the fact that the film takes its concept seriously (fortunately, no Minillas or Godzookys are around); the film fails to capture the magic and awe of watching two titanic monsters fighting on the city. Mainly because Edwards doesn't let the camera see much of it. And it's not that Edwards' focus on human drama is a wrong decision, it could be an interesting take on the concept if only such drama was well done. Since it isn't the result is a monster movie that feels boring and tiresome until Godzilla appears on the screen (late). A lot of this can blamed to the screenplay that Edwards had to work with, based on exaggerated coincidences and explanatory dialogue to advance the poorly developed plot.
As mentioned above, "Godzilla" isn't a bad film, it's merely a truly disappointing one. After ten years without the Big G on the big screen and with the backing of a big Hollywood studio, an epic return to glory was expected, one that could take advantage of the technical development of American film industry without forgetting the Godzilla mythos. Sadly, this wasn't the case. There are even things that the vilified 1998 film by Roland Emmerich did much better than this version. While there are remarkable things in "Godzilla" (Alexandre Desplat's music being one of them), in general Gareth Edwards' film fails to fulfill the huge expectations. There's a progress in some areas, but it seems that Hollywood still hasn't really understood the secret of how to make a good Gojira film.