Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
Further confirmation that no one in Hollywood knows how to tell a story on film anymore, “Godzilla” starts out promising enough before slipping into a snooze-fest by the end of its first act. A cool post World War II-era credit sequence shows an American military attempt to rid the world of a barely-viewed Godzilla. An atomic bomb drops directly on the creature, whose prehistoric spikes protrude from the Pacific Ocean’s surface like a small jagged island stuck somewhere near the Philippines. A gaggle of implicated Americans watch the violent event through binoculars from an island beach that isn’t as safe a distance away from the explosion as they imagine. Bye-bye, suckers.
Cut to late ’90s Japan where nuclear-plant engineering expert Joe Brody (Brian Cranston) and his equally qualified wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) both work. These are the kind of hyper-articulate and intelligent people you want to see grapple with a juiced-up prehistoric monster the size of the Statue of Liberty. Sadly, Cranston’s and Binoche’s presences are a short-lived ruse. As soon as we take the bait, the filmmakers torpedo the characters. The narrative restarts with far less intriguing figures — namely with Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick Ass”) and Elizabeth Olsen, as his long-distance wife. Taylor-Johnson plays Ford Brody, the rah-rah Navy soldier son to Cranston’s fading character. Taking into account the time squandered with the film’s false start and the long delayed introduction of Godzilla — the giant lizard doesn’t show up until the film’s final half-hour — you end up with less than half of an already disappointing movie.
You’d think the filmmakers never saw the original 1954 Japanese version of “Godzilla.” That film’s huge multi-national success was owed considerably to its camp sensibilities. Fallout from the relatively recent nuclear bombings formed a dark reality-based atmosphere that the original film’s humor punctured with joyous results. It didn’t hurt that a guy in a monster suit played Godzilla.
This time around, Japanese nuclear reactors explode, bringing to life a couple of giant insect-like creatures termed “MUTOs” (“Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms”). The box-headed MUTOs are in full display for much of the movie but have all the personality traits of a can of pinto beans. There are plenty of scenes of American military soldiers running around doing stuff, but Godzilla goes oddly missing. Squandered performances come from David Strathairn (in a storyline placeholder role as Navy Admiral William Stenz), and Ken Watanabe (as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, an authority on MUTOs whose advice to let the monsters fight instigates the film’s yawn-inducing climax).
One of this version’s most grievous errors lies in its underwhelming use of 3D technology. Never does Godzilla’s reptilian fist reach out in front of the viewer’s face. His tail never swings out into the audience. The blue-fire breath never breaks the proscenium window. The audience is left to wonder why the filmmakers even bothered with 3D at all if they weren’t going to exploit the technology for its potential to bring the monster off of the big screen and into our laps.
It’s shaping up to be a pathetic year for Hollywood. Indie films and documentaries rule the day. Hollywood is broken because it believes in spectacle over story. Comic-book movies won’t cut it, and neither will uninspired adaptations of Japanese films from a half-century ago. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at www.ColeSmithey.com.