Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is a curious beast, neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. Audiences eager for the start of the summer blockbuster season will flock en masse to see the big guy and his opponents do some aggressive urban reclamation. Fans of Edwards' previous feature Monsters—among whom I count myself—will go to see what a smart and sensitive independent director can do with an iconic franchise and $160 million. Neither audience is likely to be entirely satisfied or entirely disappointed, for Godzilla turns out to be a strange and only partially successful marriage of different sensibilities.
Watching the film in a multiplex theater crowded to capacity with enthusiasts, I could feel that something was off: the rhythms of Edwards' film were not quite in sync with the expectations of the audience. The first half of the movie is an exercise in delayed gratification, a teasing (though rarely tedious) amassing of exposition and anticipation while we wait for the featured player to take the stage. Then, even when the icon we've paid to see does show up, something still seems amiss. We often seem to be frustratingly far from what we want to be watching. At times the story seems to be building to a visual or emotional climax, and then Edwards cuts away without closing the deal. In the theater, I kept feeling the people around me bracing eagerly for a cathartic and satisfying confrontation—Okay, here it comes, this is gonna be great!—and then being disoriented, confused, let down by yet another shift away from the action, or a jump to the aftermath of the action. (Watching Godzilla, I was at times reminded of why I don't watch soccer: there's a lot happening on the field at all times, but no one ever seems to score.)
This disconnect between expectation and delivery is going to make Godzilla a divisive film, but it's also what makes a more interesting experiment than special-effects porn like the Transformers movies, or by-the-numbers fan service like Pacific Rim. As I said, director Gareth Edwards got this high-profile gig on the basis of one previous feature, Monsters, his critically acclaimed 2010 film about two people trying to make their way through a monster-infected quarantine zone in Mexico. In Monsters, Edwards was able to produce a near-perfect gem of a movie on a tiny budget, using special effects he composed on his laptop, because his giant-monster movie was shot from ground-level: it was a human-sized story set against the backdrop of an invasion by oversized aliens.
After the tone-deaf debacle of Roland Emmerich's 1998 attempt to revive this venerable franchise, someone at Warner Bros. deserves a medal for choosing Edwards to helm this latest version of Godzilla. And Edwards, to his credit, proves he can rise to the challenge of this $160 million goliath, while still bringing a lot of the same visual sensibility he brought to his $500,000 debut. As he did in Monsters, Edwards keeps the point of view in Godzilla purely human: for most of the film we watch with a tiny human field of vision that can barely comprehend the scale of what is happening above us, let alone understand its meaning: at best we get confused glimpses of the action, and lingering shots of the haunting aftermath.
That feeling of just being a tiny witness to immense events is entirely appropriate, and it means Godzilla delivers a sense of awe and existential dread that is rare in these kinds of movies. It also means, however, that Edwards sacrifices some cleanliness of narrative: even in the fight-heavy third act, when we get our best looks at these monsters who destroy entire cities like sand castles, it is often hard to follow the chains of events. There is a lot of moody destruction and visual poetry in Godzilla, but audiences hoping for satisfying, well-choreographed action sequences may walk away slightly disappointed.
For myself, I walked away feeling disappointed not with the monster-sized action, but with the human drama. Monsters worked so well because we related with, and believed absolutely in, the two viewpoint characters: Edwards (who also wrote that film) crafted it as their story, not the story of giant tentacled aliens. Here, the screenplay by newcomer Max Borenstein doesn't gel as well with Edwards' directing style: if Edwards is not going to provide traditional on-screen spectacle, then Borenstein needed to anchor the story emotionally in better characters than we get here. In the first half of the film, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is effective as a nuclear scientist who lost his wife to monster-related turbulence some years ago, but the lion's share of the film is turned over to Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) as the son of Cranston's character, an army demolition expert who keeps ending up (far too conveniently) exactly where the next bit of mayhem is going to erupt. Taylor-Johnson isn't horrible, but he's something of a blank-slate, and a lot of other excellent actors (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, and David Strathairn, to name a few) are left to spout exposition competently and attempt to bring some life to one-note characters. Moving from disaster scene to disaster scene, no one in the film is given the time or space to develop any kind of arc, or depth, or emotional life.
Again, this is a reasonable approach, almost a call-back to the emotional flatness of characters in the heyday of monster movies in the 1950s. (The nonsensical, techno-babble explanations that serve as a "plot" can charitably be called an homage as well.) But the difference is, in those movies the monsters really were the main characters, which makes that approach ill-suited to Gareth Edwards human-scaled directorial style. Here, we're deliberately not on the same eye-level as the monsters for most of the film, but we don't care about any of the humans either: we're really left without a character of any size to connect with. (In what I suspect is a deliberate homage to Jaws, the surname of Cranston and Taylor-Johnson's characters is "Brody." It's not a comparison Godzilla should be inviting: Spielberg's 1975 classic is still the gold-standard of centering a thrilling monster movie around genuine human characters, and it's one Borenstein should have studied much more closely.)
Ultimately, the marriage of Edwards' indy sensibilities with Borenstein's Hollywood disaster-film screenplay makes Godzilla an interesting experiment, but not an emotionally engaging or satisfying film. Still, Edwards is a tremendously gifted director, and it is exciting to see him helm a movie of this size, even if the result turns out to be an inferior product to Monsters. A modest proposal to Warner Bros: bring Edwards back for the inevitable Godzilla II, but this time let him write it as well.