The Godz must be crazy! etc.
Making a monster movie these days is an unenviable task. It's nearly twenty years since Jurassic Park, almost thirty since Aliens and knocking on for forty since Jaws, and pretty much every effort in the past two decades to replicate the artistic and commercial success of those man-vs-unknowable-beast touchstones has met with varying degrees of failure. The latest attempt, Gareth Edwards' 21st-century update of kick-ass kaiju Godzilla, comes frustratingly close to achieving the legendary status its eponymous titan deserves, but lacks the heart and soul of the films it so obviously reveres.
Wisely pretending that Roland Emmerich's 1998 stab at reviving Godzilla never happened, Edwards' take pays a respectful homage to the themes that spawned the Japanese original sixty years ago. Nuclear radiation is still A Very Bad Thing, and when it appears it's responsible for the creation of a terrifying threat to mankind, only one hundred-metre tall hero has the power to prevent total wipeout. (Of humanity. Not the TV show.)
But before the monster mash can begin, we need a cast of humans to provide the necessary exposition, heroism in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, and screaming. Bryan Cranston is Joe Brody, a former nuclear plant worker with a conspiracy itch he's been scratching for fifteen years. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a soldier, husband and father whose skepticism about his dad's crusade withers when it's vindicated in destructive, terrifying style. Ken Watanabe, meanwhile, is the expert to whom everyone turns when the plot needs explaining, and if he were here now he'd tell you that an ancient fear has awoken in the shape of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects), and it would be wise if we all took cover under the nearest sturdy table.
Someone get Cranston some conspiracy cream for his conspiracy itch, stat!
The thought of Bryan Cranston sharing screen time with Godzilla is almost unbearably tantalising, and it's the potential of that meeting between gigantic acting talent and gigantic CG lizard that suggests Godzilla might be more than just Pacific Rim minus the robots. Tragically though, the film fails to capitalise on that potential by not featuring enough of either star. Cranston is sidelined in favour of Taylor-Johnson, who's a blank, emotionless substitute, while Big G occupies far less screen time than the MUTOs. They may be undeniably impressive antagonists but, well, whose name's on the poster, guys?
Fortunately Edwards conjures some incredible set-pieces for his creatures, with the first appearances of both MUTO and Godzilla providing terrific bursts of cinematic thrillery: a panning shot from inside an airport's departure lounge may be the most gleefully exciting thing we'll see all year. And when the inevitable final-act smackdown rolls around, preceded by the eerie HALO jump you saw in the trailer, you know you're in the hands of a filmmaker with talent to burn.
The downside is that it takes so long for the 'zilla thrills to arrive: each time the main attraction threatens to turn up the excitement to deafening volumes, Edwards cuts away to more scenes of puny humans yapping about electro-magnetic pulses or standing around stupidly refusing to leg it from rapidly-disintegrating cities. Nobody wants to see two hours of monsters punching each other, but when the star of your show is God-frickin'-zilla, at least let the big guy roar some more.
There's much to enjoy in Godzilla, and a lot of it is down to watching Edwards - on just his second film as director - grow as a master storyteller. But he's not quite there yet, and he needs a better story to tell than this one. A sequel would be welcome, but it'll need more heart, more soul, and much more Godzilla.