There was a time when mere mention of the word ‘Godzilla’ brought shuddering memories of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake, a film so brain-dead it should have been cremated and buried long before it got anywhere near the screen. So reviving a series that began 60 years ago with Ishiro Honda’s classic anti-nuclear proliferation fable but got ever more preposterous thereafter was always going to be a sizeable task. Appropriate, then, that Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros, the tag team that kicked new life into the ailing Batman franchise (with more than a little help from Christopher Nolan), have risen to that challenge. But have they done for cinema’s biggest creature feature what they did so dynamically with the Dark Knight?
Well, yes and no. First things first: Godzilla is one almighty feast for the eyes and ears. As an experience and spectacle it is up there with the very best blockbusters, and for that all credit must go to sophomore director Gareth Edwards. Made for a fraction of Godzilla’s $160m, Edwards’ first film Monsters more than hinted at mastery of epic scale, but to make such apocalyptic destruction look as beautiful as he does here is even more commendable.
Like Nolan, Edwards has ditched the camp approach of previous franchise incumbents and lent a solemnity to proceedings. For a film that is essentially about a 350ft-tall dinosaur trying to pound an equally ginormous sci-fi cockroach/dragonfly combo into submission, this was pretty essential to avoid another Emmerich-style embarrassment, and for the most part it pays off. Emotional early scenes with Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston (somewhat spoiled if you’ve seen the trailer) establish the Spielbergian family narrative arc that accompanies the monster-mashing, giving Godzilla the requisite amount of gravitas.
The (minor) problems begin when Binoche and Cranston’s all too brief time on screen ends and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s turn as hero begins. Granted this is a multi-million dollar summer release from two major studios, but that’s no excuse to populate it with a cast of stock characters who never break beyond the limited conventions of action cinema, especially when you have a fine ensemble cast that also includes Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Straithairn.
Taylor-Johnson’s all-American soldier might be a monster magnet from Japan to Hawaii to San Francisco, but a perfunctory script means Godzilla out-emotes him with one eardrum-bursting ROARRR! (Yes, those with sensitive hearing will definitely need earplugs for this one). Hawkins and Watanabe flit around like a Mulder and Scully tribute act, while brilliant character actor Straithairn is confined in a straitjacket of dense dialogue. Ultimately, no amount of heavyweight acting talent can make prophecies of Godzilla “restoring balance” to nature and the mention of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) any less silly than they sound.
Don’t let this deter you, however – Godzilla still provides more than enough bite to make it worth going along for the ride. The way Edwards cuts away from the action just as Godzilla and MUTO dragonfly are about to duke it out is pleasingly teasing, while the HALO parachute jump previewed in the teaser trailer, complete with score seemingly lifted straight from the star gate scene in Kubrick’s 2001, is as stirring as cinema gets. Visually and sonically, it comes up trumps. Just don’t be surprised if your heart isn’t quite as moved as your head is pounded.
Godzilla is in UK cinemas from May 16
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