I’m one of those people who still considers the original Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954) to be a genuinely frightening – and therefore genuinely excellent – movie. This despite a basic narrative built around disposable characters that most would find laughable by today’s standards, followed by an incredibly silly ending. But of course, that’s not what we’re supposed to remember when thinking of monster movies, especially one that’s so intrinsically Japanese. Even without the historical context of its production (released only nine years after the atomic bombs had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in so similar a fashion as Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo), it would rightly be regarded as a fine cinematic and, crucially, artistic achievement.
It is against this backdrop that we now judge Gareth Edwards’ 2014 interpretation of the story – which is in many ways also a re-imagination of the Godzilla franchise. The film begins with a clever bit of misdirection, leading you to believe we’re going to see the main character himself early on before instead introducing something else; another monster that is, among other elements of this movie, a nostalgic recall to the earlier films in the long-running series.
These other elements include a couple of nice references to Godzilla’s 1954 origins in Japan: the opening credit sequence has authentic black and white images strewn in the background telling this story. We’re treated to a new rendition of Godzilla’s iconic instrumental roar when he finally makes an appearance and, of course, there’s the much-discussed design of the creature itself. This is partly what derailed Roland Emmerich’s infamous 1998 adaptation, and fans will be pleased to know that Edwards’ version not only remains faithful to its origins but subtly improves on them to create a realistic, albeit significantly bulkier model. Godzilla has also grown an extra 150 feet in his years off, but far from being a deal breaker continuity-wise, this size difference can easily be put down to the increased amount of radiation and pollution he’s been able to feed off in the 21st century.
It’s not all good news though; in fact aside from the parts I’ve just spoken about it’s tough to find much else worth celebrating. Despite the films nostalgia factor, it is still a mainstream Hollywood movie. The story doesn’t centre on Godzilla so much as it does on human character Lieutenant Ford Brody (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his relationship with his father (Bryan Cranston) and the emotional blackmail of a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child (Carson Bolde) who we’re goaded into caring about when Godzilla turns his attention to San Francisco, typically putting them in danger.
Cue a variety of clichéd plot points (Brody’s son being ‘taken to safety’ on a bus which inevitably ends up in Godzilla’s path) and ridiculous moments (everyone around Brody being killed by monsters who then decide to have a personal stare down when they get to him) which serve to water down an overall experience that could have been so much more original.
I found my patience with the film waning when the main actors were taking up screen time and picking up again when the large CGI monsters took over; in this sense the movie is successful, yet there is little substance underneath the surface effects. This is an all-too-familiar case when it comes to such big budget spectacles. Indeed, I felt an urge to overrate this version of Godzilla, but soon concluded that to do this would be to give in to a slightly deceiving sense of nostalgia that, on its own, is not enough to give the film a ringing endorsement. Rather, it is an average monster movie, and for most of the audience, that will be exactly what they came looking for.
6 / 10.