Here we have this year’s latest Next Big Thing, and except for the fact that no one wears Spandex, it is largely in the same key as the earlier Next Big Things we’ve seen. By this I mean it’s loud, looks expensive, contains a lot of property damage and it will be, I’m sure, financially successful and almost instantly disposable. Is it better than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla? Yes. I’d also say it works better as a giant monster movie than Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) — if only because it makes its action more visible, while giving us a better sense of the size of these bad-tempered behemoths. On the other hand, Godzilla lacks Pacific Rim’s sense of humor. Actually, it lacks any sense of humor whatever. Of course, the same can be said of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, but Honda’s film was straightforward, completely lacking this one’s typical 2014 bloat, had memorable characters and was almost immediately mythic. I doubt the new one will ever be mythic.
I’m not quite sure how to approach Godzilla. It’s not really a remake — though in a nice touch it does give Ken Watanabe’s character the name Dr. Serizawa, which was the name of the tragic hero of the 1954 film. The somewhat confused screenplay almost acts like — or suggests — the events of the original actually happened. The film itself has more in common with later entries in the series, since it’s firmly in the realm of a monster smackdown — something that didn’t crop up till the cheapjack 1955 sequel Godzilla Raids Again (which was released in the U.S. as Gigantis the Fire Monster in 1959). The idea of Godzilla as a good guy monster doesn’t appear until Honda’s 1964 film Ghidora, the Three-Headed Monster. This film, however, goes an extra step by making Godzilla take down two new monsters in a case of nature balancing itself. (The makers have clearly seen Koyaanisquatsi (1982) and applied the idea to giant monsters.)
The new Godzilla is not a bad movie in itself, and if you haven’t seen every blockbuster that’s come along, it’s probably even better. It is, however, too long. It takes 40 minutes to get to its first monster, and the film is half over before we really see ol’ Godzilla himself. To a degree, that makes sense. It is typical of the genre to keep the monster offscreen for a while — dating back to King Kong (1933). But this pushes the idea too far, and the material leading up to the monsters is less fun than that leading up to Kong. It’s also largely devoid of the growing dread in the 1954 Godzilla. The big — or biggish — name cast has little to do between the film’s “nuclear accident” opening and the main action, and most of the characters are not very interesting. The two most interesting ones — played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche — are done away with very quickly. Watanabe takes up some of the slack with his Dr. Serizawa and his memories of Hiroshima. But most of the film is given over to “action hero” Aaron Taylor-Johnson (whose neck — somewhere between 2009′s Nowhere Boy and this — has become larger than his head). It isn’t that he is bad — it’s that he’s given nothing interesting to say or do. His role, like those of Elizabeth Olsen and Sally Hawkins, is charmless and thankless.
The film’s saving grace is the big knockdown battle between Godzilla and the two flying horrors called M.U.T.O.s. While it isn’t all that different than the battles between Spider-Man and his various foes — or what have you — it has a certain personality to it. It also has one truly original moment involving Godzilla’s radioactive blast. On the other hand, the M.U.T.O.s feel generic and are not nearly as clever in design as any of Godzilla’s admittedly cheesy earlier foes. Godzilla himself is a mixed bag for me. Yes, he’s certainly more realistic than his Japanese counterparts, but something is lost in the translation to modern CGI — his gravity perhaps. It’s all very solid and professional, yes, and Alexandre Desplat’s score at least has something that suggests Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla theme. (At other times, it sounds like imitation Danny Elfman — and a little borrowed György Ligeti thrown in.) Regardless, the film is expected to end up north of a $100 million gross opening weekend, so expect sequels. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.