Dear Warner Bros. Pictures: The name of this movie is Godzilla. Why, then, is the titular character reduced to a supporting role?
What makes this frustrating is that the producers got so many things right. First, they skipped an “origin” story; the authorities in this tale have known about the Jurassic throwback for half a century. Godzilla isn’t strictly the villain, but they don’t make him campy, either—he still wreaks havoc everywhere he goes. This Godzilla is neatly poised halfway between the original conception of the monster as a rampaging symbol of the nuclear age, and his eventual status as a mutant defender of the Japanese homeland. (Here, he “saves” San Francisco, but you get the idea.)
And, by God, he’s one impressive monster. Toho Studios, who created and own the creature—that’s their actual screen credit, they “own” Godzilla—reportedly mandated two things. One, Godzilla had to have his trademark spiky scales, and, two, his “hands” had to have the distinctive “fingers.” (There’s no doubt that Toho still feels burned by Sony’s terrible 1999 redesign.) Here, the CGI effects wizards have given Godzilla a terrifying bulk and an appropriately fearsome visage. He is, to borrow a phrase, a bad motherfucker.
Why, then, did the filmmakers decide to shoot him (and the other giant beasties Godzilla must fight) like the Cloverfield monster? Godzilla is rarely properly presented with a God’s-eye point of view. Instead, we see him from the perspective of the puny humans around him, or through TV news footage. And when he is—swimming alongside a U.S. Navy flotilla, for example—it’s thrilling.
It also doesn’t help that the lead human characters are a couple of drips.
Clearly, the producers held the mistaken impression that the Kick-Ass movies were enjoyable thanks to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as the title character. To disabuse them of this notion, here is the complete list of reasons to watch Kick-Ass and Kick-Ass 2: Chlőe Grace Moretz (both movies), Mark Strong and Nicolas Cage (first film only, and both were sorely missed in the sequel).
Granted, Taylor-Johnson’s part in Godzilla as a son-turned-avenging-soldier isn’t much, but he adds nothing to nothing. Given the amount of screen time his character hogs, this is unforgivable.
Director Gareth Edwards came out of the visual-effects side of the business, which may explain both the brilliance of the fantasy creatures and the hopelessness of the lead human performers. As noted, Taylor-Johnson’s mediocrity is not unknown, but Elizabeth Olsen has been good-to-great before (remember Martha Marcy May Marlene?). Here’s she’s terrible.
Much better are Bryan Cranston, briefly on hand as the scientist who was right; Juliette Binoche (even more briefly) as the wife of the scientist who was right; David Strathairn as the admiral who is stoic in the face of a giant lizard swimming alongside his aircraft carrier; Sally Hawkins as the scientist whose jaw drops convincingly at the appropriate moments; and, best of all, Ken Watanabe as the wise scientist who understands Godzilla and even gets to call the monster by his Japanese name, Gojira.
The final insult is in the film’s score. Not that Alexandre Desplat does bad work here; his music is quite good. It’s just that the composer doesn’t get the opportunity to write a proper, grandiose musical theme for the title character. Akira Ifukube’s original theme for Toho’s Godzilla series is as brilliant and indelible as Bernard Herrmann’s shower music in Psycho or Miklós Rósza’s chariot-race fanfare in Ben-Hur; every time you hear it, you know that some unfortunate city is being stomped on and/or incinerated. Here, Desplat doesn’t even get a decent close-up of the monster to work with.
Both Godzilla and his audience deserved better.