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Thursday, May 15, 2014

#Godzilla Review: Lumbers Along But Ultimately Delivers

After lumbering through the first hour, Godzilla delivers big time.

Review by: Matt Cummings

It's uncommon for a summer blockbuster to favor story over flashy effects and slow-motion action set pieces, but Director Gareth Edwards's Godzilla pushes convention aside to deliver a smart disaster film that takes a little too long to show our favorite Kaiju.

When nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife/colleague to a nuclear meltdown in Japan, he discovers that the event was no accident, but caused by a creature called a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). This beast feeds on radiation, tearing down cities and consuming spent nuclear material for unknown reasons. But as 15 years pass, the world realizes this isn't the only problem they must face: a 350 foot monster which the Japanese call Godzilla is hunting the newly-hatched MUTO as part of its prehistoric DNA. Soon, Brody's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) becomes involved when his now crackpot father finally exposes the government conspiracy about the events back at the powerplant. As the MUTO descends upon San Francisco, Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son become caught in the middle of a much larger scheme that only he and Godzilla can stop.

For a series that started so steeped in social commentary, the later films descended into silly and frankly odd directions. Edwards returns to the scientific realm to tell his story, surrounding our stars with great - if overly heavy - dialogue about nuclear tests in the 50's which were targeted at Godzilla, and the larger reasons for the return of the the big guy. Rather than take too long with the science, Writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham spend just enough time to provide audiences with the kaiju's intentions, reminding us that such simple efforts can help to connect a film rather than break it apart (are you listening Amazing Spider-man 2).

It takes about an hour for audiences to see Godzilla (and his arsenal) in his full glory, but when that happens its unleashing is nothing short of spectacular. He's a little pudgy, but his other features are just plain mean and his movements absolutely epic. Godzilla actually comes across as an intelligent creature, with most of the evidence smartly presented by Edwards. His desire to make it communicate in non-standard ways (pushing ships out of the way rather than running them over, protecting people during a pivotal bridge scene) creates a bond with the audience who can't wait for him to bring on the pain. Godzilla's exhibit of such emotions might seem like transposition, but Edwards's efforts make for far better theater than a mindless beast bashing another mindless beast. Similarly, the MUTO has a story to tell, and Edwards treats it as almost a sympathetic organism. We'd be naughty to tell you why, but you'll understand when you see it. But when it comes to high stakes city-smashing, there's certainly no hiding that someone is channeling Pacific Rim, as the beasts battle so effectively throughout San Francisco, reducing it to rubble in the process.

What's disappointing is that Toho - the company that owns Godzilla - refused to lease out the other MUTO's, leaving Edwards to craft a monster that looks like a cross between Cloverfield and a Recognizer ship from Tron. But as we mentioned, it takes too long to get to the payoff, making us wonder if Edwards and his team are thinking of this story as more of a novel, complete with a first and second chapter where the kaiju remain shadowy figures until the explosive third. Provided this film does well - and there's certainly no reason to suggest otherwise - Chapters 4 and beyond can tell the deeper story, so long as audiences don't hate on Edwards too much for concealing the action in a series of frustrating POV angles. Olsen is underutilized, relegated as a pleading and powerless mother. Her chemistry with Johnson is good enough, as is he and Cranston. Both Olsen and Johnson are soon to star in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and their work in Godzilla gives us good clues to their next project. By the way, if you want to know more about what Godzilla's breed, check out this article from Smithsonian.

This is as far from Roland Emerich's 1998 flop as one could get, both in style and substance. Godzilla isn't perfect and there's not enough of him, but the film's goal to tell an intelligent and longer tale mixes very well with the epic battle scenes and personal stories of people trying first to understand these beasts and then eventually learning to get out of their way.

Godzilla is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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