A fin coming out of the water and a two-note anthem. A velociraptor tapping her claw impatiently on the floor as she hunts two children in a hotel kitchen. These are some of the most terrifying moments on film, but why? It’s not the fin that frightens, but the monster it suggests, gliding underwater through Jaws. Yes, we’re scared of the raptor’s scythe-like killing claw in Jurassic Park, but the eeriest moment happens when she impatiently taps it on the tile – as if to say finding you is inevitable, so why keep her waiting? And so it is in Godzilla, in which monsters loom out of the midnight fog and detach from the shadows themselves. We’ve reached a point in filmmaking where it’s very difficult to scare audiences through complex visual effects. But the simple shadow of a monster around the corner? That will always set hearts and minds racing.
Does Godzilla reach the peaks of those epic Steven Spielberg monster tales? In terms of visual tension, absolutely. One of the biggest keys to creating a successful suspense film lies in withholding the payoff an audience expects. You can’t answer every moment of tension with a release. If you do, a movie becomes formulaic. You have to make a game out of when that inevitable jump scare or action scene will occur. Earning an audience’s trust while constantly betraying their expectations is what makes horror and suspense such difficult genres, but Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has obviously watched those Spielberg movies many, many times.
Even the opening credits of Godzilla build its mystery, redacting text in black marker as faux-historical footage plays in the background. From here, we’re offered a tragic prologue involving nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) and an apparent earthquake. Years later, we pick up the plot with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s lured to Japan when Joe gets arrested. Godzilla spends a lot of love and care setting up these characters and their history, which is why it’s so strange that it all becomes immaterial once monsters start hatching and destroying the countryside.
There are considerable problems here. The biggest is Taylor-Johnson, who may look the part of a typical leading hero, but who fails to elicit much emotion. Tell him a loved one’s dead, inform him of prehistoric beasts the size of skyscrapers, and even have one gnash its gigantic jaws feet from his head, and he only ever looks like he’s waiting very courteously for the camera to start rolling. It’s a shame; when the monsters are this big, it doesn’t matter if your hero’s as tall as The Rock if he can’t manage the curiosity and wonder of Richard Dreyfuss. In a cast featuring Cranston as a conspiracy nut and character actors Ken Watanabe (Inception) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) as scientists with a near-religious fervor for the giant beasts they hunt, Taylor-Johnson’s perpetual lack of emotion is glaring and begins seeping into the audience. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and all it takes is one conversation – on the phone, no less – to make you realize who you’d rather see facing off against giant monsters.
The plot is incredibly uneven. We don’t expect Shakespeare from Godzilla, but after the lush and detailed opening half-hour is chucked to the side, narrative developments later on are rushed so badly that, at one point, a character literally washes up into the next scene. Disaster-movie cliches – will the dog outrun the tsunami, will the hero find the lost boy’s parents – are answered with such coincidental ease that it’s easy to start distrusting any emotional investment we’re asked to make. These cliches are always manipulative, but they should never feel that way.
There’s a lot that’s right about Godzilla and a lot that misses the mark. It’s visually clever in a way few films are, but combine an illogical story and an unengaged lead and you have one strangely apathetic movie. What we’re left with is something that works exquisitely on the primal level – seeing the fin in the water – but that fails in giving it personal consequence. It’s half-a Spielberg movie, visually awe-inducing but without that crucial human element. Call it the inversion of Super 8 or Cloverfield, both of which I preferred more. In the end, though, I can’t remember the last time a movie had acting and a plot this bad and I still came out liking it. The visuals really are that striking, but I have to admit that little else about Godzilla is. It’s rated PG-13 for destruction and creature violence.