Whether or not Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is any good is really less an objective question than a test of how each viewer understands what makes a good Godzilla movie. Is it just the building-smashing theatrics? The camp sensibility of later installments? Or is it the post-WWII panic of the 1954 original? Should it have a sense of humor, or none at all, or exist in some place between the two? Should it star Matthew Broderick? (Just kidding. With a little effort you could probably prove with empirical evidence that that last one is an emphatic no.) Edwards manages to bring Godzilla into the new millennium with visual aplomb and a perfect handle on how to make a monster movie that’s serious business without turning dour, but it’s his interest in the wrong parts of the human element that unfortunately render Godzilla a fine movie, instead of a great one.
A largely unproven talent, Edwards was reportedly signed on the strength of Monsters, his minimalist 2008 kaiju film that stands as a small miracle of the subgenre. What Edwards lacked then in budget, he made up for with lyrical beauty and a humanist approach to the monster movie that still remembered at all times to focus on and seriously consider the relative plight of freakishly large beings. At its best, Godzilla serves a similar purpose, or at least aims for it. Trading the specificity of nuclear phobia for something wholly more elusive, Edwards envisions Godzilla as a commentary on humankind’s phobia of any and all forces beyond its control, marveling at the new scope of evil even as it recoils. In a time where the most vicious and inexplicable acts of violence tend to be committed on the grandest stages possible, for once Godzilla uses the 9/11 imageries of falling buildings and soot-covered, screaming citizens in a context where they actually make sense.
You may have sussed out by now that subtlety isn’t really Godzilla’s aim. And that’s fine, because it’s never really been. But that heavy hand extends to the inevitable human element on which the film is ultimately focused, to its detriment. The awe-inspiring grandness of Edward’s monster-torn world is too often relegated to the background (a move made hilariously literal at points, particularly in its third act) in favor of human melodramas, most of the time the wrong ones, in order to get to the climactic siege on San Francisco. There’s pathos to the stories of Bryan Cranston’s obsessive conspiracy theorist or Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, a man attempting to process exactly how he became a part of the sort of arrogant, dangerous science he sought to avoid or refocus. But they’re not the film’s protagonists.
Unfortunately, the film’s protagonist is Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson with a shaky American accent as his only remotely distinctive trait. In a performance that will surely do him few favors, Taylor-Johnson makes one face throughout the whole film. It’s a stoic, serious face, the sort of chiseled lead that would perhaps fit into a film with less to say than Godzilla does. But he’s a poor audience proxy in a film packed to the brim with interesting character actors (Sally Hawkins and Elizabeth Olson, both exceedingly talented, are asked to do little more than make sad faces on cue), and a worse one in a film that inevitably must take time away from the monster battles to tell its story. Structurally speaking, Godzilla is exactly the film it arguably should be, starting on an intimate level in laboratories and secret hangars before expanding rapidly to global destruction. Ford just happens to be the least interesting way imaginable to get there.
But when the film moves away from the Boring, Hunky White Guy #357 at its center, Godzilla makes for pretty spectacular entertainment. The film, above all, understands that Godzilla needs to be immense. Not big, not an ersatz T-rex, immense. Godzilla should be so overwhelming that he can scarcely appear on the screen, and when the disciplined Godzilla finally gets around to delivering its scaly payload, it’s rather breathtaking. Some may criticize the film for being slow-paced, but the early bits sans Taylor-Johnson are good to great, and it’s frankly a relief to see a summer tentpole picture that doesn’t volley setpieces at you as though quality comes from volume. And it makes the payoff all the richer when Godzilla finally appears, though not in the way you might expect. For Godzilla’s issues, it still brings one of cinema’s greatest, truest giants to a new generation, and could well leave audiences in the same kind of awe that the original freak of nature did 60 years ago.