Director Gareth Edwards' reboot of the classic Japanese radioactive monster tale Godzilla feels wholly unnecessary and yet manages to be breathtaking and entertaining for long stretches. In today's movie industry, that qualifies it a blockbuster that passes muster.
Films like Pacific Rim and Cloverfield are what can make this reboot feel superfluous at times. Enormous, existentially threatening monsters don't quite seem passe in the age of CGI, but they are not exactly novel either. And so that puts enormous weight on the human interest component of Godzilla. Much like zombie films decades after the release of Night of the Living Dead, it's the way characters react -- bicker, panic, coalesce, show courage -- to a crisis that can make or break the tale.
Much of that weight falls on Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Ford Brody, a Naval explosives expert with a curious lifelong connection to the monster. Brody's mother was killed when he was a boy in a mysterious nuclear accident in Japan. His father Joe, played by Bryan Cranston, watched her die at the plant and has spent much of his life since searching for the real truth behind her death. He is insistent that a reactor meltdown was not the cause, and he is proven correct when the existence of the titular monster is revealed.
Ford's odd, implausible connection to the monster extends to his wife Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and their child. They live in San Francisco, the city that just so happens to fall directly in Godzilla's path as he seeks out radiation upon which to feed. And there are other noteworthy actors to lend support to the story, including Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as the pair of scientists who can explain the behavior of the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) -- yes, there's more than just Godzilla -- that wreak so much havoc across the Pacific.
Surrounded by an able cast though he is, it is Taylor-Johnson who is charged with lugging the film forward. Cranston, disappointingly, overacts and then is out of the story altogether by somewhere around the start of the second act. Olsen mostly panics and/or pines for her on-screen husband. Hawkins and Watanabe are curiosities -- very fancy and very talented plot devices. It's not that Taylor-Johnson can't carry a film -- see Kick-Ass for proof of that -- but it may be that he can't carry this kind of straightforward, no-nonsense, relatively serious blockbuster.
There are some genuinely great moments. I doubt I'll see a more breathtaking scene this year than the HALO (high-altitude military parachuting) jump sequence in which a smoldering, besieged San Francisco comes hurtling in to view from the perspective of Ford as he parachutes in to the city. I just wish there had been a few more. And I wish that, in between, Taylor-Johnson -- or maybe some of his fellow cast members -- had been able to keep things from being so uneven.
Godzilla signals that up-and-comer Edwards is a director on whom we should all be keeping tabs. But it falls short of putting him exactly alongside some of the industry's other more well-known talents.