Daikaiju! In the Philippines 15 years ago, two scientists discover two pods in a collapsed mine; one is closed, but one is open and something's clearly dragged itself away. In Japan, a nuclear power plant picks up seismic activity before a disaster happens and Joe, an engineer, loses his wife to a radiation leak before the entire plant goes into meltdown. 15 years later, Ford, Joe's son, returns from the army and gets a call; his dad has been arrested in Japan for trespassing in the quarantine zone around the power plant. Joe is convinced it was no accident that caused the meltdown and cost him his wife, he's convinced something ungodly caused it. As he and Joe re-enter the zone to retrieve data, they find themselves in the middle of a crisis: Whatever crawled out of the cave 15 years ago has been hibernating and feeding on radiation, but now it's about to hatch and cause havoc. But where does Godzilla fit into all of this?
I'm a big fan of big monster films. They can be terrifying, but mostly they can be really entertaining and silly. I'm no expert on the Godzilla series, but I know enough to get by, and I still remember going to the cinema in 1998 and watching Matthew Broderick battle the tiny Godzilla shown in the American version of the film. The series seemed dead and buried after that, but then 12 years later, something special happened: A special effects guy made a cracking film about monsters on no budget and off-the-shelf VFX and editing software. It was called Monsters, and I bloody loved it back in 2010. So who better than that man, Gareth Edwards, to bring back the daikaiju himself, the daddy of all monsters? Here's the immediate problem: Monsters was written by Edwards, this was not.
So, I usually start off my reviews by summarizing the plot, and I think I did a pretty good job of it above. The problem? I had to shoehorn Godzilla into the plot description. This film does not revolve around its title character. Instead, Godzilla is something that happens in concurrence to the main plot. That's not right! There's a lot of other things that happen, with a lot of other characters and a few other monsters, and the action jumps all over the world from Japan to the Philippines to Hawaii to mainland America. All the while Godzilla is spoken of in hushed tones, all respectful like. But where is he? Where is the king of all monsters? Then, there's the problem not just with Godzilla films, but with monster films nowadays. Monster movies are the Kobayashi Maru of modern cinema.
Monster movies work better when you see less of the aforementioned monster, allowing the audience's imaginations and fears to fill in the gaps that VFX couldn't possibly achieve, hence why 'Monsters' worked so well 4 years ago. However, people pay to see the monster, especially in a film like Godzilla, and as big and intimidating you make the monster, it loses its impact the more you see it. God bless them, they try their best here, as they spend a lot of time focusing on the two MUTOs and less on Godzilla until he's needed to come into play, and they treat him with respect when off-screen, making him the ultimate monster... There's just no balance that will ever satiate everyone, and even as I write this, I'm still not sure if I'm unhappy I didn't see Godzilla enough, or unhappy I saw too much. All I know is I'm unhappy.
I was completely unaware that Aaron Taylor-Johnson was the lead actor in this film, as everything revolves around his plot line. Did anyone else think it was Bryan Cranston after all the trailers? And did anyone else know that Sally Hawkins would have such a big role alongside the legendary Ken Watanabe? Well, they are, and they do, and they're both great, along with Watanabe and Cranston. Juliette Binoche is, unfortunately, relegated to a brief (but important) cameo. Elizabeth Olsen is good too and has good chemistry with Taylor-Johnson (which makes me excited to see them together as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in Avengers 2 next year). The score is grandiose, and also carries the feel of an old-school action film, especially at its action points. The direction is spot on, and even the dialogue is non-cheesy and somewhat logical. The problem lies within the plot and the writing thereof.
Overall, I was really looking forward to this film, and the trailer promised something incredible. In all fairness, the film delivered on the trailer, there was no misrepresentation. So then why do I feel let down by this film? Is it because there was too much Godzilla, or too less? Is it because it tried to replicate Monsters by focusing on personal stories instead of the creatures when it really should have been focusing on 'daikaiju'? I like that it stuck to the canon more than the 1998 treatment, and the little things like the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Mothra reference made me smile, but the only thing that really got me excited in this film was the initial reveal of Godzilla and that first, initial, ear-splitting scream. After that, though, it was business as usual, this could have been any other disaster film. Have we been ruined as a 21st century movie going audience? I fear yes, but I have hope that revolution can still happen, and there'll be a film one day that reviews and revises all disaster movie canon. This just isn't it though. Maybe Godzilla 2 will be a bit more daring...