It sounded so promising: a reverent remake of Godzilla with top-notch actors, an indie director with rich potential, and a serious take on the story. Why, then, is this Godzilla so underwhelming?
Most audience members may cite the general lack of Godzilla himself in the movie. Oh, if you wait around until the third act, you'll see plenty of him – and fans of kaiju (nerd talk for Japanese movies where giant monsters fight each other) are in for a treat. But until then, despite a handful of nice shots and one suspenseful scene on a railroad trestle, there's just a lot of slow buildup, as a remarkably dispassionate cast tracks a trio of giant monsters that have recently emerged, then tries to figure out what to do about them.
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Straithairn, Sally Hawkins... all are fine actors who have turned in sensational work in other movies. (Yes, even Taylor-Johnson; see Nowhere Boy if you doubt.) But here they glumly go through the motions. They seem uniformly bored, save Cranston, whose anguish only comes across as overacting.
I first blame the screenplay, credited to a little-known screenwriter named Max Borenstein. (The story itself is credited to Dave Callaham, who wrote The Expendables.) Borenstein's dialogue is dull and his character relationships are formulaic. My guess is that whatever spirit his early drafts may have had was diluted by meddlesome studio execs and various script doctors. "Generic" is the only way to describe the results.
I next blame director Gareth Edwards. I have seen his debut feature, the low-budget Monsters, and while I didn't hate it, I must say I barely remember anything about it. I do recall that the performances were flat, and thus it's my opinion that Edwards doesn't know how to coax creative work out of actors – even great ones. And as with Borenstein's script, Edwards' direction has no wit to it. Yes, Godzilla is a disaster movie and terrible things are happening, so one shouldn't expect two hours of big laffs. But it's also a popcorn movie about a giant lizard. There should be some fun to be had. And there is no fun. (A heavy-handed shot of an old terrarium with letters next to it "accidentally" spelling out MOTHRA is as clever as the film gets.)
Edwards tends to steal from Steven Spielberg's playbook – when in doubt, he puts some random cute kid in mild danger – but he lacks Spielberg's sense of humor, or even his humanity. (Godzilla shows a peculiar ignorance of how real people actually react in emergency situations.) He provides us with lots of destructo-porn, but it's scrubbed clean of any horror or urgency.
On the upside, the visual effects and sound design are both outstanding. But otherwise I was disappointed by Godzilla, an uninspired, by-the-numbers blockbuster.