Skyscrapers tumble, titans clash, and actors pose grimly in front of green screens in the latest Godzilla reboot.
Helmed by Gareth Edwards, who cut his teeth on similar (though smaller-scale) material with 2010’s Monsters, this summer blockbuster brings some welcome weight to the big green lizard — and that’s not even a reference to his portly midsection. More so than in past decades’ endless stream of campy sequels or Roland Emmerich’s failed 1998 remake, this Godzilla makes the premise of giant creatures flattening landmarks seem appropriately anxiety-inducing.
No one conveys that apocalyptic angst better than Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a grief-stricken scientist who is the first to piece together the looming, super-sized threat. His voice in full Walter White gnarl, Cranston and his accompanying gravitas set the film’s tense tone from its opening moments.
Unfortunately Cranston isn’t in every scene of the movie, and while Oscar nominees Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins do serviceable work staring slack-jawed into the distance, most of the film rests on the shoulders of Brody’s son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taking a page from Jake Gyllenhaal’s book of squeaky-voiced machismo, the Kick-Ass star does his best to appear stoic and/or driven, but he mostly looks bored. Taylor-Johnson’s future Avengers: Age of Ultron co-star Elizabeth Olsen, here in a thankless worried-wife role, is barely allowed to make an impression.
That might not be such a problem if Godzilla didn’t lean so heavily on family drama for its pathos. Taylor-Johnson’s World War Z-style “I’m doing this for my family” globe-trotting yields diminishing returns, defying physics and biology as he keeps showing up everywhere the action is. His tireless omnipresence eventually becomes the film’s least plausible element, and given that he often shares the screen with 300-foot radiation-chomping behemoths, that’s saying something. That knack for being at ground zero extends to Olsen and their loveable scamp of a son too. Much like their namesakes in the Jaws series, the members of this Brody clan find themselves improbably surviving spitting-distance encounters with the movie’s kaiju all over the world.
But hey, if your top priority in a Godzilla movie is air-tight plotting, you’re watching it wrong. Most people will shell out their $12 to see the scaly green hulk smash, and smash he does. Edwards makes good use of his large CGI budget, and the slick effects unfold with minimal suspension of disbelief required. But Godzilla separates itself from its fellow popcorn flicks by what it doesn’t show. Whereas disaster porn like Man of Steel can lay on the carnage so thick that the audience is quickly numbed to it, this film wisely withholds its best action. That increasingly obvious teasing walks the line between funny and frustrating, but it all pays off in the movie’s collateral damage-heavy climax.
Thanks in part to that restraint, this movie hits a mark that disappointments like Pacific Rim, Cloverfield, and the 1998 Godzilla each missed by varying degrees. It delivers nail-biting tension tempered by well-placed laughs, and it even returns a sense of visceral shock to the sight of cities being leveled. (Some of the credit for the latter must be given to composer Alexandre Desplat’s spine-tingling score.) The insistence on hinging the plot on one family is frustrating and undermines the film’s global scale, but Godzilla gets much more right than it gets wrong. And in doing so, it makes the big green guy look better than he has in years — even if he has put on a few pounds.
Godzilla opens nationwide on Friday, May 16.