People go to Godzilla movies for one reason: Monster fights. A Godzilla movie is unpretentious in what it is and what it offers, and that’s one of the pleasures. Unfortunately, for too much of its running time, Godzilla is crippled by a fear that we won’t take it seriously.
The problem is largely this movie wants to be a “gritty”, “realistic” Godzilla, and the very concept is vaguely ridiculous. The plot does give Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson a few moments early on to play off each other and establish a frustrated son dealing with his broken father. But again and again, it keeps cutting to the humans and then refusing to really give them anything to do.
Cranston’s direction boils down to “shout your lines” before being abruptly excised from the movie. Ken Watanabe exists entirely to spout exposition and carry around his dad’s watch, because every nuclear scientist from Japan is required, by Hollywood law, to have a relative who died at Hiroshima. Elizabeth Olsen is given the usual thankless crying wife role, which is at least better than Juliette Binoche, who might as well just be called Dr. Deadmom Plotpoint. Even Taylor-Johnson, who’s front and center for much of the movie, doesn’t have all that much to do here.
Oddly, it does the same thing with the monsters. This movie has an annoying habit of showing Godzilla and a MUTO getting into it and then… cutting away. In fact, the climax of the first monster fight is something we see on television. Literally. The second time, the fight is just about to start and then… a blast door closes on it and we cut away. The screenplay can’t just let them fight, for some reason, but struggles to find anything to cut to that’s more compelling.
That isn’t to say there isn’t some great moments in there. Gareth Edwards achieves some stunning visuals depicting the destruction in the wake of Godzilla and the giant insects he fights, and pulls off some great suspense and action pieces. As disaster spectacle, it’s quite good, and the nods to Godzilla tropes sprinkled throughout are a nice touch; yes, there are power lines, and no, they don’t work.
And the third act, which has the most actual Godzilla in it, shows an admirable understanding of how Godzilla movies work while depicting them more agilely and smartly than many filmmakers. It’s all CGI, but it’s carefully animated to feel like people in elaborate suits, Godzilla especially. The creature design and animation is simply exquisite and conveys a lot of emotion.
Ultimately, though, Godzilla is a movie so terrified you’ll think it’s a goofy monster movie, and yet wants so much to be a goofy monster movie, that it often winds up neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a bad movie, and I agree with Vince’s overall grade if not his excessive Pacific Rim bashing, but in the inevitable sequel, it either needs to give the humans something interesting to do, or remember that the entire reason we’re in that theater is right there in the title.