I’m a big fan of Gareth Edwards’ debut feature Monsters, a low-key character piece that eschewed extravagant set-pieces in favour of some smart world-building, showing how humanity could adapt to live with a passively-invasive, natural force. There’s some of that in Godzilla with the positioning of the monsters as barely-seen background forces for so much of the film, but, while the spectacle impresses, the film is weakened by bland and forgettable characters.
Characterisation aside, there’s a lot to like in Godzilla. There’s an intricate, slow-burning story that unfurls over the first hour or so with tasting notes of ’70s disaster movies and political conspiracy thrillers before it all kicks off in earnest, plus there’s a decent history and origin story for more or less everything that happens. The creature effects are stunning throughout with a convincing weighty, organic feel, and Edwards takes his time revealing the monsters, putting the audience in the same position as the people in the film with fleeting glimpses through windows and goggles and news reports. When battle starts, it’s humanity that’s intruding on something God-like rather than the monsters intruding upon us, a “nature is mightier than humanity” theme seen throughout the film, from an abandoned city choking with plant life to the monsters disabling our electricity. Godzilla is clear: humanity is inconsequential.
While it works well having the monsters in the background for much of the film, it unfortunately puts too much pressure on a talented but squandered cast. Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche; all of these, yet it’s the charisma-free Aaron Taylor-Johnson who ends up the de-facto star for much of the film. A generic white American male soldier with a watery gaze, he’s the least interesting of them all and for all the emoting he manages you might think the appearance of these monstrous, destructive forces is just a mild surprise. Everyone else puts in a respectable but underwhelming performance though Olsen in particular is wasted, relegated to little more than a scared, sobbing wife, and Watanabe and Hawkins literally run out of things to do early on but hang around regardless, just adding to the many blank, baffled faces.
In the end, Godzilla is a film of enjoyable and impressive moments, but lacking in anything compelling to hold them together. You’ll probably remember the moments; you might not remember the film.