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Monster Mash

by Ross Douthat

Sometimes your feelings about a two-hour movie can be summed up by the way you react to a single fleeting scene. In the latest incarnation of Godzilla, that moment arrived for me in the film’s final act, when the titular monster and his two radiation-devouring rivals are having their way with the innocent skyscrapers of San Francisco. In one shot, we see the city-destroying creatures through the windows of an office building’s 80th-or-so story, from whose cubicles and conference rooms a cluster of hapless Bay Area white-collar types watch, screaming, as their doom comes sweeping in.

And all I could think was: What are those people doing on the 80th floor of a skyscraper? Don’t they know what’s going on outside?

Keep in mind that by this point in the movie, Godzilla and Co. have been leading the nightly newscasts for days, large portions of Japan, Hawaii, and Las Vegas have been reduced to rubble by their tails and claws and wings, and the Bay Area is under military occupation, with schoolchildren being bused across the bridges and civilians herded into BART shelters. Yet the office-building shot is staged as though the people inside had been somehow taken completely unawares — too preoccupied with their TPS reports, apparently, to hear about the prehistoric monsters converging on their city.

This is a small detail, a pedantic complaint, the kind of whine you’d expect to hear from the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons . . . except that the whole movie is like this. Scene by scene, line by line, the script and story aren’t just lazy, they are offensively lazy, in ways that no amount of spectacle can overcome.

This is unfortunate, because, as spectacles go, the new Godzilla is a visually accomplished work: The director, a newbie named Gareth Edwards, has a gift for shooting action sequences, an eye for moments of beauty amid the flame and ash and lizard tails, and a healthy restraint when it comes to revealing too much too soon. And the narrative starts out promisingly enough, with opening credits that play with the original Godzilla mythos (a scaled, spiny back rises amid footage of the Bikini Atoll tests) and then the introduction of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Juliette Binoche as our apparent leads, a Japanese scientist studying prehistoric megafauna and two married nuclear-plant supervisors doing expat work in the land of the rising sun.

But this is a movie in which the quality of each actor’s work correlates almost inversely with his or her screen time, and so before you can say “nuclear accident that isn’t really an accident at all,” it becomes clear that the master thespians are around just to cash paychecks, and the actual leads are going to be a tragically body-built Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing Cranston and Binoche’s grown-up Marine son, and Elizabeth Olsen as his San Francisco–based M.D. wife.

I know that both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen can act; I’ve seen the movies where they proved it. But let’s just say that in this case I could have replaced them with two pretty faces plucked at random from the streets of Hollywood and saved the filmmakers a lot of money without reducing the quality of their movie one iota.

In fairness, the leads are working off a script that, as noted earlier, doesn’t even bother trying. You don’t go to a Godzilla movie for the repartee, but usually there’s at least a stab at humor here and there, a rumor of a shadow of a hint that actual human beings might have been involved in the writing of the dialogue. In this case, it feels as if the script were “written” by a computer program tasked first with assembling the flattest dialogue from 1950s B-movies, and then with editing it, with algorithmic rigor, to erase anything that remained that even resembled soul or wit.

The story, meanwhile, has a moronic rhythm that becomes almost reassuring after a while: Start with a boneheaded military decision, then put a cute dog in peril, then show Ken Watanabe murmuring something about nature’s awesomeness, then throw a cute child into peril, then a still more inexplicable military decision, then back to Watanabe, then put a bus full of cute children in peril, then have the military try to salvage its terrible strategy with a surpassingly idiotic gambit, then Watanabe, still murmuring . . . and then, at last, the monsters fight.

The fighting is good: Edwards understands how to direct a slugfest, and it was a smart choice by the filmmakers to resurrect the vintage Godzilla-versus-the-monsters trope and make the big dude, ultimately, a humanity-saving hero.

But all this only makes the movie’s underlying terribleness more frustrating. A weekend of script doctoring — heck, an afternoon — could have made this movie a solid B-plus blockbuster, instead of what it is: a big, scaly G-minus.

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