Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures seem to have a thing for giant monsters - or maybe it's just me. Certainly they made a big deal last year out of Guillermo Del Toro's interminable Pacific Rim, and next year they're releasing Seventh Son - an epic fantasy filled with dragons and other medieval-era monsters. In between they're relaunched the most famous giant monster of all: Toho's Godzilla, refreshed and re-envisaged for a new decade.
This is the fourth time the Americans have tackled Japan's biggest pop culture character. The first two times they simply filmed some scenes of Raymond Burr reacting to the carnage. In 1998 Sony spent a huge amount of money on Roland Emmerich's ode to the last 15 minutes of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Now director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) has stepped up to the plate with a thoughtfully constructed and visually stunning epic that is easily the best American Godzilla film ever made.
Yeah, that's actually a really low bar, and if I'm honest I vastly preferred Emmerich's over-the-top popcorn flick for sheer entertainment value. Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is an interminable bore, clearly respectful of the Toho legacy while simultaneously making one of the most maddening summer blockbusters of recent years.
The core problem with this Godzilla is pretty simple. The big lizard is barely in it. A lengthy prologue set in the 1990s gives us a lot of foreboding, but turns out not to be about Godzilla at all. When a giant monster finally does appear, it's a weird spindly thing somewhere between one of the beasts from Pacific Rim and the monster from Cloverfield. When Godzilla himself finally crops up it almost feels like an after-thought. He actually gets explained before we get a look at him. Now "show, don't tell" is one of the fundamental lessons of any budding writer, and if there was ever a genre that demanded a "show, don't tell" approach, it's the giant monster movie. I felt genuinely sorry for Ken Watanabe, Hollywood's go-to guy for all roles middle-aged and Japanese, who has to spend the entire movie playing "awestruck scientist who over-explains things". He got a lot of laughs in the screening I attended; none of them were intentional.
Holding back Godzilla would be fine, had the screenplay been better structured. Lots of films spend their first hour carefully putting the dominos in line before knocking the first one over at the 60 minute mark and letting things run wildly from there. Steven Spielberg, who is a major visual influence on this film, is a master of this structure with Jaws and Jurassic Park. Indeed for the first hour Godzilla feels like it is going to follow the same path, and when the titular beast arrives in Hawaii halfway through the film it's a marvellous reveal. Then, just when he's about to fight another monster, we cut away to something else. This process - set up fight, build anticipation, cut to another scene - happens so many times that it's an exercise in perversity. By the 90 minute mark I found myself abusing the film under my breath in the cinema. It happens so many times, in fact, that in a two-hour movie titled Godzilla featuring no less than three giant monsters, we don't get a single uninterrupted giant monster battle. Let's dwell on that for a moment: if your giant monster movie fails at the most basic and fundamental requirement of being a giant monster movie, why are we all here? Why did you bother to make it? Why did the audience bother to show up?
Maybe that's fair enough. Maybe a little Godzilla goes a long way, and there's a more interesting story to tell with the human characters running around trying not to get squished. In the case of Gareth Edward's debut feature Monsters, that's definitely the case. In this film's case it's not. If there is a cliche of the genre, it is dropped into the film straight-faced and at interminable lengths. There is one deliberate joke halfway through with a dog, but it's surrounded by so many other genuine cliches and stereotypes that the joke falls flat. You could make a sensational checklist out of the Godzilla cast. Over-awed semi-mystical Asian scientist? Check. Grumpy military chief who's going to use nukes even though the plan will clearly fail? Check. Strong-willed male protagonist just trying to get back to his wife and kids? Check. Is that wife a nurse in the exact city that's going to be destroyed? Check. Lather, rinse, repeat, until all I desperately want is a single scene of Godzilla long enough for him to trample the entire cast and put them all out of our misery.
And the biggest crime is that they're a good cast. Ken Watanabe is a sensational actor. His sidekick is played by Sally Hawkins. Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston both drop in for bizarrely brief but critical appearances. David Strathairn collects a pay cheque as a navy admiral. Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen play husband and wife, and both manage to be genuinely appealing and likeable despite the script they're given.
Godzilla looks great, although he's been made ridiculously huge in this film to the point of parody. There are a few moments and shots that will be like candy for the kaiju faithful. All up however, this is an overly serious film with nothing serious to say, and no wild monster-versus-monster action to make up for it. It is Godzilla by way of Samuel Beckett: a bunch of aimless protagonists sitting under a tree, waiting for an awesome movie to turn up.