‘Godzilla’: Much ado about nothing

When the first trailer for this summer’s “Godzilla” remake hit cinemas, it did much to assuage fears that it would be anything like Roland Emmerich’s (“Independence Day”) execrable 1998 attempt.

Where that film so angered the Japanese that they made a movie (“Final Wars”) where classic Godzilla beat up Emmerich’s tyrannosaur knockoff without breaking a sweat, the new trailer promised something entirely different. Boasting an ominous tone, a stellar cast and tantalizing teases of cinema’s favorite giant radiation lizard’s refurbished appearance, all indications pointed that this would kick off the 2014 summer blockbuster season with a bang.

First introduced in 1954’s film of the same name, Godzilla was conceived as a symbol of the destructive power of nuclear warfare. Barely a decade removed from the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film clicked with Japanese audiences still traumatized by the specter of war. Over the course of 27 sequels released throughout the next 50 years, Godzilla’s characterization morphed from that of a malevolent skyscraper stomper to that of a grumpy-but-lovable superhero who would rise from his slumber to fight off whatever giant monster, alien and/or robot happened to be threatening the world that week.

For the 2014 edition, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) takes the lead as Lt. Ford Brody, a US Navy bomb disposal expert with daddy issues. The daddy in question is Joe (“Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston), a seemingly off-his-rocker scientist obsessed with finding out the truth behind the death of his wife, Elle (“Three Colors: Blue’s” Juliette Binoche). As Joe and Ford go conspiracy hunting, Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, “Inception”) uncovers evidence in the Philippines that a prehistoric force of nature is about to return.

From the moment Joe and Ford cross paths in Japan with the giant insect-like creature (laughably referred to as a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or “MUTO”) that caused Elle’s death, the race is on for the younger Brody to get to back to the States to secure the safety of his own wife (Johnson’s “Avengers 2” co-star Elizabeth Olsen) and child. Fortunately for everyone on the US West Coast, the mating cries being emitted by the MUTO have attracted the attention of another prehistoric force of nature: a so-called “alpha-predator” that’s none-too-happy about being awakened from his slumber…

As far as the titular giant radiation lizard is concerned, Edwards and his team have done an exceptional job of reinterpreting the classic man-in-suit design and bringing it to computer-generated, building-smashing life. Unlike 1998’s attempt, the newer version is clearly recognizable as the Godzilla most people are familiar with (significantly bulkier upper body notwithstanding).

Indeed, despite cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s (“The Avengers”) predilection to only show the film’s creatures through smoke and rust-colored filters, the animators’ efforts at depicting the updated design with convincing animal-like movements and mass, combined with a satisfyingly ear-splitting update of his signature roar make this the big-budget Godzilla fans have been waiting for.

Superlative as the creature design and CGI are, however, the same can’t be said of the plot or the pacing. While one can argue that narrative was hardly a consideration in the majority of Japanese-made flicks that followed the 1954 original, at least those films—where Godzilla wrestled giant moths and spinning turtles—knew what they wanted to be. Here, director Gareth Edwards seems unsure if he is making a family drama, a parable on natural selection and the dangers of nuclear power, a disaster movie, or a kaiju smackdown-fest in line with last year’s “Pacific Rim”.

Perplexingly, Edwards goes for an awkward middle ground that owes more than a little to his directorial debut, “Monsters”. Unfortunately, where that film’s refusal to show its creatures lay pretty much in a budgetary inability to show them, the approach is hardly appropriate for a summer blockbuster starring one of the most popular screen monsters of all time. Basically, if you saw the trailers, the movie plays out in pretty much the same way, with Edwards building up the arrival of Godzilla or one of his opponents in magnificent detail (either in the actions of the military or glimpses of the destruction wrought), before cutting away to something else whenever things start to get the least bit interesting.

Of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if the human characters were anywhere near noteworthy, rather than the stock disaster film roles we are presented with. Johnson, so memorable in “Kick-Ass” and “Anna Karenina”, has little to do here than to be stoic as he tries to get back to his family while inexplicably volunteering for every suicide mission he comes across. Cranston spends what little screen time pretending he’s still the dad in “Malcolm in the Middle” and Binoche, one of the finest actors in the world, is wasted in what amounts to a glorified cameo. Somehow, all of this pales next to Ken Watanabe’s supposed MUTO expert, who is saddled with the thankless task of looking grave and spouting asinine fortune cookie sayings that he has no basis for, whatsoever.

By the time it becomes clear that Edwards has entirely misjudged how interesting his bland human leads are, the brief kaiju altercations that round off the film at the end are little more than anticlimactic. As someone who was in the theater on opening day in 1998, I honestly wanted Edwards to succeed with this one. While this film isn’t anywhere near the train wreck the ’98 version was, even Godzilla’s (admittedly awesome) atomic breath can’t make up for what ultimately amounts to a two-hour tease. — VC, GMA News