There is more than one monster in this movie. Sorry, spoilers and whatever, but you needed to know that.
I mention in the Pacific Rim review I wrote last night that I believe/hope there is a new generation of kaiju movie coming to us, one that fulfills our collective dream of what these movies can be. The good news is that 2014's Godzilla contains many of the elements that these new, better, hypothetical movies will have. The bad news is that 2014's Godzilla is not that breakthrough movie, not by a long shot.
I'll expound on the film's virtues before I start complaining about it. First of all and most importantly, the monsters are great, and I mean really great, starting with the idea itself. These aren't mutants created by the A-bomb, these are ancient, terrible creatures that walked the Earth well before it could support life as we know it. These are creatures that eat radiation and carry their own electromagnetic fields with them, which means they affect the weather. Their hides look like scales or skin but when you see them take a missile in the face, it makes sense that it would only piss them off. Watching them fight in the ruins of San Francisco is like looking back in time at some unknowably primal epoch, except the dark walls of the rocky canyons are the broken grids of office buildings.
The sound design for this movie is absolutely incredible. The noises these creatures make just moving around are weird and massive. There's one scene with two people cowering on a railroad bridge that I've watched over and over, and the sounds are wonderfully satisfying. The debut of the atomic breath is another auditory standout.
The visual design is a winner, too. When the billboards for this movie were up, I would look at Godzilla's jagged dorsal spikes against a the red clouds and it would seem like those nasty points were rending the sky itself. Godzilla's face is shaped so that he looks perpetually honked off, which is bad for a human character you're trying to like and excellent for a huge monster.
I'd run even if I saw this mug on a mouse.
Despite what you may have heard about how much monster screen time there is, bear in mind there is more than one critter to ogle, and by movie's end the appropriate delivery of monstery goodness will be received and signed for.
One thing this movie does that I appreciate is avoid any amount of comic relief that almost every kaiju movie feels obligated to include. The problem is, the serious and well-acted deliveries obscure the fact that many of the plot details, both large and small, don't make sense. Here are some of my favorite examples:
The military find out that Godzilla is about to approach the Golden Gate Bridge. Head military dude David Strathern, who is always good, turns to the TV monitor and says gravely "There are still buses on that bridge." Sure enough, we cut to the bridge and there's a serious, well-acted scene of typical human chaos, with a bus driver honking a horn and a cop yelling something incoherent, and the windows are foggy and oh my gosh what the hell. But the main reason the bus is stuck is that there are several police cars parked diagonally across the evacuation route. "Why is this so?" I asked myself. Seems like the main thing you'd do when evacuating a city would be to keep the road clear, but that's me.
At one point there's a military train moving a couple of nukes Westward at night. They stop the train because they see an explosion in the distance, and call the soldiers who are keeping the track ahead of them secure. All that comes over the radio is screams and gunfire, and yet the response is "Please repeat, message unclear," and after more screams and gunfire, "Huh. Better send a couple of guys ahead to check it out, since we have no idea what's going on."
The major good guy mission at the end is to disarm a nuke that will destroy San Francisco. The reason it's there is because the plan was to arm the nuke in San Francisco Bay and then sail it out to the ocean, where it will attract the radiation-eating kaiju and destroy it. But the plan went south shortly after they turned on the timer, because the monster showed up and nicked the nuke. My question there is, why bring the nuke to the city at all? Given the present circumstances, I find it appalling that nobody looked at any given stage of this plan and said "But what if a monster comes?" (This is of course a different version of my earlier argument in Pacific Rim: "Two giant monsters? That's ridiculous!)
There's also a subplot about the possibility of hundreds of monster eggs hatching, which is dealt with as an afterthought, and I'm pretty sure not one person talks about it the entire time.
Which brings us to our main character, Kick-Ass Goes to the Army. Now, I liked the first Kick-Ass and I'm not quite ready to write off Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but his emotional range in this flick would make Jennifer Connelly proud.
If it's not Taylor-Johnson's abilities then it's probably down to a choice by the director and Exhibit A for this idea is the expression on this girl's face.
Army Kick-Ass is a bland companion as he Forrest Gumps his way through more monster encounters than any other person on Earth, and he is the creature who gets the most screen time. But that's not the worst part of this movie...
Director Gareth Edwards was given this job because of his work on the excellent Monsters, which succeeds in part because of its "man on the street" perspective. He tries to chase this idea through Godzilla, but in adapting that formula he blows some key moments. Moment One, Godzilla shows up at last and there's gonna be a monster fight. Godzilla roars, the other guy roars, theatergoers grip their seats, and then suddenly the scene switches and we're watching the fight on the news several hundred miles away. Not a bad technique, but undeniably disappointing.
And then he does it AGAIN. Just as the beasts converge in SF, the camera stays with the crowd fleeing into the subway, and so the doors shut on the sky just as the two monster heads move to strike. To me both of these moments feel like a failure to connect with the kaiju audience, because in all honesty we'd probably be above ground watching.
Despite all I've just said, I do recommend this movie for the monster stuff. Watch it with all your lights off, because it is shot pretty dark. Good luck getting past the shortfalls, and let's raise our glasses to the Wrath of Khan scenario that would make this all worth while.
And I'm done with my reviews!