The newly resurrected Godzilla is an oddly frustrating filmgoing experience. Directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (who made the indie hit Monsters) with a clear reverence for and knowledge of the material, there are flashes of artistic vision and major filmmaking talent here- but very, very little of what people are paying to see in a movie called Godzilla. Namely, the title character.
Normally, this might be a good thing, as all film buffs are familiar with the old monster movie rule that too much of it spoils the magic, and glimpses of the shark in Jaws worked to extraordinary effect, better than seeing it all the time possibly could have, as the sequels subsequently proved. Edwards is very clearly of that particular school of thought, but he seems beholden by it to an unbearably maddening degree. In this new Godzilla, The King of the Monsters is probably on screen for less than 25% of the entire film, and whenever he is, he looks amazing- a gigantic CGI-created pre-historic beast that stomps through the city, breathes fire, and does battle with other dinosaur like creatures. But far, far too much of this movie chooses to deliberately cut away from Godzilla after glimpsing him for about ten seconds, to instead spend all of our time following the random military soldiers as they go about the business of pointlessly attempting to stop the beast, when the audience, and even some of the other characters in the movie, know full well there's nothing they can do.
A huge problem with this film lies in the human characters, all of whom are deathly boring and lack a single shred of audience investment in their plights. When what we want to see is Godzilla, and instead are ripped away from him every time he shows up, the stuff you're cutting away to better be good, or at least interesting enough to keep us from wishing we were watching something else. That is not the case in this film, as far too many scenes are wasted with the military soldiers and commanders, running to and from various buildings, telling each other what's happening and where the monsters are headed (instead of letting the audience see it for themselves), and watching the destruction on a tiny television screen, where again, we cannot see what's actually happening, even if they can.
Bryan Cranston starts the film off as an engineer who works in a power plant in Japan, where one day in 1999, the radiation levels were off the charts, leading to a disastrous explosion that killed his wife (Juliette Binoche). We then cut to 15 years later and our new protagonist has become Cranston and Binoche's adult son, a beefed up Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose role is so underwritten he may as well be a literal GI Joe. He's married to Elizabeth Olsen and they have a son of their own, but when Cranston dies after having been proven right about his theories over what's been hiding under the surface of the radiation site (Godzilla of course), there is no longer any reason to spend any time with Johnson, who spends the rest of the movie occasionally trying to work with the military to do something futile, occasionally staring up at the sky, and occasionally worrying about getting back to his wife and kid. Olsen's role is even worse, as her scenes are even less urgent and more plentiful, as unlikely as that seems.
What action involving monsters in the movie that we do get includes a lot of scenes of other pre-historic beasts that came out of the ground as a result of nuclear bomb testing in the 50's- mechanical bending insect beasts known as MUTO's. The two MUTOS in the movie serve as the villains who go around tearing up San Francisco and Las Vegas, and Godzilla, our alpha predator, is the one that must confront and destroy them. Ken Watanabe, a Japanese scientist who knows the nature of the monster, states somewhere in the middle of the film that this is what must happen, so we all know that's where this is headed. And yet we still spend almost no time with Godzilla, way too much time with the boring humans who we've just been told cannot do anything to defeat these creatures, and seemingly to hold us over, Edwards lingers on long shots of the MUTOS (who are not nearly as visually interesting as he seems to think) as if they can compensate for the lack of Godzilla action we're getting. They cannot.
Despite the artful manner in which action scenes are set up (although when I say artful I don't mean original- so many sequences from this movie are ripped frame by frame from Jurassic Park that Spielberg should be paid royalties), the experience as a whole is too unsatisfying to recommend. If you want to get your money's worth of giant fighting creatures without having to suffer through a Michael Bay movie, a much better film overall is last year's Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro had a better understanding of what it is that audiences want in a movie like this, and what it is that's pointless to spend too much time on. Here's hoping Edwards gets the balance right in the sequel.