Released on Thursday, May 15 2014 Director: Gareth Edwards; Screenwriter Max Borenstein; Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins Running time: 123 mins; Certificate: 12A More than a decade on from Roland Emmerich's much-maligned Godzilla remake, the news that Gareth Edwards would be next to take the reins allayed many fans' fears. Edwards' textured, haunting debut Monsters embodied everything shoestring sci-fi filmmaking does at its best, coupling resourceful scares with an essentially human story. His priorities here are inevitably shifted, with a studio budget and six decades of franchise history to honour, but it's disappointing nonetheless that the human story in Edwards' Godzilla falls so completely by the wayside. What's left is technically masterful but curiously po-faced, all action without the adventure. The opening set piece promises the very opposite, picking up in 1999 and putting Bryan Cranston front and centre as the film's emotional lightning rod. He's Joe, a frazzled scientist trying hard to avoid coming off like "the American maniac" to his colleagues at the fictional Janjira nuclear plant, where his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) also works.
After a pattern of increasingly strong seismic activity, the facility goes into meltdown and Sandra is killed in the ensuing blast, a predictable early twist that Cranston makes genuinely wrenching. Meanwhile, a team of scientists led by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins discover the fossilized remains of a monster that will look familiar to many viewers. It's a potent, goosebump-inducing opener that promises heart alongside spectacle.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla
15 years later, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has joined the Navy and started his own family with Elizabeth Olsen's Elle, moving on where his father has stayed stuck in the past. Dismissed as a crackpot by his colleagues, Joe is convinced that history is about to repeat itself, and accuses the authorities of hiding something much bigger than nuclear fallout in the evacuation zone. He's not wrong.
Screenwriter Max Borenstein shrewdly incorporates the history of the Godzilla franchise both literally – the year 1954 is significant – and thematically, with the monster's roots in nuclear fallout. "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around," Watanabe's scientist muses, and it's this idea that lends real weight to the destruction that unfolds, most notably in one breathtaking Hawaii-set tsunami sequence.
But Borenstein's screenplay suffers from a serious structural imbalance – it's emotionally frontloaded, burning through all its human drama inside the first half hour. It's when Taylor-Johnson takes over as leading man that the problems begin; in contrast to Cranston's powerhouse emoting, he's a blank slate. Ford has nothing resembling even a half-hearted character arc, and seems to exist largely to give audiences a face to focus on during the action. Meanwhile Olsen, one of the most engaging actresses of her generation, is squandered in the most one-dimensional wife-and-mother role imaginable.
Ken Watanabe in Godzilla
Edwards delivers several strong key set pieces, combining visual scope and oppressive sound work to create an atmosphere that feels truly panic-inducing without being overblown; one beautifully tense moment set on train tracks is the quietest action sequence you'll see in a blockbuster this summer. Godzilla himself is revealed in very gradual snatches, and there's a reason why holding back the full monster is the oldest trick in the book – the shiver of childlike glee you'll feel at finally seeing him is worth the wait.
But if there's one thing this Godzilla could use, it's a little more childlike glee. It often feels like a very solemn exercise, in which characters are exposition delivery devices rather than people and the stakes are always theoretical. It's an intelligent but rather dour monster movie, its crippling lack of heart mitigated by spellbinding action and a gripping first act.