Movie Review: ‘Godzilla’ comes up short

No stranger to the giant monster movie genre, Director Gareth Edwards seemed like a perfect fit to bring Godzilla back to American cinemas. Edwards was an exciting new talent coming off of his feature-length debut, “Monsters,” in which he successfully created big-budget effects on a shoestring budget in his own bedroom. Now working with a budget upwards of $160 million and an immensely talented international cast, it seemed the sky was the limit.

The film starts off promisingly, opening on Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), who brings an emotional intensity to the role of Joe Brody. After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), in a devastating scene, during a mysterious earthquake at the plant where the couple works together, Brody becomes obsessed with discovering who or what was responsible for the catastrophe that caused the death of his wife. Unfortunately, his obsession leads to his arrest for trespassing through a quarantine zone, and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer in the Navy, is forced to leave the family he’s just been reunited with in San Francisco to bail his father out of jail in Japan.

Ford, embarrassed and frustrated by his father’s struggle to let go of the past, is still easily persuaded by his father into sneaking into the site where his mother’s death took place 15 years earlier. After discovering evidence left there, they find the plant intact and operational. The two are quickly arrested, and brought into the plant where scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are performing tests on an enormous cocoon that’s capable of conducting electromagnetic pulses. After Serizawa attempts to kill the creature, all hell breaks loose, and we are sent on a worldwide chase.

Through an effectively delivered exposition from Serizawa, we learn this creature is a M.U.T.O (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), and that a creature known as Godzilla exists under the ocean and can restore balance in nature. Edwards wisely teases Godzilla’s reveal through small glimpses, making his first full appearances all the more promising.

This setup works well, and the creature designs are top-notch. Edwards manages to develop the movie with precision, utilizing the supporting cast well in order to rise above the screenplay’s shortcomings, while also creating an effectively menacing tone to foreshadow the destruction to come.

Unfortunately, after all the emotional weight Cranston brings to his role, the movie shifts focus to his rather bland son, who’s basically used to hold a perspective to several extremely well-directed action set-pieces. The human element of the story ceases to be of any importance.

Thanks to stellar visual effects, the action scenes between Godzilla and M.U.T.O. are a joy to watch. But something’s missing – not once, apart from Cranston’s character, does anyone seem to react to the fact that there are now enormous 200-foot monsters wreaking havoc on the planet. We see it on the news, but it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, and the brooding atmosphere that was developed so well in the film’s first half is unable to maintain its grasp.

The result is a very respectable attempt by Edwards to make “Godzilla” more than just another Godzilla movie. In its attempt to make you really care about its characters, it leaves you wondering what could have been.

2 1/2 stars out of 4.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.