Godzilla: The big guy plays too small a part

Godzilla: Eh, he's looked better.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
Godzilla: Eh, he's looked better.

Godzilla is the movie monster with the mostest. King Kong may be just one gorilla-chest-hair behind, but not even the greatest of apes can quite match the half-dragon, half-dinosaur who first stomped and chomped his way through Tokyo in Ishiro Honda's 1954 Toho Co. Ltd. extravaganza Godzilla. In that picture — even more so than in the sliced-and-diced retelling, featuring Raymond Burr, released in U.S. theaters two years later — our hulking, scaly friend embodies the kind of existential rage most of us never dare to express. Bigger than life, sadder than the sea, he's a being created by man's mistakes: Nuclear radiation has made him what he is, an origin story with an all-too-vivid real-life parallel. And so he stumbles through the city on a mindless bender, thrashing at power lines and crushing tiny houses beneath his mighty clawed toes. Clumsy, unreasonable and disconsolate, he is us on a very bad day.

That first Godzilla, and that first Godzilla, spawned dozens of spin-offs, including an overblown 1998 Roland Emmerich epic; for a time he was ubiquitous and unstoppable. But if he was irritable in 1954 Tokyo, Gareth Edwards' new desecration of his legend should make him want to eat Hollywood for lunch. This latest Godzilla features lots of actors you might really want to see — people like Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins, not to mention Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen and David Strathairn — fumbling around in a story that hits all the wrong beats. To boil the plot down to its essence — a radiation-eating sub-H.R. Giger-type creature arises from the depths of the Earth, and Godzilla may be its only match — makes it sound so much more cogent than it is. The action jumps from the Philippines circa 1999, where a scientist investigating some weird formations in a cave helpfully observes, "This one looks broken, like something came out of it," to Japan around the same time, where some very bizarre things are happening in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor, to the present day, where we might be in Hawaii, San Francisco or anywhere in between at any given time. It's hard to keep track, or to care.

If you're a Breaking Bad fan, and specifically a Bryan Cranston fan, you should know that he appears in the film for approximately twenty minutes, beating out Binoche by about fifteen. Their few brief scenes, particularly Cranston's, make for the best dramatic moments in the movie: Cranston plays one of those dogged, half-unhinged nuclear science dudes who knows something is wrong with the Earth, though no one will listen to him. It's your stock crooked-glasses role, but somehow Cranston makes you feel the sorrow and anxiety thrumming inside his chock-full-of-knowledge cranium. The fact that he has lost his wife in a nuclear accident — she's played with admirable breeziness, rather than nobility, by Binoche — makes his crackpot urgency easy to buy.

But who cares about any of that? Edwards and screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham apparently don't, or at least they believe the audience won't. Mostly, Godzilla trots around at the heels of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a not-bad actor in a thankless role and an even more ungrateful movie, who plays a Naval officer adept at defusing bombs. Because, you know, that might come in handy.

Then again, none of these humans, no matter how gifted or hardworking, stand a chance against the movie's true star, anyway. Edwards earned his stripes as a visual-effects artist, and he's directed one previous feature, the 2010 sci-fi thriller Monsters. To Edward's credit, the G-guy, when we actually get to see him, isn't too shabby: With his tiny, id-brain head and slow-moving, free-thinking tail, he looks prehistoric enough to make you forget, at least briefly, that he was probably created on a $2,000 laptop. He has a great moment when he looms, glamorously and ominously, from behind a row of orange-red lanterns strung up in San Francisco's Chinatown: They tremble in the air, their cheerful serenity disrupted by the vibration of his bad-mood footsteps and even more punishing glare. (It helps that Alexandre Desplat's score bears fossil-footprint echoes of Akira Ifukube's original "Godzilla March," one of the grandest pieces of movie music ever written, and one befitting a 350-foot legend.)

There are two other great moments in Godzilla: One, when the scientist played by Watanabe — a wonderful actor who's as underused here as everyone else is — captivates a roomful of unimaginative military brass with a heartfelt story about the Japanese origins of our nuclear-radiated troublemaker, capping it off with the unbeatable kicker "We call him Gojira!" In the other, Godzilla uses his super-powered radioactive heat-ray breath to fry a something-or-other whose identity the spoiler police forbid us to reveal. You could make a Vine of this moment and charge people $13.50, plus $7.50 for 3D glasses, just to watch it over and over again for two hours. It's that awesome. But it's just one tiny beat in an otherwise way-too-big movie that, weirdly, doesn't give us enough of the one big guy we showed up to see in the first place. Instead, we get massive, elaborate sets — of destroyed cities, of caves, of nuclear-reactor innards — that could be anywhere but look like nowhere. Godzilla is one of those generic, omnipresent blockbusters that's undone by the very spectacle it strives to dazzle us with: Everything is so gargantuan, so momentous, that nothing has any weight. This Godzilla, no matter how cool his fire breath is, can't live up to the monster of our dreams. That one we still call Gojira.