Special Effects: B+
Two decades ago, Jurassic Park (1993) set the bar for modern monster movies. In it, Spielberg utilized the same strategy he used so effectively in Jaws nearly two decades earlier, opting not to show the monsters until nearly halfway through the movie. This was a happy accident that turned Jaws into the most successful movie in history in its time; it was a deliberate strategy that turned Jurassic Park into the most successful movie in history in its time. This new Godzilla transparently employs the same strategy, with one key difference: the first half of the movie, in which we see no monsters, is boring as hell.
It's been widely reported that this new Godzilla is markedly better than Roland Emmerich's 1998 steaming pile of shit, but I would disagree. It's marginally better, at best. It's like saying cardboard is better than poop. Of course it is, but that doesn't exactly give the cardboard any flavor.
When Spielberg directed the sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World (1997), he ended the film with a giddy fun sequence featuring a T-Rex terrorizing San Diego, with overt cinematic references to Godzilla. That one sequence is more fun than either of the Godzilla movies released in the past twenty years.
Spielberg knew how to make movies like this. Even as he built the tension and refused to show us the monsters for far longer than we really wanted, the script was smart (for a blockbuster movie, at least); the dialogue was snappy and infused with tension-cutting humor; and the characters themselves were fun.
The thing is, Gareth Edwards is actually an excellent choice to direct a movie like this, which any of the five or six people who saw his last film, the criminally under-watched Monsters (2010), already knows. This is a guy who knows how to make visual effects serve the purpose of a story, and how to render giant monsters with a creepy mystery. The DNA of Monsters can be found sprinkled throughout Godzilla, particularly in the very effective choice of shooting them all from a near-ground, human-level perspective. Many shots smartly avoid showing the creatures in their entirety, and only show what might be seen from any one person: the giant foot of an alien-moth-like creature crashing into the ground, for instance.
Of course, to call Godzilla derivative would be pointless, because that's the overt intent: this is a reboot of a remake of a reboot of many sequels. Or something like that. There still could have been more originality in the telling, and one wonders how much of this film is the result of studio notes rather than of a proven visionary director.
It wouldn't be so bad having to wait halfway through the film for some badass monster fighting if we had one reason to care about even one of the human characters. This so-called "build-up" is completely undercut by how oddly static and lifeless the story is. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is obsessed with an apparent Japanese cover-up of a nuclear disaster that killed his wife (Juliette Binoche) fifteen years ago; he's still trespassing in the quarantine zone so his soldier son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, beyond forgettable) has to fly there from his home in San Francisco to bail him out of jail, leaving his wife (Elizabeth Olsen, given nothing to do but look worried) and son behind. Nobody cares!
And then things get truly ridiculous, even by modern blockbuster/disaster movie standards. We're talking 2012 territory here (the difference being that 2012 was winking at the audience with its ridiculousness, which made it more fun). These prehistoric moth-like creatures that have lain dormant for millions of years are somehow awakened; they are intent on mating and thus reproducing, and presumably destroying the world. But that's not all! There's this other creature -- Gojira -- that they tried to destroy with nuclear weapons in the fifties (ha!) and discovered they only make it stronger. They call him an "alpha predator," and he's on the hunt for these other creatures. Apparently Godzilla has been staying at the ocean floors for the past sixty years, feeding on the radiation from the center of the plant.
Spoiler alert! Unlike in 1998, in this movie Godzilla is the hero. He still obliviously smashing everything in sight, but he's humanity's only hope for getting rid of the other "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms," always referred to as "MUTOs" (seriously). No one wants Godzilla to die, not even after he rips through the center of the Golden Gate Bridge. Jesus Christ, enough with the Golden Gate Bridge! It's nice to see the likes of Las Vegas and San Francisco getting destroyed instead of New York for once, but then they just go to the second-most overdone disaster-movie landmark.
At least once the action gets going, Godzilla is a genuine thrill ride. (I would certainly not bother with the premium price for 3D tickets, though, not for a movie of this quality.) Michael Bay, who never shoots action sequences with any coherence whatsoever, could take some lessons from this Gareth Edwards guy. He has a gift for visual language, which is the one thing that sets this movie apart. You'll see some stuff you won't see anywhere else, like, say, nuclear warhead-eating dino-moths engaged in a mating ritual. That's the kind of bizarro stuff this movie could have used more of.
It certainly didn't need all the truly dull, one-dimensional characters. In Matt Reeves's far superior Cloverfield, the characters were every one of them annoyingly vapid, but at least that meant it was fun to watch them get crushed or eaten. The characters in Godzilla give no reason to care about them either way. Using the special effects sparingly and only offering glimpses of the monsters at first is smart in theory, but it only works if the movie you've got going on up to that point is actually interesting. As it is, if you're a Godzilla fan and want an action-packed thrill ride with no regard to how good or plausible the story is, well, even your best bet is to buy a ticket and then wait about an hour after showtime before bothering to enter the theatre.