Review: 'Godzilla' Is Just About As Awesome As It Needs to Be

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Success can be a film franchise's worst enemy, and Godzilla is a perfect case in point. The original was as thoughtful and subversive as a movie with a guy in a rubber suit has probably ever been, but as a series, the scaly behemoth's adventures have mostly been equal parts corn and cheese, and attempts to make the character modern and relevant for American audiences have ended in embarrassing failure. (Green Day-Glo pain, thy name is Roland Emmerich -- and the less said about Godzilla 1985, the better.)

The bar has been set fairly low for Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, in other words, and even damning it with faint praise would signify something of an improvement. Don't look for any damning here, though; keeping in mind that the script is nowhere near as strong as it should have been, and that this is still a movie named after a giant monster, this installment in the franchise is as close to a thinking person's blockbuster as we're likely to get in 2014 -- and a rousing good time in the bargain. At one point, the audience at my screening burst into applause. It's that kind of movie.

Edwards made his directorial bones with 2010's Monsters, a highly regarded British indie that viewed the aftermath of an alien invasion through the eyes of ordinary people on the ground. Hamstrung by his low budget, Edwards took a tell-but-don't-show approach, grounding his story in actual drama instead of wallowing in the sort of CGI orgy that type of movie tends to attract. And as you may have heard, he takes a similar approach here -- although Godzilla is certainly epic in scale, and starts showing off its enormous scope pretty much immediately, it doesn't embrace spectacle for spectacle's sake as childishly as most modern action thrillers. It has a human point of view, rather than the one of moronic omniscience we've been conditioned to expect from our crushing disaster epics.

Put another way: Yes, buildings tumble, and yes, you get to see plenty of rock 'em sock 'em action. But you also see the consequences of the situation -- the death, dirt, pain, and numb, uncomprehending terror that's often left out of the picture. Really, for a guy working with his first big budget, Edwards shows a fairly incredible level of restraint here; even once the action gets started, he reveals it by degrees, and often through human-sized filters, making the audience crane through windows and doors or peer into TV screens to see what's going on. Those glimpses do start to feel like a tease at a certain point, but they do serve a purpose -- and during an era in which filmmakers can show us any damn thing they please at any given moment, it's nothing short of satisfying to be left wanting more every once in awhile.

It must be said that this isn't the only area in which the '14 Godzilla leaves us wanting. For a movie that devotes so much attention to its human characters, the script is surprisingly clumsy when it comes to making us care about them; there's an awful lot of thuddingly expository dialogue in here, much of it just as bad as anything you'd expect from your average dunderheaded popcorn flick. Fortunately, Edwards has an outstanding cast to work with: Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olsen all do their level best with what they're given here, and it's largely through their efforts that Godzilla holds together even during its most awkwardly melodramatic moments.

But through it all, it's Edwards who's Godzilla's biggest asset -- not only because he refrains from computer-generated overkill, but because he frames the picture in such a way that you can tell a filmmaker made it, shooting scenes with a sense of humor and a point of view that's all too often absent from this kind of broad-based entertainment. The movie is loaded with intelligently composed shots; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey recently worked on The Avengers, and his spectacle-wrangling experience shows. All in all, this is an uncommonly cinematic blockbuster -- which is awfully sad to say, given that all those millions should be going toward something besides special effects, but there you have it.

It isn't a perfect film. It's an action movie, one that requires a forgiving spirit and all the suspension of disbelief that goes with the territory. But it's also quite a bit of fun, and one of the few obvious would-be franchise starters that actually gives the audience a reason to hope for something even better the second time around. In 2014, that's almost as unbelievable as a giant radiation-powered lizard slumbering at the bottom of the ocean.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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