It’s not until nearly the end of Godzilla, the Gareth Edwards-directed update of the classic Toho monster franchise, that one of the giant creatures that’s been unleashed on the planet pays direct attention to one of the human characters. It’s a hair-raising moment, the kaiju equivalent of that scene in Rear Window where the neighbor Jimmy Stewart’s been peeping on suddenly looks back at him. But until that point, for all the destruction they’ve unleashed and all the delicious nuclear power they’ve sought to consume, the monsters have seemed largely indifferent to the individual people scrambling like ants to get out of their way. And it’s hard to blame them, because in Godzilla, mankind feels like a grudging distraction from all the awesome large scale action going on.
Godzilla’s monsters are terrific — lumbering and massive with a sense of incredible heft to them, despite being CGI creations. And the movie understands that the tease is part of the pleasure. So when the antagonists, vaguely insectile creations called Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), then Godzilla itself, first appear, they do so in pieces — limbs emerging from underground, spines like a mini-mountain range arising from the ocean. Godzilla’s creatures feel huge, because the film provides constant reminders of their scale, of how flimsy things like buildings and bridges are when in their path. The screenplay, co-written by Max Borenstein (of the upcoming Seventh Son) and Dave Callaham, also deliberately sets the monsters on a path that has little to do with humanity except in the sense that it needs to get out of their way. People have rarely felt so unnecessary in a film that spends an unfortunate amount of time on them.
Disaster movies need characters to invest in — otherwise the disaster has no impact. But Godzilla feels particularly halfhearted about the people it’s using as narrative scaffolding. The film’s got a great and notably hip cast — Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn — who feel like they’ve been placed on screen only to provide different points of view on the monsters.
As protagonist and bomb disposal technician Ford, Taylor-Johnson jumps through a series of increasingly improbable plot hoops to stay in the path of the creatures, while his wife Elle (Olsen) ends up on the ground during a battle mainly so that she can make a Spielberg–style face of awe and terror, and their son is shamelessly placed in danger in a way that makes little sense when giant monsters are things you can see coming from miles away. Strathairn plays a stock military blowhard while Hawkins and Watanabe deliver exposition and look unhappy.
When it comes to action, Godzilla’s startlingly well-directed. A set piece in the mountains is unnerving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly beautiful, and another involving soldiers making HALO jumps into the city in which the monsters are battling is staged as a moment of haunting grace. When its creatures are on screen, Godzilla makes an irrefutable case for the power of the big screen and spectacle, and for Edwards as a talent who should be overseeing more movies like this.
But when it comes to the human drama, Godzilla joins last year’s World War Z in feeling like its characters simply don’t scale against the epic destruction being chronicled. There’s just not enough to them to hold the screen alongside the film’s monsters, and they feel unnaturally threaded through the larger action. The nuclear family trying to reunite may be a classic trope of the genre, but these films suggest it’s time to move past using one with the assumption that audiences will be invested.
The Max Brooks novel on which World War Z is based didn’t have a main character — it presented a history of its zombie outbreak from different perspectives around the globe. In constricting its point of view to that of Brad Pitt’s character Gerry Lane and his wife, World War Z didn’t successfully become a story about them, it simply underscored its own awkward coincidences (or indirectly suggested that Gerry was somehow responsible for the apocalypse, since things went to hell in each new location as soon as he arrived). And Godzilla suffers from some of the same problems with the character of Ford, who’s just a convenient witness to much of the monster action until the movie approaches its climax.
The struggle with these movies isn’t that audiences don’t care about people, it’s that the focus is the epic disaster, not the characters. The characters are just a way through, and this makes the amount of time spent on them frustrating. Ford may be the protagonist of this film, but the hero? No. The hero is Godzilla.