Director Gareth Edwards puts horrible beasts in the background of shots throughout "Godzilla." Director Gareth Edwards puts horrible beasts in the background of shots throughout "Godzilla."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

'Godzilla'
Director: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

These are times when we prefer our cultural junk dark and realistic — even Leprechaun, in a forthcoming reboot. But it makes sense for Godzilla. The original 1954 film is brutal and brooding, not campy and loopy like the films it wrought. Despite being very serious, the new one doesn’t have the drive of the first, which exorcised the demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from only nine years before. It’s not even terribly original: Cities being destroyed on screens every other week (this one mucks up San Francisco and others) while portraying giant, rampaging monsters realistically, from the point of view of puny, often smashed humans has been in since “Cloverfield.”

But if there’s no burning reason it need exist, beyond the age-old anxiety over nature striking back, this “Godzilla” at least has craft. It’s sometimes disarming how calm and sophisticated it is at doing something ambitious and atypical. It’s an origin story, of a kind, following the paths of a pair of winged behemoths, dubbed MUTOs, as well as the title mega-reptile himself, who decide to use the planet’s urban pockets as their battlegrounds. (If they were nice, they’d do it in a desert.) It’s very respectful of what it portrays, dwelling on very real displacement and terror. It’s the opposite, in other words, of “Man of Steel,” where both villain and hero seemed blithe about all the buildings they messed up.

 

Its focus is tight, even narrow, and sometimes to a fault. It doesn’t have the broad stereotyped characters of most disaster movies, including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 goof on the same material. In fact, its characters aren’t particularly interesting, save Bryan Cranston’s traumatized, frenzied scientist, driven by the death of his wife (Juliette Binoche) to investigate the possibility of giant behemoths lurking under the surface, ready to break free. Otherwise the people are barely even types: the soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his wife (Elizabeth Olsen), the military honcho (David Strathairn), two other scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins). The overqualified cast doesn’t really have time to fill them out as people. But it doesn't waste them; they bring gravitas to standing around staring, jaws hopelessly slack.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen have little to but be terrified and want to reunite in "Godzilla." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen have little to do but be terrified and want to reunite in "Godzilla."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The storytelling is muddled, but intentionally: No one’s sure what these monsters want, and Godzilla can be both villain and savior, laying waste to humans one sequence then sparing them the next. He’s not, as feared, an emo giant reptile. He's nature red in tooth and claw personified, unknowable and imposing. The film follows suit. Despite following people, it's detached, more primal than personable, more animal than human.

The lack of meaty drama — everyone’s primary concern is survival and reuniting with their families — gives it a certain detachment. It also, on a more base level, would presumably leave plenty of room for monster smackdowns. But director Gareth Edwards delights in playing coy, hiding his monsters for the first half and keeping the cameras at a remove and on the ground (or, most terrifyingly, in an el train). He actually goes too far: The first time he cuts out on a punch-out between Godzilla and one of the MUTOs just as it begins, it’s a familiar but effective move. The second time, it’s infuriating.

Edwards still fares worlds better than he did with his debut, “Monsters,” an indie creature feature — Edwards, originally an F/X guy, designed all the aliens himself on his computer — where the balance between nifty sights and depressingly cliched romance was lopsided almost all the way towards the latter. He knows to deliver the goods this time, and he kills with a handful of carefully executed set pieces,where he uses the dark, muddled palette — usually at night, sometimes in the rain — to heighten tension, milking scares out of what we can’t see clearly.

It’s probably a crime that Edwards ditches the ground level shooting shtick for one monster tussle, though it helps that it features a piece of hurtin’ that is likely something you always wanted to see but never knew it — a moment that singlehandedly shows up “Pacific Rim” as the visually incoherent, failed volley for badassery it was. Sometimes “Godzilla” is easier to admire than it is to enjoy, but on the occasions it goes into full-on entertainment mode, it’s nearly as awesome (that is, causing awe, not cool) as Godzilla himself.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge