“Monster’s Ball”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
Directed by Gareth Edwards

Well, at least that’s a little more like it. Sixteen years after director Roland Emmerich’s botched attempt to bring “Godzilla” up to speed as a big budget Hollywood blockbuster crashed and burned, director Gareth Edwards steps up to the plate with his take on the King of the Monsters that gets some of it right, yet still some of it wrong. The result is kind of a wash, but it’s still worth seeing, if only for the spectacle of it all.

Where the 1998 version was critically and commercially maligned for being too campy, the latest reboot overcompensates in the other direction by taking itself far too seriously – a tone that can yield unintentional laughter in itself. Not that mass carnage should be taken lightly, but when that kind of destruction is caused by gigantic monsters knocking over San Francisco skyscrapers with the greatest of ease, the film could have used a little playful humor to balance out the tone.

But like the classic “Godzilla” movies of yore, the 355-foot-tall lizard featured here is the good guy, not the threat. That makes it a throwback to the zillion Toho Studios sequels that followed the 1954 original, which featured Godzilla versus other giant monsters, a mechanized version of himself and even King Kong. They were all about the extended fights, which allowed Godzilla to develop a cheesy “personality” of sorts. And of course, there was the kitsch factor in watching actors in rubber suits smack each other around until the fake buildings around them were flattened like a pancake.

Not that watching similarly staged fights with today’s computer-generated special effects isn’t exciting; in fact, it is, but we see far too little of Godzilla and too much of the other two giant predators he’s out to destroy before they lay waste to the planet. Edwards should be commended for keeping Godzilla’s appearance hidden in an effort to increase the tension – like the shark in “Jaws,” or the monster in “Cloverfield” – but the end result is that we just don’t see enough of the big lug. Unlike those other creatures, Godzilla is a well-known character, so let’s cut to the chase already. At least the monster’s iconic roar has been kept intact, as that’s one trademark that should not be messed with.

The rest of the film’s 2 hour and 3 minute running time is filled with stock characters and cliché-ridden motives that add little to the story. Emmy winner Bryan Cranston lays it on way too thick as Joe Brody, a physicist who becomes obsessed after a Fukushima-style nuclear meltdown awakens the sleeping giant and causes the death of his wife (Juliette Binoche). Brody is estranged from his Navy soldier son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), while Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife, a nurse who spends most of her time ducking for cover, and Ken Watanabe plays Ichiro, a Japanese scientist who spends most of his time looking, well, scared.

The action scenes and special effects are as impressive as any spectacle with a $160 million budget should be, but they’re executed without any sense of wonder or emotion. There’s just no feeling behind it, leading to malaise, battle fatigue and long stretches of boredom, only to be saved by a rousing final showdown that’s way too short and only hints at the better movie that this could have been.

So the great “Godzilla” movie has yet to be made, but at least this is a step in the right direction. It works as a cautionary tale for the atomic age that depicts the giant lizard as a savior, but here’s hoping that the next time around will be a lot more like it.

-Scott Mantz