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It’s always interesting to see how a director will fare when transitioning from a miniscule independent film to a big budget studio blockbuster. One hopes that the director will bring his or her independent background into the blockbuster and focus on characters and story rather than effects and explosions. Following his terrific low budget 2010 film, “Monsters,” director Gareth Edwards attempts to do just that with the American reboot, “Godzilla,” but it’s a give and take. The focus is indeed the characters and story, but those things are, unfortunately, not very interesting. In a way, it’s like last summer’s “Pacific Rim.” It’s slim on characterization, but it gets by on its fun and impressive action scenes. It’s not the epic movie one might expect from the outstanding trailers, but as a summer tent-pole release, “Godzilla” is entertaining enough.

The movie begins in in the late 90s and follows Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist and engineer at a Japanese nuclear plant. One day, some seismic activity rattles the foundation of the plant, which ends up killing Joe’s wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Flash forward 15 years and Joe has become obsessed with the event, swearing that the tremors they felt were not natural, but rather from some type of creature that has been lying dormant for many years. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now all grown up and in the Navy, thinks he’s crazy, but, as is typical with these types of movies, it turns out he’s not and the next thing they know, a creature, dubbed a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), unearths and starts wreaking havoc on the country’s citizens.

Don’t be fooled by the above synopsis and the misleading trailers. While “Godzilla” clearly hopes to ride the popularity of Cranston at the height of his career after a successful stint on “Breaking Bad,” early movie events turn the focus on Ford and Aaron Taylor-Johnson simply isn’t able to carry it to its conclusion. While Cranston’s character is a bit of a cliché in regards to monster movie archetypes, being the seemingly crazy one who is the only one who actually knows the truth, his motivations are nevertheless noble. It’s the love for his wife that drives him to do what he does, which could have worked as the heart and meaning behind the film. Unfortunately, his character becomes nothing more than a catalyst to thrust Johnson to the forefront.

Though it might come as a surprise for those expecting a bombastic monster movie, “Godzilla” chooses to focus on its human characters. Much like “Monsters,” Edwards tries to create a human story out of its creature feature origins, but unlike “Monsters,” the characters, story and themes simply aren’t established well enough to be very interesting. Take, for instance, Ford’s family in San Francisco, a young boy and a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen brings her natural beauty and talent to the proceedings, but her role is minimal and underdeveloped. The connection the two have is thin, so when Ford is in danger, nothing is felt. He could be eaten whole or ripped in half and the tragedy would be lost on the majority of viewers who have rightfully invested nothing into what’s going on.

What it all boils down to is that Edwards, with a bigger budget and expanded scope, simply doesn’t seem comfortable and is unable to find a rhythm, instead relying on overdramatic character introductions, cheesy motivational speeches and on-the-nose foreshadowing to move his story along (“It’s not the end of the world,” one characters says moments before the potential end-of-the-world event begins). Luckily for the viewers he would lose otherwise, he doesn’t waste much time getting to the action. Sure, it’s so quick that when Joe’s wife inevitably bites the dust, it doesn’t really resonate, but it remains exciting and Godzilla’s introduction is enough to put a big, stupid smile on anyone’s face. It even manages to throw in a few references to both Godzilla movies past and other popular monster movies, including an opening reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, “Alien.”

If you’re looking for something with more depth than your typical monster movie, “Godzilla” won’t do much for you, but if that’s the case, why are you watching “Godzilla” anyway? Despite some narrative stumbles and a central character that is impossible to care about, the movie delivers exactly what fans want: monster battles and rampant destruction. It’s a good jumping off point for future installments as well. Past movies, including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 reboot, were a bit silly, but this new film sets a darker foundation, one that could lead to rich drama in more confident hands. As it stands, however, “Godzilla” is unlikely to garner too high of praise, but it’s an entertaining summer movie nonetheless.

Godzilla receives 3/5



Monsters is an extraordinary accomplishment for one reason. It showcases effects that would be astonishing in a multi-million dollar budgeted film, but does it with much less, hovering somewhere around the $100,000 range, well above the reported $15,000 (a number debunked by a recent interview I participated in with the director of the film, Gareth Edwards). But regardless of its cost, Monsters is a tremendous cinematic achievement, at least on a technical level.

Years ago, NASA sent a probe into space to study what they thought may be alien life. Upon reentry, it broke apart and scattered over Mexico. Soon after, new forms of life began to appear. The creatures, seemingly hostile to humans, were quarantined off in what was dubbed “The Infected Zone,” which is roughly half the country. Photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is one of the unlucky few in the area. He has been sent there to escort his boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) back to America, but after some chance occurrences strip them of their ticket home, they are forced to trek their way through “The Infected Zone” where the creatures dwell.

While that synopsis (and its ominous title) may make Monsters sound like a horror movie, it’s not. Like the best George Romero films, Monsters isn’t about the creatures. They merely exist as an outside factor in a story that is largely centered around humans. This is a tale of survival and connection. In fact, it’s more a love story than anything else and you’ll watch intently as Andrew and Samantha grow closer and closer throughout their journey. The bond they form as they wander through a ruined land covered with corpses, both human and otherwise, is touching to watch.

But despite all this talk of monsters, very few actually exist within the film, at least visually. This works much in the same way as Jaws, in that it keeps the monsters hidden as much as possible. It builds the mystery and suspense with only brief glimpses before completely unveiling them towards the climax. However, it works differently here. The feeling of awe and fright you’ll feel initially will be overcome by another emotion, one I hesitate to mention for fear of ruining anything. It’s this smart reversal of the expected that makes Monsters so fresh.

In fact, the most powerful moments in the movie don’t include the monsters at all. It’s the quiet moments that hit the hardest, like a scene over halfway through where the two protagonists, after going through some horrific experiences, climb an old Aztec structure and peer across the landscape where they can see the American border. Emotionally, Monsters works on every level and much of that credit is due to the two leads, who are quite convincing in their roles. While not exactly newcomers (both have had experience in other movies and television shows), they work well together and show considerable talent and chemistry together.

If it must be boiled down to one thing, Monsters is about the struggle of living. That struggle means dealing and coping with things beyond your control. This ideology exists with all living things and, filmically, does not limit itself only to the human characters. As Andrew and Samantha roam the wasteland on their way back to America, they learn new things about themselves as well as the creatures oozing around them. You’ll learn right along with them and by the end, you may be asking yourself who the true monsters really are.

Monsters receives 4/5