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It's not easy to start off a new cinematic universe. The first installment must be an undeniable success on almost all fronts for the franchise to take off. From interesting world-building to delivering a good first film, it's a brutally challenging task for any director and writer to take on. Godzilla has been around forever, but Warner Bros. And Legendary Entertainment bravely brought on an inexperienced filmmaker, Gareth Edwards (Monsters), and a debutant screenwriter, Max Borenstein, to handle yet another version of the Godzilla story. Expectations-wise, I know that audiences look at this type of movie from an action-heavy perspective. A massive majority of the viewers just want to see monsters fighting, which is understandable.
I enjoy a big battle as much as any other moviegoer, but I do desire a remotely decent story. When it comes to this particular genre, I don't ask for an Oscar-worthy screenplay that leaves me floored by the end of the film. I don't need incredibly complex, multi-layered characters with exquisite motivations. I don't even mind heavy exposition as long as it's not overdone and sluggish. With that said, I also don't want the most annoying, cliche archetypes nor nonsensical plot points. I genuinely hate myself when I get too nitpicky with "movie logic" issues, but when the characters make the most ridiculously absurd decisions that no sane human being would make, then the film is really asking for a negative commentary.
Borenstein - who goes on to co-write two of the following three installments in the MonsterVerse - gets close to a perfectly balanced narrative, which in this genre is related to the amount of screentime allocated to humans and monsters. This movie can't just be Godzilla fighting a random monster since the visually appealing, constant battles would lose impact with time (besides the lack of a story), but it also can't waste all of its duration with the human characters - after all, the film is titled Godzilla, not The Brody Family. Audiences all over the world enter their respective theaters to be blown away by the action, visuals, score, and be thoroughly entertained by titans punching each other to death.
Several characters carry surprisingly compelling arcs, especially Ford and Joe Brody. The father-son relationship between Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kickass) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Argo) feels authentic, with both having a common unsolved problem from their past that links to the King of the Monsters. The emotional attachment to this family elevates the dangerous sequences that the movie holds throughout its runtime. Cranston offers an undeniable commitment to his role, while Taylor-Johnson demonstrates some of the talent that would later be discovered by Marvel. Ken Watanabe (Inception, Batman Begins) is a fantastic addition to the cast as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, a scientist who fortunately doesn't follow the formulaic development usually thrown at this type of character. Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy, Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy-Go-Lucky) also get a bit of screentime, but they're basically just "people close to the important characters".
Gareth Edwards admittedly loves the Godzilla lore, but any viewer can tell the great care that both Edwards and Borenstein have with their characters. More screentime is handed to humanity than to the monsters, which will undoubtedly disappoint many fans. While I do feel invested in the protagonists, too much time is spent with the military, where countless exposition scenes drag the overall narrative. The suspenseful build-up to the climactic third act is efficient, but the action is frustratingly hidden from the viewers. Most of the titanic battles are seen through the windows of a car, train, building, or even TVs. The main problem with the film isn't spending time with humans when the monsters aren't fighting but choosing to remain with these characters even when Godzilla and co. Enter the scene.
Titans are fighting right behind the camera, and they keep the audience either entirely in the dark or just partially show a section of the battle. Most of the shots are ground-level, usually showing the POV of a certain character. While that brings a higher sense of danger and desperation to the screen, it also generates a frustrating feeling in the audience who's not seeing Godzilla fighting in its full splendor. I understand that part of this decision might be related to some less polished VFX, and in all honesty, despite the rare wide shots of the monsters, the action is definitely entertaining and quite riveting. Alexandre Desplat's score is vibrant, and the actual monsters look gorgeous in the purposefully dark environment (helps to hide visual imperfections), especially Godzilla.
Godzilla focuses more on the human characters than on the monster fights, and despite the narrative balance needing some adjustments, it surprisingly works quite well. As the first installment in the MonsterVerse, Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein deliver an incredibly compelling story on the human side, fully developing the main characters and handing them interesting arcs. Most of the runtime is spent with these protagonists, which will undoubtedly disappoint some fans who crave the titanic battles, but the suspenseful build-up works in favor of the climactic third act. However, choosing to remain with the humans when the monsters are already fighting in the background is a questionable decision that leaves an extremely frustrating feeling in the audience. Cast, visuals, and score seem to hit the right notes, but the actual combat is rarely seen in its full glory - most of it is shown through a ground-level character's perspective - partially due to the necessity of hiding some VFX imperfections. Still, it's an utterly enjoyable monster flick that sets up a pretty entertaining cinematic universe.