1. The go-to example for critics complaining about big-budget summer blockbusters today—and how they've devolved from some past, theoretical peak—is Steven Spielberg's Jaws. One of that 1975 film's many genius innovations was to hold off, as long as possible, on ever letting us see the shark. The movie took its time, went through its paces, measured itself, set us up, and then, when the time was exactly right: Holy shit, here's a huge fucking killer shark.
Spielberg has claimed in interviews that he only agreed to do the movie if he didn't have to show the shark until the film's second hour, and it's the reason Jaws works. You get to know Brody, and Capt. Quint, and Hooper, and the city of Amity, and just when you're starting to care about them, here's the shark, and it is on. The takeaway is clear: You have to earn your terrifying scenes of destruction.
2. I've seen Jaws brought up in reference to Gareth Edwards' new American reboot of Godzilla quite a bit, in large part because Edwards, like Spielberg, takes his sweet time getting to the big green guy. (You've got about an hour before you see him here too.) Again, in theory, this isn't a bad strategy... but you do have to give us something to do in that hour. Jaws is full of great scenes without the shark, most famously Quint's speech about the USS Indianapolis. The problem here isn't that Edwards is too stingy with Godzilla himself; that's a good instinct, and not the worst creative decision. The problem is that every time a human being talks—and they all talk a lot—the movie comes to a screeching halt. Every human character is excruciatingly dull, totally nonsensical, or both. Edwards wants you to have steak along with the sizzle. But his steak is rotten.
3. The film does a good job honoring the original Godzilla concept without getting too bogged down in it. The result of secret nuclear testing—I think he's some sort of creature of the deep we awakened—he arrives along with two insect-type creatures that look less like Mothra and more like that friendly monster from J.J. Abrams' dopey Super 8. The foregrounded story that keeps getting in the way involves a soldier named Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who as a kid lost his mother back when Godzilla made his last appearance from the depths.
Ford's story is a total nothingburger—he wants to be a good dad, I think?—and by the time the movie finally gets going, all the boring time we've invested in him and his family (wife Elizabeth Olsen and father Bryan Cranston, both doing their absolute best with zilcho to work with) is just shoved aside. Ford's job is basically just to pop up wherever the action is so we have a sense of scale as the monsters fight and destroy San Francisco. He's just another body to get stomped on, which makes you wonder why Edwards went through all that trouble in the first place.
4. But what a sense of scale it is. Edwards' last film, 2010's Monsters, was similarly terrific at that sense of awe, the sheer massiveness of those creatures. (It was similarly lousy at creating compelling personalities, too.) Say what you will about the guy, but he knows how to destroy a city; he was born to show Godzilla reaping destruction. He's especially skilled at taking that image that you have in your head when you think of Godzilla—a guy in a lizard suit stomping on buildings—and breathing life into it, making it both real and fulfilling of all you expect from it in a pop-culture sense. The fight scenes between Godzilla and the insect creatures are lumbering yet electric; they're obligatory, yet somehow they feel inspired. You see why he got this gig.
5. If only we didn't keep panning back to the humans running along the ground, looking scared, scampering one way or another, not accomplishing anything other than distracting us from the radioactive monsters laying waste to the Transamerica Pyramid. (This film must set the world record for "people staring at a spot just above and to the left of the camera and going slack-jawed" shots. Ken Watanabe is particularly adept at these.) This is the best "Americanized" Godzilla movie ever made, but that's a low hurdle to clear, to say the least. I admire that Edwards wanted to slow his movie down, make us earn our glimpses of Godzilla. I just wish he would have given us something to do while we were waiting.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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