I've been afraid of the ocean since I was little. Not the water, mind you, but the ocean in particular. I remember exactly when it started. I was on vacation, a cruise, with my family, and we were sitting down for dinner. We were in the corner of the austere dining room, and as I took my seat I got a great view out the window. The moon was full over the water, and it painted a cone of ghostly light along the surface.
I imagined a giant, monstrous head rising up out of the waves, spotlighted in that soft white glow. I imagined, as any kid might, its red eyes, its teeth, and the enormous body hidden under the water. The ocean is so big, and so dark. Anything could be down there, I realized.
That the recent reboot, to use that crass term, of cinematic icon Godzilla manages to capture this feeling is its greatest strength, and the reason it straddles that intangible line between good and great.
It's all about tone, I think. The experience of living through an encounter with a being of that size, any being, would be one of fleeting glimpses, overwhelming dread, deep, bass-filled sounds echoing for miles like the horns of the apocalypse... or something. There's been a lot of criticism of the film's treatment of the eponymous monster, that the film needs more of him, earlier, but I think that ignores what makes a monster work. The comparison has been made already by smarter, more original reviewers than I, but it's not too far off to put this film's structure alongside the classic "Jaws." Once you really show me what I've come to see, the magic is gone. So long as there is a satisfying payoff, and, holy shit, does the payoff in this flick satisfy. To quote our newest Batman, "Look at the smile on my fucking face. Ear to ear, baby!"
The actual, real-live human actors have been through the ringer a bit too, and while those criticisms are more fair, I think it was somewhat inevitable. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has the most work to do, and sure, he's a bit white-bread, but his journey gives the film solid shape, and you care enough about him from the rushed, cliched development that you get. The alternative would have been to spend even more time away from the action, which would have added thirty minutes to an already long film. Ken Watanabe also puts on a look of awe long enough to earn a paycheck. And obviously Brian Cranston is awesome every limited second he's on screen. Everyone else might as well have been cardboard cutouts. But, again, all of that's fine. Even though we slow play the Godzilla reveal, there's plenty of tension, and action, to keep the story going, and we get enough from the characters to give the story juice.
I loved "Pacific Rim." But it was a cartoon. The action was over-the-top and crazy, but there was no tension. No fear. No dread. It wasn't a disaster-movie, which is what this is, and what it always should be. In that light, this movie is a skyscraper-toppling success.
Full disclosure: I loved Godzilla as a kid. In the year leading up to the 1998 crap-factory of a remake, I watched every Japanese film they had at the local Blockbuster. I bought books about the movies I couldn't see, the newer, sleeker ones that hadn't made their way over here. I played video games. So I admit that I wanted to love this movie. Take it for what it's worth.