There a few ways to watch the new version of Godzilla (2014, directed by Gareth Edwards). One way is to put it into context with other Godzilla movies. If you choose to watch it with this mindset, you may find yourself slotting the film as an upscale version of the late Shōwa series, in which Godzilla was a superhero/wrestler protecting the Earth from aliens from Planet X and their monstrous pawns. It has something of the feel of Godzilla vs. Megalon or The Terror of Mechagodzilla. If you choose to watch it, instead, from the point of view of a cinephile, then you'll marvel at some of the imagery and cringe at the ham-fistedness of its script. Either way, you'll find yourself negotiating with your sensibilities. This is one of the most frustrating films I've seen in a good long while.
The plot finds Dr. Ishiro Serizawa investigating a find in the Philippines, where a mining consortium has unearthed the massive skeleton of some prehistoric beast. It has unearthed something else, too, but what that something else is isn't immediately clear. Meanwhile, nuclear engineer Joe Brody is juggling family life with his duties at the power plant in Janjira, Japan. His wife, Sandra, leads the maintenance team at the plant and both of them are on hand when a spectacular accident occurs. Sandra's team is caught in a no win situation and doesn't survive. Brody himself is consumed by guilt and rage and decides to get to the bottom of things. Fifteen years pass. Brody's son, Ford, is home from the military where he disarms explosives. He's called to Japan to bail his dad out of jail. Joe has been poking around the quarantine zone again, where the officials have established that the Janjira power plant melted down. The city is a ghost town, but there's something going on at the site of the vanished power plant. Joe and Ford investigate only to be captured by an organization called "Monarch." They're on site to witness what really took out the plant: a gigantic creature called a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). As they are interrogated, the MUTO hatches and takes flight. Joe has evidence that the MUTO is answering some kind of call and it becomes clear that there's another MUTO out there. Dr. Serizawa opines that nature has a balance for the MUTOs. That balance is Godzilla, the apex predator of giant monsters. The other MUTO, meanwhile, hatches in Nevada and the three monsters converge on San Francisco, where Ford Brody's family lives. Ford is enlisted in a project to lure the monsters offshore with nuclear weapons--the MUTO's feed on radiation--and winds up in the thick of things as Godzilla and the MUTOs throw down in the heart of San Francisco...
Let's get this out of the way first, before I air my grievances: the monster fights in this Godzilla are spectacular and even poetic. One memorable scene is almost silent. There's fantastic imagery throughout the film--the HALO jump that figures in the film's trailers is an awesome set piece, and the way the film builds in classic monster movie fashion is disciplined and effective. This is almost classical in the way it reveals its monsters: First we get hints--trails to the sea, spores, fossils, brief glimpses in newsreel footage. Then we get fragmentary views. Finally, we get the full monty during the slugfest at the end of the film. The special effects in this movie are terrific, but that's faint praise in an era when everything has great special effects. Godzilla himself looks like the Godzilla of the Toho films and in some scenes, even seems like a guy in a suit. If all you want out of a Godzilla movie is spectacular monster mayhem, then the film delivers that to you. I won't even argue about that yardstick, because I've been watching Godzilla movies since I was six and I'm occasionally just that un-discriminating. Certainly, watching my partner wring her hands in manic glee as the monsters were moving toward a showdown adds to my enjoyment of this film because it's always fun being next to someone who's into the movie.
Hell, it's even hard for me to fault the film for having paper-thin human characters, because the characters in every Godzilla movie are paper-thin. They're not what the audience is paying to see. If there's a classic mistake of the kaiju genre, it's assuming that the audience is really interested in the human characters and devoting too much of your movie's run time to these characters when you could be wrecking cities. Unfortunately, this is a mistake that this film makes. This is the film's first frustration: unlike the Godzilla films of old, this has the resources to film as much monster mayhem as it wants, but it seems like it skimps.
Having said that, it's inexcusable that the human characters in this film are so utterly shallow given the actors it puts in front of the camera. Bryan Cranston? Juliette Binoche? Sally Hawkins? Ken Watanabe? Elizabeth Olsen? David Strathairn? I'm pretty sure that as he was coming up through the ranks of actors, David Strathairn never imagined himself speaking lines like, "Where is Godzilla now." Still, there is some precedent for this, given the role played by the great Takashi Shimura in the original series. But, Jesus, what a waste of talent. I can only assume that Juliette Binoche just bought a house or something. How else to explain her thankless role here. She's gone from the movie after ten minutes. I wonder how many days she was on set. Certainly, this all could have been solved if there was a leading man in the film to carry the show--lead characters often act as catalysts for their casts. Unfortunately, this film has Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is a sucking void.
Part of the sheer tedium of the human storylines in this movie is that it's yet another Hollywood film that enforces the hegemony of the nuclear family. This is a staid, conservative movie with plotlines we've all seen a hundred times. I wish the film had had the wit to flip the script on its point of view character. Elizabeth Olsen's character is a nurse at the epicenter of a giant monster attack. She would be an ideal point of view character even if you want to keep Ford Brody's narrative. I'm not just saying this because she's a thousand times the actor that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is, either. Mako Mori in Pacific Rim has raised the bar on the role of women in these kinds of movies and it's a bar this film fails to clear. It fridges Sandra Brody, consigns Elle Brody to object of the hero's quest (damseling her), and relegates Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) to supporting a supporting character. Boring. Lazy.
It seems inconceivable to me that filmmakers attempting a new Godzilla movie would want to take anything from the previous American Godzilla. That film is widely derided and despised, after all, regardless of how much money it made in its day. And yet, here we have another Godzilla movie in which some of that older film's plot points resurface. The scene in the egg chamber in this film is an echo of the hatching baby godzillas in the 1998 movies. If I had to pick, I'd even go so far as to say that the set-piece in that film was better than the one in the new movie, though at least this movie has the good sense not to make the eggs godzilla eggs.
I wonder if director Gareth Edwards wouldn't rather be making one of the 1990s-era Gamera movies. Certainly, its conception of Godzilla himself owes more to Gamera than to the beast stalking the original 1954 Gojira or, indeed the monster at the heart of the Heisei series of the 1990s. This film's Godzilla is a friend to all children, apparently, and the MUTOs bear a striking resemblance to Gamera, Guardian of the Universe's version of Gyaos. All that's missing here is a psychic girl, but this film will surely have sequels, so give it time. This all undercuts the idea of Godzilla as the raging id of the atomic age, which is at the heart of the character's appeal. Godzilla even goes out of his way to avoid destroying puny human military equipment, which seems unusually benevolent for a character who even at his most benign has always seemed indifferent to human concerns. At heart, this is a kid's movie, which, given the film's marketing, seems like bait and switch.
There's a hint of another kind of Godzilla film here left unexplored. At the risk of reviewing the film I wanted to see rather than the one I got, I need to back track a bit and relate one of my formative Godzilla experiences. Back in the early 1990s, before the Heisei films started to make it onto home video in the United States, I acquired a bootleg of Godzilla vs. Biolante. It was unsubbed, which was no big thing to me given that, as I say, no one goes to a Godzilla movie for the dialogue. In any event, my friends and I started making up our own dialogue for that film and managed to turn it into a showdown between Lovecraftian elder gods. Cthulhu and his brood are vast entities who are utterly indifferent to human concerns, which seems like it describes Godzilla and Biolante to a "T". The new film has a snippet of dialogue that refers to Godzilla not as an animal, as one character describes him, but "more like a god." There's a path not taken in this throwaway. Possibly to a better movie. Me? I could postulate a Godzilla cult, working at odds against Monarch or whatnot. But, as I say, that's not this movie.
Mind you, I would be lying if I said I didn't have a good time at this movie, because there were times when I felt like I was watching one of Spielberg's early-eighties movies and other times when I was a monster-loving 12-year old watching Destroy All Monsters on late-night television. It's not true that film writers are unable to disconnect their brains and groove on the sound and fury of dumb blockbusters because we can totally do it if the film lets us. This film does just enough right to let me enjoy it for what it is, but in truth, this makes me resent it, too, because what a film like this does by opening that door just a crack is reveal that it's coming up small. And "small" is something that Godzilla should never be.
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