Having kind of immersed myself in daikaiju film over the past year, I’m afraid I’m gonna be that guy.
Don’t get me wrong. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an impressive achievement in large-scale disaster movie-making. The shots are unanimously gorgeous, with some even slipping over into breathtaking. The CGI is utilized perfectly to capture some of the most impressive city-wide destruction we’ve seen on screen in ages — maybe ever.
All the reviewers that say the human element here is boring and poorly done, but the monsters and monster fights are amazing are talking out of their collective asses. As a Godzilla movie, this is a great disaster flic. This is a Godzilla film for people who have either never seen a Godzilla movie before, or have only seen the original and/or maybe Godzilla 1985 — or Godzilla 2000 at a stretch. But both of those films had more sci-fi and while they embraced the darker themes of the original Gojira, as this one does, they still had respect for the monsters.
There is nothing in this film that hearkens to anything from the Shōwa series, and its story only barely compares to the best of the more “serious” Heisei series. Even the oft-derided (by others, not by Psycho-Drive-In) Millennium series had better stories in practically every single film.
Edwards’ Godzilla has been likened to Jaws in its build-up of the final Godzilla battle with the horny MUTOs (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism – which is kind of a dumb name as they’re not unknown and only one is terrestrial), where we are teased with appearances of Godzilla and its battles with the MUTOs throughout the film, building tension and anxiety until the big final fight.
That’s being generous.
Edwards doesn’t seem to understand the appeal of Godzilla movies, instead applying a very emotionless, intellectualized approach to the monsters, more suited for his previous film than for a Godzilla movie. It’s artistic and beautifully shot, but there are three daikaiju battles in the film and we only see (most of) one of them.
The first cuts away immediately after Godzilla and the first MUTO scream at each other, after which we see a few short scenes on a small TV screen during a news broadcast. The second battle cuts to black immediately after Godzilla and the MUTO tackle each other, coming back to the aftermath of a city in shambles. Then we are teased with more news footage.
In any respectable Godzilla movie in over SIXTY YEARS OF GODZILLA MOVIES we would see these fights. We would get a sense of the personality (if any) of the creatures. We would get a sense of the scale of damage they can do. Hell, we would see what happened and why the fight didn’t end with one of the kaiju dead. We would get a feeling for Godzilla as King of the Monsters (as the news starts calling him before the final credits roll) and we might be given the chance to build empathy for Godzilla and see him as the hero the film makes him out to be when all’s said and done.
This really galls me because the short bits we get on the news footage looks amazing. Cutting them from the actual picture is like watching a porno that cuts from the pizza delivery guy arriving to the couple smoking cigarettes afterward.
Then the final battle between Godzilla and the two MUTOs together is shrouded in night and smoke (despite what other reviewers will tell you as they deride Pacific Rim in the same sentence), edited together in short violent shots that are interspersed amongst longer, lingering scenes of the army doing their thing and the survivors trying to survive underground. There’s an awesome battle going on, but we don’t see much of it. In fact, there are exactly two — TWO — moments in the final battle that make you want to cheer for Godzilla; and they’re both kill moves.
Everything else up to that is a lot of uninspired wrestling and biting that does very little damage to any party (despite billions of dollars in property damage) and completely fails to make the MUTOs credible threats (to Godzilla). Although I suppose the two or three sudden appearances of Godzilla’s atomic fire breath are cool moments, despite the fact that the first use is entirely useless and underwhelming.
So, while the CGI is very impressive and the destruction of cities is done with verve and enthusiasm, we rarely get to see what’s actually going on. Which, for a Godzilla movie, is an epic fail.
Although it’s not quite the epic fail that is Bryan Cranston‘s wig.
There’s some consternation about the pacing of the first half of the film and the absence of daikaiju, but that’s smoke and mirrors. Despite the unfortunate creature that died and ended up glued to Cranston’s head, his performance is solid throughout, particularly in any scene he shares with Juliette Binoche. Unfortunately most of those scenes are in the trailers. I found the opening twenty minutes of the movie to be extremely effective film making. Cranston’s obsessive lunatic performance over the next section of the film is exactly what the movie needed and he provides a lot of manic energy for the time that he’s actually in the film.
Which, despite what the trailers tell you, is not very much time at all.
The majority of the film’s emotional weight ends up being carried by the tag-team duo of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, only here they’re married with a kid who looks like neither of them. Elizabeth Olsen gets the short end of the stick, relegated to a few scenes of anxious desperation and haphazard mothering before she becomes just one of the crowd running from the daikaiju battle in San Francisco.
In a dramatic swing and a miss, Olsen hands off the protection of her child to someone else we’ve only briefly met, so that we can see her then run and hide without any sense that she’s anyone other than another generic face in the crowd. Her son gets a little more screen time as the bus he’s loaded on (along with a generic mass of other rowdy children) races to cross the Golden Gate Bridge before Godzilla tears it down. It’s wildly out-of-place tonally with the rest of the film, and one of the most satisfying, put-a-smile-on-your-face moments in the film.
The heavy dramatic lifting is put on Kick-Ass’ now kaiju-sized shoulders. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has pumped up so much that it’s hard to believe he was the skinny kid putting on a superhero costume and getting his ass violently handed to him just four years ago. His Ford Brody (like Jaws, get it?) is a dedicated soldier and slightly less-dedicated husband and father who decides the bigger picture of saving the world from the MUTOs and Godzilla is more important than getting his family to safety. It’s an interesting emotional choice that should play more impressively than it does.
There’s a real issue here with the parenting skills of everyone involved. The script splits the family up at every opportunity until Taylor-Johnson has to rescue somebody else’s kid to get any sense of what kind of dad he is. That’s a missed opportunity right there. Hell, a nameless bus driver saves their kid’s life and gets no credit.
If there’s a central problem with the human element in Godzilla, it’s that character development is subsumed by the build-up to giant monster attacks we never really see too much of, and the jaw-dropping exploration of destructive aftermath to attacks we never really see too much of. The performances are perfectly adequate for what this script requires. And when it comes time for Taylor-Johnson to step up and save the day, he does it believably and with just enough personality to rank with traditional Godzilla movie heroes (although without any sort of funny side — he’s almost uniformly stern and serious, except for a scene or two involving children where he seems to become a different character entirely).
David Strathairn is the surprisingly weak link in the film, despite what people are saying about Ken Watanabe‘s performance. Watanabe plays his Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (nice reference to the original Gojira, there) as restrained, or even shell-shocked. You can see the fear and awe on his face in every scene as he treats the destruction as realistically as possible. He’s constantly on the edge of losing hope, but still holds out for Godzilla as the great equalizer. Straithairn, on the other hand, is wooden and terse, phoning in a performance that was extremely disappointing.
But let’s be honest. The script didn’t really give him much to work with.
Despite some touch-ups by David S. Goyer and a final shooting script pass by Frank Darabont (neither of whom receive scripting credits), the writing is a bare bones, connect-the-dots affair, moving characters from place to place mainly so we have eyes on the target as the kaiju move toward each other and San Francisco. It doesn’t get boring and the performances are good enough. The script itself however doesn’t really try to do anything special or unique, taking itself far too seriously to have fun with the concepts.
And in the end, that’s the real failing of Edwards’ Godzilla. There’s so much emphasis on how serious and real this giant monster threat is that the film loses sight of the fact that it’s a giant monster movie. That might not have been an issue if Godzilla actually embodied the threat of nature putting humankind in our place, but that’s not what the story’s about. There’s no subtext about nuclear war or tampering with genetics or anything really. Hell, nuclear bombs are great! Godzilla wasn’t created by the Bikini Atoll tests, those were attempts at killing him.
Everything is surface story. And that’s a story about giant bugs trying to hook up and make babies, while their natural predator tries to catch them and kill them for some unexplained reason. Are the MUTO’s better parents than our heroes? Hmmmm.
Well, the explanation is simply that’s what he’s made for. Godzilla’s sole purpose in life is to lurk around on the bottom of the ocean until giant bugs wake up and go looking for nuclear energy to eat. Then he rises, fights them, and kills them. He doesn’t even eat them or anything. He just kills them and then wanders back to the ocean (after the obligatory “he’s dead — no he isn’t” moment), as characterless and lacking in personality as anything you could imagine.
It pains me to even write this, but Cloverfield had more personality than this Godzilla. And Pacific Rim is the hands-down winner in picking up the Godzilla banner and telling an exciting daikaiju film in the tradition of Sixty years’ worth of Japanese Godzilla films. This film is still worth seeing, but only for the disaster porn quotient.
As a Godzilla film it misses the mark.