Godz and Monsters (Godzilla, 2014, Gareth Edwards)
(mild spoilers follow)
Godzilla – the big, greenish-gray irradiated lizard that became Toho Studios’ biggest cash cow in 1954 – means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And as is so often the case these days with nerdy formerly-niche properties being given the hundred million dollar Hollywood treatment, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla has stirred up some strong feelings on both sides of the fence. So it falls to this longtime Godzilla fan to come as a peacemaker and reveal the truth that the blockbuster reimagining of the King of the Monsters is, in fact… okay. Not great, but not terrible. An appropriately satisfying time at the movies. Sorry, these are the most controversial opinions I can muster up.
The film, after the opening credits spool out over grainy atomic bomb test footage (careful, movie, this is how Godzilla 1998 started), opens in Japan in 1999 with nuclear technician Joe Brody (everyone’s favorite TV dad Bryan Cranston) losing his wife Sandra (everyone’s favorite French lady Juliette Binoche) in a catastrophic earthquake that levels the entire nuclear plant, in full traumatic view of his son Ford’s elementary school. Skip ahead to present day, where grown up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, nobody’s favorite anything) has to return to Japan to bail out his crazy old dad, who is convinced that it wasn’t a natural disaster that killed his wife and turned a wide swath of Japan into a quarantine zone, but something more sinister – something alive. And, being that we as viewers, presumably of our own volition, walked into a movie called Godzilla in 2014, we can probably all guess that he was right.
BUT, maybe he’s not right in the way that we assumed, because before we get to the G-man himself, we meet the MUTOs, a couple of spindly, insectoid monsters that actually caused the destruction of the plant, and once awakened get right back to destroying, because this film is not just an attempt to get back to the awe and gravity of the 1954 original, it’s an attempt to reconcile that gravity with the fun, wacky matinee sequels featuring Godzilla wailing on other monsters. Once we watch the MUTOs wreck up Japan and then Hawaii, only then, nearly an hour into the movie, does Godzilla rear his scaly head. And it is not until nearly an hour later that we get to see Godzilla and the MUTOs duke it out.
The relative paucity of Godzilla in this Godzilla movie has become the big talking point, but before I get to that, I’d like to examine this film’s place within its titanic, 30-film franchise. The particular films Godzilla 2014 is being held up against are Ishiro Honda’s stunning 1954 original Gojira and Roland Emmerich’s stunning-in-an-entirely-different-way 1998 Godzilla; the first Godzilla film and the first American Godzilla film respectively, and boy does that put Godzilla 2014 in an awkward position, sandwiched in the collective pop-culture mindset between what is almost certainly the best Godzilla movie and what is with absolute certainty the worst. But the film Godzilla 2014 ends up resembling most of all is actually the less noteworthy Godzilla 2000. Both were films put out to celebrate some sort of milestone (the first Godzilla film of the new millennium; the 60th anniversary of Godzilla), both served as damage control by Toho after a disastrous previous installment (Godzilla 1998; Godzilla: Final Wars), and both sought to reintroduce the idea of Godzilla stomping on shit to a fresh audience while also pitting him against a new original monster with a 4-letter name (remember Orga? anyone?). So instead of holding the new film to the impossibly high standards of Gojira or the embarrassingly low standards of Godzilla 1998, maybe we should be comparing it to Godzilla 2000, that is to say, just another movie about Godzilla engaging in monster-on-monster combat.
So, now that I’ve alienated half the people reading this, how does the movie stack up as just another entry in one of cinema’s longest running junk food franchises? The answer, again, is “okay,” although I’d certainly say it’s closer to the top half of the list than the bottom half. But as for the most persistent complaint that’s popped up in just about every review, you have indeed heard right: Aaron Taylor Johnson is boring as shit. One could easily blame the script, which does him no favors, except that Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen (as his wife, who I haven’t mentioned because the movie gives me little reason to) manage to give far better performances with even more underwritten roles and maybe one-fifth of his screentime combined (although Johnson is far from the only actor hobbled by the material; it pains me to say this about David Straithairn, but you could cut every single one of his scenes and lose nothing of value). Once a delightfully off-kilter Bryan Cranston exits the film far too early, it’s left entirely without a human anchor.
But hey, it’s even more boring to talk about these puny humans than it is to watch them, so lets get to what we’re all here for anyway: the monsters. It pleases me to say that the design of Godzilla in this film is absolutely top-notch; some have complained about how it makes Godzilla look less reptilian, with an expressive face and stubby snout that makes him alternately look like a bear or a dog and rarely like a lizard, but to me that embodies the concept of Godzilla as some unholy melange of beasts that has always been one of my favorite parts of the character. As for the MUTOs, well, they embody not much except that Gareth Edwards really liked Cloverfield, and it’s a little disappointing how much more eager the movie is to show them off as opposed to Godzilla.
Which brings us back to that big talking point I mentioned earlier: is it true that this Godzilla movie does not have enough Godzilla in it? Maybe. Although a better way to phrase it would be that it has too much of everything else. At 123 minutes, Godzilla 2014 is roughly tied with Godzilla: Final Wars as the second-longest movie in the franchise (behind the truly punishing 142 minute length of Godzilla 1998 – God, what a piece of shit that movie was), and there’s no way it has more than 10 minutes of Godzilla in it. “A ha,” you might say, “but Jaws is 124 minutes, and it too keeps its beastie offscreen for the majority of that running time.” And you would not be wrong, and Gareth Edwards surely knows that too, what with all the Spielberg references he jams into his movie (the most obvious being the name of his lead character, and the weirdest being not one, not two, but three setpieces lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds). But simply having seen a lot of Spielberg movies does not actually make you Spielberg – just ask J.J. Abrams. Edwards does manage to wring some tension out of the way he parcels out glimpses of the big guy, Alien-style – the moment we first see Godzilla’s foot enter the frame is an instant-classic – but the hour of flabby deadweight before Godzilla shows up and the tedious war room exposition scenes do a lot to kill the momentum. And let’s not forget, while we might not see the shark a whole lot in Jaws, it’s already eaten a woman and child by the fifteen-minute mark.
I feel like I’m being a bit harsh, so let me reiterate that I did enjoy this movie, for its rewards are not inconsiderable. In the absence of any standout acting performances, the clear best-in-show honors go to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose exquisite framing of the wide shots makes the film’s big “wow” moments really sing, and whose bouncy energy is frequently all that keeps the scenes of dull human drama afloat. I haven’t seen enough of his work to say if this is career-best material, but it’s certainly a fuck of a lot better looking than The Avengers.
And I’m very glad to say that my biggest apprehension for the film based on the marketing campaign – that it would be entirely grim and joyless – is pretty much unfounded. Sure, the humor in the film is of a fairly morbid variety (I’m thinking primarily of a scene where Elizabeth Olsen tries to put on a cheerful face for her son and say everything’s fine while an extra in a black vest reading “MORGUE ATTENDANT” takes up the entire frame behind her), but it’s definitely there, and the movie knows how to squeeze some fun out of Ken Watanabe’s impossibly grave pronouncements and the completely whackadoo pseudoscience of the MUTOs; you know you’re in good hands when you get actors trying to explain how a monster eats radiation with a straight face. And the final twenty-or-so minutes are when the movie finally comes into its own with an extended sequence of rock ’em sock ’em monster action that delivers on every expectation one could have of an American megabudget kaiju flick (if Pacific Rim weren’t so forgettable, I’d tell it to eat its heart out), complete with an absurdly ironic ending that is sure to plaster a grin across the faces of any fan of giant lizards and/or destruction of property.
So, is this a perfect Godzilla movie? Absolutely not. But then, there hasn’t been a perfect Godzilla movie since Godzilla Vs. Mothra came out 50 years ago. And what we have at the very least is an entertaining Godzilla movie – and beyond that, a promising Godzilla movie. As much as I hate the modern trend of summer blockbusters to write for the sequel, the Godzilla franchise is far more conducive to sequels than most, and if Edwards et al are now comfortable enough with the property to deliver a more concentrated dose of the things they got right here, then I’d say everyone’s favorite irradiated dinosaur is in good hands.
But seriously, would it kill you to bring back the Akira Ifukube theme song next time? Godzilla without that is like Superman without the cape.