Looking at Godzilla and the general murmurings around on the Internet, watching Godzilla will be a polarizing experience. You are either going to absolutely love it or hate it. Guess what – I’m in the love it camp. I thought it was good. Flawed but good overall.
Director Gareth Edwards is tasked with bringing Godzilla up to date as part of the 60th anniversary since the monster first debuted on our screens. I wasn’t a Monsters fan – I respected the nuances and the sci-fi ideas behind it but found it a little slow and boring. Also it didn’t help when the trailer looked similar to District 9, but that is another story. Godzilla is a different level altogether and he doesn’t waste a single penny of production money! I was pleased and surprised with what he had accomplished. In all honesty, this is the Godzilla film you’ve been waiting for and yet it’s the Godzilla film you least expected.
If you walk in expecting Pacific Rim/Transformers you might as well don’t bother because I think there are things that will irritate you. But if you love your monster movies, then keep calm and carry on! Godzilla is a dark, realistic interpretation for the king of monsters.
“The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.” – Dr. Ichiro Serizawa
Godzilla consists of three different storylines all converging into one. You have the nuclear tests conducted in the 50s, cast names redacted during the opening credits. You are then transported to 1999 in the Philippines where investigative scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) lead the study of an excavation site. Finally (during the same year) you have an incident at a nuclear plant in Japan with Nuclear Physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) noticing the strange anomalies surrounding the plant. When the connection is made between the incidents, the awakening of Godzilla is the least of their problems.
What’s impressive about Godzilla is the visual scale of the whole thing. I watched this film at the BFI IMAX (aka the biggest screen in London) and it really makes use of that giant screen. It makes you feel small in the process, constantly looking up at the enormity of the creatures. It’s a terrifying thought. You have amazing aerial shots of the Mutos (the creatures that face Godzilla) of where they’ve crawl out of their nests, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Godzilla (our anti-hero) swims in the sea alongside the US Navy ships, wanting to prove it’s dominance and it’s alpha predator skills. The shots of destruction with ordinary civilians trying to escape the city are also highlighted. Let me put it this way, if you thought the fight between Superman and General Zod was outrageous in Man of Steel, you should check out the levels of destruction in this film. Man of Steel was small fry – Godzilla and the two Mutos turned San Francisco into a wasteland! There was hardly anything left of that city.
Another thing that was interesting was Godzilla’s reveal and is one of the reasons why there will be polarizing views. It takes a while before Godzilla is shown on screen – you’ll have to wait around 45 minutes, close to an hour. When you do see it, it’s a slow burn glimpse of the creature. We don’t really see it engage in a fight with a Muto as it annoyingly cuts away to news footage captured and broadcasted the next day!
This concept is no stranger to films. I compare this scenario to classics such as Jaws or Alien. These were films that played with your imagination, engaging on your fears until the third act where the creature is shown in all its glory. I didn’t have a problem with Godzilla using that formula mainly for two reasons:
One, films like Alien and Jaws would have lost their impact if the terrifying creatures were shown in full. Can you imagine Alien without all those glimpse moments where it was picking off crew members of the Nostromo? I can’t bring myself to think about it. Back in the day, Alien wasn’t an instant hit at first but the reason why it’s psychologically highly regarded would have been lost.
The second reason is building the tension, keeping the audience waiting in suspense until the next moment of Godzilla’s arrival. Because of that tease, what happens in the last 30 minutes or so is a glorious CG battle between Godzilla and the Mutos.
Again some may argue that you never see the full battle, always cutting away from the fight to what the human resistance is doing. It’s a valid argument that Godzilla doesn’t feature much in the entire movie for a film that is named after him. I wished there was more! But you know what – I didn’t mind. What Gareth Edwards does is provide a balance. I love action movies but sometimes when you watch an action scene that goes on for too long it can be incredibly boring. I take Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as an example – I left the cinema with a MASSIVE headache and the urgent need to read a book because I felt my brain cells had evaporated. If you are looking for that kind of film with the non-stop action, don’t expect that from Godzilla. Godzilla still operates in that B-movie style with some visually stunning action scenes.
“You’re not fooling anybody when you say that what happened was a “natural disaster,”. You’re lying! It was not an earthquake, it wasn’t a typhoon! Because what’s really happening is that you’re hiding something out there! And it is going to send us back to the Stone Age! God help us all…” – Joe Brody
So what lets down this film from being overwhelmingly positive besides Godzilla’s slow reveal? Sadly it’s the human drama. Now the difference between films like Jaws, Alien and this new interpretation of Godzilla is that you had characters you cared about, even if they were serving the purpose of the film. In Godzilla, the decent cast all lack personality for a tonally dark and humourless film. Ken Watanabe walks around looking VERY worried as if the word “Godzilla” is imprinted in his DNA (although he does deliver one kick ass line). David Strathairn and Richard T. Jones play your typical military figures. Elizabeth Olsen is wasted. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the lead yet comes off as wooden. His character is in the military but there could have allowed him to express some emotion rather than someone who seemingly beats the odds every time he survives an encounter with the Mutos/Godzilla. The only character that had some passion is Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody. After a family tragedy at the nuclear plant, he demands answers to explain the cause of the incident, believing in a government cover-up. I enjoyed the conspiracy nature with his character. His frequently used lines from the trailers are only a small measure of his dedication in finding the truth. I wished he was in it more.
Then came the incoherent plot lines. Godzilla is mainly told from the perspective from the military and their answer to everything was just to throw all the artillery they had to kill it. To Godzilla and the Mutos the endless bombardment probably felt like a gentle pat on the back because the whole thing was ineffective! We learn that Godzilla and the Mutos feed off nuclear energy – it’s how they were created and survived. So what was the military’s answer? Let’s give them more, luring them out into open waters hoping the powerful blast alone would kill them. It’s that kind of dumb logic that throws off the film, especially when Dr. Ichiro was pointing out the secrets from the nuclear tests conducted in 1954 and alluded to the devastating effects from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped on Japan. In his eyes, history seemed to repeat itself and nobody was learning from the mistakes.
Other incidents include the military saying one thing and doing another (e.g. the suicide mission into San Francisco was a no return mission and yet still managed to turn up in the end acting as saviours) or Elizabeth Olsen as Elle sending her child away on a school bus hoping he would be safe. I don’t even have to explain any further but you probably can hint at my annoyance at what happens next.
Whilst Godzilla is not perfect I prefer this version to the 1998 version. The 1998 version was too corny and stupid to comprehend like a poor mans Jurassic Park. The 2014 interpretation is how I envisaged a modern take of the creature with its chilling roar booming out loud thanks to the IMAX speakers. I appreciate the great level of detail and it’s respect for the past, delivering a monster movie that goes against the grain of what you would normally expect and clearly differentiating itself away from the 1998 film – even if others view this as boring.
The king of monsters has returned and long may it continue.
It’s very tense and, in ways, kind of epic. But it’s always exciting and that’s what kept me going throughout this whole thing. Good review.
Yeah it was very tense! There were a couple of moments where I was holding my breath, especially that halo jump scene.
Two problems of the characterisation in this movie, especially when compared to older monster/disaster movies emerge:
1) Time. Both Alien and Jaws gives you time with the characters before pressing the *HOLY SHIT* button. It established the dynamics of the locations and the people within in before disrupting that through the use of the monster. Studios just do not allow us the the relatively lengthy cold open these days (can you imagine that Alien canteen scene these days?). Though not a direct analogue, The Descent did this *beautifully*.
2) Weight (which really follows on from point 2). So many movies are guilty of this. They kill off characters early on and expect us to care because the character means something to one of the others (Binoche, here). If you have a good actor like Cranston you can sort of pull this off. But really, again, you need to properly establish the dynamic and *then* start bumping to make us give a shit about their deaths and the resonance on the remaining characters (Recent exception: first of the new Star Treks – quick death, but George Kirk is immediately enormously likeable, he’s funny, noble and terrified – Binoche doesn’t get anywhere near that level of agency, sadly). I know this movie does do this slightly with Joe, but we don’t get a good enough sense of the relationship with the young and older Brody to care. This is where some (much needed) beats of mirth would’ve helped in setting up the father-son deal. I mean, it didn’t even need to go that far – maybe give us some character notes for the soldiers who perish in the HALO jump :).
Yeah…what you said 😀
Seriously though, you’re absolutely right. I think some films are in a rush to get to the important parts when it’s the quieter moments that needs the work, which is why I had an issue with Godzilla. I still absolutely love the film but can you imagine how awesome it would have been it they tightened up the characterization with the human characters? I can. Hopefully that will get looked into in the sequel because this version is a step in the right direction.
Great review. I liked the film and thought the majority of the film was good, which is a nice change from the 98 version which was mostly bad.
The visuals and tone worked really well but the characters where lifeless, except Cranston.
Still bring on MechaGodzilla! 😀
To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, the 98 version was 139 minutes of wrong!
I think that Cranston trying to avenge the death of his wife by chasing down the monsters would have made a much better story than his son doing so. Otherwise, I loved the heck out of the film!
Very true! But I still like what they did with his character, it just never went any further when the torch was passed onto his son who emotionally went nowhere except for being in the right place/right time when encountering the mutos/Godzilla. Hopefully the characterization will be improved once the sequel rolls out.
Any favourite scenes? The Halo jump caught me breathless!
I actually enjoyed the hell out of the opening credit sequence and scene with the emotional death! Godzilla going all FATALITY on his foes is a big highlight for me as well!