A little more than a year has passed since Gareth Edwards’ long-anticipated Godzilla (2014) arrived in multiplexes and was greeted with healthy box office receipts, a favorable reaction from Toho, and a generally positive response from the audience—not to mention a stream of laurels bestowed upon the film by the Godzilla fan community. Since then, there’s been a good deal of talk regarding how fans interpret the film and, even more so, what they expect—and hope—to see in the next entry in the series from Legendary Pictures. In spite of the favorable notices, there were some common criticisms even amongst the enthusiasts: the eponymous monster’s surprising lack of screen time; the sudden replacement of Bryan Cranston as the film’s primary protagonist and emotional core; the frequent cutting away at the start of what appeared to be a big action sequence; and a few other minor gripes that didn’t seem to totally wreck anyone’s enjoyment of the film.
As for my perspective in this Godzilla 2014: a year retrospective well… my feelings for the picture have changed somewhat since last year, but I still stand by my assertion that it’s an overall satisfying film experience which makes up for its lack of interesting human characters with a trio of personality-packed monsters who never flag in interest whenever they appear on-screen. Although I would have preferred Godzilla himself to have more of an impact on the narrative (especially in the first act), every single second devoted to his presence is just awe-inspiring. His opponents, the MUTOs, with their menacing appearances and apparent allegory for nuclear disarmament (they consume nuclear warheads) are a welcome addition to the franchise as far as I am concerned. And the final battle between the three of them was genuinely thrilling. Edwards and his team succeeded in regard to the monsters.
Still, there are some things in the film which I felt should have been done much better; and, ironically enough, one of my biggest criticisms ties directly into what I would like to see in the sequel. It concerns the last few minutes of the picture.
Godzilla (2014) features a double climax with the three monsters combating in San Francisco while a small team of soldiers attempts to locate a nuclear warhead (which was captured by the MUTOs after initially being used to bait them) and remove it from the city limits before it detonates. Godzilla eventually defeats the MUTOs; the warhead is loaded onto a boat and propelled out to sea. The warhead goes off in the distance. The next morning, Godzilla suddenly awakens from an exhaustion-induced slumber and starts lumbering toward the coast. People cheer and smile at him as he goes. Having achieved victory, the monster bellows into the heavens, plunges into the sea, and returns to his underwater domain. Roll credits.
What bothers me the most about this ending is the way it clumsily abandons the film’s most opportune moment to make an anti-nuke statement. Especially since, up to that point, the picture had been wagging its finger at the mushroom cloud. True, Godzilla (2014) isn’t trying to communicate its message on the same level—or in the same way—as the original Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda, but it is clearly taking note of a theme common to the series: when faced with a major crisis, man turns to nuclear weapons, and it often backfires, solving nothing and making the situation worse. And again, the movie makes an admirable attempt to do this most of the way through. It’s because of manmade atomic energy that the monsters awaken; without it, the Mutos would’ve remained in hibernation, and Godzilla would’ve lingered in the deep sea. That’s good. And the movie hints that it will use that nuclear warhead in San Francisco as a means of making the grand statement. (We’ve been warned of the consequences, and soon we shall see them.) But it really doesn’t. In the wake of the explosion, we don’t see any aftermath. No radiation poisoning. No fallout. The bomb went off without, apparently, doing anything bad. For all the build-up and the chatter about its devastating power (as well as a scene hinting that San Francisco could become the next Hiroshima), the payoff is little more than a white light on the horizon which our hero can shut his eyes to. Granted, Edwards does make up for it a bit by showing the results of the monster battle: civilians being pulled out of rubble; families trying to find each other. And it could be argued that the destruction is an allegory for man’s reckless use of the bomb. Still, the movie gave itself a chance to cement its message in a way that was viscerally effective, and it elected not to.
It’s also a lapse in terms of the MUTOs. Had the film shown more in terms of the nuclear consequence, it would have made their allegory for disarmament—and their tragedy in that they were, in a sense, doing the world some good by wiping out man’s atomic arsenal—even more meaningful. But alas, the movie doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity either.
As an example of how such a climax could have been better-handled, let’s examine another film in the franchise: Koji Hashimoto‘s The Return of Godzilla from 1984. Both films feature a sequence involving an atomic weapon threatening to destroy an entire city and the military making an effort to stop it in time. In Hashimoto’s film, a nuclear missile is accidentally launched toward Tokyo. (Godzilla, meanwhile, has been knocked into submission by the Super-X’s cadmium shells.) Similar to what happens in the Edwards film, the military succeeds in stopping the missile in time: another missile is fired to meet it in the atmosphere. Also similar to the 2014 film: the explosion is far enough away that it causes no direct physical damage whatsoever to the city.
But the similarities end there. When the warhead goes off in The Return of Godzilla, we see actual consequences: the explosion disrupts communication; the fallout causes the Super-X to temporarily malfunction; and, most important of all, the radiation produces a nuclear thunderstorm which revives the fallen Godzilla. History has repeated itself. Godzilla has once more been awakened by an atomic explosion. One disaster has led to another. The Return of Godzilla presented itself with an opportunity to make a statement, and it took full advantage of it.
So how could the Gareth Edwards film have followed this example? Perhaps the best and meaningful thing to do would’ve been to show fallout descending upon San Francisco and showing us what it will do to the populace. Radiation poisoning, homes which must now be abandoned due to contamination, etc. The movie didn’t even necessarily need to go into tremendous depth with this, merely remind us that, due to our reckless use of the atomic bomb, things will not be improving for the citizens of San Francisco. It would also function better in the story in regards to Godzilla’s sudden awakening; instead of the monster just sleeping off his exhaustion, why not have the radiation replenish his strength? Or some other way of connecting him to what just happened? (And, on a side note, I would also have axed that cheesy sequence of the people in the stadium cheering in favor of a more ambiguous reaction with everyone not being sure what to make of this giant animal. The Godzilla in this film is, after all, classified an anti-hero, not a superhero. So directly connecting the explosion to this giant monster still running loose in the world would have added even more to the story and the characterization.)
So now how does all of this tie into what I would like to see explored in the sequel? Edwards and his team could easily make up for their missed opportunity in the 2014 film by detailing what the nuclear explosion did to San Francisco. This could consist of anything from the irradiated effect on marine life (maybe, calling back to the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident that inspired Honda’s original movie, the fish market is boycotted due to the fallout at sea) to the discovery that fallout had, unbeknown to us, descended over San Francisco during the night; that our characters underestimated the true range and power of their own creation; maybe civilians or some of our primary characters have become sick with radiation poisoning. These are just a few suggestions; there’s still a chance for the filmmakers to redeem themselves for this allegorical lapse, and I hope they take advantage of it next time. And if they don’t, hopefully there’ll be more of an attempt to follow through on the nuclear theme—or whatever theme they’ll be exploring next—when Godzilla 2 arrives in 2018.