Godzilla (2014)

Author: Patrick Galvan
May 20, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Like the majority of monster movie fans, I was never exactly satisfied with the first attempt to remake Godzilla for a mainstream American audience. My personal feelings about the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie, GODZILLA, never reached the point of absolute hostility, but I always felt a better movie could have been made. Now, sixteen years later, another English-speaking director has tried his hand with the Godzilla character, and the result is a mostly thrilling science-fiction extravaganza. The film tends to struggle on the emotional level, but director Gareth Edwards has fashioned more than a few moments of incredible majesty and terror. This may not be the definitive Godzilla picture, but it's a worthy monster movie in its own right, and, I'm happy to say, it's the most fun I've had in the theater this year.

The movie begins with that classic opening: mushroom clouds erupting into the atmosphere. Forty-five years later, the skeleton of an enormous prehistoric animal is unearthed in the Philippines. Then, in that classic monster movie formula, a collection of human characters experience one mysterious incident after another (a nuclear power plant melting down; submarines vanishing in the ocean; experiments the government refuses to share with the public; a screaming scientist who nobody will believe). Finally, in the present day, two prehistoric insect-like monsters called M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are unleashed upon the world. One of them dominates the air; its mate demolishes everything on the ground. When things are genuinely taking a turn for the bad, a new monster rises—from the sea—to combat the other two.

If there is to be a sense of genuine surprise—or disappointment, depending on expectations—about this long-anticipated reboot of the "Godzilla" franchise, it will probably revolve around the methods by which the eponymous monster himself is presented. As a matter of fact, the baffled observations will likely fall into two categories. One, obviously, concerns just how little time Godzilla spends on the screen. The other—the one that surprised me the most—was just how benevolent Godzilla, once he did show up, turned out to be. The surprise was certainly amplified by the movie's hype campaign. For years, we have seen posters, models, and magazine covers depicting a ferocious, defiant, fear-instilling predator; the movie's first teaser trailer, accompanied by a Robert Oppenheimer quote, gave us reason to believe the nuclear titan would be completely stripped of amiability—that he would essentially resort to the unsympathetic violence he displayed in the original 1954 classic. We were lead to believe this new Godzilla would spend an entire movie wiping out all that lay before him, mercilessly killing people out of sheer cruelty; and if he just so happened to do the world a favor by slaying another monster, it would be strictly to ensure his own survival.

This is not the case; this new Godzilla, by contrast, is more closely aligned to how Shusuke Kaneko portrayed his monster in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999). Godzilla pummels two cities into the ground and causes the deaths of who-knows-how-many—all inadvertent consequences in his effort to rid the world of two other monsters. Apart from that, he cautiously swims underneath a bridge, stops just a few meters short of smashing an armada of battleships, and returns to the sea without bothering to stomp what's left of San Francisco into the ground. An earlier incarnation would have rampaged for a few more reels, but this Godzilla is out to restore balance to the world.

And, from my personal point-of-view, this take, an unexpected surprise, works. In the aforementioned Kaneko movie, Gamera spent very little time in front of the camera, but his presence could be felt in every single frame. And in that aspect of storytelling, Gareth Edwards succeeds in very much the same way. He has instilled his monster with a personality—an atmosphere—a sense of presence and purpose. Even when Godzilla is not the direct subject of a scene, there is an eerie atmosphere hanging over everything: that there is something out there, underneath the water, waiting to rise again.

Equally effective is the foreboding sense of disaster conveyed by his opponents. As the M.U.T.O.s make their way across civilized worlds, demolishing cities in the process, they do convey a sense of menace. It's not just because to the special effects and the wonderful sound engineering; there is an atmosphere of dread hanging over everything when these predators appear; it really does feel like a catastrophe. We don't need the characters to tell us something bad will happen; we viscerally feel it ourselves. And as a result, we root for Godzilla's inevitable victory not because he's the default, but because he might be the one thing capable of putting a stop to these other monsters. A large number of creatures resembling the M.U.T.O.s have appeared on American screens, but only rarely have they performed on the screen with such convincing menace.

I only wish I could reach out to the movie's human component with the same level of enthusiasm. For even though Edwards and his screenwriter, Max Borenstein, have successfully created a trio of interesting monsters to determine the fate of the world, they haven't provided a single interesting character to experience it. A slight retraction: there's a promising character—the obvious one—played by the celebrated Bryan Cranston, who only appears in the early part of the movie. It is an interesting idea: a middle-aged man, feeling responsible for the death of a loved one, seeking out the truth in an effort mostly to satisfy his own grief. Unfortunately, this interesting concept of a character is never allowed to fully expand. The main star, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, does what the screenplay requires him to do (stand around, cuddle with his love interest, plea to join the action instead of taking an authorized leave) and not much more. Elizabeth Olsen is perfectly competent as the ordinary American wife and mother, but she also doesn't have enough screenplay material to develop herself as a character. Supporting roles are enacted by people such as David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe—all worthy talents—simply to describe the plot.

Borenstein's screenplay would like us to care about these human characters who are not so interesting, and that's why the early segment of the movie tends to drag. In addition, some of Borenstein's most interesting ideas (Godzilla wasn't an accidental byproduct of the H-bomb; he was the intended target) is merely explicated, not experienced by the characters. I imagine this approach will work much better in the upcoming novelization, but in a movie—a dominantly visual medium—the result feels a tad lacking.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad and leaves a much longer-lasting impression. The people may not be too terribly interesting, but the monsters are. And Edwards does demonstrate a terrific visual flair. There are beautifully executed moments, such as when two navy soldiers walk to the safety railing of their battleship and see Godzilla's jagged dorsal spines slicing through the water, heading toward them. Edwards beautifully cuts between the oncoming threat and the reaction of the men onboard. Aided by Alexandre Desplat's thrilling score and Seamus McGarvey's consummate cinematography (drab enough to convey rainy conditions but still retaining enough detail for us to not feel like we're being cheated visually), the scene proves to be one of the most memorable moments in the film. But Edwards' greatest visual achievement here is utilizing every inch of the wide-angle lens. Even with my reservations about the film, I heartily encourage everyone to see it on the big screen, because Edwards directs it as a big screen experience. He films his creatures primarily from a distance, with the camera sweeping around in great arcs. It's also pleasing to see the visuals in the daylight. It has always been so tempting to stage complex special effects sequences at night that when a filmmaker shows enough confidence in his story and his technicians to shoot everything under a sunny sky, my willingness to appreciate his film immediately rises. And even though Edwards is attempting to introduce Toho's conception of Godzilla to an American audience, he is hardly shy about recalling nostalgic imagery. Dorsal fins cutting through the ocean; a beast becoming trapped underneath a falling building; Godzilla using his tail to snare a monster sneaking up behind him. All evoking memories of the classic Toho movies—and it's done well enough to give both fans and non-fans a giddy sensation.

This new "Godzilla" is not the masterpiece the world was hoping it to be, but it is, for the most part, an exciting cinematic experience. When I left the theater, I was still riveted; I was thinking about the material that worked as opposed to the parts that fell short.

And I want to reiterate a point: see it on the big screen. Unless you have a seventy-foot-wide television set in your possession, there is no possible way to adequately experience the scale and visual size of this latest Godzilla movie at home.