Review:
Godzilla (2014)

(5/5)
Author: Thomas Singleton
Published:
September 1, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers


One of my fondest memories as a child was watching my very first Godzilla film. Godzilla 1985, the Americanized version of The Return of Godzilla (1984), introduced me to a world of giants. About halfway through that film, we, the audience, watches from the edge of our seats as a helicopter pilot comes face to face with a living monolith of black scales, gnashing teeth, and mighty roar that still sends a tingle up my spine. When Godzilla emerged out of the sea, I couldn't believe my eyes. It didn't just look real; it felt real. Bullets, rockets, and bombs relentlessly pummeled the atomic dragon. And yet that did little in slowing Godzilla down. Godzilla marched on unopposed, razing Tokyo to the ground. Godzilla was and continues to be a force of nature, whose power is unequaled. I knew right then I was hooked.

As of this writing, I'm 27-years-old. Before Legendary Pictures resurrected Godzilla, there have been 29 Godzilla films. I have seen them all. I have seen Godzilla destroy Japan's most famous cities; I have seen Godzilla fight the most memorable giant monsters of all time; I have seen Godzilla become a hero, a villain, and an antihero (sometimes in the same film). I have seen it all. Or so I thought.

When it comes to the science fiction genre, most moviegoers know by now it's best to suspend disbelief, especially when it comes to Godzilla films. So imagine my surprise when Godzilla (2014), directed by Gareth Edwards, caused me to temporarily suspend my excitement as it stomped a refreshing new take on the iconic franchise.

If you're more interested in films bursting with mindless monster action, nonstop battle sequences, and predictable plots, you might not like this film. If you're interested in watching a more realistic take on the most iconic giant monster of all time, read on.

THE FILM

Gareth Edwards's first feature length film, Monsters (2010), had a great concept, adequate performances, and impressive visuals. But when the end credits started rolling, I found it wanting. Nevertheless, I knew then Gareth Edwards was a very talented up-and-coming filmmaker, and he would most likely improve on his next big film project.

I'm happy to say he did!

Edwards's filmmaking style is reminiscent of the works of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. He dabbles in fantasy, while maintaining a sense of realism. What defines Gareth Edwards as a filmmaker is how he prioritizes his characters, regardless of the scope of the plot. Without interesting characters, the story you're trying to tell has no purpose. Gareth Edwards not only understands this, he epitomizes it here. As far as critiques go, I think Gareth Edwards is still trying to find that right balance between show and tell. He knows how to deliver on his money shots (e.g. Godzilla's entrance, the MUTOs rampaging, etc.), but just as the audience is getting ready to throw their money at the screen, he hides what we're all clamoring for. This technique sounds risky, and it can be if it's poorly executed, but when it comes to building up suspense, what Gareth Edwards does here is Filmmaking 101. He does it well, but there is room for improvement here, and I'm confident Edwards will one day perfect his unique style.

Behind every good director is an excellent production team. Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer, is exceptional here. He brings to this film gorgeous, stunning colors. Alexandre Desplat, the music composer, was phenomenal. In my humble opinion, Alexandre successfully honored the traditional music these films typically have, while still channeling something new and unique.

THE PLOT

You know you're in for a treat when the opening credits tell an interesting story. A montage of events from the 1950s informs us that Godzilla's existence has been kept secret for decades. As far as the public was made aware, a series of nuclear tests were carried out in the Pacific. The truth is these were really nuclear strikes carried out against Godzilla. Surprise, surprise, they failed to destroy the monster!

In 1999, we're introduced to scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). After landing in the Philippines, Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham embark on an underground expedition, where the skeletal remains of a giant creature is discovered. How this leviathan met its end is left ambiguous; however, it's strongly implied that a surviving parasitic egg, located next to the skeleton, was responsible for killing it. And it appeared to have hatched into something, its whereabouts unknown.

In Janjira, Japan, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist, has been detecting a series of unusual tremors originating from the Philippines. Making matters more unusual, these tremors have now relocated to the Janjira nuclear power plant he works at as an engineer. Burdened by this mystery, Joe sends his engineer wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), to investigate. This action would later come back to haunt Joe as the power plant is destroyed by an unknown force. Joe is forced to choose between his wife and the population of Janjira. After choosing the latter, Joe watches helplessly as Sandra dies from radiation poisoning. Janjira is later quarantined after a mysterious force destroys the nuclear plant.

15 years later, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a US Navy explosive ordinance disposal technician. After a tour of duty, Ford is returning home to San Francisco where his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and his son, Sam (Carson Bolde), have been anxiously awaiting his return (much like how Godzilla fans have been anxiously awaiting this film). His return is short-lived, however, when he discovers his father, Joe, has once again run into trouble with the Japanese authorities.

Ford goes to Japan to bail Joe out, where he's disappointed to learn his father is still a paranoid conspiracy theorist, who believes the government is hiding the truth not only behind the Janjira nuclear power plant's meltdown, but the death of his wife. After learning how much guilt Joe feels over losing Sandra, Ford agrees to help his father illegally sneak back into Janjira. They are later found and taken into protective custody by a secret organization known as Project Monarch.

Project Monarch has set up shop over the site of the Janjira nuclear power plant. It's there they have found what appears to be a massive egg, one emitting an electronic pulse. Dr. Serizawa is overseeing the operation. As everyone in the audience no doubt saw coming, the egg hatches into a giant monster. It destroys Project Monarch's headquarters, critically wounding Joe Brody in the process, before disappearing into the night sky. Yes, this nasty critter flies!

Before Joe succumbs to his injuries, he encourages Ford to protect his family. Mourning the loss of his father, Ford looks to return home but fate once again intervenes. Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) orders a United States Navy fleet to locate and destroy the giant flying creature, now codenamed MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Admiral Stenz recruits Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham as his scientific consultants. Dr. Serizawa believes nature has a way of restoring balance, and that balance comes in the form of an ancient alpha predator. Serizawa explains in 1954, a submarine mission awakened something at the bottom of the ocean, something he believes will return soon to restore balance to the world.

After receiving intelligence on a missing Russian nuclear submarine, they locate the Flying MUTO in Honolulu, Hawaii. Ford witnesses the MUTO's reign of destruction firsthand, which is quickly overshadowed by the arrival of Earth's great protector, Godzilla!

And that is a summary of the first hour of the film. It was a great way for us to meet, relate, and understand the principle human cast before those meddling monsters started running amok. Shortly after Godzilla made his presence known to the public, the countdown to complete and utter destruction started ticking for our heroes. The human race found themselves at a crossroads, where every path seemed to lead to the same fateful conclusion: extinction.

The lines were drawn in the sands of time. In one corner, we have the human race, largely responsible for the troubles befalling them. In another corner, we have the MUTO, an ancient race of giant creatures interested in eating nukes, companionship, and replenishing their ranks. Finally, we come to Godzilla's corner, which, as the film cryptically reveals, happens to encompass all the other corners on the board. In fact the borders separating the corners is all an illusion. They all live under Godzilla's shadow.

It's amazing how interwoven most if not all the plots and subplots are. There's a purpose behind everything. Ford listening to Joe's advice about protecting his family by protecting the families of others, like the missing kid at the airport or the people of San Francisco; Ford's mission to restore balance mirrors Godzilla's own; the MUTOs seeing human beings as nothing more than pesky insects, which is an accurate depiction when we see tens of thousands of people swarming around like an ant colony; young Ford walking across his bedroom, his feet looking like they belonged to a giant monster as he stomps pass his toy soldiers…

THE CHARACTERS

In this specific genre of films, human characters are as uninteresting as they are underwhelming. They're there usually as filler until the monsters show up. Granted, there are a few giant monster films that have given us captivating human characters. This film happens to be one of them.

Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by a Ken Watanabe performing at the top of his game, is one of the most important names in the Godzilla universe. When I heard Serizawa would be a character in this film, I was skeptical to say the least. I was afraid we would be getting nothing more than a pale cinematic clone. To my delight, Watanabe's Ishiro Serizawa put all my fears to rest. This isn't your Grandpa's Serizawa. In a unique twist, Watanabe's Serizawa acts as both a scientist and a prophet. As a scientist, Dr. Serizawa has mountains of data proving Godzilla's existence. But where does Godzilla's true allegiances lie? Serizawa believes Godzilla protects the natural order of the world, which brings the scientist at ease, knowing the most powerful creature on the planet is, for now, humankind's unlikeliest ally. I wonder what would happen if Godzilla one day saw humankind as a threat? Would Dr. Serizawa still see him as a savior or would he do what his namesake did long ago? Ken Watanabe's Serizawa has so much more room for growth. I'd love to see him one day sport an eye patch and, if the plot demanded it, construct the Oxygen Destroyer.

Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody is my favorite character. His story captivated me, which is more of a testament to Bryan Cranston's acting range. To my dismay, Joe Brody isn't the main character. That didn't stop him from playing a vital role. What makes Joe Brody's story unique is his story arc. He has a beginning, middle, and end. Joe's beginning gave us a tiny glimpse of a more radicalized future he'll soon be living. Joe needed answers, all while becoming oblivious to the needs of his loved ones. Before the doors closed between them, his wife, Sandra, told Joe to care for Ford. It was her last wish. For the next 15 years, Joe obsessively tried uncovering the truth behind the cause of his wife's death, all while pushing Ford further and further away, which violated his wife's last wish. It wasn't until he at last, with the help of his son, finally uncovered the truth, did he start remembering Sandra's plea. With his last dying breath, Joe honored the memory of his wife by becoming the father Ford needed him to be. Joe's end became the catalyst for Ford's new beginning, which is great storytelling in my book.

Which brings me to the main character of the story, Ford Brody. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, most famous for his role as the titular character from Kick-Ass, does a commendable job here. One of the criticisms his character has received the most flack for is how little emotion he shows, as if he's shell-shocked the whole time. This is the point of his character. When Ford Brody was a child, he saw the nuclear plant his parents worked at crumble to the ground. Ford lost his mother to the power plant that day, while also feeling like he lost his father to something arguably worse. 15 years later, Ford is a lieutenant in the US Navy, serving as an explosive ordinance disposal technician. Ford looked shell-shocked because he is. 14 months of disposing bombs on a tour of duty would do that to you. And yet in the face of so much destruction and adversity, Ford fights for not only his loved ones, but for the loved ones of many more. He's a hero. All doubts about his heroism are laid to rest when he's willing to sacrifice himself for the people of San Francisco. When Ford finally reunites with Elle and Sam, his wife and son, we see his eyes lighting up for the first time in ages. That's because at the end of the day, Ford Brody was finally free to live again.

I was very fond of David Strahairn's Admiral Stenz. In most films of this nature, military leaders are traditionally portrayed as hotheaded, nonsensical lunatics. Unlike many of his film counterparts, Admiral Stenz genuinely cared about protecting the innocent. He didn't let his pride hinder his judgment, even when Dr. Serizawa turned out to be right. Instead of worrying about his reputation, Admiral Stenz did the reasonable thing by consulting the expert he had on hand. Now that's what I call class.

In her limited role as Sandra, Juliette Binoche proves to be very endearing, which is a testament to her acting prowess. Elizabeth Olsen as Elle played her part but I wish she had more material to work with. She was only there to support Ford, to give him a means to go through hell and back. We know she's a nurse, so it wouldn't have hurt to see her caring for people on the street after the monsters started attacking. Sally Hawkins is an amazingly gifted actress, so her talents are a bit wasted here as Dr. Vivienne Graham. All she did was complement Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'd like to see more of her in future installments.

Some believe this film moved too slowly. Others believed all the plot buildup went to waste. We are all of us entitled to our opinions, especially when it comes to critiquing monster movies. In my humble opinion, the human cast made this film worthwhile. Time and time again, we watched these people face a new threat, some immensely bigger than others. We watched them fight, we watched them fail, and we watched them persevere.

Only after experiencing humility, were these people finally able to find their humanity. The MUTOs didn't care for the humans; Godzilla hardly noticed them. But did the humans quit? Did they forfeit their cities to the monsters? Did they forsake their souls to the prehistoric beasts? No, they defied the giants of old. The human race will never accept its place in the world. It will fight to its last breath to be whatever the hell it wants to be. I wouldn't have it any other way.

THE MONSTERS

I love monster movies, but the giant monster genre will always hold a special place in my heart. As a kid, I didn't care if they were really actors in rubber suits, fighting on a miniature city set. To satisfy me, all you had to do was show the monsters, and my imagination would do the rest. While my standards have risen a little since my early youth, I still love these films because they make me feel like a kid again. When I saw Godzilla (2014) for the first time, I not only felt like a kid again, I felt like I was being introduced to this fantastic genre for the first time.

What makes a good monster movie? Good monsters, for starters. Even loyal monster enthusiasts have to admit it's better when the monsters look believable. We have quite the ensemble of believable monsters in Godzilla (2014). I'll start with the MUTOs.

The MUTOs have a unique diversity to them; the Flying MUTO (the male) reminded me of Megaguirus and Gyaos, making him a formidable creature. Despite being smaller than the other monsters, the Flying MUTO makes up for it by being relentlessly aggressive, fearless, and strategic. I can't continue without bringing up his awakening scene at the power plant. It was a very ominous scene, a superb way to entrench the audience in the terror these creatures wrought. Then there's the Queen MUTO (the female), a giant even by monster standards. The Queen MUTO's motives were instinctually driven. She didn't maliciously kill scores of people. No, instead, she, like her mate, didn't care for the poor people caught in her destructive wake. But that doesn't mean the MUTOs, as a whole, are uncaring beasts. It's quite the contrary; the MUTOs have more in common with human beings than most humans would be willing to admit. The MUTOs wanted to protect their family as much as Ford Brody was desperate to protect his. The scene where the Queen MUTO mourned the loss of her nest made me a little sympathetic towards the creature.

How about their designs? They're creative, to be sure. While not entirely original, as I couldn't help but compare them to the Cloverfield monster, I was satisfied. When you've seen legions of monster designs, it's next to impossible not to see a similarity of some kind. All in all, I couldn't help but see the MUTOs as metaphors for what humankind could potentially become, if our destructive ambitions were left unchecked.

Godzilla has never looked so lifelike, not even in my wildest dreams. For nearly the first hour of the film, we see very little of Godzilla. We're only given a glimpse of nothing more than Godzilla's spikes skimming the ocean surface. When Godzilla finally does make his grand entrance, I couldn't believe my eyes. This is the Godzilla I've been waiting for. Never before have we seen so much life in the legendary character.

Godzilla's portrayal was handled with extreme care. You could seriously tell what Godzilla was thinking just by looking at his body posture alone. Whatever he felt, I felt. Godzilla is renowned for his savage strength, power, and ferocity, and it showed here. Not only did Godzilla retain many of his classical strengths, some new ones surfaced, much to my delight. Throughout his war against the enemy monsters, Godzilla didn't seem to care about human beings. Godzilla, having seen it all, didn't seem to notice nor care about the plights of humanity. To him, we're just insects. That all changed when he came face to face with the main human character of the story, Ford Brody. Both characters have a lot in common. Godzilla protects the planet; Ford protects his country and family. Godzilla is on a mission to restore balance to the world; Ford is on a mission to restore balance to the world he believes in. It felt right for both protagonists to finally see the other for whom they really are: two kindred guardians with mirroring storylines locked in an eternal battle for survival.

Is Godzilla the hero of the story? No, Ford Brody is. Godzilla is beyond such pretenses.

Overall, Godzilla '14 has become one of my favorite Godzilla movies of all time. On multiple viewings, it continues to be an enjoyable experience. While I wanted more Godzilla like the next filmgoer, I still loved every second he was on screen, which only made his presence more majestic and grand. Such a role is only befitting for the true King of the Monsters.

It's a good time to be a Godzilla fan, folks. I say enjoy the ride!

Thanks for reading.