Review:
Godzilla (2014)

(3/5)
Author: Miles Imhoff
Published:
May 17, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers


Last week, I received a text message from Anthony late into the night. He informed me that Warner Bros. had finally given the green light on posting reviews and that Chris had one prepared. Unfortunately, Anthony was unable to upload it at the moment. Would I be able to do it?

Now, allow me to preface. I'm one of those extremely annoying anti-spoiler folks; you know the kind... I'm prone to dub any bit of odd data regarding an unseen movie a dreaded spoiler. I'd successfully avoided every single trailer up to that point, and as I did my best to upload Chris' review without letting my eyes wander eagerly about the content therein, I'm quite pleased to say that I learned only four new facts about the film that I would have rather waited to see on the big screen. Hey, that's much better than it could've turned out!

Fast forward a week and now it's my turn to see the long-anticipated 30th entry (yes, I'm counting the '98 film) in the Godzilla series. Alas, when I arrived at the cinema, my heart sank when my eyes fell upon the "sold out" sign. Shaken, but not stirred... oops, wrong franchise, I mean... shaken, but undeterred, I ventured to a different cineplex closer to home. There was still a three hour wait before the film was scheduled to begin, so I asked the clerk if there was another movie that might fill the gap. She recommended Neighbors (2014)... raunchy but definitely hilarious. Before my first film of the evening began, the Godzilla (2014) trailer came barreling at me like a freight train. My fingers swiftly rushed into my ears as my gaze shifted downward. There was no way I was planning on breaking my streak this late in the game. A short while after my filler movie ended, the main event finally commenced...

Tip for Watching Godzilla Movies (at the Theater): Sit as close as comfortably possible! Seven rows back is a splendid compromise for modestly-sized screens: far enough so the neck is comfortable, but close enough so Godzilla towers over you. Godzilla's screen presence should overwhelm you.

Before we go any further, I'd just like to say that if any film deserved HFR treatment, it was this one. High frame rate looks way out of place in a fantasy adventure like The Hobbit, but it would have been right at home in a monster brawler. Just imagine a 3D, HFR battle between Godzilla and... oops, I'm getting ahead of myself...

With neutral expectations, I walked into the theater. Looking even nerdier than normal with a pad of paper handy in the adjacent seat (for notetaking), the opening credits began to roll. Now, realize that I haven't written a full review for this site since July of 2006, so please bear with me...

The film starts out with a grainy montage, the content of which is vaguely reminiscent of GODZILLA's (1998) opening, although the pacing is much closer to the one found in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). At first, it's a pretty cryptic origin scene, but later on in the plot, we come to learn what had transpired during these events. It seems that over a half-century ago, a nuclear submarine awoke a denizen of a bygone era (when massive, radiation-consuming creatures roamed an Earth that would have set your Geiger counters a-cracklin'). It turns out the infamous nuclear "tests" in the South Pacific were actually a cover story for a series of attempts to eradicate that super ancient behemoth, Godzilla, and... Oops! I'm getting ahead of myself again; for you see, this backstory is revealed in its entirety a while into the film. The movie proper actually begins in 1999, when the fossilized remains of one of those prehistoric mega-beasts are discovered with a surviving (seemingly parasitic) organic component... something like an abandoned egg (but now I'm curious, what did that host fossil belong to!?)...

Meanwhile in Japan, engineers Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) and Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) investigate some bizarre tremors at the Janjira nuclear power plant. Something goes terribly awry, and Joe makes a difficult decision that results in the loss of his wife (which plays out a bit like The Wrath of Khan meets a mildly misogynistic video game subplot). The plant ultimately collapses as the result of some unknown force and the entire area is evacuated.

Fifteen years later, Joe Brody, obsessed with finding the truth, attempts to sneak his way into the quarantine zone to find answers. The police get to him first, and his son, Lieutenant Ford, travels all the way to Japan to bail him out. Eventually, Joe convinces Ford to assist him in his unofficial investigation, but what they discover shocks them... it turns out that a giant organism was actually responsible for the Janjira disaster. Things end up going south rather quickly, and in the ensuing chaos, the male M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) emerges from his cocoon and wreaks some serious havoc...

... and then Bryan Cranston's character dies...

...

This is where the film diverges into two simultaneous subplots, one awesome, one not-so-awesome. Subplot A is the massively entertaining monster action that begins with scattered, ephemeral encounters that eventually build into a solid climax. This stuff is primo, and you'll almost certainly be fully satisfied with the end result. Subplot B is the human interaction, and this is unfortunately the film's equivalent of a pair of cement shoes. If you were expecting a deliriously enthusiastic review, please turn back now because things are about to get real...

First, let's touch on Subplot B because we have to eat our broccoli before we can move on to our sweet, sweet dessert (well we don't have to, but I'm writing the review, so let's do it my way). The most interesting and likable character is killed off rather unceremoniously within the first forty-five minutes of the film (imagine if they had killed off Jack Sparrow less than halfway through POTC, leaving us with only Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner to follow). Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody has depth, emotion, and that hint of instability that makes him the shining beacon of the cast. Once his lantern is dimmed, we're left with his son: the cold soldier whose importance to the plot is actually extremely tenuous for the most part. He has two main functions in the film: to reveal some sparse information that leads to the discovery of a second (female) M.U.T.O., which would have happened anyway... and to disarm the nuke at the end of the film, which he doesn't even end up accomplishing. Unlike another famous movie where the main character has very little effect on the outcome of the plot (think about it)... his character is neither developed well enough nor given the right stuff (i.e. compelling motivation or dialogue) to keep the audience enthralled. Okay, in all fairness, he does kill the baby M.U.T.O.s, but let's face it, with his track record it seems like someone else would have wound up accomplishing that task anyway. Then, there's his supermodel-grade wife, who is made to simply fret and worry... a lot... annoyingly so... Anita Sarkeesian would have a field day with this. By the way, Mrs. Brody's a nurse and Mr. Brody's a soldier, not exactly maverick choices in regard to gender-occupation stereotypes.

The other two memorable characters are Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). The cautious scientists reluctant to kill but wary about leaving their dangerous objects of study unchecked, together they operate as sort of the same character entity. Thinking about it now, Ken Watanabe's character is much more like Dr. Yamane from the first film than his namesake. What really hurts so many of these roles is the sheer lack of levity. Everyone is hyper serious 24/7. It's like an alternate universe where nervous laughter was never invented. It's actually rather a disappointment, because last year's colourful daikaiju flick, Pacific Rim (2013), did a brilliant job in regard to their characters. I remember sitting through that film and finding myself genuinely amazed by just how much I (gulp) liked and actually cared about the cast. These were people I'd find fascinating in real life: Stacker (Idris Elba), Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), Newton (Charlie Day), Hermann (Burn Gorman), and Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman); they just made that movie so rich and vivid. We had highs, we had lows, we had comedy, we had pathos, and overall we had ourselves a grand old time watching human stars actually maintain a screen presence comparable to the kaiju. Yes, it was sometimes over the top, but that was part of what made the whole enchilada so darn enjoyable!

And now some of you people are going to attack me... with tomatoes. *sigh* The human cast in GODZILLA (1998) was superior to that of Godzilla (2014).

*dodges tomato*

*gets hit by another tomato*

*avoids the third one*

*gets knocked out by a telephone*

*regains consciousness a few hours later and begins to explain himself*

First, I must admit that I'm actually a fan of GODZILLA (1998); I see it as sort of an abstract art entry in the Godzilla franchise. Zilla (a nickname I prefer over GINO) is one of my favourite monsters, and I'm not ashamed to say it. I do realize that Zilla apologists like myself are still in the minority, but I digress... do you remember the characters from that film? I do! Nick (Matthew Broderick), Philippe (Jean Reno), Audrey (Maria Pitillo), Animal (Hank Azaria), Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn), Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), Dr. Chapman (Vicki Lewis), Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner), Sgt. O'Neal (Doug Savant)... say what you will about dialogue, say what you will about the movie, but even 16 years later, these characters are still memorable. Will we be able to say the same about Godzilla (2014) when 2030 rolls around?

All right, now that we're done with our broccoli, let's move on to Subplot A, the dessert! (Maybe I should have reversed the letters...) The monster action is a banana split with all the fixin's; this is where the movie really shines. Though the film focuses primarily on the aftermath of monster assaults early on, it does expand into some droolworthy kaiju action near the climax. Goji himself has a fairly even temperament throughout the course of the film, and his modus operandi seems much closer to Heisei Gamera than to any of the major Godzilla incarnations. The beloved elements of the franchise are revived in this film: the iconic roar; invincibility; and a design that isn't too far removed from the classic model. Then, there are the two crowning moments of awesome, ladies and gentlemen...

... the thermonuclear heat ray scenes! That's right... it's back, it's blue, and it's unleashed with spectacular effect! He utilizes his iconic weapon on two separate occasions, kind of like Zilla did in his own movie; however, Godzilla's über-powerful beam makes Zilla's puff of combustible gas look relatively puny in comparison. Hey, even a Zilla apologist like myself can admit when his favourite iguana is outclassed.

Perhaps my only gripe with the monster action is that the M.U.T.O.s received so much screen time. It's kind of unusual when the guest stars receive far more attention than the main character, but even still, this isn't the first Godzilla movie that concentrated primarily on the villain. One of my all-time favourites, Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), seemed to do just that. The only thing is that Hedorah proved far more fascinating an antagonist than the enemies in this film. To describe the M.U.T.O.s in comparison to other kaiju, I'm tempted to say that although they're most akin to Heisei Gyaos in terms of design (with a few elements that might remind you of Orga and Rodan), their behaviour is uncannily similar to Megaguirus. They cause electronic disturbances, absorb energy, and are rather prolific reproductively (although that last one kind of played out a bit like GODZILLA (1998) near the end).

In fact, this entire film is quite similar to Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). It's an alternate history reboot told from the perspective of a soldier about an energy-seeking Godzilla who comes across a vaguely arthropod-like creature with prolific reproductive habits. It even has the near miss from a WMD at the end. If you really stand back and unfocus, it kind of feels like you're watching what a Hollywood CGI-fest would look like were it directed by Masaaki Tezuka. The whole movie has that sort of cookie-cutter Millennium entry feeling that almost makes it an honorary member of the early '00s set.

I noticed a few aspects of the plot that yanked me right out of the film for a few seconds. They're generally nitpicky little things that I probably picked up from reading too many TV Tropes (warning: all links in this paragraph are will send you to tvtropes.org; don't click these unless you want to lose 12 hours of your life minimum to that highly addictive website). We have two minor issues and one major issue. The two minor issues plague a lot of Hollywood movies: soft water and explosion propulsion. I could have accepted one or the other, but both? In the same movie? For the same character!? Those were the two minor ones; the major issue is the nuke at the end of the film. It's clearly stated that the nuclear weapon in question is in the megaton range (which, according to the dialogue, makes the one they used on Godzilla back in the '50s "look like a firecracker"), yet there wasn't nearly enough time left on the clock to move it a sufficient distance from San Francisco to prevent catastrophic damage! Sometimes, sci-fi writers have no sense of scale...

I should probably mention to those of you planning on bringing young children or sensitive types to this movie that this is a pretty violent film compared to older kaiju fare. People plummet, get smooshed, and generally don't survive monster attacks quite as well as they would in less deconstructed universes. This ain't Angel Grove, folks. In spite of this fact, the dialogue is fairly clean of profanity, which is helpful for those of us averse to such things. As a Christian, I was sincerely pleased to hear a genuine prayer in the film without the snarky commentary we've come to expect; perhaps Hollywood's frequent forays into secularist propaganda aren't quite as ubiquitous as they once were.

Oh! I forgot to mention the music. It was... okay. The choral tracks were by far the best, and the Elvis song that played during the aftermath of the female M.U.T.O.'s Vegas rampage was rather apropos.

So, what do we have here? This film is technically superior to practically every other Godzilla movie, at least special effects wise. If you count GODZILLA (1998), I must admit that what they're capable of now is certainly better than what they were capable of then (although, it's pretty hard to compare such things when you remember that the '98 film was released only a few years into the CGI revolution). Computer graphics also allow Godzilla to appear very, very large, which is an enormous advantage over suitmation (although sometimes computer-generated creatures don't look like they're entirely there). Unfortunately, these boons are counterbalanced by one disappointing bane: the lack of interesting human characters. Had Cranston lasted a bit longer or had even a single comic relief character made their way onscreen, perhaps this would have had a chance of dethroning Pacific Rim (2013) as the best kaiju film in years. This is the chief reason why I knocked 2 points off the score. Humans are a major part of a monster movie's cast, and if they're not driving the story very well, then it's rather difficult to justify a 5/5. Nevertheless, the monster action is primo, and when the phrase King of the Monsters flashes on the news networks near the end of the film, it is justified.

Overall, Godzilla (2014) is a serviceable entry in the franchise. It wasn't an abstract experiment like GODZILLA (1998) that only wowed those of us who can appreciate radically altered interpretations; yet, it wasn't a direct remake of Godzilla (1954), as so many were almost certainly expecting over these past few years. It was Tezuka-esque, and I don't think anyone was quite expecting that. If you got a kick out of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), then you're going to love this movie. Personally, Megaguirus (2000) was never one of my favourites. Is Godzilla (2014) my new fave? No, not by a long shot. Is it my least? No, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, either (GFW has that dubious distinction by the way, at least as of my writing this). I can tell you this much, like the other 29 Godzilla movies (yes, I am again counting '98), I did find it enjoyable to one degree or another.

There's this weird expectation nowadays that every niche franchise has to try and produce its own The Dark Knight (2008), but really, all a Godzilla movie has to do is keep me entertained for an hour or two. Godzilla (2014) did just that. So, bring on the sequels!

By the way, I still think Godzilla looks totally taller than ~106 meters in this film... just sayin'!