Review: Why Is Godzilla A Supporting Player In His Own Movie?
New American Film Gets The Monster Right But Has Too Many Humans
It’s been 60 years since Godzilla was born out of an atomic blast that woke him from the ocean depths. It’s been a decade since he last appeared on film. Now he arrives in a new American film, “Godzilla 2014” (opening May 16 -- but with early shows tonight -- throughout San Diego) directed by Gareth Edwards.
Godzilla fans often choose to ignore that there was an earlier American incarnation of Big G back in 1998. That Roland Emmerich film was so painfully bad and its iguana-like Godzilla so laughable that this new English-language “Godzilla” from director Gareth Edwards could only be an improvement. And – not surprisingly – it is.
My journey to this new “Godzilla” has been an emotional rollercoaster. When the film was first announced, I hated the idea and was angry that American studios would get another shot at the Japanese icon. My fears were alleviated when I heard Gareth Edwards was named director. He had made the lovely, creepy low-budget indie film “Monsters,” in which he proved he could create a narrative that made good use of monsters and humans. He also proved he could deliver impressive looking creatures that had some personality and all with little money. Then I saw the character design for the 2014 Godzilla and I had another panic attack. His head looked small, too square, and rather dog-like plus he had no neck. Ick! Angry again. Then Legendary Pictures set up the Godzilla Encounter at Comic-Con last year and my hopes soared. The encounter – which made us think we were at the top of a skyscraper with Godzilla walking by -- was spectacular and fun. It understood what we wanted from Godzilla – something awe-inspiring.
As more footage emerged and Gareth Edwards spoke at at various cons and venues, I started to feel downright hopeful about this new film. Edwards had a love for the original films, an understanding that Godzilla rose out of our fears, a sense that he was a force of nature, and an acknowledgement that Godzilla’s scale needed to match the scale of our new cities with soaring skyscrapers. All good things. The teaser trailers had solid actors in Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, they had a great line about the “arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control,” and best of all we got to see Godzilla! The studio wasn’t afraid to let us catch a glimpse of the monster and he was impressive in scale. And damn he looked pissed! On the down side he had what my friend described as “bound feet.” No toes, no big claws, just tortoise feet that seemed ill suited as the base for such a majestic and gigantic creature. My hopes were once again tempered with concern.
This past Tuesday I finally got to see the film and I am still left emotionally conflicted. I saw the film with a trio of my geekiest Godzilla fan friends (although nerdy applies as well because in addition to the passion they have for Big G they also come armed with a massive amount of knowledge, I, however, am merely a Godzilla geek). The reactions spanned from positive to underwhelmed. And here’s what’s frustrating, we all agreed that Godzilla as a monster was a success and that much in the film was done well yet three of the four of us felt it could have been so much better. (You can listen to our discussion by clicking the audio link above.)
My frustration can be summed up by saying in a film title “Godzilla,” Big G better be the star. However, in Edwards’ film he is merely a supporting player. Now in terms of screen minutes, Edwards’ Godzilla is probably on no less than his Japanese counterpart was in his debut. But there are two things to take into account. First, the 1954 “Gojira” was much shorter than “Godzilla 2014’s” two-hours and change running time thus giving the original Godzilla a higher percentage of screen time. And second, perhaps importantly, the original “Gojira” was all about the monster even when he wasn’t on screen. At no point in the original or any other Japanese Godzilla film do you find the same level of concern for the individual human as you do in the new “Godzilla.” That is a very American attitude. It begins with Bryan Cranston’s character Joe Brody as the American consultant trying to convince his Japanese co-workers that there is something wrong at the reactor. It’s all about him, he doesn’t want something to go wrong under HIS watch. And then it’s all about HIS wife and the danger she’s in and later about HIS son. This puts the human story in the foreground and that’s not where it belongs in a “Godzilla” movie. Human drama feels mundane and a waste of time when you consider you could be watching giant creatures threatening earth or engaging in kaiju (Japanese giant monsters) wrestling matches. Bottom line: Godzilla has to be the star in his own movie; he has to be what the movie is about and his scenes have to kick ass.
But here's where I get into some of my conflict: the film does get the monster scenes right. The problem is that there just weren’t enough of them and Godzilla could have used a better opponent. Godzilla faces what the military refers to as M.U.T.O., an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. They don't even get a name. Plus, as was revealed in teaser footage, they look a bit like stick bugs and look easy to snap in two for the King of the Monsters. This then leads to another problem. Because the monster opponents don't look that tough to beat, Edwards resists having them face-off. In fact, on two occasions we are set up for a big kaiju showdown only to have the film cut away to -- what else? -- the human drama. You don’t know how infuriating that is. The only reason I can think of for cutting away is that Godzilla is depicted as so powerful that to have him face the same rather wimpy opponent three times would not make sense. So Edwards cuts away and postpones the fight for later, making these earlier encounters of no consequence. To a Godzilla fan this simply makes no sense.
One of the reasons I looked forward to this Godzilla was that in his feature film debut "Monsters," Edwards made such good use of his creatures. We knew he didn’t have the budget to show the monsters repeatedly and we were willing to cut him some slack knowing that the creatures would eventually show up. But in that film we never felt cheated. He structured it so that it all built up to the final reveal of the creatures, thus cleverly disguising his budgetary limitations. But in “Godzilla,” Edwards has neither an excuse for not showing his monsters nor a storyline to justify minimizing the title character's presence. With "Godzilla," Edwards obviously has the money for big effects scenes and the film is not about anonymous monsters but a superstar one with a name and an identity. You can’t cut away from your star just as he’s about to have an important scene, that would be like cutting away from Hamlet after he says “To be…”
But when Edwards does show the kaiju of "Godzilla," he does deliver as I had hoped he would. He has a knack for showcasing Godzilla in a fittingly stunning manner, whether it is Big G emerging from smoke, roaring with rage into the lens, or having his spines light up one by one as he charges his atomic breath. All Godzilla's water scenes are also stellar. Some seem fashioned after the shark scenes from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” as we see Godzilla’s spines cut through the ocean just as he dives below a carrier. Although I still have issues with some of the features on this Godzilla, the CGI work is quite stunning and he moves beautifully and with force. But CGI lacks the charm and dynamic personality of the Godzillas created by suit actors in Japan. To me, it is the suit actors who gave Godzilla such a strong personality and allowed him to have such longevity. Godzilla has endured because we feel a connection to him, we feel we know him; he may terrorize the planet now and again but that doesn’t mean we don’t cry when he dies in “Godzilla Vs. Destroyah” (1995). So Edwards delivers some genuinely breathtaking shots of his Godzilla, which of course makes it all the more frustrating that we do not get more footage of them. He also reveals his affection for the Japanese films by dropping little Easter eggs for fans, like a couple nods to Mothra and the original 1954 scientist Serizawa.
This brings me to some criticism of the script by Max Borenstein. If the script did need to focus so much on the human characters why did he choose the blandest ones (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to center the story on while minimizing the most interesting ones – Cranston and Watanabe? Borenstein also ignores the fact that Godzilla -- like zombies -- has always reflected the social issues of his times. He was a symbol of the fear of the bomb in the fifties, in the sixties he came to represent fear of China’s growing nuclear arsenal through his nemesis King Ghidorah (who looked like a Chinese dragon), in the seventies he took on environmental issues, in the eighties it was the cold war, and most recently he addressed fear of a nuclear reactor disaster much like the one that eventually happened at Fukushima in 2011. It was very important that Godzilla came from a only country that not only had two atom bombs dropped on it but also had to deal with a fishing boat named the Lucky Dragon that got caught in the radioactive fallout of U.S. A-bomb testing in 1954. Godzilla was the mutated result of these atom bombs and he personified the fears people had.
In this new “Godzilla,” there is little of that original social commentary left. The story -- since it is now coming from an American perspective -- is changed to make America seem less the villain.
So in this new film, Godzilla is neither born out of a nuclear blast nor is he a mutation of radioactivity. Instead, he is something that already existed and the Americans were simply trying to kill him with their bombs. Hmm? I’m sorry but that’s just lame. The only good thing to come from this storyline is the cool image of Godzilla’s spikes hidden within the nuclear blast, but other than that this premise feels hollow and has nowhere near the emotional resonance of Godzilla's origin story in the original film. I understand that Hollywood does not want a serious theme to dampen the sales of a summer blockbuster but Borenstein could have come up with something better than this. But Borenstein does at least allow Godzilla to seem like a force of nature and, in an odd way, part of the balance of nature, but the nuclear element that is key to Godzilla's history is badly mutated here.
“Godzilla” (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence) leaves me conflicted because there is enough good to tease me with what the film could have been. So in the end, I feel that despite its numerous shortcomings, "Godzilla 2014" is worth seeing simply for the title character. Big G arrives on U.S. shores and does make his mark. Hopefully his next appearance will be in a film where he truly is the star.
Check out my primer on Japanese Godzilla films.