The following article was written May 19, 2014 — during the original theatrical run of Godzilla — on my personal blog. Some elements have been edited, but the overall structure is the same.
When I was a kid, there was a time where my parents believed Godzilla was a movie that would frighten me. But they should’ve realized if their kid could watch Jaws and Alien blank-faced, a giant latex monster wasn’t gonna make me flinch. No, it would take the T-Rex of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and zombies of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to put the fear of monsters in me.
Godzilla has been an oddly disconnected figure in most of my childhood, unlike the westernized tokusatsu adopted Super Sentai series, Power Rangers. 1964 and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra — of the Showa and Heisei eras, respectively — always seemed to the one reoccurring Godzilla film to come on television when I was a kid. I couldn’t tell the other films apart. They just faded into a blurry and nostalgic love for a heroic moth and her doll-sized companions. Then, before (or in) 1998, what I considered the “coolest teaser trailer ever” debuted, heralding the US produced and directed Godzilla film. With the introduction of a solid animated series, Godzilla remained, more or less, a permanent fixture in my life until 2002. Then he disappeared, and I moved on.
Fast forward to 2014, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi monster movie Pacific Rim has come and gone, left its impression upon me and the cinematic world in that further justifies the existence of Matt Reeves’ 2008 found-footage, monster movie love-letter, Cloverfield. Legendary Entertainment is out to establish itself as current lord of the US monster movies with its take on the Americanization of Godzilla.
It has all the problems you’d expect with an Americanized Godzilla film. The film’s promotion was perhaps too preoccupied with its human cast and so minimalist, there’s no real clarity on how Godzilla himself fits into the narrative (is he protagonist or antagonist?), but perhaps that was intentional.
The film also bolsters the typical issues on the spectrum of diversity concerning its human characters (the film is awash with white characters, not so much main characters of color). As a blockbuster movie, it’s passable entertainment that tries to be a little smarter than your average superhero film. As a Godzilla film, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The year is 1999. In a setting, not unlike Godzilla ’98, a scientist named Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) travels to the Philippines to investigate the discovery of an ancient life-form. He arrives to learn the life-form has escaped its underground cavern and is prowling the greater landscape of Japan’s prefectures. Dr. Serizawa then promptly disappears from the prologue. From there, Godzilla’s story follows the angst-laden tale of the Brody family.
Joseph Brody (Bryan Cranston) lives Janjira, Japan, and works at the uncomfortably neighborhood adjacent nuclear power plant with his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and Stan Welsh (Beast Wars’ Garry Chalk). When the power plant Brody works at lands on the receiving end of a “M.U.T.O” attack, his wife is killed in the nuclear fallout, and his general way of life is torn asunder.
Because of the circumstances of his wife’s death, Brody becomes obsessed with finding out the truth at the expense of his relationship with his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who grows up to become a military man with the job of bomb disposal — and has a wife and son of his own.
The one time Ford has to bail his father out of trouble like the Scully to his Mulder, both of them end up swept up in a secret organization’s hunt for Godzilla and for two loose monsters who intend on making love and war “On the Run” with a couple dozen nuclear warheads.
Much of Godzilla can’t escape the shadows of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. So, it imitates it right down to its opening sequence. Instead of a French nuclear accident — or something to that effect — , Godzilla and the monsters that barely inhabit the screen are creatures from the time before man and dinosaurs. Godzilla specifically, is “God’s secret weapon” against their own creatures growing out of control. That very idea carries with it loaded and troubling implications. The details of his actual origins are fuzzy or just poorly explained by the film.
Gone is Emmerich’s affinity for bald-faced tropes and archetypes without genuine personality impersonating characters you’re supposed to care about. That, and his adoration for camp and stereotype comedy to the nth degree. There’s no Jean Reno lamenting the loss of decent coffee just because he’s French.
There’s also no bubbly rom-com protagonist in the film like the determined, but wearying Audrey Timmonds, out to make a name for herself at the expense of national security. But, there’s also no pretense that the military has somehow hidden from the public what it already knows: That a giant lizard just wrecked one of the East Coast’s wealthiest cities and its landmarks.
Instead of archetypes and stereotypes, in Legendary’s Godzilla, there’s a bunch of empty characters occupying most of the film’s running time, and the military plays just as big of a role in Godzilla as it did in Godzilla ‘98. Throw in the double-whammy of the atypical child of apathy staring off into the distance as a message of ill tidings, and you’ve got yourself a movie that seems altogether disinterested in its human element, despite all the screen-time they eat up. Faceless characters, particularly child characters who do not emote, is not the way to stir emotion in an audience.
The biggest distinction between the two Godzilla films is the utilization of Godzilla. In this film, Godzilla plays hide and seek with the camera where you at least got to see Godzilla exploring, hiding, outsmarting the military, and setting up house in the ’98 film. That Godzilla is obscured for so much of the film makes the presumption of budget, whether they had the means to render Godzilla as they might have the monsters in Pacific Rim, a point of discussion that’s rather hard to dismiss.
Visually, the movie isn’t anything to write home about. Most of the film feels as though it was shot in gray-scale, even in daytime scenes awash in the sun. There’s no visual incentive to become invested in the film, nothing that outright grabs the audience, nothing feels alive or lived-in. The most creative the film gets in terms of visuals is the H.A.L.O. drop sequence: Here the grays and blacks of the storm clouds and fire-born smoke offset the red flares of the military plummeting into the ruined city, giving the scene a painter-esque look.
Other notable moments include the unexpected glow of Godzilla’s dorsal fins as he powers up and the backdrop of dark against the light of Godzilla’s atomic breath. Beyond that, the film favors darkness to a crippling degree. Nighttime sequences are perhaps the worst to look at, because there is no way of telling the environment apart from the night sky, even on a major theater screen where nothing should be hard for the audience to see.
Establishing shots depict an extremely post-apocalyptic world that marches on, but was still affected by the unexpected rise of pre-prehistoric Kaiju. The I Am Legend-inspired environment of an abandoned Janjira is probably the film’s best work in terms of set design and environmental storytelling. Janjira and the Philippines are the only major set environments that are affected, long term, by longstanding events in the film before things just popping off.
Once cities get destroyed, there is no real reason to be worried or concerned for the people caught in the warpath of the Kaiju that take a stroll through populated areas and swat planes out of the sky. You don’t get to know any of them, even on a microscale. I’m more moved because said cities are wrecked and planes are blown up by the Kaiju than I am that random person who gets caught in the wake of the disaster.
Regarding visual effects, Godzilla and the other Kaiju blend in perfectly with the world around them, physical or otherwise noted. The move is at its strongest, funny enough when there’re miles and miles of smoke (from fire) or fog (from natural occurrences) obscuring things. They do a lot of great things with smoke or particle effects in this film.
Regarding choreography with monster fights, however, there is much to be desired. The weight of the monsters is felt, to be sure, but the overall choreography is repetitious and not as good as anything I’ve in previous Kaiju films that weren’t overly hindered overly cumbersome latex suits, choppy animation or basic visual effects.
The Kaiju battles are interrupted far too much by what’s happening with the humans. Gareth Edwards is not interested in choreographing a battle between two monsters, he treats it like it’s a nuisance. Thus, there is no real consequence to the battle and no one I felt pushed or motivated to cheer for. The fact you know Godzilla will win isn’t bothersome so much as it’s how mediocre his fights with the “M.U.T.O” are. They’re nothing remarkable in the long run beyond that sole moment where it looks like Godzilla is about to pull a King Kong 2005 on one of the Kaiju (tear its jaws apart) but re-fries her insides with his Howling Blaster.
Godzilla’s biggest problem is its human characters. While this has always been a point of contention in Godzilla films post-1954, this film has neither the screenplay nor the direction to endear you to its cast, does almost nothing to make them characters in the first place. What are their desires beyond trying to survive a giant monster apocalypse? The movie isn’t particularly interested in providing an answer. Barely within thirty minutes, you’re expected to care for the Brody family immediately after killing off one-third of them.
In particular, you’re supposed to champion Bryan Cranston’s character, Joseph, because his wife was stuffed into a fridge to spark the central plot of the film, and his short-lived journey to seek the truth. It’s not that Cranston’s performance doesn’t sell the grieving husband driven mad by secrets and becoming single-minded and obsessed, it’s that all the development that would’ve worked with the performance happens offscreen.
And to make matters worse, Cranston is taken out of the film so damn fast I’m still questioning why he was there. The promotion of his character was incredibly overstated and probably does more to hurt the film than not given the expectations built.
My sister argued that he was never the protagonist, that he was simply meant to be a catalyst for Ford Brody. Yet, Ford shares the same shortcomings of his father. He’s an under-cooked character with little to offer in the way of personality or charisma. And this is something I feel I can pin on the direction or the writing because Johnson’s performance in Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass more than proves when paired with the right director or script, he’s the opposite of bland and unremarkable.
Another damning aspect of Johnson’s performance is his general lack of chemistry with Elizabeth Olsen. They go through the motions of husband and wife, but their portrayal of an otherwise functional relationship feels artificial. The most defining aspect of Ford Brody is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s body. He got buff and looks and plays the part of the soldier with ease.
To his credit, Ford isn’t your run of mill white male protagonist (a douche otherwise excused by the narrative). He’s an upstanding guy exasperated by the fact his father wants to drag him through constant turmoil and won’t let the past lie. The problem is, for a protagonist and a man whose specialty is disposing of bombs (arming or disarming them), he is so ineffectual. The question of why he even survives most of the crap thrown at him beyond his status as a protagonist is one that constantly comes up.
There are minor characters more effective at their jobs and getting things done. The disposal token minority Tre Morales (Victor Rasuk), who dies in the next ten minutes of his appearance, is one such example of a character being taken out like last week’s laundry despite being markedly more effective than Ford.
Brody’s most consistent contribution to the film is falling on his rear end and evading danger while everything sorts itself out without his help. The smartest thing he does is light the M.U.T.O. nest on fire and blow it into the next century.
Elizabeth Olsen, the lesser-known of the Olsen Sister Clan, has the thankless job of playing the wife waiting in the wings as Ellie Brody, a nurse who’s skills are not put to good use beyond establishing “and behold, she is a nurse”. Ellie exists primarily as the narrative motivation for Ford, key trailer reaction shots, and not much else. The same could be said of Sally Hawkins (Vivienne Graham), who kinda stumbles about on-screen via the implication that she is Ken Watanabe’s student-of-whatever, explaining everything to the audience.
Speaking of whom, Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa is a character that, like Parminder Nagra’s Meera Malik in NBC’s The Blacklist, exists for expositing revisionist World War II and nuclear testing history that presumably was an attempt to destroy Godzilla, so that the plot can progress.
Serizawa champions Godzilla as God or nature’s means of keeping nature in balance when things like to him grow and spawn out of control. A narrative means of establishing Godzilla as the hero and the other Kaiju as the villain. Yet, beyond that, he’s just kinda there. There are moments where Watanabe looks confused. Like he’s not even sure what he’s supposed to be doing in some shots, it becomes comical. For all the gravitas he brings with the monologues, Dr. Serizawa feels like an afterthought of a character that was added when they realized they had no one from Japan to represent them beyond Godzilla himself.
They typically show minority characters in positions of power, directing civilians out of danger, but they rarely have names or do so little in the film it’s hardly worth mentioning. The bulk of things done are on part of the Kaiju and the white characters. The latter honestly almost blow everyone to kingdom come because they honestly rather take their advice than listen to the guy who’s been telling them “the giant lizard you’re tailing will handle this”.
I think the only one of note beyond Watanabe is Richard T. Jones (Event Horizon) as Captain Russell Hampton. My sister and I assumed Captain Russell was gonna be running things akin to Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim, but were sorely disappointed when we were reminded that the stony-faced David Strathairn was the head honcho of the military. Boo.
Godzilla himself never feels like a character in a movie named after him, but a moving object there to interact with the far more interesting antagonists. The design of the creature feels like a blend of Classic Godzilla (whatever iteration that is) and the Godzilla reimagining, created by creature maestro Patrick Tatopoulos.
He’s lean where it counts and bulky where he needs to be. It’s a solid design. It’s disappointing that the most of this character you see is are his dorsal fins sticking out of the water like a pack of sharks. Feels like they blew the budget on the antagonist Kaiju and very little on Godzilla himself. Then there’s the fact that Godzilla does far too much posturing. Every roar feels like they designed it for a trailer instead of something organic stemming from its nature.
The “M.U.T.O” are probably the only monster characters’ in this film that feel like they have a personality or something at stake within the narrative. The single scene where the two Kaiju meet for the first time and bump noses like a pair of bears that lost each other eons ago while their cyclops eyes flash in adoration of their nearness is the only time I unconsciously felt moved.
The script invests more emotionally in the M.U.T.O than the human characters or Godzilla put together. They are the only characters in the film with something to lose, something to gain. Everyone else, on the other hand, are guaranteed victory on the mere basis of being human or Godzilla. I think that says something about your film if I’m sympathizing more with the “bad guys” than the “good guys”.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is nothing to write home about. The “Godzilla!” theme starts strong enough, but the structure that encompasses most of the score itself is bland, not unlike his work for Harry Potter.
Overall, as far as redemption gauntlets go, Legendary’s Godzilla isn’t too bad a start to revitalization. As a general film, it’s okay and inoffensive outside of the lacking representation of characters of color.
However different these movies are, del Toro set bar high when for fight choreography, visuals, and characterization of either monster or human in Pacific Rim. Godzilla doesn’t scratch that surface and I believe a great deal of that is the responsibility of its mediocre director, Gareth Edwards.
The biggest disappointment about Godzilla is that the marketing seemed to promise an almost apocalyptic movie where the title character was the antagonist the greater part of the westernized world would have to face. The swelling operatic music of the trailer seemed to promise a horror-esque presentation of an antagonist Godzilla in the same vein of the 1954 film. Instead, what I got was a film interested in everything but Godzilla.
It’s something I’ll end up buying, but the shortcomings outweigh the positives that don’t extend beyond having a good time with my sister in the theaters and cheering with the crowd (something that only happened once when Godzilla fried the M.U.T.O.’s insides).
Godzilla 2014 gets a solid 3 out of 5. I’d recommend this, Godzilla vs. Mothra, the 1998 Godzilla film, its subsequent animated series and the original 1954 film to newcomers if they’re looking for some digestible Godzilla. It’s just not for me.