Since the human race seems to have a fascination with monsters, monsters in art, and monster movies, it is no surprise that a new Godzilla film has made its way from the cameras and computers of a studio near you, to your local theater.
I confess to having never seen a Godzilla film before, but even I know who and what Godzilla is. He’s the “King of the Monsters!”
In the past, Godzilla has sometimes taken on the role of antagonist, sometimes protagonist in that he’s the lesser of two or more threats and can help with those threats. Minor spoier alert, he takes on that second role here in the 2014 vision for Godzilla.
Another change for this film is that Godzilla films have most often been B-Movie, low budget affairs. Not this bad boy. Gareth Edwards was given a metric butt-ton of money for Godzilla. But even so, the film manages to avoid many of the pitfalls we can sometimes find with big-budget films.
A Story with Heart
Whatever can be said about Godzilla, let it not be said that the film did not employ good story telling. When a story conscious cinephile goes to see a monster movie, it is typically with a sense of dread for what the story, or lack thereof may contain. However this film does not rush headlong into the monsterish tendencies and it avoids any sense of cheesiness throughout most of the film. That is not to say that the film does not employ a few of the tropes of its genre, but it is to say that it employed them well. The story built itself up at a nice, steady pace instead of rushing into the genre. It constantly left us wanting a little more — it used suspense to great advantage and, despite the big budget, didn’t feel the need to show us an extravagant display of CGI at all times. During the first act you barely get to see any of the CGI monsters in fact. It was a refreshing turn in my opinion and a sure sign that story trumped special effects.
I also loved the scale and look of Godzilla himself. He’s sure come a long way since the 1950s when he was initially conceived. The very idea of a radioactive monster that lives at the bottom of the sea and survives on nuclear power may be quite a far-fetched one, but that doesn’t mean the character needs to be as fake as possible — and I think for the first time he had a good presence and “realness” on the big screen.
And I particularly loved how he interacted with the water and the ships and how the water was displaced appropriately.
I liked the secondary monsters less, referred to as M.U.T.O (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) but even they were quite impressive.
And I really loved how even when it comes to the first action scene between monsters that you only saw a bit of it on a TV set. It was sort of hidden and hinted at, but the film proved courageous yet again by denying many in the audience the very thing they were sitting in that seat for.
This film has a pretty great casting behind the great story and screen writing as well. This makes only the second time I have seen Bryan Cranston in a film but he owned every minute of the time he was on screen. Elizabeth Olsen did a fine job as well for what little time she was on screen.
David Strathairn takes a turn in this film as well. You may remember him from The Bourne Ultimatum as Noah Vosen. He was not exactly a good guy, but his acting and presence in that film was phenomenal. While unfortunately here he isn’t give a whole lot to do, he does bring that wonderful presence to the film as a good guy, if a bit misguided. It’s too bad he was completely inessential to the plot.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the obvious start of this film and he does fine work of it — even if as with Strathairn I wish he had been given more to do. But at least his character is not completely removable from the plot.
But while the casting is fresh in our minds, let me go ahead and say that I was unimpressed with Ken Watanabe. He utterly failed as an interesting character. He also had almost nothing to do except stand around and either look awe-struck or surprised, or both. His sole contribution to the actual plot was to say that maybe they should let Godzilla dispatch the M.U.T.O.s instead of trying to bring a whole bunch of ineffective weapons to bear on all three creatures.
And all the characters really seemed to lack a good story line. They were circumstantial to the plot. Yes I realize that is more true to real life; people don’t have clean and/or purposeful narrative arcs in the real world, but we’re talking about a fantasy monster movie here. I wanted something that was a little more cohesive and I wanted my characters to have more to do.
Here’s a list of characters who had almost nothing to do in this film (this will get a bit spoilery):
- Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). He studied one of the creatures as it fed on an overloaded nuclear reactor (for years?). Never mind that he never considered the implications of this enormous creature absorbing that much energy, his only purpose in this film is to disseminate a nugget of information — to plant an idea. He says that it is only the arrogance of man that would assume we are in control of nature when in fact it is the other way around. And then later he says we should let Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s just duke it out and let nature take care of itself. Lame.
- Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). The film starts with him and his wife and it seems like he’s the primary cast member. We build an emotional investment in him and his life. We weep with him when he loses his wife. He becomes a conspiracy theorist. We know he’s right. His son finds out he’s right, and then he just dies.
- Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen). Her only job is to with that her husband Ford Brody (Aaron Talyor-Johnson) will come and save her.
- Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn). His only job is to issue orders to blow stuff up ineffectively.
The only person who made any measurable difference in this plot was Ford Brody. If not for him, San Fransisco would have become a nuclear wasteland. Other than that, characters come and go seemingly at random.
The screenplay set up this big conspiracy theory with Bryan Cranston spearheading that storyline, and then, that thread is just sort of dropped in favor of a new thread that involves monsters. We’re promised this tantalizing little bit of mystery unraveling and then the rug is yanked out from under us. So now instead of the mystery thriller the film promises us in the first 20 minutes or so, we have a much more didactic military focused film where people are wondering around with orders that change every 10 minutes.
By the same token, Ford Brody is starting to become a character we are invested in, then nothing. It really doesn’t go anywhere in the second and third act. The only time after the initial emotion building that I really felt any more emotion with and/or for him was at the very end of the film during the resolution when he’s trying to get the bomb out.
At a certain point in the film, the screen play becomes so unfocused and at a loss as for what to do with itself that Ford Brody is saddled with an Asian kid that is separated with his parents for about 10 to 15 minutes. And then, without anything really coming of it, the kid is reunited with is parents and that’s that.
Let’s talk about Godzilla the monster for a minute. I actually liked the whole plot line where — while he doesn’t give a rats butt about humans and isn’t really going out of his way to protect them, neither is he the enemy. He’s not trying to kill anyone, but he’s singularly focused on his enemy and prey, the M.U.T.O.s. And I liked that. Everyone’s afraid of all these big bad monsters, but they really need Godzilla to kill the bad nuclear powered dudes. However…
Where is Godzilla’s power coming from? And why does it take him so long to start breathing fire against the M.U.T.O.s? He’s having a hard time of it, he’s almost losing, then suddenly he whips out this new super-power? And quite frankly, we never saw Godzilla consume any nukes and we don’t know where that ability or power is coming from. It makes sense with the other monsters — their chowing down on whatever nuclear power they can get their hands on — but Godzilla seems to be a mystery here. And if breathing (nuclear?) fire down the M.U.T.O.s mouths will kill them, how is it they are able to survive the ingestion of nukes? It’s stupid.
I did not feel that the film delivered on what it promised us in the trailers and even in the beginning of the film itself. It sort of feels like it started off in a particular direction, then after 25 or 30 minutes it did a complete about face, sat down on the ground, then jumped up and ran to the left.
On the other hand, I did enjoy the film. It had more story than we might expect from a monster movie, even if it had its problems. I really wanted to give the film 3.5 out of 5 stars but I just couldn’t do it. It had too many problems and I was left wanting too much at the end of the journey. Give the characters something to do was my prevailing thought. It seemed they just couldn’t have any impact on the plot whatsoever, and that really hurt the film more than anything else.