When I go to the movies, not matter how much I’ve been looking forward to what I’m about see, I tend to expect the worse. You might say this is a bad policy (you might be right), that I’m setting myself up to be let down (maybe I am), but I find a cynical mind makes me appreciate the movies I genuinely enjoy so much more. So, going into Godzilla (2014) and taking into account the recent track record for reboots and adaptations of old franchises, I was bracing myself, fully prepared to find the humans boring, hate the new monster designs, be bombarded with jingoism and cultural insensitivity, and see talented actors wasted. Turns out my fears were completely unfounded. However, that meant I was also completely unprepared for the film’s actual problems.
Here’s the story: Two ancient beasts called Mutos (one male, one female) rise from the earth and proceed to lay waste to the cities of man. A third giant creature called Godzilla rises from the sea to lay the smack down on the Mutos. The military scrambles to find a way to take out all three, but Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) a scientist who has been studying Godzilla for years believes the monsters should be left alone to fight. Meanwhile, physicist Joe Brody (Brian Cranston) – whose wife was indirectly killed because of a Muto – seeks to find the truth about the monsters, and drags his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy lieutenant, with him.
I found most of the human characters to be pretty enjoyable, the one exception being Sally Hawkins as Vivienne Graham. She’s a fantastic actress (check out Happy-Go-Lucky for proof) but as Serizawa’s assistant she isn’t given anything to do other than ask him questions. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also wasn’t given much to work with – he’s worried for his family and determined to get back to them, that’s about it – but he benefits from more screen time. He does about as much as you could ask from such a simple role, so it’s easier for the audience to warm up to him. Watanabe and Cranston gave the best performances of the film. With the amount of yelling Joe Brody has to do, the part really could have come off over the top to the point of parody. Luckily Cranston knows when to go all in and when to pull back. His screen time is relatively short, but he makes the most of it.
Watanabe’s Serizawa, you could say, is the heart of the film. As the film’s monster expert, he has respect and admiration for the giants, which made him seem like a stand-in for Godzilla fans (like me), and without being too simplistic about race, as a Japanese man he’s a fitting link to the atomic themes of the original Godzilla. Again, this is a character that could have come off very wrong if played quirky, but Watanbe plays the character as straight as possible, leading to some of the most emotional moments in the film.
Speaking of monsters, they were some of the film’s best elements (as you would expect when one of them provides the film’s title). Godzilla and the Mutos thankfully had a lot of character. The credits list motion capture black belt Andy Serkis as “Motion Capture Consultant.” I have to imagine one of the things Mr. Serkis consulted on was facial expression – something his characters, whether Cesar or Gollum, have always been good for. There’s a moment in the film where we get a close-up of the female Muto’s face, and she looks pissed. For a face that has the features of a falcon, a manta ray and a staple remover, it can’t be easy to show any emotion, but they nailed it.
The monsters aren’t just interesting in terms of special effects, but also in terms of theme. This may have been the first Godzilla film where none of the monsters were the results of human experiments. They’re all natural, 100% organic. Back in the heyday of the Godzilla franchise, the creatures could represent fear of nuclear weapons, fear of things beyond the stars, even fear of an oncoming war. Here, they represent nature and how little man can do to stop it. It makes sense to take this approach for a modern film. Think of all the headline-grabbing natural phenomena we’ve had to deal with in the past decade: tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, that whole Polar Vortex. Even if you don’t consider climate change a reality, there is pervading sense that the world will do what it wants, indifferent to human life. The Mutos and Godzilla don’t cause destruction and death because they hate humans, they just don’t care that we’re around.
But all the praise I can give the acting, or the creature design, or any other little parts of the film, doesn’t matter if Godzilla – I can’t emphasize this enough – barely appears on screen. Godzilla is on screen for (what at least feels like) about fifteen minutes of this two hour film. And no, I’m not counting the time we only see his fins sticking out of the water, or any other time he’s obscured; I’m talking about Godzilla in all his blue-fire-breathing glory. Director Gareth Edwards was advertised as a Godzilla fan, but I have to wonder about that. The film seems to go out of its way to not show its title character. For instance, the first time we see a full shot of Godzilla, he’s about to fight the male Muto. Then, the camera cuts to some people watching the parts of the fight on a television. Maybe I just don’t understand what the director was going for artistically, but I think it would have been a lot more exciting to see the entire fight. When I first saw this, I thought, “maybe they’re just teasing a fight to come,” but it’s a tactic that’s deployed more than once.
Eventually, there is an actual fight shown, but it’s shot from the ground, from the human’s point of view. So when Godzilla and a Muto move behind a building, we (the audience) don’t get to follow them because none of the people on the ground do. I don’t know when this trend of shooting fights between big things, from the perspective of smaller things started – maybe the Transformers films – but it needs to stop. It evokes nothing, it accomplishes nothing, and it does nothing but make the audience wish they could actually see the fight.
Am I crazy to want to see Godzilla in my Godzilla movie? Sure, I could be just a whiny fan, but I wonder, what did the non-fanboys and non-fangirls come to this film for? Are they not here to see the character whose name is on the theater, on the posters, on the screen? Imagine you went to see a Spider-Man movie and 85 percent of it was side characters talking about Spider-Man. Something like this could have worked if the film was a straight drama that focused on the destruction and human suffering brought about by Godzilla or the other monsters. But make no mistake, this is an action film through and through. Human death and property damage are just part of the spectacle – maybe two of the people who die in the film are named. So, if your film is simply about giant monsters fighting, show the giant monsters, and show them fighting.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad film. And I do think it’s better than the first American Godzilla and even better than the worst of the Japanese films. The acting, the story, the visuals, and the little bits of the monster battles we get to see are more than competent. I just don’t think this is what anyone – fan or casual viewer – walking into a Godzilla movie was hoping for.