I wasn’t that much of a Godzilla fan as a kid. I seem to recall thinking it was a bit silly, given Godzilla was obviously some guy in a latex suit (I was a huge Ultraman fan, probably because Ultraman was more anthropomorphic). But then, when other monsters were introduced for Godzilla to fight, it became a little cooler. Still, I maintained a distance. I watched the 80s cartoon (“Up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, he stands in the sky!”) and enjoyed that. Fast forward nearly twenty years later and I’m watching a leaner, refined Godzilla from Roland Emmerich. Maybe because I wasn’t a devoted Godilla fan, I liked the new more realistic look. Sure, I hated most of the cartoonish characters and the Jurassic Park cribbing, but I walked away mildly entertained by the creature. Still chasing Godzilla fandom, I watched Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, both of which I consider to be in the same wheelhouse as Godzilla. Again, I was mildly entertained, despite the silliness. Then came news of Godzilla, a film that reverts the creature back to his upright-standing roots. Listening to all the buzz, I figured this would be the film that would finally, after nearly four decades, lock me in as a Godzilla fan.
Unfortunately, I walked away from this film only mildy entertained, slightly bored, perhaps even less of a Godzilla fan. Why less? I’ve narrowed it down to two main reasons:
1) All the movies and programs I previously mentioned, including the widely-reviled 1998 film, had one thing in common that this film lacks in spades: at a minimum, they were FUN. Let me be clear, I have no problem with taking a campy property or concept and injecting a more serious tone. In fact, I welcome it. But you gotta know when to let up. With Godzilla, the filmmakers clearly don’t. The first half hour is devoted to the always amazing Bryan Cranston setting up the story. As Joe Brody, supervisor of the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, he comes across as the stereotypical “lone person” who knows the truth about what is yet to be, but is marginalized. Although his character is a familiar trope, Cranston holds the screen. The nuclear plant is destroyed in an alleged earthquake and Brody pays a huge price.
Fast forward fifteen years and, as you would expect, he’s become the lunatic no one takes seriously, even his grown naval munitions expert son (Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s not until creatures start sprouting from the ground that his warnings are taken seriously and of course, by then, it’s too late. Whenever Cranston is the focus of the plot, the film maintains an intriguing gravity. But that becomes trying nearly a half hour into the film with no appearance by Godzilla. And when Cranston is not the center of the plot, it becomes expositorily leaden. If you thought Man Of Steel wrung all the fun out of Superman, you’re likely to be similarly disappointed. As a nuclear scientist, Ken Watanabe, another reliable actor, punctuates the fact that there’s not much fun to be had here, because he’s given very little to do outside of scowling and frowning in subdued panic while delivering all his lines in the stereotypical clipped and stern fashion that speaks of IMPENDING DOOM, reserved for two-dimensional Japanese characters in hokey martial arts films.
2) I would assume that a film entitled Godzilla would feature…Godzilla. Godzilla seemed to be an afterthought in this film. Put it this way: as I mentioned earlier, the first act involves much character definition along with plot setup. We exit the first half not having seen Godzilla, but two large creatures resembling metallic stinkbugs. I can’t overstate that much of this portion of the film is devoted to the portentous admonitions of Brody, warning of impending doom if they don’t heed his advice that the tremblings underneath their feet are more than an earthquake. It’s beaten over our heads that SOMETHING is coming and sure enough, once the first stinkbug appears (they’re referred to as MUTO: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), all hell breaks loose. The creature lays waste to Honolulu and soon thereafter runs rampant in Las Vegas and San Francisco, joined by a companion MUTO.
Putting aside the odd design of these creatures, from a CG standpoint, they are impressive. Although like nearly every other kaiju film of late, they’re rarely shot in broad daylight, only in fog, mist, rain and night. The populace and we the audience are awed by their size and mass. And they do look convincingly massive. Their presence and the havoc they wreak are in direct proportion to the awe and fear they’re afforded prior to their appearance. But this is a Godzilla movie. And surprisingly, Godzilla’s introduction comes across as merely an afterthought. Godzilla is just all of a sudden…there. It makes one scratch one’s head why all the shock and awe that any of these MUTO creatures could exist when apparently this movie wants us to believe that some of the characters are fully aware that Godzilla has been in existence for some time. And for whatever reason, when he appears out of the blue, or more accurately, out of the sea, his only motivation is to fight the MUTO. No explanation is given, as far as I could tell, why he suddenly appears, other than he’s been tracking the creatures. For nearly 60 years. Okay, moving on. Godzilla’s sudden appearance, with the flimsiest of setups, is rationalized as his being akin to a force of nature. More than that, Godzilla comes off as deus ex machina with scales.When the fighting ensues, the destruction is akin to an extinction-level event. Throw a red cape on Godzilla and it’s Superman vs. Zod in Metropolis all over again. At least, the mayhem here is warranted, given it’s caused by mindless monsters.
The film is peppered with ostentatious nods to the Asian audience, one of which is glaringly obvious involving a lost Asian child. It borders on insulting, particularly given that it goes absolutely nowhere. Nonetheless, I think I speak for us all when I say we come to a Godzilla movie to see Godzilla stomp around, breathe fire (blue fire?), and fight other monsters. Sure, it’s great when the source material is taken seriously. But if that’s the approach, why cut corners and limit an actor of Cranston’s abilities to a handful of scenes and why not give Godzilla the setup he deserves, force of nature or not? Having said that, there’s a fine line to walk when making a film of this nature too serious. Because at the end of the day, let’s remember that the source material revolves around a guy wearing a latex suit. 3/5 reels
P.S. I don’t know if it’s the innate immature schoolboy in me or if I should submit myself to a series of Rorshacht tests, but something about seeing a female MUTO, despite the fact it’s a horrifying creature, take a phallic-shaped nuclear missile and stick it between it’s legs makes me think of Samuel L. Jackson’s proclamation that Redtube is one of the greatest contributions to pop culture in the last 50 years.