It’s hard to believe that a giant, spiked lizard could have such a long lasting legacy on the big screen. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and there could be no better way to celebrate that milestone than with a big new blockbuster film. First seen in the original Japanese movie Gojira (1954), Godzilla was clearly a product of his time. For a nation still reeling from destruction by a nuclear bomb, Godzilla was a symbol of Japan’s fears about it’s own insecurity in the post-war years. Godzilla’s reign of terror in those early films was clearly meant to represent the dangers of nuclear warfare, but his presence could have also represented any other kind of force of nature that is well out of mankind’s control. That’s probably why Godzilla has enjoyed such longevity on the big screen. He represents a timeless menace that everyone can fear, no matter what time or place he exists. That, and the fact that Godzilla movies are almost always fun to watch. To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies in total, most of them made in his native Japan by the Toho film company. The original film still holds up as a classic thriller, even with the crude special effects. It proved to be so popular in fact that it was one of the first Japanese post-war films to have a wide international release; even premiering in most American first-run cinemas, thanks to an Americanized cut that presented the original movie with actor Raymond Burr spliced in for narration.
Of course, most Godzilla movies look dated now because special effects have become much more sophisticated over time. Today, it would look silly to have a man in the Godzilla costume walking around and destroying a model set, but that’s what worked well enough 60 years ago. Now with CGI becoming the norm in visual effects, it makes much more sense to have the creature be animated; it makes him look far less artificial (to a point). American filmmakers have certainly looked at the creature for inspiration in their own larger than life monster movies, and to date there have been two major attempts by Hollywood at making their own films centered around the big green brute. The first attempt was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, which is a classic example of how not to make a Godzilla movie. Godzilla (1998) is a notoriously bad film. It puts much more emphasis on it’s uninteresting human characters, relies too heavily on goofy humor, and it redesigned the monster to the point where it was no longer recognizable. In fact, Godzilla looked more like a rejected design for one of the T-Rex’s in Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that this Godzilla was clearly trying to emulate and failed. Sixteen years after this notorious misfire, Warner Brothers has now released a new Godzilla (2014), and it sticks much more closely to the formula that has been used for 60 years in Japan. Did it work this time around? Kinda.
The story is nothing that we haven’t seen before. It’s basically the same plot of every Godzilla movie before it, only done on a much more global scale. The story begins with nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) witnessing the destruction of his power plant by some unseen force. After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the accident, Joe becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened. Fifteen years pass and Joe is confronted by his Army-trained, bomb expert son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who begrudgingly follows him back into the quarantined area of the accident. There they find what caused the mayhem in the first place, and it’s now just waking up from it’s slumber. A giant, spider-like creature called a MUTO (mysterious unidentified terrestrial organism) starts wrecking havoc and begins making it’s way across the Pacific Ocean. Ford quickly makes his way back to America in order to help stop the advancing threat, but not before being informed by scientists, Doctors Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), that another monster is also following the Muto across the Pacific; it’s natural predator and ancient adversary: Godzilla. What follows is a race against time between the monsters and the humans before an inevitable showdown in the city of San Francisco.
Naturally, with a film based off of a legacy like this one is, it’s going to have to face some scrutiny with comparisons to other films. The movie, for me, is a mixed bag. Is it bad? Not really. I can see a lot of people enjoying this one, especially when it gets to the climatic battle scenes. Also, as far as Americanized Godzilla movies go, this one is light-years better than the Roland Emmerich version. This movie, for one thing, doesn’t resort to using goofball hi-jinks with it’s human characters in order to entertain it’s audience. This movie treats everything and everyone involved with the utmost seriousness; something that it probably does a little too well. Let, me state right away what my biggest issue was with this movie, and that is it’s pacing. It takes this movie a long time to build up steam towards what it intends to deliver. For most of the film, you witness more of the aftermath of what these creatures are doing rather than the actual destruction. There are a lot of instances where the movie cuts to news footage of the mayhem, which isn’t as effective as it would’ve been if the movie had actually let us see it up close. Now, I do understand that most of the early Japanese Godzilla movies were structured like this as well; saving all the best action moments for the end. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t effective enough during it’s monster-less moments to make this kind of structure work.
I do blame this more on the shoddy editing rather than on the strengths of the performances. The human actors here unfortunately have little to do, other than to react to what’s going on. The movie moves around so much that character development suffers, and many of the main cast usually just fall into stock characterizations. Aaron-Taylor Johnson suffers the most because of this in his performance. He’s a fine actor, but the movie never gives him the chance to show off anything interesting in his persona, so he just resorts to becoming your standard every-man protagonist. Ford really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the movie until one course of action towards the very end, and even still, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the monsters. It’s surprising that a cast this prestigious, filled with many award winners, comes across as so bland in this movie. Only Cranston and Watanabe stand out in their roles, and just barely. It may be a little unfair to make the comparison, but this is why a movie like Pacific Rim (2013) works so much better. That movie managed to balance out the human story-lines with the fighting monsters plot perfectly, giving both the time and focus they needed to work and it kept everything simple. In this movie, you’ll start getting impatient because the plot chooses to hold off on it’s monsters, which just makes 2/3’s of this movie feel like one, prolonged tease.
But, when it does get to that final 1/3 of the movie, it is indeed spectacular. At that point, the film knows who the star is, and he doesn’t disappoint. If people come away from this movie satisfied, it will be because of the final showdown at the end. One of the many reasons why this Godzilla is so much better than the Emmerich version is because he looks the way that Godzilla should look. While slightly modified, this Godzilla looks more like the classic version. One thing that this movie does improve upon from all other Godzilla movies before it is the sense of scale given to the monsters. His presence in this movie will show you exactly why he is called the “King of the Monsters.” When Godzilla makes his first appearance in the movie, it is a chilling moment, and it perfectly illustrates why we love the monster in the first place. You know you’ve done a good job with bringing the creature to life when Godzilla makes the audience break out in applause at certain points. Also, I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for keeping Godzilla’s one-of-a-kind roar in this movie, because he wouldn’t be the same without it. Even though the movie makes you wait long stretches for him, it does do right by the character. That’s mainly why the film can be infuriating at times, because all you want is more of the big guy. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to be careful and not spoil the character with too many scenes, but I think this is where caution should have been discouraged.
The film is especially well crafted, and does work well at portraying the mayhem caused by the monsters in the movie. The film was made by Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects producer who’s only directed one feature prior to this one; the far more modestly budgeted Monsters (2010). While I think Mr. Edwards still needs to refine his skills as a story-teller, I do believe that he has a remarkable vision when it comes to the scope of this movie. He especially avoids the tiresome Michael Bay convention of shaky camera work, and lets the action play out in tightly controlled compositions. We thankfully get very long and detailed looks at the monsters, which helps the audience comprehend what’s going on in every scene. And again, the director’s sense of scale is very well displayed here. The design team also deserves a lot of credit, helping to make this film feel right at home with the look of the original movies, while at the same time retaining that Hollywood gloss that we’ve come to expect from a big tent-pole film. The Muto creatures are a nice hybrid of that modern design and traditional Japanese aesthetic that the movie is trying to accomplish. I often thought that they looked like armor-plated versions of the Cloverfield (2008) monster, and they compliment Godzilla very well and make great foes for him in the end. Where the movie falters in it’s story, it does indeed make it up in it’s visuals, and it can definitely be said that Godzilla has never looked better on the big screen.
If this movie becomes a big success, which indeed seems very likely, I’m sure we’ll see more Hollywood films centered around the big, green guy again. My hope is that the filmmakers actually puts more of the focus on the creatures themselves, and less on the plots concerning the humans. Maybe the filmmakers were living by the motto that less is more with regards to monster movies, but I think they went a little too far. Yes, the showdown at the end is worth the wait (especially when Godzilla shows off his special trick), but it’s a long way to get there. When your movie is named after a certain monster, you’d expect to see plenty of him throughout the run-time. Oddly enough, more screen-time is devoted to the Mutos in this movie than Godzilla himself. This is indeed how the original Godzilla movies structured, but I think it may have worked better in the movie’s favor if it broke from tradition in this sense. More interesting human characters would’ve helped too. It’s probably me being nit-picky, but I feel like the movie could’ve been better if it did something a little different. That being said, it does a fine job living up to the legacy of the franchise and it will continue to make Godzilla a relevant presence on the big screen for many years to come. It certainly does that better than the awful 1998 version. Godzilla has been an influential force on western-based monster movies for years, such as Cloverfield (2008) and last year’s Pacific Rim. Now the King of Monsters is here to be a force in American cinemas on his own, and let’s hope that Hollywood will serve right by him right in the future.