Home » At the Multiplex » Godzilla (2014)
         

Godzilla (2014)

Let’s take a moment to consider the Rubin Vase. I’m sure you have before. Some look at it and see two faces while others look at it and see a vase, when in fact it’s actually both.

In my (admittedly limited) experience with Godzilla, the classic kaiju franchise is something similar. Some look at Godzilla and see a giant silly-looking superpowered reptile smashing giant silly-looking prop buildings. In fact, given the notoriously campy direction the franchise has steered toward in the past few decades, that’s probably the majority opinion. But ever since I saw the original Japanese version a few months back, I put myself in the second category: Those who look at Godzilla and see a symbol for mass destruction. All of Tokyo got crushed onscreen back in 1954, and the original film made damn sure to display every last casualty while it was happening. And it was captivating to watch, given the historical context.

So is Godzilla deathly serious or hilariously campy? Most would answer one or the other, but the simple truth is that we can’t have one without the other. Godzilla is — and has always been — both. To that end, anyone tasked with making a worthy Godzilla film must find a way to balance the silly with the somber. It’s a Herculean feat, to say the least, but I’d say that the new American remake pretty much nailed it.

From start to finish, the movie puts its focus squarely on the human element. When the film opens with a nuclear reactor meltdown, we see it from the perspective of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) losing his wife (Juliette Binoche). When San Francisco gets torn apart at the end of the film, we see it entirely through the eyes of Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). A building could get demolished or a monster could pass by, yet the camera stays focused on the terrified human beings who are running for their lives. This approach stays true to the original film while also setting it apart from most other CGI disaster films, and it’s very well done.

Director Gareth Edwards once said that when he was planning this movie, he quite purposefully avoided shots that weren’t physically possible. Every shot had to look as if the camera was placed on the street, on a rooftop, or at least on a helicopter. Naturally, this gives the film a very grounded and immersive feel without resorting to excessive shaky-cam. Quite clever, really.

However, this approach does have some drawbacks. Right up until the climax, such a heavy emphasis is placed on the human lives in danger that we barely see any monster-on-monster action. There’s one moment in particular when so much effort is put into building up Godzilla, then he shows up and he roars and it’s awesome… then the camera cuts to another scene and we see someone else watching the fight on television. It was all I could do to keep from shouting “COME ON, MAN!”

Additionally, the first half plays out like a kind of suspense thriller. We witness signs, tremors, government cover-ups, and assorted weird shit happening, as Joe relentlessly chases after ghosts while Ford plays the skeptic. It’s all foreshadowing to help establish what these monsters are and where they came from in this reboot’s mythology. Yet even after all of that, I still couldn’t give you a good explanation as to why these monsters are attacking each other, or why they all laid dormant until this exact moment in time. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that any serious attempt at explaining something so crazy is going to smell like bullshit no matter what, and even a token attempt does a lot to help suspending disbelief. On the other hand, when so much time and effort is put into explaining a backstory that still doesn’t make any sense, that’s kind of a big fucking problem.

Likewise, for all of this film’s attention on the poor humans getting slaughtered, our main characters are all quite bland. Ford is a protagonist who’s completely unmemorable, Elle (his wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen) doesn’t do much of anything to advance the plot, and the only reason why Joe works is because he’s being played by Bryan fucking Cranston. Of the three, I’m sorry to say that Olsen was the worst fit for her character. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hers, but she doesn’t have enough maturity to play the mother of a five-year-old boy (Sam Brody, played by Carson Bolde) and she doesn’t have the chemistry to play Taylor-Johnson’s wife. The two of them have enough of an easy rapport to play siblings (and I can’t wait to see them play twins in the next Avengers), but as a married couple? Sorry, the spark just isn’t there.

As for the supporting cast, Juliette Binoche only gets a handful of scenes before getting killed off, and Sally Hawkins seems to have absolutely no idea what she’s doing in this picture. David Straithairn appears as a Navy admiral who’s just zealous enough to be competent but not enough to be a living stereotype, landing somewhere in a beige sweet spot. Ken Watanabe lends Japanese credibility to the picture and gravitas to some terribly cheesy lines.

(Side note: Watanabe’s character is named Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, an obvious reference to Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, who played a pivotal role in the original Gojira movie. So pivotal, in fact, that Pacific Rim paid tribute to the character by way of the “Serizawa scale” used to place kaiju into categories. But I digress.)

It’s tempting to knock the film for placing such a huge emphasis on such stock characters. But on the other hand, it bears remembering that this was always going to be a losing battle. The simple truth is that no one cares about the human characters because we all came to see the giant monsters. No matter how interesting a human character may be, they will never be anything more than a distraction next to freaking Godzilla. As such, we only need the main human characters to be our eyes and ears on the ground, providing us with emotional stakes for the destruction going on. Given that the characters are all given clear motivations, they’re all passably competent at what they do (given the unusual circumstances), none of them grate the nerves, and none of them waste time with petty infighting, they serve this purpose well.

Now, at last, we turn to the monsters. At this point, you may have noticed how I keep referring to “monsters” as plural. See, the filmmakers were evidently smart enough to realize the aforementioned “Rubin’s Vase” nature of Godzilla. He’s both a monster and an icon, which means that he needs to be presented as a threat and a hero at the same time. The demolition has to end, but it can’t end with Godzilla’s death or the franchise will need some convoluted way to bring him back for sequels. To that end, the filmmakers introduce a monster for Godzilla to fight, so we can all have our cake and eat it too.

In this case, the other giant monster is the Muto (which is actually an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), a parasitic creature that seems to have no greater goal than its own procreation. What’s more, the Muto feeds on radiation and has the ability to create EMPs. Basically, the Muto is a true force of nature. Much like a tsunami, a volcano, or some kind of super-plague, the Muto simply goes about its business completely unaffected by human technology. We could throw our biggest nuclear bomb at this thing and it wouldn’t do any good. It’s so far above humanity and so far removed from our capacity for harm that the Muto barely seems to notice our existence.

And here’s the kicker: There’s no Oxygen Destroyer this time. No high-heat sabot rounds, no computer virus in an ApplePowerbook, no big bad weapon made from human hands that magically arrives to save the day. The United States military does a great job of minimizing casualties and controlling the damage, but there’s never any illusion that they stand a chance at defeating Muto once and for all. That’s where Godzilla comes in.

On the one hand, Godzilla is fantastic in this movie. His design looks great, his movements showed a lot of personality, and somehow, watching him roar over and over again never got old. His fight scenes are also suitably epic, and I almost cheered out loud when his radioactive breath was finally let loose. In terms of spectacle, Gojira rocked. In terms of character, however, there was a lot to be desired.

Muto was always far more interesting than Godzilla, and that’s by far my biggest problem with this movie. I understood Muto’s motivation to feed and procreate, and that did a lot to establish Muto as a symbol of nature’s unstoppable wrath. But when it comes to Godzilla’s motivation, there’s no decent reason behind his feud with Muto. All we get is Serizawa talking about how Godzilla is there to “restore balance,” like that means anything.

Finally, I’d like to give a substantial amount of credit to Alexandre Desplat, who composed a delightfully epic score for this picture. The man is a tremendously underrated composer, and his music is a key part of why this film works so well. Of course, the other big reason was Gareth Edwards. In retrospect, his previous Monsters film was all about showing the chaos of giant monsters from a grounded human perspective, with a bit of political allegory thrown in, which made it a perfect demo reel for this project. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d love to see Edwards reunite with Scoot McNairy for the next Godzilla flick.

Godzilla (2014) is hardly a perfect movie, but most of its flaws are inseparable from the material. It may have a thin plot and bland central characters, but then, so did the original film. The basic concept of giant radioactive monsters come from nowhere to destroy us will always be a silly concept no matter what attempts are made to the contrary, but take that away and this franchise wouldn’t be nearly as iconic or novel. Quite wisely, the reboot chooses not to fix or ignore these “problems,” but to embrace them as part of its heritage.

For better or worse, this is a worthy Godzilla movie. It’s a film that uses giant monsters and rampant destruction to depict our growing sense of impotence against natural disasters that seem to come more frequently every year. If that’s all you’re asking for in a Godzilla movie, then consider this mission accomplished.

Leave a Reply