I’ll be the first to admit that I did not care for Gareth Edwards’ previous (and only other) feature, Monsters. I did not think it was a “bad” film per say, but the films seemed to focus on very uninteresting characters and on top of that performed by actors who, though performed relatively well, didn’t quite have the presence to carry the film the way it needed to. This would have been forgivable had it not been for the most laughably unsatisfying endings I’ve experienced in recent memory. I won’t get much into it, due to spoilers, but it seemed so amateurish and poorly thought out that it ended in a way where the whole point of the film contradicted itself within minutes of each other with two reveals, resulting in a thematically vapid ending that made the whole journey beforehand kind of meaningless. I don’t mean to harp on this film; it’s OK at best, just nothing special apart from its effective and efficient use of a low budget. However, despite those feelings, I was extremely excited for Godzilla. Granted it was mostly because I’ve been a Godzilla fan since I was a kid, and it’s been a decade since the last Godzilla was released (2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars).
Godzilla follows a family torn apart by a death in Japan, when nuclear plant workers Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and wife, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) find themselves in the middle of what seems like an earthquake. This results in a disaster that kills Sandra. 15 years later, their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordinance disposal officer in the US Navy and he lives with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco. However, he is distant from his father who has become an obsessed conspiracy theorist who is convinced that the government is hiding something by covering up the death of his wife. One thing leads to another, Ford has to get his father out of jail, but they find themselves stuck in a situation at the old plant that reveals that something is being hidden there. And with the military and assistance from scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), they must find a way to stop two giant monsters called MUTOs, though it seems that something else is coming out of the ocean to take out the monsters for them.
Let’s just get this out of the way. If you’re a huge Godzilla fan like me, and you haven’t already seen the film, just go. Go out and watch it, you’re going to have a blast. The rest of this review will be geared towards people who aren’t that familiar with the franchise.
One film that most mainstream moviegoers might compare Godzilla to would probably be Pacific Rim. However, I don’t think that comparison is very fair. Yes, they are essentially in the same subgenre, but their takes on the subject matter are at polar opposites. To put it in in a more clear contrast, Pacific Rim is like Independence Day, and Godzilla is like the 2005 War of the Worlds. Independence Day and War of the Worlds are both alien invasion films, but their takes on that are so completely different. Godzilla is more comparable to War of the Worlds in several ways, but I’m going to first talk about the negative aspects of the film. One (of the many) issues of War of the Worlds is that, despite taking the subject matter as seriously as possible, it is still plagued by some of the issues of its B-movie roots. Godzilla suffers from this as well.
The biggest criticism that Godzilla has received is that the human characters are boring and uninteresting. This has been a huge problem with most, if not all, Godzilla films. I was only able to forgive the film for this because I’m so used to it at this point that it doesn’t quite register the same way it would for those expecting a lot of Godzilla action from the get-go. So, yes, the human characters in this film are very generic. Even down to the lead character’s name. Ford Brody? You’re kidding me, right? The only shred of personality we get from this character is an occasional smirk by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Don’t get me wrong the acting from everyone is fine; it’s just that the writing does not give them much to work with. The only bad actors in the film are the child actors. Seriously, I can make an excuse that someone who is a career military guy like Ford might act as passive as he does in this film, but the children are outrageously flat. There is little to no emoting from them, even during situations where they should cry or scream or, at the very least, look scared. Getting back to the point, there really doesn’t seem to be any reason for Ford to be the lead. I honestly thought Ishiro Serizawa was a much more interesting character. He is the Godzilla expert, his father was apparently killed during the Hiroshima bombing, and he spent his entire life studying Godzilla and searching for other monsters to observe them and see what he could learn. It almost feels like the film is just a much better version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! For those who don’t know, that film is essentially a dumbed down, heavily re-edited version of the original 1954 Gojira made for American audiences with new footage of Raymond Burr awkwardly crammed into the film. It’s not that good, and like I said, this new film plays out like a great version of that. Here, it seems like Ishiro should have been the lead, but they wrote it in a way to force Ford as the lead.
Another aspect regarding the characters is that they are all stock characters. In fact, though the film is undeniably a Godzilla film, it’s clearly an American one. The characters and plot elements in the film are out of every disaster movie you’ve ever seen. You got the generic lead guy, the scientist-who-we-thought-was-crazy-but-was-right-the-whole-time, the exposition dump character, the heavy military presence, the patient wife and kid waiting to reunite with their generic father, the ticking time bomb climax and various other tropes. I want to stress that the film is far from horribly written, the plot and characters are serviceable, but that’s about it. Like most Godzilla films, the characters and stories are meant to simply establish a situation where Godzilla would be necessary before they let the big guy cut loose.
Another common complain that I hear is that there’s not enough Godzilla. It is true that Godzilla is only shown for maybe a half hour or so and full body shots are about half that time. This is where we consider how effective build up works. The film does a lot of teasing, a lot. Like, blue balls level. It seems like Godzilla is finally about to go at it and then they cut away, and they do this multiple times. It’s almost absurd enough to find some humor in it, but I can definitely see audience members felling like their patience is being tested. This is where I come back to the characters. There is a reason why a film like Jaws is considered one of the best films ever made, in fact there are many, but one thing that the film exceled at is setting up interesting and compelling characters whose journey you want to follow. That way, the build up to the reveal of the shark, which comes very late into the film, is that much more effective. You know these characters well, you understand them, and you believe them as human beings and you want to see them succeed. So, where Godzilla stumbles is how uninteresting the characters in the film are, so instead of enjoying the company of Ford Brody, you’re checking your watch and wondering when Godzilla is going to show up. As much as I personally enjoyed the film, I am not going to use the excuse of “well, all the other Godzilla movies are like this” to defend this film’s problem, even if it doesn’t bother me personally because regardless of my reaction, I still acknowledge that these are still big problems. This may or may not be due to the fact that the script (credited to Max Borenstein) was first written by David Callaham (who is given a story credit), then had brief work done on by David Goyer, followed by Max taking over work on the script, which was then followed by Drew Pearce who was hired to polish the script, and topping it off with Frank Darabont contributing to the final script. It wouldn’t surprise me if certain things got lost in the shuffle during this process.
I also think the film suffered from severe pre-release hype. Even as a Godzilla fan, I was a bit dumbfounded as to how anticipated the film seemed to be by a lot of people. Yes, the trailers were amazing, but Godzilla, despite its recognizability, is still a niche character. It would be like if the general public was stoked for the upcoming Power Rangers reboot. Especially considering that the film is more fun than the trailers would suggest, and they came off as more apocalyptic and dour (which does occur in the film at times, but not as a whole). The problem with this hype is that people seemed to have expected it to be one of the best movies of 2014 and it would totally transcend the monster movie genre, and like War of the World’s, despite the film’s best efforts, it’s still a B-movie given $100+ million to spend. Its money spent well, mind you, but it’s still a B-movie at heart.
Those are the negatives that I wanted to focus on before I move onto the positives. There are some other things like certain plot elements that I found silly and unnecessary, but I can’t get into them without spoiling things. Now, despite being a bit harsh on the film, I do think there is a lot of good in the film, in fact, I’d say there’s enough good to make the film work as a whole. If you noticed, I mentioned War of the Worlds and Jaws, both Steven Spielberg films, and I’ll even bring up Jurassic Park soon. This is on purpose. Gareth Edwards is clearly using techniques right out of the Spielberg book on filmmaking, and even though he doesn’t succeed 100% (because no one other than Spielberg can pull off Spielbergian filmmaking), he still does a good job at emulating many of Spielberg’s techniques. Even though the characters weren’t interesting enough to really make the film compelling to follow from a narrative standpoint, the actual story and plot did a good job of upping the ante to the intense third act. The situation was interesting to follow because Gareth Edwards’ approach was different in how it goes for a grounded, “what if this actually happened?” interpretation making the film interesting in a way the characters failed to do so. He does a great job at creating a sense of awe whenever the creatures were on screen, while also using subtle elements to build suspense. Sort of in the same way Spielberg generated intensity during the T-Rex’s reveal or the kitchen scene with the Velociraptors, except a thousand times bigger. There are also numerous visual homages to Jurassic Park that I noticed in the film. I also appreciated that the film does not forget the subtext that Godzilla is rooted in. Godzilla originated as an allegory for nuclear weapons, and this film continues the subtext but does not copy what Ishirō Honda did with the original film back in 1954. Gareth Edwards does his own approach, somewhat similar to how Spielberg recreated post-9/11 paranoia by using familiar imagery for War of the Worlds, he uses nuclear power more as a plot device which powers up the MUTOs, while also using recent natural disasters to make a point on how Godzilla is a force of nature and the various images in the film are very reminiscent of recent events like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, to name a few. Aside from that, the film truly excels at its many technical aspects. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is absolutely jaw-dropping with beautiful use of sweeping wide shots going hand in hand with the film’s incredible special effects and production design. Alexandre Desplat’s score is the best I’ve heard so far this year, providing an amazing mix of modern atmospherics with old school B-movie theatricality. And dear God, the sound design is perfect, every time you hear the roar; it just makes your whole body shake. I cannot compliment the production team behind the film enough.
Godzilla may not have been the accessible, cerebral or action-packed film that transcends it’s genre in the same way The Dark Knight transcended the comic book movie genre, but for fans of the franchise, this is just another welcomed addition to the king’s legacy. So, even when others may be (understandably) disappointed, fans will surely get what they want out of the film. For everyone else, you may want to lower your expectations. It is by no means a bad film, far from it in fact, but it seems that Gareth Edwards focused so much on pulling off Godzilla properly that he forgot to give the same attention to his human characters and while that’ll certainly test the patience of many, it is more than made up by the third act, which delivers one of the most satisfying climaxes in recent memory. Godzilla is one hell of an experience, it is flawed, but it delivers where it counts and it does what most films these days don’t do, and that’s leaving you wanting more. Do yourself a favor and see it on the biggest screen possible.
Side Note: My Top 10 Godzilla films. 10. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) 9. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995) 8. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) 7. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) 6. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) 5. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) 4. Destroy All Monsters (1968) 3. Godzilla (1984) 2. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) 1. Gojira (1954) If you’re not too familiar with Godzilla films, these would serve as a good place to start. There are about 30 of them, so take your time. I’m not sure where I would rank the latest film at the moment. Gut instincts tell me somewhere in the top five, but time will tell. Hopefully, the new film will do enough to green light a sequel, and whether it continues it’s more serious-minded route, or goes in a more campy direction, I’ll be there. They should definitely bring in Jet Jaguar in a future film.