Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)
Godzilla returned to theaters this weekend, sixty years after his film debut. The current version of the King of the Monsters resets the series, as Hollywood loves few things more than rebooting previously popular franchises. Does Godzilla (2014) manage to set the terrible lizard back on solid footing, or does it pile-drive the brand name further into the crater that Godzilla (1998) created when it tried to import the scourge of Tokyo to American shores? The answer, unfortunately, is a little of both.
This time around, Godzilla is essentially an unknown phenomena. An opening montage shows that the military discovered the creature in the Bikini Atoll, but buried and redacted any knowledge of him, ultimately using nuclear weaponry (disguised as “testing”) to banish him back to the sea floor. As far as the audience (and the world, except for the shadowy Monarch program) knows, they were successful…
Fast forward 40 years, and two new incidents herald a new age of atomic monstrosity: A mine collapse reveals prehistoric remains of a Godzilla-esque creature attached to two parasitic pods, one of which has apparently hatched; meanwhile, north of the remains, a nuclear reactor in Japan suffers a catastrophic collapse under suspicious circumstances. So, something sinister is in the offing…time to waste any sense of momentum and get to know our human protagonists!
The Nuclear Family
The movie takes the next 45 minutes or so to introduce us to the unluckiest family in Japan: The Brody clan. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is the head engineer of the ill-fated Janjira nuclear plant, and his wife, Sandra, is one of the regulators inspecting the facility. The pair suspect that anomalous readings from the plant may be more than natural, but disaster strikes, killing Sandra, and driving Joe to grief-stricken paranoia. Their son, Ford, watches helplessly as the plant collapses.
Fast forward 20 years (exposition!) and Ford now is the head of his own family in San Fransisco. His wife, Elle, and son, Sam eagerly greet him on his return from the Navy, where he does stuff with bombs (foreshadowing…mostly wasted.) Just as Ford settles back into normal life, he finds out that his father has been arrested for breaching the Janjira quarantine zone. So, off to Japan again, on the first of many mind-bogglingly unlucky travel stops for poor Ford Brody.
The Brody men sneak back into the quarantine zone, and through more poor fortune, are again present for the plant’s destruction: this time at the hands of a giant creature, dubbed Muto. For reasons not entirely supported by the film’s writing, the Brody boys are recruited by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) to help deal with the new threat, said help consisting mostly of being chronically at the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually Godzilla puts in an appearance, because the 45 minutes are up, and somebody has to clean up the mess of poor decisions and credibility-straining coincidences that brings everyone of any importance back to San Francisco for the final act: the damn monsters actually dueling it out.
Let them Fight! (For God’s sake!)
Godzilla suffers from many of the complaints that dogged fellow disaster-porn franchise, Transformers: a clunky human element grafted on to an entirely self-sufficient story about creatures that are far more interesting. We came to see Optimus Prime, not Sam Witwicky, Hollywood, so just go ahead and ditch the dead wood. The Brody clan is generic and yawn-inducing, and would not warrant even 5 minutes of your time, were it not for the amazing talent they have for being around disasters just before they break out. This is not a useful or interesting skill-set to have. That they keep surviving where millions of others perish is perhaps the most damning evidence one could muster against natural selection.
The first and last 20 minutes of the film are perfectly sufficient to introduce the monsters, and to establish a credible reason for their existence, and to give them enough real estate to get to the business of beating the high holy heck out of each other. Since the addition of Monarch, Dr. Serizawa, the Military, and the God-blighted Brody family do zero in the way of adding to this story, you quickly realize they are irrelevant. All of them. You could argue that Godzilla (2014) tells a cautionary tale about human nature…so far as monstrous stupidity is the defining trait of nearly every character shorter than a skyscraper.
Smoke and Heat, but No Light.
Godzilla does manage to escape one of the pitfalls of a Michael Bay film: the action is actually beautiful and fun to watch. The cinematography and effects are at least very good, and quite a few times they achieve excellence. The visuals of fog, shadow, smoke, rain, and fire are all aesthetically pleasing and appropriate. The contrast of light and dark is often stunning. Role this together with a fine (if subdued) musical score and some spine-tingling sound effects, and you certainly get your money’s worth for an action film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey manages to get the best out of his material. It may not be as stylish as last year’s Pacific Rim, but quite often it is just as awe-inspiring.
Design-wise, this Godzilla has teeth. He is easily the best looking take on the creature yet filmed, and I have a real soft spot for the terrific work Toho did in updating the foam-based suit for their Millennium Era version of the spined titan. Godzilla manages to be appear fluid and powerful, yet still retain at touch of the lumbering gracelessness that characterized an actual person laboring under a costume. The designs for the Muto are a touch sci-fi generic, but are a decent call back to winged Kaiju like Rodan and Mothra (who has a fun little cameo, if you can spot it.)
Hail to the King?
Does this Godzilla succeed where Hollywood failed in 1998? I would have to say yes. For one, they have created a pretty kick-ass Godzilla. While it doesn’t add anything new to his character (in fact, it skips any ambiguity about his role: Godzilla is the good guy, end of story) it does create a universe where this character is plausible (up to a point…if he’s such a “alpha predator” why doesn’t he ever eat anything? Alpha Vegetarian Predator?”) and can continue to grow. It has also managed to create an open sandbox, where any monster you care to dig up can be taken out for a spin (and no Xilien aliens needed!) As a going concern, this Godzilla leaves the franchise open to further development.
Is Godzilla (2014) any good? Yes and no. The story is either patchy and serviceable, or just plain awful when it comes to humans interacting with the monsters. Anything involving the Brody family is just wasted time. The military is always pretty flaccid in Godzilla movies (even armed with masers, phasers, and giant ice lasers) but here they are downright incompetent. The scientific community, usually the shining example of humanity in Toho’s presentation, are equally terrible. That being said, you came for monsters, and Godzilla does deliver monsters in spades. If only they could have jettisoned the feeble human-interest angle, you’d have a thoroughly enjoyable flick.
As a cinematic achievement, Godzilla unfortunately flounders. While it may seem silly to aspire to high art about a creature double-feature, the enduring legacy of the Godzilla franchise was created in no small part due to Ishiro Honda being able to construct a 500 foot tall foam-rubber metaphor. The angst and terror of the monster was less visceral and more existential: how will humanity proceed, now that nature has answered our hubris in such stark terms? That the movies got away from this source of unease (though occasionally revisiting it with less subtlety in films like Godzilla vs. Destroyah and Godzilla 2000) was a sore loss…not an admirable goal. It’s hard to catch that blue nuclear-fire in a bottle twice, but it would have been nice to at least take a swipe at it. Godzilla (2014) is thematically a pale shadow of Honda’s towering achievement, much more in line with the monster a-go go fests the series became than the serious horror roots it sprung from. Rather than pressing the reset button back to a clean slate, Godzilla (2014) merely wipes away most of the accumulated campy grime. Time will tell if that is enough to build a respectable series on.