godzilla

It’s easy to forget that Godzilla was originally supposed to be scary. In his debut 1954 film, he’s a terrifying force of nature, a nigh-unstoppable behemoth unleashed by man’s nuclear folly, and only defeated by a weapon even worse than an atom bomb. But in the sixty years since, something strange happened. Godzilla became a movie star. In the dozens of sequels produced over the decades, he is at the very least the lesser of two evils, pitted against some other monster threat for the ultimate benefit of humanity. Now he has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During my screening of the film, most of the audience cheered when Godzilla first showed himself, and the film plays for that reaction. The word “savior” is even used in regards to the monster within the movie.

The thing is that this is barely a Godzilla movie. Two other giant monsters have more screentime than the title character. In the style of the times, they are not given proper names, but are both referred to as MUTOs, an acronym. Because giving them names would be silly or something, and not “realistic.” This film takes the Christopher Nolan Batman approach of arbitrary realism, sprinkling a sheen of verisimilitude over the proceedings that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Which means that it instead makes the movie’s self-seriousness self-defeating, often unintentionally funny.

The new Godzilla tries to apply the horrific tone of the original film onto a plot that could have come from any of its sequels. The two MUTOs, one male and one female, are trying to meet up and mate, and they tear through every city they come in contact with along the way. The American military is desperately trying to kill them, but no weapons leave a scratch. The solution, it seems, is to let Godzilla do his thing.

There are a lot of non-CGI characters running around this plot, but none of them really matter. Bryan Cranston is kind of fun in full-on shouting mode, playing a man attempting to unravel the military’s cover up of an early incident with a MUTO that claimed the life of his wife (a wasted Juliette Binoche). But (SPOILER alert) the movie pulls a Janet Leigh in Psycho move with Cranston, killing him off early on. It’s a shame, since none of the other actors are nearly as into it as he is (END SPOILERS).

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Cranston’s son, and he’s the viewpoint character for most of the story. But he is a non-presence, failing to emote and given nothing but the bare minimum of stock empathy-generating devices  to earn the audience’s loyalty. One of those devices is Elizabeth Olsen as his wife, who gets nothing at all to do. There’s also Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as scientists who have been given every single stock disaster movie scientist line of dialogue to say. “My god!” “Are these readings correct?!” So on and so forth. They are next to pointless, Hawkins especially so (you’ll notice that there’s a pattern here of the movie wasting talented actresses, almost as if the writers made no room for women in their script and had to tack some on).

There are two warring movies in Godzilla. One movie is a horrifying disaster movie in the vein of the original. Director Gareth Edwards has stated numerous times that he wanted to be faithful to the 1954 version in such a manner. The other movie is a crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster with a lot of monster fights. These two movies get in each others’ way, and fail to deliver adequately on either front as a result.

This can’t be an effective disaster movie when the viewer doesn’t care about any of the people in the midst of the disasters. For that matter, much of the destruction is shot from an extreme distance, automatically creating a remove between the audience and the people supposedly affected by it. And when it does hit the ground, it does so in the most eye-rollingly cliched ways. We’re given to badmouth Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla, but this movie pulls a stunt with a dog running from danger that was done better in Independence Day. 

This can’t be an effective monster fight movie because there’s so little monster fighting in it. In fact, there are exactly three battles between Godzilla and the MUTOs – and the first two are barely shown. Both times, the film cuts away, and both times, my audience groaned. There’s much more action involving the military going up against the MUTOs, which is extraordinarily repetitive. To whit: one sequence has Taylor-Johnson’s character as part of an escort for a nuclear device the army hopes to deploy. He and some other soldiers inspect a bridge, only to be attacked by a MUTO, which then tries to take the device (they feed on radiation, see), but ends up leaving it. The military then retrieves the device. Thus, the entire sequence was utterly pointless.

The worst part is that when Godzilla and the MUTOs finally go at it on-screen, it’s pretty exhilarating. In fact, the climactic fight is everything I wanted but mostly did not get from Pacific Rim. It’s a showcase for what does work about this film – the visuals. Godzilla and the MUTOs are well-executed special effects. They live, they breathe, they fight and they die, and it is all quite convincing. It’s clear that Edwards and company should have dropped all pretense of gravitas and just let themselves have fun with this.

Godzilla clocks in at just over two hours, which is brief for a summer blockbuster. And yet it felt longer. The long stretches of monster-less talking between people who engender no empathy whatsoever deaden the movie. It bored me horribly. Godzilla does not appear in full until something like halfway through, at which point the film cruelly snatches him away and makes you focus on dull humans again. In the first Godzilla, the monster was also only sporadically present, but the effects he had on Japanese society always took center stage. Here, rote military maneuvers that have more to do with other monsters push Godzilla to the periphery of a movie with his name on it. And why do so many blockbusters now have to come from this military perspective, anyway? It’s getting old. Soldiers aren’t regular people.

I was looking forward to Godzilla more than any other big movie this summer, so perhaps I took this disappointment especially hard. I know that I am in the minority in not enjoying it. But I maintain that it fails far more than it succeeds at what it tries to do.