Generally speaking, I’m not a huge Godzilla fan. I like and appreciate the character, his fandom, and his history, but my love of it all really begins and ends with the profound and penetrating Gojira; everything else is little more than a late-night cinematic curiosity for me. That being said, I was really excited for Gareth Edwards’ new American-ized version, meant to pick up the slack left by Roland Emmerich in 1998’s Godzilla (which had a kick ass soundtrack, to be fair).
Unfortunately, as I sat in the movie theater last night, about 30 minutes in, I got that uncomfortable lump in my stomach. You know the one. The one that makes your insides turn over as you realize you’re really not enjoying yourself. I don’t usually write stuff about movies I don’t like, but the fact that I have no real stakes in the franchise itself and I was still really excited for the movie and yet loathed it has really struck me for some reason. Godzilla is not only a terrible Godzilla movie, it’s a poorly scripted and visually derivative action blockbuster by any standard. I didn’t like Pacific Rim either, but at least that movie had some unique visual flair.
From this point on, there are full spoilers to be had. You’ve been warned!
My problem isn’t that we don’t see Godzilla all that much. My problem is the opposite; the way the movie is structured actually suggests that we shouldn’t ever see him in any way other than from the human POV. Edwards is so careful to cut away from the action every time we get into the thick of it; the first fight sees Godzilla pose like a badass only to cut to the aftermath in news footage. The second fight is cut off when Elizabeth Olsen gets trapped underground. Pretty consistently, we don’t see the action unless one of our primary characters is witnessing it for themselves. Until the final boss fight, as it were, wherein we get all of the action that we missed previously.
It’s a pretty cool fight, for sure, but it also breaks any (admittedly thin) consistency the movie has right in half. Had the focus remained on the soldiers trying to disarm the bomb while dodging debris and the limbs of gigantic monsters, it would have been more dramatically consistent and thus a better movie instead of feeling like it was giving us an obligatory monster fight that we paid to see. At least then it would be full-fledged risk taking as opposed to going halfway and then giving us what we expect anyway. I even liked the twist that Godzilla is the “good guy” and the bringer of nature’s balance. I loved the last scene of him waking up and walking back into the water, despite how much logic humanity’s reaction to him defies. It’s a great visual.
The larger problem in the movie however, is that the human characters — the main chunk of the movie — are blander than bland. The only one that’s mildly interesting, Bryan Cranston (due mostly to his great performance) is offed early on, leaving his vacuous son to take the mantle as the movie’s lead, because hey, his dad was a super smart dude he hadn’t talked to in years, so obviously he can help convey his years and years of technical research.
That aside, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character is the “hero” yet his actions do little to convey this. Sure, he rescues the kid on the train, what a swell guy, not willing to let a child lose his parents.He also gets his men killed, fails to disarm the bomb on the boat, and generally doesn’t contribute much to the mission to stop the monsters. It’s somebody else’s plan that he does nothing to help execute.
Even the theme of fathers/sons that’s established at the beginning is only half-committed to. To really drive the point home, Elizabeth Olsen would’ve had to die in the San Francisco attack, leaving Taylor-Johnson to be in a similar position as his father was when he was his son’s age. Learn from his father’s mistakes, be the father Bryan Cranston wasn’t after his wife died, etc. That’s called payoff; something Hollywood eschews in favor of a happy ending.
Olsen, while a great performer, does nothing in this movie aside from sending her kid off on a bus, scared out of his mind to be leaving his mom. And then there’s Ken “Exposition Man” Watanabe. A friend and I had joked before seeing the movie that Watanabe would be the guy that poked his head in every 10 minutes to remind us what was going on and be an all-purpose exposition machine. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what his purpose was.
Sure, he had a scene that name dropped Hirsohima in some hamfisted effort to tie this movie to the themes of Gojira, but mostly he just gaped blankly and was given pap like “Let them fight!” to spit out. And then there’s the entirety of the military, stiff as a board and spouting nonsense at inopportune times.
Besides the cardboard characters, Godzilla’s script also manages to hit all of the by-the-numbers beats of any disaster movie blockbuster. I’d be willing to bet if “Godzilla” wasn’t in the title and the movie was directed by Michael Bay or someone of his ilk, reviews would be telling a very different story.
The movie doesn’t cease with hackneyed scripting, however, as even Edwards’ visuals lack any inspiration. He hits the same beats time again, both in story and in visuals. Godzilla enters a scene one of two ways: slowly rising out of the water or simply out of nowhere. And it happens multiple times each way. Save for the first twist reveal of the MOTU and the very first time Godzilla appears, every subsequent reveal of a kaiju plays out the same way and the magic is quickly lost.
Any tension that Edwards builds is more or less derivative of Jurassic Park’s first T-Rex attack; Godzilla feels like it’s that scene stretched into two hours but without any of the excitement. With the thrill of the monsters taken away, the imbalanced POV, and the drab narrative of the human element driving the movie, there’s very little left in Godzilla for me to enjoy.
Even the action (which I’ll refrain from calling disaster porn, because the term is stupid) eventually blends together as a mess of falling buildings and explosions with no discernible location or purpose. I only bring this up since it’s become a trend of late to criticize such things in superhero movies (Man of Steel, which I loved, for example) yet Godzilla seems to get a pass because it’s, well, Godzilla.
Yet Edwards makes it a point to show children (and pets) in imminent danger and implies that, yes, they were killed. Or at least makes it impossible to refute otherwise. Like the Hiroshima reference, this seems to be an attempt at creating thematic parallels with the terror of Gojira, meanwhile ignoring the social relevance that Gojira had at the time of its release. Here, it’s simply superfluous and cheap.
Despite 2014’s Godzilla mission to redeem Hollywood’s vision of Godzilla, it’s more of a Roland Emmerich movie than even Emmerich’s own Godzilla. Bummer.