There’s very few dinosaur movies in theaters nowadays. The last time I saw one on the big screen was in December, and that in turn was the first in years. So when I see a film that can be described as a dinosaur film, I must watch it. Yes, I saw Godzilla last week, and I can assume most people interested have already seen it so I can discuss it spoilers and all. Just to be safe, I’ll put a cut here before I get into the details.
As my previous Godzilla article showed, I’m a fan of the series. I even re-watched a few films before watching Gareth Edwards’ take on it. I even watched the 1998 debacle that very few people genuinely enjoyed. I was prepared for anything-there have been very good Godzilla films, and very bad ones, so I feared the worst, hoped for the best, and expected something in the middle. It’s a good strategy to get through life.
It wasn’t as good as I hoped, but not a bad film and certainly re-watchable. It’s a deeply flawed film, but it stands as a Godzilla film and for a few moments it’s amazing. I fear that Hollywood is just afraid of making a Godzilla film. Godzilla is only briefly seen, but that is expected. Most Godzilla films spend a long time without Godzilla, and the Heisei era (1984-1995) films were most notable for stories where the focus is on humans and their bizarre, tangential, kaiju-related adventures before Godzilla takes the screen. Some of the worse ones, like those made from 2001 to 2004, are often interrupted by the human story, which seems to take preference. In the last four Japanese Godzilla films, there seems to be a complete disinterest in Godzilla, playing either a generic villain or supporting hero.
I was prepared to spend most of the time with the humans. After all, even the very first Godzilla film was entirely based on the decisions of four human characters. The trick is to make them interesting to watch so they don’t feel like filler or bland stereotypes. Sadly, this one falls prey to the same flaw. There’s no one truly obnoxious like the child characters of the 1968, 1971, 1973, and 2002 Godzilla films or the news reporter heroines of the 1999 and 2001 films, but like those of the 2004 and 2003 films, it suffers from completely uninteresting young men as the heroes when more interesting characters exist.
Aaron-Taylor Johnson plays Ford Brody, an army munitions technician whose father is obsessed with a strange anomaly that killed Ford’s mother. His job keeps him in the action, and his wife and child are naturally endangered, so he’s the main human character. He’s also entirely uninteresting. Johnson has no charisma or likeability whatsoever, and writer Max Borenstein has a bizarre sense of priority by focusing on his character.
This is especially frustrating as there are two far more interesting characters the story could focus on. First is Joe Brody, played by Bryan Cranston. One of the opening sequences is Joe, working at a fictional Japanese nuclear plant that is destroyed by an anomalous earthquake. His wife is killed in an emotional scene, and he is driven to discover what caused the anomaly, and how to end it. He is killed in the opening monster scene, however, leaving his compelling plot line entirely abandoned and his entire character pointless to the preceding
The other character is Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (first name based on Godzilla’s reoccuring director Ishiro Honda, second on the tragic scientist of the first film), played by Ken Watanabe. His father killed in Hiroshima, Serizawa leads the organization Monarch in a search of bizarre anomalies covered up by the world’s governments and exposits on the kaiju. He is given little to do besides a little exposition-his counterpart in the original film, Dr. Yamane, has more time in the film and has a strong inner conflict between his scientific principles and his duty to the common good. Serizawa appears early in the film, disappears for a while, and then returns to the action very occasionally until the very end.
The problem probably comes from the fact that the plot was re-written by five people. Sometimes it’s a military-based film, not dissimilar with the horrible film Battleship from two years ago, with the practical but stupid Rear Admiral Stenz constantly acting to stop the monsters. Sometimes it’s a disaster film, focusing on people fleeing from floods, fires, and earthquakes. And sometimes it’s a Godzilla film, and that’s where it’s at its best.
What the promotion of the film hid from the audiences until near the end was that it wasn’t a simple “Godzilla on a rampage” film. For this, I applaud them. This was a major weakness of the 1985 reboot and 1998 films, where we’re resigned to see Godzilla fighting the army until a plot contrivance dispatches the beast. Most of the destruction, including the opening nuclear plant destruction, is done by a pair of horrific kaiju called MUTOS. Born of beady art-deco chrysalis, first a male then a female hatch and wreak havoc from Honshu to Yucca Mountain. Godzilla only appears later in the film to confront and destroy the monsters.
There’s really no character arc in this film, nor is there a real moral, which makes the overwhelming time spent with the humans pointless and nothing better than padding. There are only two intrapersonal conflicts-Serizawa wants to allow Godzilla to destroy the MUTOS while Stenz wants to destroy all monsters (pardon the pun-that’s my favorite Godzilla film) using the navy and army.
However, it’s when the action moves to the kaiju that the film comes alive. The male MUTO awakes about half an hour in, destroys its containing base, and then takes flight. The MUTOs are inspired designs; their heads are triangular like Gamera’s nemesis Gyaos, with bright red glows acting as eyes. Their mouths are murderous staple removers and bodes long and thin. Their limbs are two pairs of long hooks like the thumbs of a bat. Best of all is their sexual dimorphism; the male is smaller, swifter, and equipped with a pair of wings that unfold for flight, while the female is much bigger, stronger, and her third pair of limbs are nimbler versions of her other two pairs. Their danger to humanity is their hunger for nuclear energy, chowing down on missiles and reactors. A train carrying a nuclear missile is raided by the male MUTO, who presents it to its mate who in turn places it in a nest.
Godzilla himself is consciously a sort of crocodilian bear. The skull is short, square, with small eyes and large nostrils. The arms are long, equipped with alligator-like paws. The legs are long and thick and based on short tridactyl feet. Instead of white or silver conifer-shaped dorsal-plates, the spines are black slates resembling rocks eroded by savage winds and waves. The tail is long and sinuous, a powerful propeller for swimming and a lethal weapon.
The monsters are seen mostly in darkness, probably to heighten their terror and conceal the effects, much like the first two Godzilla films. Godzilla makes his debut in the nocturnal inferno of MUTO’s attack on Honolulu airport. The final battle takes place in a stormy night. Thankfully, unlike the other kaiju film of the year, Pacific Rim, there are some well-lit scenes of the animals such as the female MUTO’s rampage in Las Vegas and Godzilla’s return to the sea in the finale.
The fights are frustratingly fleeting-there’s only briefly some scenes where Godzilla and the MUTOs fight in a long shot that stays on them. It’s frustrating to cut from Godzilla clashing with the male MUTO in the middle of San Francisco to the younger Brody’s equally forgettable and bland wife. The payoff is worth the wait, however, as the final battle consumes the Bay Area. Godzilla rips through the army attacking him from the Golden Gate Bridge to confront the MUTOs, who have met and are destroying the city. The male attacks first, but fails to leave much of an impact. The female then attacks, but Godzilla manages to gain the upper claw on her. The male recovers and together they overwhelm Godzilla. The female returns to her nest, while Godzilla recovers enough to kill the male with a tail swat and burn the female with his atomic ray. The audience in my theater, including me, applauded wildly at Godzilla’s victory, and cheered at his dispatching the MUTOs.
That’s basically how I rate a Godzilla movie: Godzilla’s character, the monster fights, the music, the human characters, and the effects. In this case, the weak spot is the human characters-it’s not a new problem, either. It proved to be a disaster in Godzilla Final Wars and the 1998 Godzilla film. However, it succeeds in having satisfying kaiju sequences, it’s well directed and edited, the effects are excellent, and Godzilla’s character is well done. I like this take on Godzilla-an alpha predator and monster hunter. He’ll destroy humanity if they get in the way, but he’s not a villain.
It’s not my favorite Godzilla film, or even in the top ten, but still on the good half of the series. I recommend it, albeit with a lot of patience. I give it 73 out of 100. Go watch it; it’s the best thing in theaters right now.