In 1954, Japan’s Toho Company unleashed ‘Gojira’ upon its movie-going public. Influenced, at least in part, by the original ‘giant rampaging beast’ movie ‘King Kong’ (1933), ‘Gojira’ was a scary cautionary tale stemming from the horrors visited upon the Japanese people in the aftermath of the nuke drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the two game-changing events that brought WW2 to a close and ushered in a whole new era of political, military and social uncertainties. Having been the only country in the world to have experienced ‘nuclear holocaust’ first-hand, it made sense that the fears and anguish of such an event would eventually permeate the social consciousness through art.
So in the original film, the titular monster is a 300 foot tall radioactive reptile that emerges from the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on large swathes of populated Japan, ensuring death and destruction for all who come near…much like the quiet spectre of Radioactivity, which the giant beast is clearly a metaphor of. The film was a success and as a result, it caught the eyes of film producers in Hollywood. They cut a deal with Toho and, in 1956, released ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which was the same ‘Gojira’ flick, only now with Raymond Burr shoehorned into the original footage to give the American audiences a protagonist and point-of-view they could relate to. And thus began the curious legacy of the massive creature ‘Godzilla’; a legacy that (to date) has spawned some 28 Japanese features of mixed quality…and one American version, Roland Emmerich’s awful 1998 blockbuster-wannabe. While the original Toho Godzilla series’ have, at times, veered decidedly into the territory of ‘silly’ and ‘dumb’, they kinda came about it honestly, especially in the flicks released in the 70’s, during which time the trappings of the ‘swingin 60s’ and ‘hippy 70s’ were oozing into the social image of Japan. But when Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin opted to add The Big Guy to their roster of summer blockbusters, after hitting the jackpot with ‘Stargate’ (1994) and ‘Independence Day’ (1996), it would seem that they felt that they could do no wrong…and how wrong they were!!
‘Godzilla’ (1998) is a silly, large-budget piece of shit. I didn’t mind it, back in the day, because I justified it’s existence to myself with reminders that the source material was a “drunk stuntman in a zipper suit trashing a miniature of Tokyo”. This was before I had put some effort into searching out a number of the Japanese originals to delve into The Deeper Meaning of the massive pissed-off lizard. Having recently gone back for a repeat viewing of the ’98 version, I can now pretty much conclude that Emmerich and Co. fucked it right up. It’s an insultingly immature mishmash of tones and ideas (none of them good) that too clearly rips off a slew of FAR better movies (Jurassic Park, Aliens, even Emmerichs own ID4, etc). While it made it’s budget back (barely), the critical scorn from critics and the public alike doomed any chance that the overgrown iguana had of continuing his adventures in the Emmerichverse (thankfully).
While the legacy of an American Godzilla franchise seemed to start and stop right there, Japan continued to spit out their own Godzilla movies, even going so far as to feature the lambasted ’98 version of the monster in ‘Godzilla: Final Wars’ (2004), where it get’s it’s scaly ass judo-flipped into the famous Opera House in Sydney, Australia…and blasted into Oblivion by the REAL Godzilla’s fearsome death breath. It’s a pretty awesome ‘fuck you’ from Toho to Emmerich.
So things on the American Godzilla front remained quiet for some 14 years. Evidently, the well of original movie ideas continues to remain bone dry, as evidenced by the relentlessly mindless pursuit of sequels, remakes and reboots currently being shat out of Hollywood on a seemingly weekly basis. It was inevitable that they would try again, though only after the foul taste of Emmerichs turd had had the necessary time to be scraped off the public’s collective palate.
When I first heard about the newest attempt to make Godzilla relevant to Western audiences, I was intrigued, as the director chosen by Legendary Studios was a relatively unknown guy named Gareth Edwards, who had just impressed me with his micro-budgeted ‘creature feature’ ‘Monsters’ (2010). Edwards proved with THAT tale of a reporter and a debutante on a perilous journey through an alien-infested ‘quarantine zone’ in Mexico, that he could handle the idea of large roaming beasts and the humans struggling to survive them with a sense of style and size. Considering what he pulled off with a tiny budget of $800 000, it made sense that Legendary would court him for the directors chair on the new Godzilla reboot. About a year after that announcement, we were given our first look at the new incarnation via the first trailer…and it impressed. The tone looked right (dark, scary, epic etc) and the cast was tight (Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, etc). All that remained was to see the whole piece in action…which I just did. So…did it work? Mostly…it sure did!
Godzilla (2014) wipes the floor with ‘Godzilla’ (1998). There’s really no comparison. Edwards got right most of which Emmerich got VERY wrong.
This time around, the story goes like this:
We open in Japan in 1999, where we’re introduced to The Brody Family. Bryan Cranston plays ‘Joe’, the Safety Officer for a nuclear power plant on Japan’s coast (Fukushima, anyone?). Juliette Binoche plays his wife ‘Sandra’ (also a technician at the plant), and they have a young son named ‘Ford’. After monitoring a disturbing rise in local seismic activity, there is seemingly a breach in the reactor area, and many of the staff, including ‘Sandra’ are killed (not really a spoiler, so calm down). Years later, we meet ‘Ford’ (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) again, now an Explosive Ordanance Disposal officer in the US Navy. He gets word of his father’s arrest in Japan and reluctantly heads over to help, leaving his wife ‘Elle’ (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son behind. Once in Japan, he discovers that his dad was busted trying to reenter The Quarantine Zone around the destroyed plant that he once oversaw, and that still contains the missing bodies of his wife and colleagues. It seems that the familiar seismic activity has started again, and he is obsessed with discovering the source. Along the way, the two Brody men meet a Japanese scientist named ‘Serizawa’ (Ken Watanabe), who has his own suspicions about the earthquakes and the new spikes in radiation. Before long, a ‘fossil’ is located under the site…and all hell breaks loose.
Anyone expecting ‘Pacific Rim’ here needs to check those expectations at the door. This is not an immediate launch into ‘Giant Fighting Kaiju’ territory. The pacing of this film is that of a ‘slow burn’ toward an exciting and wholly appropriate 3rd Act. When Godzilla does (somewhat mysteriously) appear early on, it’s conveyed through glimpses and physical evidence as opposed to in-your-face monster action. In that regard, one could easily see ‘Jaws’ (1975) as a narrative influence. Hell, the main characters last name is ‘Brody’…just like that of Roy Schieder’s ‘Brody’ character in Spielberg’s classic monster shark movie. It’s funny though, as much as I appreciate the more patient approach to fully introducing The BIg Guy, there was a sequence that other critics have called out as too abrupt or ‘cock tease-like’ that I fully agree with. It’s a cool scene in which Godzilla and another monster (yes, there’s more than just ‘Zilla at work here) meet among the fiery destruction of a major airport in Hawaii. They glare! They bellow! They roar! They charge! They…CUT AWAY. The promise of an epic monster battle is abruptly cut short, resulting in nothing more than scatter-shot news footage of the fight. It’s a bit of a letdown, as the sequence we were teased with never really comes to pass. It may have been a case of Edwards and Co. not wanting to blow their monster load too early on, but I fully believe that the inclusion of the full fight scene wouldn’t have detracted at all. If anything, it would’ve whet our appetite for more…which we get in the highly cool last 20 minutes of the flick. Who knows…maybe an Extended Cut on Blu Ray/DVD?
So I’ll try to break this down:
The visuals of ‘Godzilla’ are terrific. The CG blends well and the monsters are given a really impressive sense of size and scale. The cinematography was well-framed and competent, with numerous examples of gorgeous lighting throughout. The lead-up to the climax was (mostly) well-plotted, despite dragging a little in the 2nd Act. The creature designs were cool, with the other MUTOs (Massive Underground Terrestrial Organisms) looking like the bastard children of the alien monster from ‘Cloverfield’ (2008) and a classic Mothra / Rodan hybrid. ‘Godzilla’ himself maintained his classic shape with just enough added skin texture and muscle mass (and gills, finally!) to have him standout in a police line-up with the other incarnations. The action scenes were well-staged, and excitingly-shot and edited. At no time was I at a loss for the geography of the action (once again, Michael Bay…take notes). I liked how all the creatures were portrayed as animals doing what animals do. There was no overtly malicious intent to their actions, they were just doing what Nature compelled them to and us poor stupid humans just got in the way, with horrifying results.
THE NOT SO GOOD
While the cast is impressive, most of what they are given to do is not. This is one example where I can see how an audience could be a little miffed with the advertising campaign leading up to the release. Not only were numerous shots shown in the trailers NOT in the finished film, but Bryan Cranston’s ‘Joe’ character, being sold in the trailers as The Main Character, is simply not. He has what basically amounts to an Extended Cameo. The remainder of the heavy lifting falls onto the shoulders of Kick Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and unfortunately, he doesn’t really deliver. It’s not his fault, as I know he is a capable actor, but the character of ‘Ford’ is paper-thin. When he’s not thrust into some fantastic action scenario, he mostly just gapes in muted awe at the events transpiring around him, or glumly sits around trying to understand what is happening. Elizabeth Olsen, another proven actor, is also saddled with a woefully one-dimensional character. ‘Elle’ and the character of their kid seem to exist solely to act as motivation for ‘Ford’ to get from Point A to Point B. She also spends a good chunk of time staring in horror or running (kinda understandable given the circumstances). Ken Watanabe, probably Japan’s most recognizable export actor, is nothing more than Mr.Exposition, popping up in time to inform whoever needs to know (ie Us,The Audience) what is happening or is going to happen. There are also some events (detonator countdown time vs distance achieved?) that could’ve been tightened up or improved, but then again, it’s a movie about friggin giant monsters beating the shit out of each other in a city while humans scatter for safety…or die horribly trying.
All in all, ‘Godzilla’ was about what I expected, and hoped for. It does a good job harking back to the originals while also bringing a fresh coat of paint to a familiar genre that has been woven into the fabric of cinema for about 60 years now. Some of the acting and motivation is weak, but these shortcomings are more than made up for by some awesome visuals and representations of Monster Mayhem. This flick kicks ‘Godzilla 98’ right in it’s scaly iguana balls! It’s worth seeing on The Big Screen and I’m excited to see what they concoct for the inevitable sequel (already in the works, apparently). Bring on The King of The Monsters!! (Cue Godzilla’s signature roar)
PS- I saw this in 3D and while it did add to many of the visuals, I do feel that it could’ve been a little more immersive in it’s depth. 3D or not, this flick looks great!