Sunday, May 18, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla

 by Michael Popham

You would think that a movie in which giant monsters duke it out in two major Pacific rim cities, causing epic destruction along the way, would be anything but dull.  But Gareth Edwards' Godzilla really is dull -- surprisingly and painfully so.  

It isn't the fault of the monsters, who are quite spectacular and who take part in at least one rousing battle in San Francisco.  The problem is that every time the movie starts to pick up steam, we're forced back into the company of the dreary human protagonists, whose presence weigh down and ultimately sink the movie. 

It all starts with engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) witnessing the death of his wife in a nuclear power plant accident in Japan.  Something destroyed the plant and the town that surrounds it; but the grieving Brody doesn't accept the official line that it's the result of an earthquake. He believes the Japanese authorities are hiding something big on the site of the disaster.  In the years since his wife's death he's become a nutty recluse, clipping out newspaper articles about unexplained disasters and festooning the walls of his apartment with them.

Brody's obsession drives his only son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) away from him, and the young man becomes a career military officer and starts a life of his own.  Almost immediately after arriving home from a tour of duty in Iraq, Brody Jr. must leave his adorable wife Ellie (Elizabeth Olsen) and adorable son Sam (Carson Bolde) and travel from their home in San Francisco to Japan to bail his dad out. The police had caught Brody pere trying to reach his old home in the abandoned Chernobyl-esque town.

Meanwhile, Japanese Dr. Serizawah (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne (Sally Hawkins) are introduced as researchers from an organization called Monarch, advising the military on the thing currently residing on the site of the ruined power station. Eventually they meet Ford and explain to him that his father, whom everyone had dismissed as a nut, was right after all; and that the nuclear accident was caused by a creature dubbed a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism). There are two known M.U.T.O.'s, and a third creature known as Godzilla, last seen in 1954. The military had tried to destroy it with an H-Bomb, but it had no effect, and the effort was buried under the cover story of a nuclear test.

Serizawa believes the two M.U.T.O.s are trying to reach one another, and he suggests that Godzilla be allowed to intercept them.  His theory is that Godzilla's role is to "restore the balance" to the world when things get out of whack, although there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support this assertion.  "Let them fight," he urges the military.

The Navy, however, decides to deploy a nuclear warhead with a yield so great it will make the Bikini H-Bomb of 1954 look like "a firecracker".  You'd think that dropping a 15-megaton bomb on Godzilla without doing any damage to him whatsoever would pretty much rule out any sort of nuclear option, but the film seems grimly determined to keep the Navy as an active agent throughout the movie.  So the warhead becomes a kind of MacGuffin, a device that the military first goes to great lengths to deploy, and later, when it winds up in San Francisco and a threat to millions of people, spends just as much time trying to defuse.

In fact, through most of its running time the movie that Godzilla most closely resembles is not 1954's Gojira but 2012's Battleship, as the Navy keeps elbowing the giant monsters out of the way (Godzilla himself, it should be pointed out, doesn't even appear until a good hour into the movie).  Like a lot of contemporary films the military is awarded an almost embarrassing amount of deference, as we are reminded repeatedly and emphatically that our heroes in uniform are brave, daring, competent and good-hearted people, and that there is no challenge they are unable to handle.  The problem with this is embedded pretty deeply in the Godzilla canon: the military isn't able to handle Godzilla.  The filmmakers try to get around this with constant displays of military prowess, and we see soldiers and sailors firing weapons and jumping out of airplanes and making hearty oo-rah speeches to one another (the Navy, in fact, gets far more screen time than the monsters). This ploy almost works; in fact, it's likely that a lot of audience members will walk out of the theater without it ever occurring to them that the military could have stayed home and the outcome would have been almost exactly the same. The only human character who has any impact on the story is Brody himself, and that is because of something done on his own initiative.

Brody's relationship with Ellie is clearly meant to be the emotional anchor of the movie, but it is perhaps the most dreary depiction of a military family ever put on film.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a blandly good-looking guy of the Taylor Kitsch variety, and Elizabeth Olsen suffers from a debilitating and apparently terminal case of cuteness.  Not cute is their pouting oaf of a son, who is kept around for the heartstring tugging scenes of daddy being reunited with his adoring family, scenes that carry the emotional weight of a MacDonald's commercial. 

You may hear that this version of Godzilla is better than Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, and it is.  But then, what movie isn't?


  1. None of what you wrote is not true, however it is a tad (and just a tad) cruel. Personally I found the Director's restraint rather refreshing in this blockbuster age and a nice change from overly CGI'd fake things hitting other CGI'd fake things over and over again. I totally agree that the human element was pretty terrible, despite Bryan Cranston being awesome. But also disappearing earlier than expected.

    One could argue that any film featuring Godzilla in it is going to have a difficult time, he is a rather large, reptilian monster and not exactly prone towards realism. As such, it was entertaining and not as good as it could have been.

    1. "[Godzilla] is a rather large, reptilian monster and not exactly prone towards realism."

      One must set realism from one's mind when making a Godzilla movie. Godzilla has to be approached with the fundamentalist fervor of his devotees in mind. It is most critical that the human elements of the story, which are where realism intrudes, not unduly interfere with the central narrative; Godzilla dispensing a monstrous beat-down either on or on behalf of humanity.

      Godzilla is, in many ways, an analog of the god of the old testament. He is most commonly encountered when humanity has in some wise done wrong. He is big on smiting - indeed smiting is his sole means of communication. Avoiding his wrath, or at least redirecting his wrath toward one's enemies, is the primary focus of interactions with Godzilla. Beyond that one is better off not attracting Godzilla's attention as said attention, once attracted, tends to result in a great deal of property damage.

  2. As a Big G fan from way back I'm keenly aware of the structural headaches that result from trying to integrate the human and giant monster subplots. The Japanese have been doing it for sixty years, and while the results aren't always stellar, Toho can usually strike a pretty fair balance that keeps the plot moving forward. We should expect at least the same level of competence in a $150 million movie.

    Like you I found the Bryan Cranston character to be the most interesting, and was surprised that he disappeared so quickly, especially since he was featured so prominently in the trailers.

    As to realism, I've always felt that the more fantastic the plot, the more realistic the details surrounding it should be. The monster scenes were generally very good but for the life of me I couldn't fathom why they started so late and were doled out so stingily; Edwards seemed almost afraid of cutting away from the Ford and Ellie Brody subplot, which I found far less convincing than the giant radioactive lizard.

    I really wanted to like this one and while I wasn't expecting too much from it, I still felt it was a missed opportunity.

  3. I hated the movie. I know I am in the minority (what else is new?), and suspending reality is necessary in a huge monster movie, but man, some "common sense" would be appropriate.

    1. Why would a creature that feeds off of radiation leave a place just oozing it, for San Francisco, when its mate can fly to it much faster that the female can walk? And somehow, Yucca mountain, an incredibly secure location, monitored and patrolled 24/7, does not notice a rather significant chunk of the mountain is being smashed through as it it is happening???

    2. The nuke is on a boat, with 13 minutes before it goes off. Meanwhile, it has to get, what, 15, 20 miles offshore, and that boat is doing maybe 8 knots? Then the damn thing goes off, and the helo does not get knocked out with the EMP blast, while that very mechanism figures so prominently throughout the whole movie.

    1. Not to be it-picky but you need to read up on how EMPs work. The kind of EMP you are talking about results from an atmospheric explosion, the higher the better. Ground based explosions generate lower EMP results, typically only propagated thru wire and metal conduits.

  4. To me, the yield of the bomb was more problematic than the EMP. We're told the nuke on the boat is much bigger than the 15-megaton Bikini test weapon. But 15 megatons is a lot (the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was less than 20 kilotons). I think the largest hydrogen weapon ever tested was just over 40 megatons. If we're talking about a 40 megaton weapon, you're going to want to be a lot more than 20 miles away from it.