Review: Godzilla

Godzilla

Trailer

Yup. That's a Godzilla alright.

Yup. That’s a Godzilla alright.

Expectation is important when it comes to judging anything and film is no exception. So when you hear about a Godzilla film, another one, in the works, you have to make sure that those expectations are fair and valid. When I walk into a theatre to watch a Godzilla film, I’m expecting a monster movie of a very classic-style calibre. I don’t expect much else. The real question is whether that’s OK or not.

I’ve never been a gigantic Godzilla fan, though I admit I have an illogical soft spot for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 train wreck, largely because it was the first big budget blockbuster I ever saw in a cinema, having previously been restricted to animation and children’s comedies. While I watched that film over and over, I have to acknowledge its poor plot, script, acting, even the CGI wasn’t looking that great for its time. Is that the trade-off in a monster movie like this? You can’t have good  plot, script or really even acting because you’re focusing so much on the titular monster?

Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) conducts a vigilante investigation into the nuclear power plant disaster that killed his wife, convinced it was no accident. Dragging his reluctant military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into it, the two discover a cover-up of monumental proportions, which keeps secret the existence of gigantic creatures: one of which is the very “King of the Monsters”.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. My shorter, non-spoiler, review, is available on The Write Club.

This is very much a Godzilla movie. There is a Godzilla in it, a very large lizard. It does Godzilla things, like stomp around cities, smash into skyscrapers and fight other large monster that are somewhat similar to it. Lots of people stare up at the Godzilla in awe throughout. There are vague messages related to mankind and nature.

The problem is, everything beyond those basic requirements for a Godzilla movie are as threadbare as they can be. The human “drama” of Godzilla mostly exists entirely within the realm of the first act where the obsession of Cranston’s nuclear scientist actually keeps things going to an acceptable degree. There’s conflict between him and his son, who just wants his father to get over it and to start being a grandfather to his own kid. Simple, but the kind of story you can get behind, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s Cranston himself behind the biggest plot vehicle. The soldier returning home from war to reconnect with his wife is a fairly tired choice, but you can go places with that too. And there is a scientist looking for giant monsters for some reason.

These three plot threads intertwine to an acceptable extent, and you get really good moments between the two Ford’s as the elder tries to convince the junior to go along with what seems like his madcap schemes, or the heartbreaking final good bye between Joe Ford and his wife. Director Gareth Edwards sets up some convincing relationships and a broken family unit, and a direct connection between Ford, who wants to be there for his family more, and his father, who doesn’t seem to have the will to be there at all.

Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe’s scientist and his nervous British sidekick look for giant skeletons and weird looking eggs. While those scenes are inevitable for a film of this genre, they at least serve their purpose and raise the expectations for the moment when the living Godzilla – and his enemies – are finally revealed.

The Ford family’s journey to the nuclear power plant is a decent tension raiser, and once there we can pretty much tell we’re on a countdown for disaster. I was a little bit surprised to see the non-Godzilla behemoths pop up – all down to my Godzilla inexperience I suppose – but it meant for a halfway decent origin scene for them, with plenty of destruction…and the killing off of Bryan Cranston’s character.

Unfortunately, although the trailers and promotional material seemed to indicate that Cranston would be the main character – something I could absolutely get behind – Godzilla chooses to kill off its best acting asset, and its best character, as the first act was getting tied up. I could have gone along with that, if it led to better stuff with the Ford Brody character, but it didn’t really. Killing off a main character that early is a big call to make, and with the cardboard cut-outs Cranston left behind (more on that in a bit), I think it was the wrong one.

Cranston's easily the best of a very mediocre cast.

Cranston’s easily the best of a very mediocre cast.

Godzilla, from the end of the first act onwards, has a bit of a problem with superfluous characters, who exist only to stare at monsters or run in terror from them. Better I would have thought to merge the Cranston and Watanabe characters into one and make the film about the reconciliation between father and son, a process that could have lasted the whole movie. More screen time for a reduced cast, and a greater emotional pull and payoff for the audience who are expected to follow these characters along.

But it all just turns into smoke with the sudden arrival of the CGI behemoths. After that, the human cast exist mostly as small entities that have to gawk and run away, or get smushed into the ground on occasion. The younger Ford remains at the thick of things of course, but only in the most shallow way, as the “plot” turns into a game of coming up with whatever excuse is required to keep the “hero” in the general proximity of the monsters battling all around him.

He gets brought along by Watanabe, his flight to San Francisco goes through Hawaii, he stumbles into the bomb squad, he’s at the base when they’re preparing their heroic final mission, etc, etc. The only problem is that nothing is really done with it. Apart from the standard exposition scene, Ford just interacts with nameless characters until the very end, and his role in the larger monster battle is to try and disarm a bomb attached to a ticking clock, like he’s James Bond in Fort Knox.

There are adorable lost children, nukes on a countdown, people running from waves of water, Mr Exposition scenes, all the staples. But very little beyond that, especially after the first 40 minutes or so are toast. Like so many of the CGI-filled blockbuster films of recent times, Godzilla feels to me very much to be in the Michael Bay vein of such things: you come to see the destruction and the people are just sort of there too (though at least it’s not overtly sexist or racist like Bay’s films).

There is, absolutely, a mindlessness to the whole thing. The connection between Ford and his wife, who spend all of two scenes in the same room, one at the very end, is weak and made only so we feel the tiniest something for her when she has to gawk and run. Love plots are usually garbage in films like this anyway, but they rarely get more pointless than this. And beyond that, there’s next to nothing, no minor character arcs, nothing to really make you care whether these people live or die themselves beyond them fulfilling their required plot actions. We want Ford to survive so he can stop the nuke, but him getting back to his wife and kid is just a sort of happy addendum, because they were characterised and given material as bland as possible. The trailer for Interstellar before the film had more plot in it.

Then there’s the larger (har) plot of Godzilla versus the monsters, the “MUTO’s” or as many others have dubbed them, “the Cloverfield monsters” (yes, they do look very similar). Godzilla being the “good guy” as he was now and then in his original run, is all well and good, the problem is that it’s not explained at all. Godzilla shows up, tracks down the MUTO’s, fights them and kills them. But he doesn’t eat them (despite the whole “apex predator” title), he just walks away back into the ocean.

So, um, why? We have Watanabe’s meaningless drivel that Godzilla exists “to restore balance” (That almost makes him sound like some kind of divinely sent animal) which is as weak an explanation for Godzilla’s behaviour, in a modern age, as Edward’s telling you before the film starts to “just go with it”. I mean, they do a good job of making a real antagonism exists between Godzilla and the MUTO’s, there is just a singular lack of purpose behind it. They’re all big, skyscraper destroying monsters, so they have to fight. The MUTO’s looking for a mate was a neat touch, that sort of reinforced the idea that these things were just very big animals, but when the female looks for her post-fire eggs, I was sarcastically thinking more “This is sort of like the opening of Finding Nemo huh?” than “Oh, now she has a real motivation to…kill all those people she was already killing.”

The “Godzilla as good guy” really reaches its height in the final moments, as even the American news following him around dubs him “King of the Monsters” and “the saviour of our city?”. That’s the one he just helped wreck by the way. Again, Godzilla leaves for no clear reason, and the American military don’t decide to take him out for no clear reason, other than, I suppose, he just helped to “restore the balance”.

The female characters are, as you will probably guess, not that great in Godzilla. Elizabeth Olsen’s military spouse (who’s a nurse, surprise, surprise) just gets nothing to work with it that could even approach meaningful, beyond worrying over her son, her husband, her hospital, without ever really doing anything about it. Her defining moment seems to be her decision to send her son away on his own (a bad choice, as it turned out) and after that she just sort of fades away until the big reunion at the conclusion. Joe Brody’s wife at the beginning is an equal character, and she dies five minutes after she was introduced.

It just all comes back to agency, and these characters, nearly all of them, just don’t have a meaningful one, beyond “Don’t get smushed”. OK, Joe Brody wants to find out what happened to his wife (dead in 40 minutes), Ford has to stop the bomb, save his family. Watanabe has to…follow Godzilla around? Olsen has to…get away from the monster? And there are no real characters beyond that. What characterisation there is to go around gets heaped on the Brody’s, even if some of it is as exploitive of the audiences feelings (like all that stuff with the Japanese kid on the train) as it possibly can be.

Olsen has little to do other than the above.

Olsen has little to do other than the above.

The plot/story of Godzilla is not a good one. Is this kind of thing inevitable for this genre? It seems like it, but I refuse to believe that it is a cast-iron thing. The budget’s for films like this are so huge that the hiring of decent script-writers and directors, who can better balance monster stuff with human stuff, does not seem, to my eyes, to be completely impossible. Films like The Avengers show you can have CGI-filled blockbuster that isn’t mindless. Think someone like Joss Whedon or the Russo brothers or any number of examples would have written and directed a Godzilla movie this shallow? Doubtful.

Of the cast, Cranston is, as you might expect, easily the best. Being placed in such a role, the nominal main face of a Hollywood cash cow, seems like a sort of reward for his sterling television work of the last few years and he gives back by showing us Brody the grief stricken and obsessed man, unable to let go of his past memories, and never faltering at any moment. The transformation from the power plant head to the broken individual of later scenes is really well done, and when his Joe Brody gets angry, Cranston really makes you feel it, notably in that scene in the power plant guard room.

At times it feels like he might be the only one really trying, who is willing to throw himself into a film with such an extreme premise and act like it’s actually happening. His death so early on, without the proper use of it as a plot point later (they barely mention him after he’s gone), is really unfortunate. Cranston’s the kind of guy who I would watch in anything, and I really hope his next Hollywood project is of a better calibre.

The rest of the cast are all different shades of one note. Taylor-Johnson, whom I barely recognised since his Kick-Ass days, is just really bland, a guy who stops being characterised halfway through and just exists to cause explosions (or not cause them as the case may be). Even in earlier scenes he isn’t bringing his A game. The soft-spoken nerd voice character worked in Kick-Ass and even a little bit in its awful sequel, but here, dressed up in a military uniform, it just doesn’t seem right. Elizabeth Olsen as his love interest is little more than a cardboard cut out when it comes to acting, a pretty face who frets about everything and has no substantial impact on the plot at large.

This is the first Ken Watanabe performance, including his glorified cameo in Batman Begins (“Gotham must be ararowed to die…”) I haven’t liked: his character has a couple of exposition scenes, but every single other one involves just him gawking silently at something big off camera, slack-jawed, a really shameful use of a fine resource. I never begrudge an actor a cheque of course, and besides, this really seems more like a case of bad material than bad acting.

The minor cast are all fairly forgettable. Sally Hawkins is the perpetually nervous British sidekick of Watanabe. Juliette Binoche is halfway entertaining as Brody’s deceased wife. David Strathairn looks like a Navy Admiral in his role as a Navy Admiral (and I know he can do better than this).

Ah, but the visuals. That’s what we’re here for, right? I mean, to the extent that a friend of mine was tempted to shout “NO ONE CARES” every time a human being was on screen?

They are very impressive. I forked over what turned out to be an obscene amount of money to see an IMAX 3D showing of Godzilla, and while the fee was exorbitant (17.80! What the hell Cineworld?), it is the right way to see a film like this. The 3D isn’t garish or “in your face” (that is, the film does not manufacture moments where things fly at the screen like so many others) but exists merely as a way to add a really great depth to things generally and make the monsters look more impressive. Larger.

When they fight it really does feel like they are just a small bit away from you and the realism of their visual depiction is the final step in that. The titular kaiju doesn’t get that much screen time (most of it is very late on) but the people of Gareth Edwards’ production team have crafted a very captivating being, and he’s not the only one. The MUTO’s look distinctive and rather awesome in their own right, and even though they are all of impossibly large dimensions, there is never any real point when you might think they look fake, unreal, where suspension of disbelief comes crashing down. They move right. They look and feel to the audience like how giant creatures would look, feel, walk and resonate in our imaginations.

The only real issue is that there are two separate fake-outs where Godzilla and the MUTO’s prepare to fight, only for the film to cut away to something the people are doing, the giant battle happening unseen in the background. While I understand there is a valid reason for this (it does make the final battle a bit more interesting, and ensures you never get bored by such things, Pacific Rim, I’m looking at you) it does feel a bit cheap the way it is done, a cop-out. The first time you see Godzilla in full is a really impressive moment after all – the slow pan up, the suitably loud roar, the lingering focus – but then his fight with the MUTO is relegated to a few seconds on a TV screen, a comedy moment between Brody’s wife and son.

This picture sums up around 90% of Ken Watanabe's time onscreen.

This picture sums up around 90% of Ken Watanabe’s time onscreen.

The “carnage threshold” is tested to the limit, but I don’t think it’s ever broken. Godzilla is remarkably merciful with even its extras, with an aversion to showing wide scale death. I’m thinking of moments when Godzilla himself could have upended Navy boats and doesn’t, or the nameless extras who escape the tidal wave in Honolulu, things of that nature.

Don’t get me wrong. San Francisco gets levelled in a fashion that Zach Snyder or Michael Bay would be satisfied with, but by the time of the final battle the streets of this city are deserted save for the monster and the handful of soldiers tracking down the nuke. Like Del Toro in Pacific Rim to an extent, Edwards isn’t interested in showing a lot of people get flattened, and I’m more than OK with that.

Apart from them, Godzilla is full of memorable visual moments and effects shots, not least a HALO parachute jump into a smoke filled hellish vista late on (used liberally in some of the trailers) that is a great blend of CGI, the right cuts and the perfect audio. The opening titles are really awesome – self-redacting documents and grainy footage of Godzilla himself. Overall, I can’t really say there is anything about Godzilla’s visual direction or CGI management that I can really criticise too much. It’s a monster movie, and it gets the primary job done properly. The visuals are worth seeing.

The script is a really dire affair unfortunately, designed simply to keep things moving along promptly, a gigantic failure of imagination and nuance. With the exception of the lines given to Cranston, which are great, everyone else sounds like a cliché: the standard action/monster movie lines and tropes abound, right down to someone sarcastically noting ahead of everything going to hell that it isn’t “the end of the world”. “If you have a better idea, I’m all ears”, that’s another one that’s rapidly become one of pet hate lines. And damn, Watanabe really let that ominous pause spin out before saying the monsters name.

Like the plot, the dialogue is best in the first act and then fades away as the rest of the film progresses, being almost silent by the time the credits roll. Not even Ken Watanabe’s delivery can save the tawdry philosophy that his character espouses and just as nearly everyone else is a stock character, so they are written: they say whatever they need to so that we can get to the next scene promptly, and nothing of any weight. The screenwriter, Max Borenstein, doesn’t seem very accomplished (one student movie writing/directing credit over a decade ago and a few unproduced screenplays) so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.

In terms of audio, I can remember little of the actual score (beyond a rather haunting choral section for the aforementioned HALO jump) but what I do note is the loudness of the film in general, in every explosion and every roar of the gigantic animals. This is important, and where something like Pacific Rim just felt like a bunch of constant screaming to me in that regard, I think Godzilla finds a better balance. These things look impressive, act impressive and sound impressive. The Godzilla roar, with that rumbling fade away afterwards, is just so memorable for that particular being. Maybe it was the IMAX screening, but Godzilla really did just sound great.

So, themes. Godzilla is certainly shallow, but it does have a few deeper things to say on occasion. Godzilla makes a direct point about the power of nature versus the power of humanity, one that calls back to “Gojira’s” origins even if this film doesn’t follow them exactly. Nature is a vast and destructive force when it wants to be, and maybe humanity has gotten too comfortable with it at times, with all of our modern infrastructure and security.

It’s why hurricanes and frosts and tidal waves are so devastating, not just physically but mentally. Just as Godzilla was a personification of the awesome destructive power of the nuclear age when he was first created, so he is again for the awesome destructive power of an environment that humanity is affecting in the worst way.

A HALO jump late on is one the films best non-monster based sequences.

A HALO jump late on is one the films best non-monster based sequences.

Everything the people do to try and stop Godzilla and the MUTO’s in Godzilla is a failure, from their birth to their death at the hands of each other. Mankind becomes idle spectators, only rushing to the challenge of trying to defuse their own inane part of proceedings in the form of the nuclear bomb. In the 50’s they can’t destroy Godzilla. In Japan they can’t kill the MUTO before it is born. Our shells and bombs and bullets have very little effect, and only as a distraction.

If this an allegory for the effect mankind has on nature (or vice versa) I’m not sure it is a very effective one. After all, we’re changing nature day to day in the modern age, with potentially terrible results. But maybe that is the point and the allegory: mankind has the power to influence and set the inescapably dangerous force of nature loose, but we are still not in a position to control it beyond that point. Mankind gives Godzilla and the MUTO’s what they need to survive in the form of manufactured radiation before being laid waste by them just as we are changing our environment and nature today, to a point where it will turn around and seriously hurt us for it. A climate change metaphor certainly works better for Godzilla today than the threat of nuclear power.

There is also, albeit briefly, a theme connected to fatherhood. The film opens with Joe Brody being somewhat neglectful of his son, to the extent that he doesn’t notice the younger Ford preparing birthday celebrations for him. In the ensuring drama, Joe loses both his wife and a logical sense of purpose: he becomes obsessed with finding out how she died and his neglect of his son grows and grows from that point on.

Fast forward 15 years and Ford is a grown man with a family of his own, but his father is still off chasing conspiracies instead of being a grandfather. There’s an element of worry in Ford’s reaction to his father’s present circumstances that goes deeper than immediate concern: he’s absent from his own family at that moment, and must be concerned at his own possible neglect. He and his father never really enjoy a true reconciliation when it is proven that Joe’s theories and beliefs were actually correct, beyond Ford belatedly telling his father he was right, but that doesn’t really matter: Joe’s last words are an exhortation for Ford to look after his own family, the one thing that is truly important.

I mentioned expectations right at the start. My expectations of a classic-style monster movie were met (certainly fans of the original films will appreciate this one a lot more than the stumbling 1998 version). I did not expect much in terms of plot or acting, and those expectations were met as well. But is that OK? With a budget reportedly in the region of 160 million, I’m not really sure it is. It’s a lot of money for a film where Ken Watanabe is called upon to just stare at things.

You can wrap a better story, even a very basic one, around a film like this and not detract from the stuff happening in the realm of CGI, one of the reasons I have a lot of time for something like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which sacrificed levity for plot in what was also just a monster movie. Or something like Cloverfield, which has no great characterisation or story, but whose uniqueness in visual concept and more touching moments (like its conclusion) make it a superior effort.

It’s a hard choice to make, but I’ll always prefer a film that tries to have a proper plot exist alongside the monsters. Godzilla does not have that. It does not have, for the most part, good acting talent to show off. It does not have a good script. What it has is a Godzilla. I was still entertained by Godzilla, but I was in no way engaged and in no way would I say I would relish the thought of a sequel along the same lines.

For the CGI and monster fights, recommended. For everything else, not so much.

Disappointing in nearly everything but the visual, but they are something to see.

Disappointing in nearly everything but the visual, but they are something to see.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and Toho).

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3 Responses to Review: Godzilla

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