The new Godzilla film has been met with a veil of secrecy that few other films have had. You’d think that it was a comic book movie or something from JJ Abrams it’s been that tight lipped since day one of the production. Even what Godzilla looks like and how tall the King of Monsters is compared to his Japanese counterpart, are again a secret. If you look at the promotional teasers for the film and compare them to trailer you’ll be hard pressed to definitely state anything about the film… until you see it. The film beings in the Philippines where a mining company has discovered the remains of a huge skeleton and in Jurassic Park fashion called for an expert on giant monster remains that arrives via helicopter. This introduces Ken Watanabe’s character and his company that is put in charge of containing and studying the creatures. They crawl around on the skeleton to show its size and find a growth on the bones that shouldn’t be there. Something has hatched and broken free and somehow no one noticed even though it broke through a mountain and destroyed several miles of forest before reaching the ocean and swimming away. I get it though; it was too early to show you the monster.
In a strange twist the story goes to Japan where we find Bryan Cranston’s character in charge of a new nuclear power plant that’s entering its final stage of development. His wife played by Juliette Binoche also works at the plant. Cranston’s character is a key component to plot as his story gives meaning to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character and helps ensure that we’re not just watching monsters fight and making up bullshit as to why they’re doing that. I guess I’m the only one that just wants to see monsters fight regardless of their reason.
The nuclear plant begins receiving some strange readings and suddenly there’s a meltdown of sorts. In the process Binoche’s character is killed and we’re left with more questions than answers for the moment.
We flash forward to the future and find Johnson’s character all grown up and back home from serving in the military. After a quick introduction to his wife played by Elizabeth Olsen and his kid, who is about as useful as a puppy, Johnson receives a call that send him back to Japan to bail his father out of jail.
He arrives in Japan and we learn that Cranston has stayed in Japan to figure out what really happened the day of the “meltdown” as there is a huge cover up about it. Father and son eventually head into the contamination zone and discover that there is no radiation. Soon they’re arrested and we get our first glimpse at one of the monsters. It’s not Godzilla and by now we’re a solid half hour into the film just to give you an idea at the level of teasing.
Eventually the monster is born and breaks free and this sets off the plot of monsters versus monsters that eventually ends up in San Francisco where Johnson happens to live.
I would not proclaim to be the biggest Godzilla fan in the world, though I have seen my fair share of the Toho films. That said there is a formula that works for Godzilla and one that doesn’t and both sides of the Pacific have found the formula that doesn’t work. Unlike most fans of the franchise I wasn’t excited at the announcement that Hollywood would be taking another stab at the King of Monsters. Zilla, the name Toho and fans gave to the 1998 version of the monster, is not that far removed from my mind. For its many problems the 1998 film suffered for the biggest mistake any Godzilla film can make… it focused on the people rather than the giant monster everyone came to see.
The new film from Gareth Edwards is a strange beast. It two focuses on the human aspect of story, but it tackles it in a way that’s relevant to the story. In that regards screenwriter Max Borenstein has excelled making sure that for the most part the characters serve a purpose other than staring at CGI monsters and giving Spielberg inspired responses of shock and awe. There is a problem with that though because as the human side of the story becomes interesting, in order to make it that way you need to sacrifice the monsters screen time.
As I said the monsters end up in San Francisco, but it’s incredibly forced. Spoiler, there are two M.U.T.O.’s and one is in Japan and the other is in Arizona and so the middle point is San Francisco, but the film takes the time to explain that everywhere they’re traveling has nuclear that the monsters want.
Because they’re forced to San Fran where Johnson’s character lives, he’s along for the long haul. After being detained and holding important secrets he’s literally just cut loose and given a ticket home. Too bad the monsters are hot on his ass so his trip home continues to be delayed until he volunteers for the mission to deliver a warhead meant to distract the MUTO’s. At one point he attempts to impress the lead officer on the mission and he wasn’t impressed… nor was I. Every bit of Johnson’s journey is forced upon the story and he soon becomes the go to man for every branch of the military and the only capable person in fighting giant monsters.
Cranston’s character isn’t particularly useful, but he does figure out part of what’s going on before Watanabe’s character does. The problem is that Watanabe has been studying the monsters up close and personal for at least 15 years and doesn’t know shit. He quickly becomes the guy that delivers the suspenseful “Godzilla” line. I’m not kidding his dialogue and delivery was bad, not cheesy, but bad. You’ll forget that he’s a doctor by the second time he’s on screen and wonder why they continue to check in with him afterwards. In actuality he's there to deliver the lines fans supposedly want to hear, the ones that remind them it's a Godzilla film.
I still feel like I barely know what Godzilla looks like even after seeing the film. He’s rarely shown full body and up until the final battle the film takes more of Cloverfield approach and shows the monsters from the human perspective. The M.U.T.O.'s on the other hand are shown plenty and actually have a great design.
I gave my best shot at like the design for Godzilla even after seeing leaked photos and action figures, but I still don’t like it. There is nothing iconic about the look, instead Godzilla looks like a snout-nosed T-Rex more than the iconic King of the Monsters. I have read that Japanese fans don’t like the “fat” looking Godzilla and I can’t disagree. In fact I don’t think the design of Godzilla makes sense for what they make the creature do. Godzilla is a graceful swimmer which is fine, but then when you see his legs you have to laugh at the idea of the creature swimming with two whiskey barrel legs the way it does.
The classic sounds and powers are there and when they’re finally used it’s pretty spectacular. Though they kept it sparse it was probably for the best since they had nothing to add to it afterwards.
I do think it’s important to point out that Godzilla is a hero of sorts. Sure Johnson’s character is the protagonist, but Godzilla is the hero. The film takes its time establishing it for the characters in the story, but it was pretty clear from the introduction from Watanabe’s character that he was not a bad guy or something to be feared. It works, but it’s a bit strange since Godzilla has always been impartial. He’s a force of nature still, but he’s definitely in humanities corner.
The cinematography is great and the CGI is what you’d expect from a modern film… pretty. Overall I didn’t have any complaints about the way it looked, but some of the shots were rather annoying. I saw it in 3D on an IMAX screen and while I don’t hate 3D, I’m not a fan of it. It could have worked wonderfully for this film, but as I said there are Cloverfield shots in which we see something from a strange perspective like a crowd or through a window and at times the 3D look more like a hand over part of the projector than part of the movie. And like most 3D movies it forgets that it’s a 3D movie half way through the film so these shots become even more annoying because clearly they were shooting for 2D. I would recommend that if you see the film, see it in 2D.
By now you’re probably wondering if I liked the film or not. I did like it. Even though a lot of the story elements were convenient and others were pointless, I think the film makers did a good job of making Godzilla fit into our world the way it is now and so it works as an updated retelling. The weird thing is that I don’t want to watch it again. It’s one of those movies that one time is enough and the reason is the lack of Godzilla. Because there is so much build up to the reveal there isn’t going to be the same level of suspense with a second viewing. I wasn’t disappointed by the film, but I wasn’t excited by it either and so that’s where I stand with it.
Director: Gareth Edwards Writer: Max Borenstein Studio: Legendary/WB Run Time: 123 Min Release Date: 5/16/14