So Red Molly and I finally got around to seeing the new Godzilla movie. As has become my custom when dealing with movies that are currently in theatres, I’m not going to give a full plot synopsis and review, on the assumption that anyone who cares has seen it, or soon will. Instead, I will just give a list of quick thoughts, in no particular order, as if you and I were sitting in the theatre together and I was giving running commentary, as I am so often tempted to do.
If you haven’t seen the film yet and want a review, here’s the short version: great monster film with some seriously annoying aspects that knock it down from great to merely good. Overall rating, 3 out of 5. Worth the ticket price, if only because you must see this thing on the big screen if you’re going to see it at all. I saw it in 3D, and that was probably advantageous as well.
If that’s what you came for, you should probably stop reading now. The Quick Thoughts (and the spoilers) begin below the fold.
1) When I was talking about annoying aspects, the primary thing I had in mind is the way they keep shoving wide-eyed young children (and in one case, a dog) in front of the camera: “You care for the children, yes? You care for the children! It’s so much scarier and more poignant now because a child is in danger!” Now, I cared about the kids in The Ring and The Sixth Sense just fine. But those kids were reasonably developed characters. Putting completely undeveloped non-characters who happen to be children in danger because we have to care about children (even if, 90% of the time, their danger is their own fault) is just cheap emotional manipulation, and it does nothing but piss me off. Especially because the circumstances that put the children in danger, and under the responsibility of Our Hero, are so contrived that it jars me out of Suspension of Disbelief. I care about adults for their own sake, Hollywood! I really do! The Hero’s own danger would have been enough!
2) On the plus side, the monsters and their battles were absolutely amazing. If there is one genre that has benefited from advances in special effects, it’s the kaiju genre. I watched the original 1954 version of Gojira not long ago, and one thing that frustrated me a little was the moment where that version’s Dr. Serizawa enters Tokyo Bay, where Godzilla is swimming, to activate the Oxygen Destroyer. That would have been a perfect opportunity to have him swim close to Godzilla and show us just how immense the creature really is by giving us an object of familiar size that we could use for scale. Alas, the special effects of the time weren’t up to it…but today’s are. And they make sure we know just how big the daikaiju really are.
2a) Speaking of the monster battles: Godzilla’s method of killing the male MUTO was a little unsatisfying (I wanted somebody to poke it a few times to confirm the kill), but the method of killing the female was pure awesome. I like how Godzilla’s fire works in this version.
3) The MUTO’s, especially the male (at least when he wasn’t airborne) look an awful lot like the monster from Cloverfield. A bit of a “take that” as to who is the all-time champion monster, perhaps?
4) I’m going to call the tsunami that accompanied Godzilla’s landfall at Hawaii as a combination of artistic license and symbolism. While I get that you’re trying to establish Godzilla as a force of nature, and as vast as he may be from our perspective, he’s nothing compared to the forces that create a tsunami.
5) For once, I suppose that the planes actually have a reason to make bombing runs that take them within the monsters’ reach instead of firing from miles away: the MUTO’s EMP field messing with their targeting systems. Still, that mistake has become such a cliché that I almost didn’t notice the justification. Another thing that jarred me out of my suspension of disbelief. I wonder if military personnel find that bit of Hollywood Tactics as annoying as I do. Probably moreso.
6) Speaking of the MUTO’s EMP powers, they remind me of something from the very roots of the kaiju genre: 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. As huge and tough as these creatures are, modern weapons are probably powerful enough to take them out…unless there’s some reason we can’t use those weapons. In 1953, the titular Beast carried bacteria that were released into the atmosphere with every wound it took. The MUTOs can prevent the weapons from working at all.
7) But then, the whole movie is a tribute to Kaiju Film history. The overall pattern of the movie is to the “Godzilla Vs.” movies that came later in the original Toho series, with Godzilla being the one to save human civilization from the other kaiju when human efforts have failed. On the other hand, Godzill is less our Big Monster Buddy, and more a simple predator on other kaiju. This film’s Dr. Serizawa (implied to be a descendant of the original) considers him to be the embodiment of nature’s balance. As such, while Godzilla doesn’t go out of his way to harm humans (the scene of the U.S. Navy vessels cruising along side him as he swims is oddly heartwarming), his battle with the MUTO’s still causes vast devastation. In that, this movie is a callback to the original Gojira, where we are confronted with the destruction these cool monster battles would cause. The original movie was an allegory about nuclear annihilation by the only people who knew about it first hand. While this movie can’t approach that level of pathos, it certainly doesn’t let us off the hook.
8) Incidentally…Dr. Serizawa? The movie may have eventually proved you right, that Godzilla is nature’s balancing force and that the best we can do is let him take care of the MUTO’s, but you surely didn’t expect the U.S. military to let him do it in the middle of San Francisco without at least trying to stop it, did you?
9) Incidentally, I’d like to mention how much I appreciate the fact that, while the military certainly preferred to keep the whole mess under wraps, they didn’t go to stupid lengths to maintain the cover-up beyond the point where it was feasible. Once the MUTO’s reached populated areas, they let the cat out of the bag and let the civilians participate in their own defense, if only enough to try to get out of the way. (Granted, all of those people trying to get out of the way at the same time results in terrible traffic tie-ups that make it difficult for any of them to get away. Is this what a “panic”, used as justification for the cover-up in so many films, looks like? Still better than what would have happened if the people of San Francisco had been completely unprepared and ignorant when the giant monsters appeared out of the bay.)
10)Similarly, I appreciate the fact that the Scientists are clearly depicted as more interested in safety than the accumulation of knowledge. When the MUTO chrysalis begins to grow unstable and go out of their control, Dr. Serizawa barely hesitates to order its destruction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and the scientists are precious little use after that (see #8 above), but scientists are so often the scapegoats in movies like this that I’ll take what I can get.
11) Million-ton monsters are awfully good at sneaking in this movie. How in hell did the female MUTO tear open the side of a mountain, walk across the desert in broad daylight, and avoid notice until she actually arrived in Vegas?
12) What a waste of Bryan Cranston! He was, by far, the best actor in this movie. What was more, Joe Brody’s story was extremely compelling, and he could have contributed much more to the film than Ford’s. A man driven by obsession to find out the true reason for his wife’s death, finally vindicated after fifteen years, reconciling with his family when it really counted? That’s a story! And he could have given us so much more information, clues and conjectures about the MUTOs and the huge thing that was hunting them. But I guess he was too expensive. Needed to save money for the CGI budget. In a way, this feels like almost as much of a stunt as the constantly-endangered kids: bring the famous actor in just long enough to put him on the billing, then get rid of him and carry on with the cheap unknowns.
12a) Upon doing a little poking around, it turns out that several of the other actors – Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen among them – have received some awards of their own, but were equally ill-used by the movie. A rule of thumb: if an actor is a good actor, but you wouldn’t know it from watching a particular movie, that’s a sign that something is wrong with the movie (probably the director). Think Jeremy Irons in the Dungeons and Dragons film, or Ben Kingsley in Species.
13) Another thing this movie wasted was Ford Brody’s EOD training. Much is made of it all throughout the movie, it’s used to put him in position for the grand finale, and he never defuses a single bomb. (The HALO insertion was gorgeous, though. Falling through the clouds like that…the imagery of angelic figures descending – or falling – from Heaven was well done, and the nearness of their approach to Godzilla gave us another glimpse of his sheer scale).
14) Which leads us to another waste! If you’re going to detonate a nuke in San Francisco harbor, then by all the gods of storytelling and performance, you need to show it! And not just as a vague, glowy blur in the distance as the protagonist passes out!
That’s about it, really. This was not a complicated or subtle movie, though I suppose subsequent watchings could reveal further details. Watch it for the fucking glorious monster battles, try to ignore the blatant heartstring-pulling, and don’t expect too much in the way of performances once Bryan Cranston leaves the screen.