Pros: A great jumping on place if you’ve never seen a Godzilla flick
Cons: The soundtrack is tepid.
It probably doesn’t come as a big shock to anyone, but I have been a Godzilla fan all my life. Growing up, I watched constant reruns of Godzilla versus the Smog Monster or Godzilla Raids Again during Saturday afternoons on the local UHF station’s Sci-Fi Theater. I was the only one of my social group to flock to the theatrical release of Godzilla 2000 back at the beginning of the millennium, the original Gojira is in my annual Halloween viewing rotation and I’ve tracked down even the hard to find and out of print DVDs from Japan.
On the other hand, I loath modern Hollywood remakes – Land of the Lost was a 2 hour punch to the Babymaker, I couldn’t stand what they did to Freddy Kruger in the new Nightmare on Elm Street, my loathing for Robocop burns with the passion of a thousand suns – in short the list of criminal offenders is as long as my arm. So it was with guarded trepidation that I looked forward to the new American Godzilla movie. All indications looked to be promising, and yet I couldn’t shake the stink of failure from the 1998 Godzilla.
Was I in for a monster flick that was not only pretty good but also respectful of the source material, or was I in for two hours of Deep Hurting?
After a credit sequence of footage of some massive, unseen behemoth lurking in the background of the atomic bombs tests at Bikini Atol, we open in 1999 at the Janjira nuclear power plant where strange seismic activity of unknown origin is being detected. Head Engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) stays in the control room to monitor the situation while technician wife Sandra heads down to Level Five to physically check on the reactor.
Being a Godzilla movie, this goes about as well as you’d think.
After the meltdown and evacuation, we fast-forward fifteen years. Joe, coping poorly with Sandra’s death, has spent the last decade and a half getting to the bottom of an international conspiracy, a cover-up as to what caused the accident that faithful day. Meanwile his long suffering son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, AKA Kick-Ass) just wants to put the past behind them and get on with his life.
But of course it’s hard to maintain a conspiracy of silence when the subject of said conspiracy is 300 feet tall and walking around knocking over buildings – so it’s not long before The Powers That Be shift from cover-up to containment and damage control. But can the military deal with these Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms before it’s too late? And what of the King of the Monsters, lurking the background and ready to kick some MUTO asses? Will there be anything left of the civilized world once this rematch between two ancient adversaries is through?
Godzilla flicks are both blindingly simple in execution and shockingly hard to get right. When you fail, you fail hard – Godzilla 98, Godzilla versus Megalon, Son of Godzilla – and when you succeed, you knock it out of the park – Terror of Mechagodzilla, Final Wars, Mothra versus Godzilla. It’s a pretty simple formula – breaths fire, does not fear the weapons of puny mankind, goes SCREEEONGK, has another monster to fight- preferably in a city where lots of stuff can get destroyed. So, after the soul-crushingly bad American Godzilla, did Godzilla 2014 get it right? You bet your ass it did!
So, lets go through the checklist and see what worked.
First off – the humans. The purpose of the humans in a Godzilla movie is three fold. 1) Shoot ineffectually at Godzilla. 2) Run away from Godzilla and 3) Stand around and ask “Where is Godzilla” – and that’s it. Here, however director Gareth Edwards (who went from cranking out Made-For-TV Movies and one feature film to this) manages to the human talking scenes not only “not annoying”, but actually interesting and reasonably compelling.
There were no macho characters busy throwing out wise-cracks and one-liners, all the main characters communicated nothing but sincerity in their interactions and – unlike a great many action movie protagonists – Ford was refreshingly free of whining. He may not believe his father’s conspiracy theory ramblings, but he doesn’t drag his heels or passive-aggressively sabotage the trip back to their irradiated home. Instead he realizes that his father’s paranoia is born from a place of deep emotional hurting – and if going back into the quarantine zone will help ease that pain, then they’ll go back together.
Or consider the scene where the soldiers are attempting to disarm an atomic bomb. In a non-Godzilla action flick, there would have been all kinds of bravado and machismo at their inability to open the bomb’s casing. Here, as soon as it becomes clear that Plan A wont work, they transition immediately to Plan B: get the bomb as far away from San Francisco as possible. What people mistake for blandness is really just competence and emotional maturity.
Being character drama heavy means that Edwards holds back the Monster Action – a complaint I hear a lot about the movie. And yes, if you go into this movie thinking that it’ll be Godzilla wrecking shit for two solid hours, you’ll probably be very disappointed. Much like the classic Godzilla flicks, G14 has a very slow build to Godzilla’s big entrance.
The old ones, especially the really good ones, tend to hold back the monster action. For example, the 90’s version of Godzilla versus King Ghidorah, where Godzilla is barely even in the movie. It’s not like Pacific Rim where you’ve got tons of kaiju and Jaegers running around. If we’d seen Godzilla stomping building and roaring for two hours it would’ve been boring as hell. So going with the Jaws approach, where we are teased throughout, only catching fleeting glimpses of the awesomeness of the Monsters as seen through the eyes of the civilians or getting a sense of the scale of their power because of the devastation in their wake really works. It builds up the audience’s tension and frustration until one massive release of “Oh yeah, it’s on now!” – and when the final reel comes, the action really satisfies in a way only a classic Godzilla flick can.
And there’s some gorgeous stuff in this movie – like the HALO jump into the ruined nuclear holocaust that is San Francisco with the 2001: Space Odyssey music playing was a really haunting scene. And the build-up to where Godzilla finally unleashes the Atomic Breath is outstanding. The effects are outstanding and there are ton of well-shot Money Shots in this movie.
So that’s everything the movie got right. What about the misfires? Oh, I could nitpick things, sure – but G14 is generally a solid flick. My only true regret about the movie was that the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat (The fellow behind a couple of the Harry Potter soundtracks) was really pedestrian. I had been hoping for a score like what Michael Giacchino delivered for Speed Racer – a score where he very much put his own stamp on it, but it was clearly identifiable as inspired by the source material.
So the last thing to address – what is the movie about. See, while I appreciate Godzilla movies for their city-smashing spectacle, I find the best ones also work in some kind of underlying theme to the movie too. Godzilla, King of the Monsters, of course, was about the horrors of atomic war and the dangers of being careless with same – but we get pollution Aesops, warnings about irresponsible science running amuck and so on through out the series.
Even the worst G movies have some kind of Aesop – Son of Godzilla‘s “stand up to bullies and don’t let them push you around”. Well, the worst of them aside from G’98 – which had no underlying theme to it other than Siskel and Ebert would make terrible mayors.
So – was there a theme with G’14?
Doctor Serizawa straight out says it about half way through the film: “The arrogance of man is thinking that he can control nature, and not the other way around.” – but that’s only a part of the theme. It goes deeper than that, that Godzilla is a metaphor for nature
It is frequently said in the film that Godzilla exists to restore balance, a mechanism for when things are out of order. Nature is a push and pull of cause and effect: what is put into nature – to weather, to an ecosystem – generates a response or reaction somewhere else. Over farming the land causes the soil to become depleted of nutrients and consequently ruins the area for years, creating a dustbowl. Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causes a whole cascade of biosphere issues (like we are currently experiencing). A massive volcanic eruption could lower global temperatures enough to starve millions and destroy ecosystems. And so on. In each of these examples, the forces of nature (outside of a planet ending catastrophe) eventually find a homeostasis or equilibrium with the “cause”. Balance is restored. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Godzilla is that reaction, in this movie.
Consider the portions of the film where Godzilla is seen moving across the pacific ocean relentlessly, with the humans following along impotently, only observing and tracking, while far away people begin evacuating “the projected path/landing site of Godzilla”. Sound familiar? It sounds like hurricane tracking, or tornado hunting – you cannot do anything but observe, report, and hide. Godzilla represents that relentless aspect of nature. A hurricane pays no mind to Navy ships following it. It cares not for the hurricane hunting C-130 aircraft testing its winds. It follows a natural order, the path of least resistance, to expend its energy. There is no way to stop it, and there is no way to stop Godzilla.
Or, to use pop culture as a summation – “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man”.
THE GODZILLA SCORECARD –
THE WINNER IS:
Ladies and Gentlemen, once again proving himself the undisputed King of the Monsters – GODZILLA!
AND NOW YOU KNOW:
This movie is, at its roots, about how nature is an unstoppable force that can both ruin us and save us. Godzilla is that force in the movie.
THE KENNY FACTOR: 0.5%
The protagonist gets to chaperone a young Japanese boy in short pants for a few scenes, but he’s not annoying, he doesn’t talk to Minilla and doesn’t do much other than give Ford someone to save once. All things considered? Pretty harmless
THE END. . . .?
Upon crushing his enemies and having no further concern, Godzilla ponderously lumbers back into the ocean’s depths. . . .
THE BOTTOM LINE –
Like I said at the start, I’ve been a Godzilla fan all my like. I have spent more hours of my youth frittered away watching these damn movies than was probably healthy. So to see a big screen adaption with big studio money put together by a team of people who actually care about the franchise blows my damn mind.
If you want two hours of monsters beating the crap out of each other, go watch Pacific Rim again. However If you grew up on this series, if you like these movies, if you want a movie that’s very much in the same vein as the classic Godzilla flicks, then Godzilla 2014 will scratch that itch.
I give it 4.5 SCREEEONGKS out of 5