Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)
via Godzilla Movies
Gojira (Godzilla) created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya

(obligatory spoiler alert)

This was a surprise. I mistakenly assumed that Hollywood’s second attempt at Godzilla would be a remake of the 1954 original, like the 1998 misstep, based on watching trailers showing a very cranky Bryan Cranston screaming about humanity being sent back to the Stone Age, or a mournful Ken Watanabe mentioning a creature that couldn’t be killed from way back in 1954. While this is still an origin tale of sorts, the titular character is closer to the King of the Monsters of the 60s and 70s - Defender of the Earth from the truly nasty kaiju out there to get us. And that’s good news for those of us who want Godzilla not to be a villain that has to be vanquished at the end, but a hero who can come back to face new foes.

There are a few things you have to accept to enjoy this type of Godzilla film. For one, the people don’t matter so much. They might occasionally lend assistance, or be a nuisance. But mostly, they’re there to bear witness to the awesomeness that is the kaiju showdown. Those aforementioned trailers put Cranston front and center to sell the film to the public. His tragic relationship with Juliette Binoche during the first act of the story does provide emotional ballast, but with his death the human interest falls on the steadfast but dull Aaron Taylor-Johnson. This turns out to be a smart move. Did anyone in their right mind really think that Walter White taking on Godzilla was a good idea? The conflict between Cranston and Taylor-Johnson is mercifully settled by the time the kaiju first lock horns. More importantly, the totally perfunctory depiction of Taylor-Johnson’s family troubles mostly avoids the kind of mawkishness that’s always put front and center in effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters. So we’re not really forced to care about whether he’s ever reunited with his wife and kid.

Having said that, I am a little disappointed that Watanabe is simply used as the film's resident Asian. Some of the early scenes are set in East Asia, namely the Philippines and Japan. Yet the people in charge are mainly Caucasians. Even in San Francisco where much of the story takes place, people of color are pushed to the margins. At least Watanabe doesn’t die in the first 20 minutes, so that’s progress. On a side-note, why does the military keep calling Godzilla by that name when Watanabe first refers to him (or her) as Gojira?

Another important feature is that the military has to be pretty useless against the kaiju. It’s a relief that the film doesn’t resort to the usual jingoistic recruiting message about joining a band of brothers, despite the Taylor-Johnson character being a naval bomb disposal expert. He does his job with a minimum of wisecracks, and he’s so devoid of personality that the role could have been split into different officers for every other scene. The film also avoids the opposite cliche of portraying the military as incompetent jack-booted thugs. They’ve been ordered to do whatever it takes to stop the kaiju, but they’re at best bothersome pests, except at the end when Taylor-Johnson conveniently does something heroic. The act does slightly undercut Watanabe’s oft repeated pronouncements that it’s hubris for Man to think he can control nature.

A major stumbling block is the sparsity of kaiju action. This is another peculiarity of the series. Godzilla doesn’t appear until halfway through the film. And director Gareth Edwards adopts an understated approach that some critics have declared “boring.” Quite a few times the camera pans upward from ground-level to reveal an impending kaiju beatdown, only to cut-off at a crucial moment. We’re not allowed to have a really good look at Godzilla until the climactic battle. Personally, I can understand how this could be a huge problem given the dearth of compelling human drama. But I also don’t mind the restraint. One of the challenges of Pacific Rim was holding audience attention, largely accomplished by staging increasingly complex fight scenes with correspondingly higher stakes. Nevertheless, the dog-piling of action scenes could become tiresome at times. By keeping most of the kaiju action offstage, the moment when Godzilla gets the upper hand feels a lot more satisfying. And it helps that this film has some of the most gorgeous cinematography found in a 2014 summer blockbuster.

Ultimately, Godzilla is an incomprehensible protagonist/walking deus ex machina. Watanabe is convinced that Godzilla's there to restore balance, but never gives solid evidence to back it up. Why would a 350 foot tall prehistoric creature who looks like a cross between a dragon and an angry bipedal crocodile even notice, let alone care about the lives of millions of tiny San Franciscans? Is that even a meaningful question to ask of such a film?