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Non-Review Review: Godzilla (2014)

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla remake exhumes the classic movie monster for one more epic city-destroying brawl. Appropriately enough, the film feels like something of a relic itself – albeit a relic from an era more recent than the prime of its featured monster. Opening with the excavation of a giant skeleton in the Philippines, and with the revelation that the titular creature was first awakened in 1954, there’s a sense of coy self-awareness to Gareth Edwards’ monster movie tribute.

This wry self-awareness only extends the film so much leeway. At the heart, Godzilla feels like a nineties blockbuster created with modern technology. If the film had a sense of humour, it would look a lot more like Godzilla-by-the-way-of-Roland Emmerich than the 1998 attempt to reintroduce the character to American audiences.

Who says Godzilla is washed up?

Who says Godzilla is washed up?

A nuclear family in peril. The honour of military service. Crazy conspiracy theorists who turn out to be correct. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla feels like more of a companion piece to Independence Day and Stargate than the 1998 version of Godzilla did. Using an ensemble of thinly-drawn stock characters and military personal to sketch out the finer details of a supernatural disaster, Gareth Edwards doesn’t just resurrect the eponymous reptile; he brings an old style of film-making to life.

In many respects, Godzilla feels a lot more like a nineties version of the iconic Japanese monster – it’s a functional and efficient piece of work that hits all the requisite plot beats in the time afforded. There’s a nice central family drama to help ground this other-worldly threat. Our protagonist is a US military officer, so patriotism comes built into the premise. Our hero finds himself trying to not only save the world, but to reunite with his wife and son. Along the way, his path intersects with various horrific monsters.

Breaking Dad...

Breaking Dad…

It’s the human characters who feel like the weakest part of Godzilla. The movie assembles an all-star cast, but does nothing with them. Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston barely get a chance to register in roles that are more plot function than character. David Strathairn plays a supervising military officer who is precisely like every other supervising military officer ever. Kan Watanabe seems to have been cast simple to philosophically ruminate on the carnage of the creatures, while Sally Hawkins plays his assistant.

It’s a somewhat wasted ensemble, and it’s hard not to feel like any of these characters might have made a strong focal point to the film if they were pushed to the fore. Instead, the movie chooses to focus on Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as a couple divided by continents and giant monsters, whose professions just happen to afford us a ground-level view of monster mayhem and whose paths just seem to keep intersecting with these creatures.

"We're going to need a bigger nuke..."

“We’re going to need a bigger nuke…”

Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are capable actors who have both done great work in the past, but they are ill-served by the script to Godzilla. All we know is that they are a couple who love each other very much and are looking to spend some quality time together when the inevitable rampage occurs and fate (and clichés) conspire to separate them. There’s very little interesting about our hero, except for his unique ability to be in the wrong place at just the right time, and their child seems to exist to sit quietly as he’s driven into the path of some horrific beast or other.

To be fair, there’s something very charming about this set-up. Yes, it’s packed with cliché and narrative contrivances and storytelling shortcuts, but it does hark back to a type of blockbuster that doesn’t seem to exist too much any more. The recent popularity of superhero blockbusters, young adult franchises and science-fiction high-concepts means that the vast majority of big summer blockbusters are built around central characters – the plot is driven by or motivated against a particular character.

Time for your close-up!

Time for your close-up!

In contrast, Godzilla is very much about a bunch of random people caught in the path of a natural disaster, and thrust into danger by luck rather than design. Our hero isn’t trying to kill the monsters at the heart of Godzilla, even if he does end up in the right place at the right time to get drawn into an attempt or two. Instead, he’s just a guy who wants to get home with everything happening around him. If he plays a major part in events, it is down to pure chance (or contrivance) rather than destiny or fate.

It a style of blockbuster that has faded slightly in recent years, but one that was very popular in the nineties. Our protagonist is very much in the spirit of Captain Steven Hiller or David Levinson or Harry Stamper or Ian Malcolm. He’s a guy who just so happens to have skills that make him handy to have at the climax of a blockbuster movie, but the bulk of the movie is about the ripples of chance moving him into that position. It’s a rather quaint storytelling style for a mega summer blockbuster.

Making waves...

Making waves…

And Gareth Edwards does a good enough job with it. The movie features some wonderful monster-on-monster action. As you might imagine, Edwards captures the scale of the horror quite well. More than any recent monster movie – even Pacific RimGodzilla conveys the sheer majesty of the beast at its core. Due to the way that Edwards frames its introduction, and his willingness to hold back the movie’s big monster reveals, Godzilla feels like an epic.

Edwards’ decision to forego a goofy sense of humour is a shrewd choice. Godzilla is a surprisingly serious monster movie; but that seriousness helps to give the monster a bit of weight. This isn’t a situation that we should be laughing about, this is something that threatens everything that mankind takes for granted about the natural world. This is the end of all things, the apocalypse given form, this is horror walking on two legs. Edwards captures the grotesque majesty of the creatures very well.

Forget it, Ford, it's China town...

Forget it, Ford, it’s China town…

At the same time, the movie occasionally plays it a little too seriously. When describing the creature, Ishiro Serizawa offers his own suggested name for the monster. “Gojira,” he whispers, with Ken Watanabe giving the moment a wonderful sense of gravity and meaning. Similarly, the movie tries valiantly (and endearingly) to come up with a quasi-plausible acronym for “M.U.T.O.” However, only a few scenes later, minor characters are tossing the nickname “Godzilla” around the military command centre almost casually, with no hint of irony or self-awareness.

There’s a very weird balance at play in Godzilla, and one that doesn’t necessarily do the film any favours. The issue of cultural appropriation was always going to hang over the film. This is an American blockbuster about a creature that has a very specific and important meaning within Japanese culture. While the cast is multi-national, the major characters are almost exclusively white and American. The creatures might originate in Asia – moving from the Phillippines to Japan – but they inevitably set their sights on America.

Suited to his work...

Suited to his work…

There is something a little disconcerting about this. Would it be really hard to ask audiences to accept a movie about catastrophes based primarily in countries outside America, dealt with by characters who were not mainly American? It’s to the credit of Pacific Rim that – even with a white male lead – the film at least featured a setting outside America and a diverse cast. There is something very cynical about taking a Japanese property like Godzilla and appropriating it so thoroughly.

At the same time, the script seems to be acutely aware of these issues. Much is made of the fact that Godzilla and the other monsters head East, even if they end up West. The movie’s primary Japanese character, Ishiro Serizawa, is treated as nothing more than a spectator in this epic – but a spectator who seems to understand what is going on better than any of the Americans who appropriated one of the creatures from Asia.

A bit thrown by it all...

A bit thrown by it all…

The fact that the protagonist is given one of the most gloriously American names ever – “Ford Brody” – helps to suggest the movie is aware of these issues, as does the fact that one of the creatures is discovered by “the Universal Western Mining Company”, perhaps acknowledging the American studio that gave us King Kong vs. Godzilla and the way that these stories tend to “mine” their source material from other cultures.

The creatures land in Hawaii before moving on to San Francisco. While there’s no pause to acknowledge the Pacific Islanders trapped in this situation – barring a silent young boy who our hero is tasked with protecting, the major characters in this sequence are all tourists – it at least supports the idea of Godzilla as a metaphor for Imperial Japan, albeit from an American perspective. That’s arguably problematic in its own right – somewhat glossing over the nuclear angle of Godzilla – but at least its aware of one interpretation of the character.

Monster madness...

Monster madness…

Weirdly, while the movie does retains a lot of the atomic commentary associated with Godzilla, it feels a little mangled. At one point, trying to put everything in perspective, Seriwaza reveals that he is still haunted by the bombing of Hiroshima. And, yet, things are not so simple. Rather than awakening the monster in the first place, the nuclear testing in the Pacific is revealed to have been a cover-up. The bombing at Bikini Atoll was just an attempt to kill the creature.

There’s some interesting thematic work here. Whereas the original Gojira served as a fantastical vehicle to explore very real anxieties and uncertainties that could not be voiced in the context of fifties Japan, Gareth Edwards’ uses Godzilla as an exploration of metaphorical monsters in general. Joseph Brody fixates on the idea of conspiracies and monsters to help explain a horrific personal tragedy. These monsters aren’t just a way to deal with one horrific event, they chart a secret history across the second half of the twentieth century.

It never rains...

It never rains…

The character of Joseph Brody bring us back to the idea of Godzilla as something of a belated nineties blockbuster. It’s interesting to think that Joe Brody would be a much more cynical character in a nineties film. A crazy loner obsessed with crazy theories that are ultimately validated by circumstance, Brody would seem like the only character with his head on straight – the only person who can see things for what they really are, while those around him accept the world as they perceive it.

However, this isn’t the nineties. Joe Brody feels like a nineties character filtered through a contemporary lens. Rather than the only sane man in an insane world – the only character who understands how it all ties together – Joe Brody is a much more pathetic figure. He’s a character who cannot cope with the world as it is, with the random horrors around him, and who retreats into attempts to fashion meaning from madness.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Had Godzilla been produced twenty years earlier, Joe Brody would be one of the most heroic and central characters. Consider Randy Quaid’s haunted and disturbed Russell Casse from Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum’s paranoid Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park or even Gene Hackman’s cynical Brill from Enemy of the State. Instead, Joe Brody exists at the fringe of the narrative, his role marginal at best and his contribution little more than drawing his son into his madness.

Godzilla is a flawed piece of work. It’s a film that hasn’t met a disaster movie cliché that it didn’t like, fashioned in a decidedly outdated manner and struggling with issues of cultural appropriation. At the same time, it stands quite apart from most contemporary blockbusters, hits on some interesting ideas and feels like a genuine attempt to do justice to a classic movie monster. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla isn’t a resounding success, but it’s an interesting and nostalgic – and imperfect -blockbuster.

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12 Responses

  1. Thanks. I won’t bother seeing.

  2. Great review. I liked the film and thought the majority of the film was good, which is a nice change from the 98 version which was mostly bad.

    The visuals and tone worked really well but the characters where lifeless, except Cranston.

    Still bring on MechaGodzilla! 😀

  3. Flawed, maybe… but enjoyable, it also is. Never mind humans, the monster action is always the main thing here. hehe

  4. Though I commented on mostly Batman stuff here on the m0vie blog, Godzilla is the one for me. THE ONE. As such, it breaks my heart no one else is comparing this to Citizen Kane. Though in reality, us Godzilla fans consider this the 4th best film and one of the few that’s broken the kaiju mold and transended into being a great film period. Can we expect reviews on the previous 28 Godzilla films? Please please please!!!! It can be like a Christmas present or something.

  5. “Godzilla is a surprisingly serious monster movie; but that seriousness helps to give the monster a bit of weight. This isn’t a situation that we should be laughing about, this is something that threatens everything that mankind takes for granted about the natural world. This is the end of all things, the apocalypse given form, this is horror walking on two legs. Edwards captures the grotesque majesty of the creatures very well.”

    See, this is what I expected and welcomed from the film, with all the hype beforehand, and up until… ‘one of the characters’ pegged it, that was the film I was watching. Then it kind of swerved in another direction, from the horrific theme of the 1954 original to the kid-friendly ’60’s ‘Showa era’ movies: evil monster du jour turns up; humans prove incapable and stand around feeling silly; Godzilla shows up and soundly thrashes the ruffian; humans cheer our heroic monster. Our first glimpse of the big G post-opening is with a full naval escort, for the luvva Mike! Things barely change from that, even when it drowns half of Honolulu and steps on the other. Ken Watanabe’s clumsy ecological rambling and the ‘saviour of the city’ bit don’t help matters. Less said about the ironic ‘human interest’ the better.

    And this is from someone who’s kind of fond of those goofy ’60’s Godzilla movies.

    It wasn’t a *bad* movie (and as someone who happens to be extremely nerdy and nitpicky about creature design, can I say I agree that the design and animation of this version of Godzilla was knee-wobblingly beautiful?) but to be honest, I found myself wishing they’d expanded the opening sequence and made a movie out of that instead.

  6. I watched the old Godzilla cartoon as a kid, and compared to that this movie was disappointing.

    [Edited with commenter’s permission to correct grammar.]

    • I didn’t watch the cartoon. I thought the movie was grand, which is hardly a rave. But I still think that means I liked it more than most.

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