Unlike the Energizer Bunny, the new Godzilla is a windup toy that runs down – or, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, runs out of radioactive steam. Godzilla roars again, but the sound has been fed through a broken ring modulator, resulting in a distorted signal. This is highly unfortunate, since the new film SHIN GODZILLA (Shin Gojira in its original Japanese – which translates to “Godzilla’s Resurgence”), bristles with promise in the form of satirical jabs at governmental bureaucracy and clever winks at the history of the character (whose dual name “Gojira/Godzilla” forms the basis of an amusing joke at the expense of the U.S.A.). The movie is funny without being an overt comedy, and the humor never undermines the titular behemoth. The filmmakers have other methods for doing that. Shin Godzilla gets off to an intriguing start (reminiscent of Godzilla 1985) when the coast guard encounters a mysterious unmanned vessel, which is capsized by some unseen force before it can by towed to shore; moments later, some kind of impact causes a leak in an undersea tunnel. A series of rapid-fire shots conveys the government’s response: the irony of the editing is that the response itself is anything but rapid, as officials hem and haw, wrangling over the nature of the threat and which department should handle it. The result is an amusing satire of of the Japanese government’s decision-making process, depicted as hopeless mired by concerns of form (the ministers keep ducking back into the Prime Minister’s office because conversations in the main room are on the record, and not everyone feels comfortable with what needs to be said out loud). It’s not quite Dr. Strangelove, but it’s fun for a while.
The film establishes an approach not dissimilar from that seen in some anime series, revealing character names and job descriptions in subtitles. More than just a technique to eliminate awkward exposition, this cinematic style sets the tone of the film, which is as lean as the 5%-fat beef one buys in the supermarket: this is a movie totally focused on process; characters exist only in terms of their job functions, and all conflicts relate to the main objective. There is no time wasted on building characters with humanizing domestic scenes or personal conflicts; only one seems to have a family member – who is, pointedly, rendered completely faceless.
As energizing as this approach is, it cannot sustain an entire movie (unless rendered by some kind of genius). At some point the film has to settle into a grove and get down to the actual business of telling its story by depicting the threat of Godzilla. Ironically, in this regard, Shin Godzilla stumbles about as awkwardly as its initial depiction of Godzilla. When the radioactive beast first reveals itself, it looks like an overgrown polliwog, hunched over and almost slithering on its belly (an unpleasant reminder of Emmerich and Devlin’s 1998 Godzilla). The waving moments of its head suggest a Chinese dragon at a parade; one expects to see humans underneath, manipulating the creature with rods. Even worse, its unblinking eyes look like giant buttons; probably intended to suggest a mutated creature, they are too big, suggesting a cute anime character instead of a destructive menace.
Fortunately, Godzilla soon mutates into an upright creature, but he never fully becomes the familiar icon. He always looks a half-formed abomination with vaguely Godzilla-esque characteristics. This might have been an acceptable approach, except that it contradicts one thrust of the screenplay: as in the 2014 Godzilla, this creature is supposed to provoke the awe one associates with a deity (we’re told the “Gojira” means “God Incarnate”). That simply cannot work when the mangy creature’s only claim to god-like status is size; it needs to look awesome in order to be awesome.
It’s a little hard to tell whether this problem is completely one of design or partly attributable to the effects artists. Clearly there is an attempt to distort perspective in order to convey Godzilla’s size as seen from humans at ground level, but as often as not this simply makes the beast seem malformed, especially in long shots, where the tail seems almost larger than the body.
Excellent CGI composite work replaces old-school miniatures.
Unfortunately, the problem is not only cosmetic; it goes beneath the skin. The initially intriguing attempts to have the human characters analyze this new life form (despite the “Resurgence” in the title, the film treats Godzilla as something new) come to nothing. Many metaphoric cans of worms are opened, but the dissection is left unfinished, resulting in a depiction of Godzilla that is more non-entity than powerful enigma.
There is a nice attempt to show some limits to the beast, whose initial foray onto land is cut short because of a need to regulate its body temperature by returning to the water. Later, it becomes apparent that Godzilla (who true to form feeds off nuclear fuel) needs to recharge after expending his energy. This affords an opportunity for the characters to develop a strategy, but it also subverts the films’ central threat, rendering Godzilla as little more than a big windup toy that frequently runs down – just long enough to allow his lilliputian adversaries to get the jump on him. (I’m not using the windup toy metaphor casually: Godzilla does not curl up to sleep after expending nuclear energy; the beast almost literally stops in mid-stride, tail poised in the air, exactly like a mechanical device whose spring has wound down.)
Quibbles about the creature’s depiction aside, Shin Godzilla is engrossing for its first two-thirds, building to an amazing confrontation between the monster and combined Japanese-U.S. forces, which results in an orgy of devastation that is spectacular and haunting in equal measures. Unfortunately, the third act is unable to top this mid-movie climax, as it focuses on one of the least exciting plans ever devised to defeat Godzilla, which consists of firetruck-like vehicles using hoses to feed a “de-coagulate” into the dormant monster’s mouth; unintentionally funny, the scene suggests that Godzilla is having dental work.
The strategy results in a non-ending that literally stops the clock without resolving the story. The anti-climax literally feels like a fake-out: the audience expects the characters to breath a sigh of relief just before – surprise! – Godzilla springs back to life and they have to figure out how to really kill the beast. Instead, the film simply stops, leaving an opening for a sequel so wide that Godzilla itself could have fallen into it (SPOILER: a final shot of Godzilla’s tail shows that a little asexual reproduction is about to take place, spawning new Godzillas – another unfortunate reminder of the 1998 film. END SPOILER) In the end, Shin Godzilla – rather like its title character – runs out of (radioactive) steam.
Which is sad, because there is so much that is good, great, and even amazing about Shin Godzilla. The initial scenes have a nice contemporary feel designed to make the concept work as something more than a nostalgia piece (despite the frequent soundtrack excerpts from past films). There has never been a Godzilla film that wrestled so carefully and believably with the questions of collateral damage and rules of engagement (more on which later). And in what could have been a sop to younger viewer but turns out to be an encouraging statement about human cooperation, the success against Godzilla is rendered by a younger generation of government employees and experts who pointedly forge a “flat” organization, without a traditional hierarchical structure, where everyone is invited to speak up and contribute, without having to cut through fifteen layers of red tape.
Shin Gojira does not lack big-scale monster action. The old miniatures have been put in mothballs, replaced by computer-generated imagery that renders destruction spectacular detail; even if Godzilla looks a bit lumpy, the tanks and attack helicopters are convincing, and the coordinated attack on their target is one of the most spectacular scenes of its kind ever committed to what passes for celluloid these days. In an attempt to avoid citywide destruction as much as possible, the human adversaries employ a strategy of gradual escalation, starting with machine guns, then missiles, then canons, and finally culminating in a B-2 bombing run by cooperating American forces, which finally breaks the skin and sheds some blood – just enough to make the monster retaliate, spewing plumes of purple radioactive breath and shooting energy beams out of its dorsal spines in a spectacular barrage of special effects.
This display of near invulnerability ultimately exposes a fundamental problem with the script, which fails where previous Godzilla films succeeded: even when they were a tad silly, the Toho movies of the 1990s and the 2000s did a good job of talking out of both sides of the mouth – depicting Godzilla as a threat while simultaneously suggesting that he might be less of a threat than his current opponent (be it King Ghidorah or whatever). After going the extra mile to depict Godzilla as a force that threatens the entire world – a form of life superior to humanity, which will probably lead to our extinction unless destroyed – Shin Godzilla goes out of its way to portray the umbrage of its Japanese characters when the U.N. (led by the U.S. naturally) decides that the monster needs to be nuked.
You may remember the scene in The 7 Samurai in which a decision was made to sacrifice a few homes in order save the village under attack, but that’s not what Shin Godzilla has in mind: the filmmakers want us to see the decision as an example of a trigger-happy U.S. eager to nuke Japan again (partly because, for reasons too garbled to be worth repeating, the U.S. has a vested interest in Godzilla that it would like to cover up). Now, this is a perfectly valid plot complication for a Godzilla movie – but not when the script has gone so far to put humanity’s survival on the line that nuking Godzilla seems like a necessary (though tragically regrettable) move.
This confusion stems from the nationalistic tone of the Shin Godzilla, which expands on themes visible in Japan’s kaiju eiga genre going back the past two decades – not only Toho’s Godzilla series but also Daiei Film’s rival Gamera franchise. If the movies are to be believed, Japan is tired of depending on foreign power for protection; they want to rebuild their military might and, more importantly, loosen the restrictions on using it. Most of all, they don’t want the U.S. dictating policy. Well, fine and dandy, I say, as long as they realize that this message resonates well within the context of a movie about a giant monster attacking heavily populated urban centers but somewhat less so in a real world where actual violence and warfare is on the decline.
Conceptual confusion aside, Shin Gojira is a slickly made product, with good tech credits (even if some of the animation is less than convincing). The Japanese cast provide appropriate sincerity and gravitas; though the characters are not rendered in complex detail, the performers come across as focused on the overwhelming task at hand, rather than one-note.
The American characters are another matter. In keeping with Toho tradition, these roles seem to have been cast with amateurs. Director Hideako Anno disguises this to some extent by framing the actors in long shots or having them talk with their backs turned while exiting a room. This works for a while but ultimately becomes funny when the technique becomes too obvious: during a dialogue between Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) and her American father, the elder Patterson is seen only as hands and arms, the camera pointing every direction except his face. Hilarity ensues.
Which brings us to the issue of Ishihara’s performance. Her character, a liaison to Japan, is supposed to be an American with a Japanese grandmother, but her awkwardly delivered English dialogue is clearly spoken by someone who did not grow up in the U.S. As if to underline the shortcoming, other Japanese characters do a much better job delivering English while coordinating their anti-Godzilla efforts with American counterparts. Presumably, Japanese audiences were little concerned with this, but it is rather blatant to U.S. viewers.
We have to give the filmmakers credit for teaching the old monster some new tricks; even if their efforts are only partially successful, two-thirds of a great movie is not bad. With its weird mutant, Shin Godzilla shares a certain affinity with the misguided 1998 Americanization of Godzilla: both films seem to have been made by people who did not want to make a Godzilla movie, so they tried to make something else and call it Godzilla. Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devil gave us a JURASSIC PARK ripoff. Hideako Anno and Shinji Higuchi give us a twisted variation on Attack on Titan, which goes so far as to hint that Godzilla is not merely the product of accidental nuclear contamination but perhaps a deliberate experiment by a scientist (“Goro Maki,” named after a character in Godzilla 1985) angry over the demise of his wife. In fact, the mysterious disappearance of Maki, immediately before Godzilla’s appearance, even leaves open the possibility that Maki may be Godzilla* – one of many unresolved plot points that will probably be explored in sequels. It’s just one more way that Shin Gojira falls flat at the end, too tired, apparently, to bother finishing its story, instead simply stopping to resume another day. Hopefully, like Godzilla, any follow-up will be fully recharged – and will allow its creature to mutate into a Godzilla that deserves the “god” in his name.
Note: This review has been updated after a second viewing of the film.
In the Attack on Titan anime series, the cannibalistic giants are eventually revealed to be humans who expand to titanic proportions. There is also a scientist who disappears without explanation; presumably future seasons will tell us he had something to do with the creation of the Titans. To be fair, this plot element in Shin Gojira also echoes Warner Brothers Godzilla (2014), in which the prehistoric alpha-predator appears only after the demise of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), suggesting that his spirit is somehow imbued in the beast.
* Koichi Kawakita, the special effects director who updated Godzilla for the ’90s, helping to spur interest in an American remake, has passed away. Kawakita died on his 72 birthday anniversary, December 5, 2014; the cause of death was liver failure. You can read an obituary by August Ragone here.
Kawakita took over the special effects for the GODZILLA series with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), a film which saw a new generation of behind-the-scenes craftsman reinventing the character for a new generation. Directors and writers came and went, but Kawakita remained with the series throughout the 1990s, recreating many of Godzilla’s most famous opponents in GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993). He also directed special effects for OROCHI, THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON (1994, aka YAMATO TAKERU) and the Mothra spin-off series that began in 1996 with REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (aka MOSURA).
Kawakita helped return Godzilla to his roots, abandoning the comical hijinx of the 1960s and 1970s films in favor of a more serious approach, with the monster depicted as a destructive force of nature, though not necessarily evil. The Godzilla depicted in his effects work was an enormous beast with shark-like rows of teeth and more facial expression than in the older films; the design of the suit remained mostly consistent from film to film, though it did evolve gradually, the bulky proportions helping to hide the human anatomy of the actor inside. Awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening, Kawakit’as Godzilla was an anti-hero – dangerous but sometimes preferable to the alternative – perfectly suited to a series of screenplays that consistently played around with the question of whether we should root for or against the monster.
Though not realistic, Kawakit’as work was imaginative and colorful, and it was filled with spectacular, memorable images: Godzilla decapitating one of Ghidorah’s heads with a blast of atomic breath; the shock wave of Rodan’s flight creating miniature explosions in the ocean beneath him; Mothra’s wings gracefully unfurling as she emerged from her cocoon; and Godzilla himself going China Syndrome at the end of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995).
Kawakit’s work was filled with a Sense of Wonder. He brought a beloved fantasy character back to life for a new generation, and his legacy lives on in the films that followed, including this year’s American remake.
One of the interesting aspects of last month’s theatrical release of GODZILLA (2014) was the critical reaction, which turned out to be both gratifying and frustrating. How did it manage to be both? Well, let me explain…
On the one hand, it was gratifying to see GODZILLA taken seriously by the mainstream press. Yes, many of these critics disliked the film; however, their criticisms were, by and large, based on dramatic shortcomings, not on the mere fact of its being a monster movie. For good or bad, they assessed what was on the screen, and did not mock the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a somber, more realistic version of a character often (if unfairly) associated with camp.
On the other hand, it was frustrating to see GODZILLA summarily dismissed by critics who specialize in cinefantastique. Yes, some of these viewers liked the film; however, their criticism was sometimes based less on actual flaws than on the fact of seeing an unfamiliar adult rendition of a familiar, childhood icon. They were less interested in what the film actually achieved than in faulting it for not conforming to their mental template of what a new-millennium Godzilla film should have been.
That’s right: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the famous radioactive reptile got a fairer shake from mainstream critics than from genre specialists. Many viewers with a Sense of Wonder seem to have checked that sensibility at the door, replacing it with symptoms of Early Onset Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (also known as: All You Kids Get Off Of My Lawn Syndrome).
Of course I’m over-generalizing here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve done a statistical analysis of every critical comment, fair or foul, lobbed at GODZILLA. Nevertheless, I am interested in the sensibilities underlying these reactions, which I see as another example of the Tribalism that permeates modern film-going, in which the actual quality of the film is frequently less important than how well the film acts as a Tribal Identifier that helps “Us” define ourselves as different from “Them.”
GODZILLA FILM COMMENTARY – THEN AND NOW
Before delving into those murky depths, it might be instructive to look at the reactions to the previous Americanized adaptation of Japan’s most famous monster: Sony Pictures’ GODZILLA (1998), from Dean Devlin and Rolland Emmerich (the team who brought you INDEPENDENCE DAY). Back then, we were still at the dawn of the Internet era, and Hollywood, with its lock on old media, thought it could sell audiences anything by keeping a lid on it so that viewers would purchase tickets before realizing they had been hoodwinked.
In this case, Sony kept the Godzilla design under wraps, lied about it when it was leaked online, and avoided press screenings. Nevertheless, within minutes after the premiere at Madison Square Gardens, word was out on message boards and forums, informing fandom that their hopes and dreams had been betrayed.
Mainstream critics were in agreement about GODZILLA’s low quality, though for different reasons. For instance, Owen Gleiberman, who gave the film a mixed but mildly positive review in Entertainment Weekly, dismissed the the subject matter as a “$120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash,” suggesting that the very concept of Godzilla, as much as the handling, was at fault.
This is what Hollywood has come to, the Disgruntled Critics seemed to say: Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie about a giant monster destroying a city. Which rather overlooks the fact that to do a film like GODZILLA well, would require a substantially larger budget than that of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.
With this kind of attitude, it is understandable that fans might have looked elsewhere for insightful critical commentary, from people who actually knew and understood the subject matter as something more than Saturday matinee kiddie fare. I like to think we provided a little bit of that in Cinefantasitque magazine (thanks to a review written by Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star), but there were other venues available, thanks to that new-fangled world wide web thingy, where you could find such site as Barry’s Temple of Godzilla and Monster Zero News (lamentably gone since web-master Aaron Smith passed away in 2006).
Sixteen years later, we are in a very different landscape. Critics at major print outlets no longer have a lock on the national conversation; insightful voices are everywhere on the Internet – on websites, on YouTube, and on social media such as Facebook. If you want to read a review of the new GODZILLA, written by a confirmed Godzilla Geek or at least a dedicated sci-fi fan, you have a multitude of choices.
Unfortunately, this advantage is somewhat mitigated by another shift in the cultural landscape: the rise of Film Tribalism. I date this phenomenon to the release of STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, a film that was obviously awful to everyone who saw it and yet earned billions of dollars anyway, because the faithful Lucasoids bought tickets again and again, to prove their fealty to their Tribal Leader, George Lucas.
Now, I know what you’re saying: This “Film Tribalism” thing is just another term for Fandom. But it’s not. Fans watch movies because those movies satisfy their love for and devotion to particular styles, genres, or artists. These movies may not be very good, but at least they deliver what is expected of them, whether it’s amazing special effects, exciting action, or beloved performances.
Film Tribalism does not demand such satisfaction. It’s all about proving one’s bona fides as a card carrying tribe member. In fact, there is a certain advantage to an unsatisfying film, because it helps weed out the fair-weather friends from the true believers. What better way is there to prove your Geek Cred than to dismiss someone who dislikes a film by insisting, condescendingly, “You just don’t get it”?
The flip side of Films Tribalism is that, whereas it absolves all flaws in a film that adheres to Tribal Orthodoxy, Tribalism reviles perceived iconoclasm and even minor doctrinal deviation. Being a “Good Film” is less important than being “Our Kind of Film,” the latter determination usually based on whether the filmmaker is considered “One of Us.” Thus, fair to middling works such as THE AVENGERS and PACIFIC RIM are embraced because directors Joss Whedon and Guillermo Del Toro, respectively, are deemed Fans Like Us (making Films For Us), whereas the superior STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is dismissed because director J.J. Abrams is regarded as an Outsider Who Does Not Adhere to the True Meaning of Star Trek.
All of which, brings us, in a roundabout way, to the new GODZILLA from Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures, which has provoked a critical response somewhat the opposite of that which greeted the 1998 film.
MAINSTREAM GODZILLA REVIEWS
After months of anticipation, including an effective advertising campaign, fans were eager to find out whether they would be burned again, as they had been by the 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Would the early reviews confirm their hopes or reinforce their fears? Would mainstream critics give the film a chance or dismiss it as a second attempt at something not worth doing the first time?
The “Bottom Line” assessment from Todd McCarthy’s review in Hollywood Reporter succinctly states: “On a second try, Hollywood does the behemoth justice. Almost.” The review itself sums up the film’s strength’s and weaknesses: great production values, good pacing, serious tone, on the one hand; and ho-hum characters and performances, on the other. McCarthy praises director Edwards for not over-exposing Godzilla but does suggest that the film could have used just a bit more of its star on screen. If you want the basics, McCarthy tells you what you need to know, and really, none of the negative reviews have much more to say on the subject, other than to emphasize flaws already noted by McCarthy.
Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is aware of GODZILLA’s shortcomings but manages to look past them, giving an even more positive assessment:
There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of “Godzilla” works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.
Wow. Two mainstream critics, one for a trade publication and one for a consumer publication, think GODZILLA is a good movie, flawed but well-made and entertaining. Who would have believed it? These are not fan boy gushings but sober reviews by professionals. Considering how much ill will and disrespect fantasy and science fiction films have received over the years, this is rather impressive.
You would think we could all sit back, relax, and enjoy the radioactive glow of a good Godzilla movie. But not quite…
As a transition into the response from science fiction specialists, I next want to mention “Waiting for Godzilla,” by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic Monthly. Although writing for a mainstream publication, Orr claims (in a response in the comments section) to have loved the Toho Godzilla movies for forty years, and his article has been approvingly linked by Godzilla experts disappointed with the film, so presumably it expresses their opinions.
Essentially, Orr complains of Godzilla’s limited screen time, without giving the film credit for carefully building up to the the monster’s revelation or pacing the action to increase its impact (unlike Phillips, who noted that director Edward gave his creatures “room to breath and bide their time between clashes”).
In a follow-up article, Orr clarifies his first response, noting in the headline: “It’s not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.” Here, Orr expresses sympathy for Edwards’ stated strategy of attempting a slow revelation of the monster, a la JAWS, ALIEN, or the original GODZILLA (1954), but faults the director for focusing too much attention on the MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which drive the plot – a criticism endorsed by my esteemed colleagues Steve Ryfle and Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), who sarcastically called the film “The MUTO Movie” and “MUTO Love Song,” respectively.
Orr notes that JAWS is always about the shark, even before the audience sees the lethal creature, and the same goes for other films that sought to keep their monsters under wraps till late in the running time. This is true more or less, but when you think about it, even ALIEN isn’t about the Alien from start to finish. It’s initially a rescue operation, responding to what the crew of the Nostromo believes to be a distress call; and the early sequences are filled with sights of other creatures: the famous and mysterious Space Jockey; and the Face Hugger, which is not the alien per se but its progenitor. Which leads to my next question:
Haven’t Orr and others who share his outlook ever heard of an opening act? One that primes the audience for the headliner, who stays backstage as long as possible, building anticipation to the point where the audience erupts with joyful applause when he finally takes the stage? This is the strategy that Edwards uses, and it is not exactly new. In fact, Godzilla’s flying cousin gets similar treatment in RODAN (1956), which focused its first half on over-sized insects attacking miners, before eventually revealing the titular terror midway through.
Orr at least notes that the new GODZILLA is not so different structurally from the monster-battle sequels he enjoyed in the past, but he loves those films for their “campy grandeur,” suggesting that nostalgia has blurred his vision and that he is holding the new film to a different standard. He is not exactly a Grumpy Old Man complaining “they don’t make ’em like the used to,” but you do get the feeling that for him GODZILLA is failing to live up to some illusory yardstick that mis-measures the current film’s qualities while inflating the virtues of its antecedents.
I suppose this is all a matter of opinion, so I should cut Orr and his acolytes some slack, but Orr’s initial review displays a symptom plaguing other negative commentary: mis-statements of fact that make the film sound worse than it is. In this case, Orr claims:
Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot.
Apparently, Orr missed the sequence in which Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fries the MUTO’s egg sack, saving San Francisco from being overrun by monstrous insectoid off-spring. Not only that, the explosion distracts the female MUTO, who along with her mate has been double-teaming Godzilla. This distraction allows Godzilla, who has been on the ropes, to make a comeback, besting his male opponent with a well aimed tale-strike. And as if that were not enough…Ford gets the ticking nuclear bomb (a bungled strategy by the military to defeat the monsters) onto a boat headed out to sea, before it can detonate in downtown, where it would kill tens of thousands of people and irradiate countless more. I’d say Ford has more than a little impact on the mechanics of the plot.
My point here is not to diss Orr (who is actually quite complimentary to those who disagree with him in the comments section of his review). Rather, it is to express my surprise that genre experts, especially those with an appreciation for Godzilla, would point to his review as if it perfectly articulated flaws to which the rest of us were blinded by our overwhelming fan adoration.
As we will see, there is blindness involved, but it’s mostly on the other side of the aisle.
THE GENRE PRESS AND GODZILLA
Okay, we’re finally getting closer to my point, such as it is. But first, a brief recap: A major Hollywood blockbuster, based on a beloved genre icon not usually taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics, marches into theatres to the tune of a $93-million opening weekend while simultaneously earning a 73% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics (72% from audiences). It seems, for once, that viewers and reviewers are in accord, and everyone is happy if not ecstatic.
Everyone except for the Godzilla Experts, that is. Their reactions are a bit peculiar – unless you recognize Tribal Film Criticism when you see it.
I’ll start with “Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office,” by Annalee Newitz at io9, which despite the implication of the title is actually a Tribal Shout-Out to Guillermo Del Toro’s disappointing and inferior film from last year. Newitz’s essential point is that PACIFIC RIM is “arguably a more original and complex movie than GODZILLA,” the latter of which “succeeded because it treated its audience like kids.”
Yes, you read that right. According to Newitz, GODZILLA’s success is really a symptom of its inferiority; in this case, “inferiority” roughly translates as “accessibility to a mainstream audience.” The alleged superiority of PACIFIC RIM lies precisely in the fact that many viewers didn’t like it or didn’t get it – which suggests that those who did get it are smarter and more perceptive, able to appreciate a film that is “more interesting” and “complicated.”
To be fair, Newitz’s analysis of the difference between the two films is accurate and even insightful, and she does use the word “mistake” to refer to some of PACIFIC RIM’s elements, but it is clear from her description that these mistakes are actually not bugs but features that appeal to a more sophisticated science-fiction-savvy audience.
Yes, My Tribe is smarter than Your Tribe.1
Less overtly tribal, but still telling, is Evan Dickson’s “How Does Godzilla Stack Up Against Pacific Rim” at Bloody Disgusting. Having given GODZILLA a straight-down-the-middle review (2.5 out of 5 stars), Dickson returns to answer readers seeking a comparative evaluation of the two films. Evans notes a few ways in which GODZILLA is superior but winds up proclaiming “As it stands now, PACIFIC RIM beats it out for me as a movie” – without offering a tangible reason.
Ironically, the combined impact of the i09 and Bloody Disgusting articles is to convince me that GODZILLA is the superior film precisely because it does not provide fan-service at the expense of good filmmaking. Instead, it plays against expectations, synthesizing elements familiar to fans but using them as if for the first time – in other words, working them into the story so that they fit, instead of simply throwing them up on screen so that the Tribal Members can feel validated when they recognize their favorite tropes. That reluctance to offer nothing but dedicated fealty to Tribal Orthodoxy is what diminishes Godzilla in the eyes of True Believers.
PACIFIC RIM, on the other hand, gets a pass, precisely because it pays homage to the Tribe. Sure, the film has intriguing ideas, such as “The Drift,” but those ideas are drowned in a repetitive series of mindless monster battles, and ultimately Del Toro’s film hews closer to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, right down to giving the Idris Elba character a rather weak variation on President Whitmore’s rousing pre-battle speech from INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). But you won’t see that acknowledged by either Newitz or Dickson.
GODZILLA, on the other hand, lets Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) say all that needs to be said in three simple words: “Let them fight.” Let’s award a few points for a level of understatment that avoids hokey melodrama. And while we’re at it, for all of GODZILLA’s dramatic faults, let’s note that PACIFIC RIM is not exactly loaded with credible characters. The two scientists (rendered in hammy performances) are less characters than on-screen avatars for geeks in the audience, and the male lead in is even more forgettable than the one in GODZILLA; in fact, he embodies one of the worst cliches in the history of cinema: the reluctant hero who drags his heels while we wait for the inevitable plot device that will finally motivate him to fight, which is what we know he’s going to do eventually if we just wait long enough. It’s a colossal and stupid waste of screen time – the kind of nonsense that GODZILLA wisely avoids.
In “Godzilla Whitewashed: A Special Report,” which posted at World Cinema Paradise a couple days after GODZILLA opened, Steve Ryfle takes the film to task for subverting the metaphor of the original GODZILLA, directed by Ishiro Honda, which presented its beast as a walking embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear age. Unlike the other negative reviewers I’ve mentioned, Ryfle has a point worth considering, and truth be told, I too would have preferred a new film hewing closer to the powerful and dramatic original, one that boldly confronted our legacy as the only country to use nuclear bombs in warfare (on a civilian population, no less).
However, Ryfle’s justifiable concern leads him to underestimate the extent to which the film does question the wisdom of America’s nuclear arsenal, which is portrayed as ineffective at best and counter-productive at worse (to put it mildly). The scenario tells us that nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s was a covert attempt to destroy Godzilla – an attempt that failed. When the MUTOS and Godzilla converge on San Francisco, the military, in the form of General Stenz (David Strathairn), concoct a plan to eliminate all three radiation-hungry beasts by luring them out to sea with an atomic warhead, which will then be detonated. Dr. Serizawa points out that this tactic failed repeatedly in the past, and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) storms out in frustration over the futility of the plan, leading to a key moment.
Serizawa then tries to spur Stenz’s conscience by displaying a watch that belonged to his father – a watch that stopped when his father died in the blast at Hiroshima, its hands frozen forever like a fateful reminder of that terrible day. Stenz understands the point but proceeds anyway, for lack of a better (or indead any other) military option. Even so, in a later scene, Serizawa begs him again not to go through with the use of a nuclear warhead.
Despite this, Ryfle conclueds that Serizawa and Stenz “share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil.” Having seen GODZILLA a second time, I can say with certainty that no such scene exists in the film, which in no way pushes that message that Ryfle attributes to it. In fact, the watch scene is a far more direct indictment of the Hiroshima bombing than anything in Honda’s GODZILLA, which was more focused on H-Bomb testing in the Pacific than on the A-Bomb attacks on Japanese soil.
Rather than necessary evil, GODZILLA portrays the use of nuclear weapons as unnecessary insanity – a point driven home when the military’s plan goes horrible wrong, with the male MUTO2 hijacking the warhead and giving it to his mate as an offering, which she then uses as a “food” source for her eggs. Clearly, nuclear power is adding fuel to the fire, making a horrible situation exponentially more catastrophic.
Though Ryfle insists that GODZILLA “is about nothing” and that the film does not meaningfully comment upon its scenes of destruction, I find the meaning perfectly clear: nuclear proliferation has come back to bite the U.S. on the ass; the weapons that exist allegedly to protect us actually attract more trouble than they repel, and by creating and using them we have set in motion events that we are powerless to stop – unless we get a little assistance, in the form of Godzilla, to reset the balance.
Underscoring this theme, our hero Ford Brody is not a conventional warrior; his specialty is defusing bombs. The human story of GODZILLA’S third act (as opposed to the over-sized monster battle) focuses on his attempts to stop the bomb from detonating or, failing that, to get it safely out to sea, where it can do no harm to the inhabitants of San Francisco. This is definitely a movie that advises us to start worrying and stop loving the bomb.
On another level, it is significant that only the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla save San Francisco from nuclear annihilation.
Which brings us to…
JOE BRODY IS GODZILLA (SPOILERS)
One aspects of GODZILLA that seems to be universally disliked is the death of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is killed when the dormant MUTO hatches; ironically, Joe’s death confirms the conspiratorial ramblings that have alienated him from his son Ford but severs any possibility of father-son reconciliation. Or does it?
Cranston gives the best performance in the film, emerging as the most (some say only) memorable character. So why kill him off? Before advancing my argument, first let’s hear director Edwards on the subject:
[…] we tried versions in the screenplay where he survived. And in every one we did that with, there was nothing else that character could do without being silly. If he sticks with Ford, it becomes Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the tone of the movie becomes fun, but not the tone we were trying to do. And if he sticks with the military guys, he’s like a fifth wheel. His job was done in the story line there.
“We did try to make it work. […] But as a story beat, he becomes redundant once he’s handed over the baton to the rest of the cast.
Edwards explanation is good as far as it goes, but he leaves deeper questions unexplored: Exactly why does Joe Brody become redundant, and to whom is he passing the baton?
As you may have guessed, I have a theory, and it goes like this:
Joe Brody is Godzilla.
Okay, I do not mean to be taken seriously – or at least not literally. Previously, the Toho production GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE (1989) depicted a monster infused with a human spirit (through gene splicing). That is not what is happening here. Rather, Joe Brody has to disappear from the narrative because his role is being assumed by Godzilla; it is to the mysterious sea beast, rather than to the human characters, that he is passing the baton.
Unfortunately, the film does not do as much as it could to support this reading. I would like to have seen Joe perish by disappearing into the ocean shortly before Godzilla emerged from beneath the waves; perhaps a few familiar character tics – gestures, expressions – could have been imbued into Godzilla to drive the point home.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints:
Joe makes his exit before Godzilla enters the picture. Except for brief news reel image of dorsal spines in the Pacific during a nuclear blast decades ago, Godzilla is off-screen until after Joe dies. Only then do we learn that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOS, which is not, I think a coincidence, because…
The MUTOS are responsible not only for the death of Joe’s wife but also for the death of Godzilla’s ancestor. In the traditional action scenario, it is the hero’s duty to exact vengeance for this kind of thing. Godzilla takes out the MUTOs, doing what Joe would have done if he could.
At one point, referring to his late wife, Joe tells his son that she is “still out there,” suggesting a continued spiritual presence even after her death. This hints that, even after his own death, Joe is “still out there,” though now embodied in Godzilla. Not literally in the sense of taking possession, with his intelligence intact, but metaphorically, his goals fused with those of the prehistoric apex predator.
Ford and Godzilla share a strangely intriguing moment of eye-contact, suggesting some kind of bonding. Interestingly, Godzilla’s looming face disappears as it is engulfed in billowing clouds, almost as if the creature were de-materializing – a guardian angel evaporating into the ether.
Godzilla very pointedly saves Ford’s life at the end – again, something Joe would have done if he could. This later point is particularly significant, because the film starts with a nuclear catastrophe that Joe fails to prevent, loosing his wife in the process; the conclusion neatly bookends the opening, with another nuclear disaster, this time averted without loss of life.
In effect, Godzilla takes on the mantle of protective parent after Joe’s demise. Earlier in the film, Vivienne Graham refers to Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes,” which dove-tails nicely with a quote from Sigmund Freud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly to suit the occasion:
“A personal God[zilla] is nothing more than an exalted father-figure.”
In GODZILLA, the King of the Monsters assumes the father-figure role, but that role has greater resonance when you see him as the embodiment of Joe Brody’s need to protect his family, to succeed where he failed previously. Again, this is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
Generally, I think reviewers have not given the film enough credit for a solid structure that makes sense of elements like this, regardless of whether the dialogue and characterizations are as compelling as we might like. Joe Brody is a nuclear safety expert; his son attempts to diffuse a nuclear bomb at the end; individually, they fail, but united (at least insofar as Godzilla represents Joe), they succeed.
Sure, the getting-back-to-my-family story line is banal, but it serves a function as a microcosm of the larger problem: nuclear radiation has not only upset the balance of nature on a large scale, but also split the nuclear family; the reuniting of Ford’s family is a small scale symbol of the restoration of balance.
One last point (I can hear you sighing, “Finally!”). Ryfle objects to the conclusion of GODZILLA, which sees the purloined warhead detonating harmlessly out to sea, with no threat of sickness from what should be massive fall-out. This is clearly in line with America’s myopia about nucleaweapons, which we prefer to regard as high-yield explosives while we ignore the insidious effects of radiation poisoning, which continues to kill long after the smoke has cleared (a pointed made with disturbing poignancy in Honda’s film).
However, I am going to give the new film the benefit of the doubt, because it has laid the groundwork for an explanation. Earlier in the film, we learn that Dr. Serizawa and company have been nurturing the dormant MUTO because it has been absorbing the radiation from nuclear plant it destroyed; the surrounding area, which should be toxic, is actually clean.
Godzilla, like the MUTOs, feeds off radiation. After defeating his opponents, Godzilla collapses, exhausted and spent, apparently dead (in a nice touch, his fall to earth after a heroic victory mirrors Ford’s slipping into unconsciousness, the actions synchronized to once again emphasize the connection between Ford and Godzilla). The next morning, with people swarming the beach around the fallen titan, and Dr. Serizawa gazing in wonder upon what is for him the equivalent of the Holy Grail, Godzilla’s starts to breath again, rising in triumph to head back to the ocean.
I think this is why there is no danger of radiation poisoning: as the MUTO did with the radiation from the reactor, Godzilla has absorbed the fall-out from the warhead; this is what brought him back to life. As he returns to the depths from which he came, the implication is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists between humanity and Godzilla. Just as plants live on the carbon dioxide that we exhale, purifying the atmosphere for us, Godzilla is taking our nuclear poison with him and leaving a purified world behind.
It’s not all that far removed from the ending of GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (a.k.a. GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER), whose writer-director, Yoshimitsu Banno, serves as executive producer here. The difference is that Edwards’ GODZILLA takes a potentially silly idea and presents it with a straight face, free of camp or irony. We may chuckle to ourselves after the curtain has dropped and the theatre lights go up, but while the film is actually unspooling we can enjoy the delicious experience of taking Godzilla seriously.
I would be a little less snarky here if some of Newitz’s points were not so specious. For instance, she praises PACIFIC RIM’s “bold decisions,” such as starting the film ten years after the first appearance of the kaiju. Actually, this not so much bold as safe: it gives the film an excuse to start with monster mayhem from the very first frame, to capture audience attention before boring them with the exposition and “drama” that follow. GODZILLA is bolder in strategy, daring to tease its audience along, resisting the urge to go full-on monster mayhem from beginning to end.
By the way, Ryfle objects to acronym, referring to the “laughably named M.U.T.O” and expressing pity that “the fine actor David Strathairn had to utter those words without chuckling.” I just want to say that MUTO sounds quite like UFO (Unidentified Flying Object, pronounced “YOU-FO”), a term coined by the U.S. military and used for decades (in official documents such as Project Bluebook) without provoking laughter.
The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast returns with Part 2 of our look at the new GODZILLA film, this time with guest Joe Sena and host Steve Biodrowski leaving the heavy thematic discussions behind to focus on the film’s strengths as joyful genre entertainment. This episode follows after 5:19.1, in which guest Steve Ryfle dissected the film’s short-comings vis-a-vis Godzilla’s history as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. Ideally, the two parts would have been synthesized into a single podcast, as they balance each other nicely; unfortunately, scheduling and technical difficulties presented this. If possibly, we recommend you listen to them back-to-back.
Turns out maintaining a presence in the social network only makes life more complex for a film critic. I had to delay my viewing of GODZILLA ’til Sunday, meantime trying to avoid the various hosannas and the occasional nay-say (not to mention Steve Biodrowski’s own in-depth analysis) being splattered all over Facebook, Twitter, etc. An impossible task, actually, and I went into the theater a little anxious over whether what little feedback had filtered through to me was somehow going to skew my reaction, for good or ill.
Happily, I was well pleased with GODZILLA. Not staggered, no, but grateful that director Gareth Edwards managed to pay homage to the history of the franchise while adding some crucial elements to the exercise, elements that I explore in my review for WBAI 99.5FM’s HOUR OF THE WOLF. Click the player to hear what I had to say.
Godzilla has stormed into theatres, and he’s too big to fit into one podcast! That’s right: this week the Cinefantastique Spotlight will be presented in two parts. The first features regulars Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski, along with special guest Steve Ryfle (author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biograph of the Big G). Listen in for insightful commentary about the new film version of GODZILLA, from Warner Brothers Pictures and Legendary Pictures, which has crushed the box office competition flatter than its titular monster razing a skyscraper to the ground.
Come back soon for Part Two!
Is Legendary Pictures’ GODZILLA the perfect re-imagining of the classic kaiju character as the star of a Hollywood blockbuster? No. Is it a decent antidote to the disappointing 1998 film from Sony Pictures? Yes. Does that mean the new film is a mediocrity that falls somewhere in the middle? Hell no. For all its dramaturgical faults, GODZILLA captures the fundamental nature of its radioactive reptile in a manner that eclipses its weaknesses, like the shadow of Godzilla himself eclipsing the efforts of the puny humans frantically scurrying beneath his feet. Unlike Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devilin in their 1998 fiasco, which diminished its GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) into nothing more than an over-sized lizard, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein realize that Godzilla’s power lies in his stature – not only physical but also metaphoric. Godzilla must be more than large enough to fill the IMAX screen; he must be large enough to fill our collective imagination. This is GODZILLA’s singular triumph: it invests its titular character with a Sense of Wonder that outweighs his mere bulk, lingering in the mind after that last building has toppled and the last roar has faded from the soundtrack.
GODZILLA begins with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa1 (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) examining a giant skeleton of a beast apparently felled by a pair of prehistoric parasites, one of which heads toward Japan, where a nuclear power plant goes haywire, causing the death of Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche). Years later, Sandra’s husband Joe (Bryan Cranston) has become estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while devoting his life to proving that his wife’s death was the result of something more than an ordinary accident. The parasite (later dubbed a MUTO, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) reawakens and goes searching for its mate, and the U.S. military, led by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) wrestle with the thorny problem of how to stop apparently unstoppable creatures with an appetite for nuclear material – including bombs. Fortunately, in the words of Dr. Serizawa, the MUTOs are being hunted by an ancient apex predator, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla), who will restore the balance of nature upset by the MUTO’s access to a vast new food source, thanks to the proliferation of nuclear energy.
Borenstein’s screenplay (developed from a story by Dave Callaham) is stretched a bit thin in its attempt to provide an epic-sized vehicle for its titular monster. The problem is not with the number of incidents – there is plenty happening in the film. Nor is it necessarily with the characters, who are sketched in basic terms but are more than serviceable (aided by solid performances). What’s missing is a larger dramatic conflict – the sort of moral quandary that invested the original GOJIRA (1954) with a memorable gravitas, rendering the film as something much larger than a mere genre piece.
The closest GODZILLA comes to this is with the decision to use a hydrogen bomb in an attempt to distract the radiation-hungry monsters from converging on San Francisco – a decision opposed by Dr Serizawa, whose father died in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. However, this element winds up being less a thematic development than a plot device, galvanizing the human action during the titanic tag-team wrestling match that makes up the third act.
The story deficiency weakens the film but, fortunately, is not nearly enough to knock the crown off the King of the Monsters. The plot may be thin, but that is almost beside the point when director Edwards imbues the images with a serious tone that renders the action believable even when it is at its most incredible. (In a weird way, GODZILLA is like Darren Aronfsky’s NOAH, which unabashedly embraced not only genre fantasy but also sheer physical impossibility while simultaneously selling its tale with a layer of straight-faced realism – cognitive dissonance be damned.)
Edwards’ gift, previously displayed in his low-budget MONSTERS (2010), is the ability to depict an apparently believable, human world, in which unbelievable monsters exist, affecting people’s lives and altering their very perception of the world – even when the monsters are off-screen. Consequently, when the monsters do show up, their appearances register not as obligatory set-pieces carefully and generously distributed to satisfy genre junkies (I’m looking at you, PACIFIC RIM); instead of empty spectacle, GODZILLA evokes a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of civilization poised on the brink of destruction, of humanity perhaps on the verge of extinction.
And in case you haven’t heard, Godzilla is off-screen quite a bit, but that’s all part of the film’s carefully wrought strategy.
Edwards plays his hand like a master card sharp, holding his trump cards in reserve until he can lay them down when they will score the most points. He teases us with a series of tantalizing glimpses: a massive shape surging beneath a battleship; a glimpse of a tail from behind a building; a brief battle seen via televised news report; dangling claws and chest scales illuminated by flares; dorsal spines slicing through the ocean like the shark’s fin in JAWS.2
Edwards is not enough of a visual poet to carry off the gambit completely. The tease does lead to a massively satisfying pay-off when GODZILLA finally emerges in all his glory, but until then, the slow build-up sometimes seems merely slow. The opening sequence of Dr. Serizawa examining the underground remains of another Godzilla skeleton, for example, is merely adequate, when it should be awe-inspiring, sending shivers of anticipation down the spine. A little patience may be required from over-eager audiences, but that patience will be rewarded many times over. When the King of the Monsters finally unleashes his most famous power near the end, it’s a jaw-dropping moment of glorious spectacle, but it is all the more satisfying because it is not played as a sop to Godzilla geeks eager to sate their hunger for more of what they saw when they were kids attending bargain matinees in their local theatres; instead, it is depicted with all the immediacy of something newly discovered, and for at least one brief moment, the neophytes and the veterans can unite in communal joy, as if both are witnessing the event for the first time – an impression enhanced a thousand fold by the awestruck audio reaction from the screen, as one character gasps: “DID YOU SEE THAT?!…WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”
I may seem to be over-emphasizing a single moment, but there is a method to my madness. The fundamental failing of the 1998 Godzilla was diminishing – or even completely eliminating – the awe-inspiring aspects of its monster. Boronstein, Edwards, and the technical craftsmen embrace this aspect and bring it to convincing life, partly with modern, high-tech cinematic craftsmanship, but mostly through the use of a human perspective on the events, which allows the audience to engage directly and uncritically, without undue reliance on suspension of disbelief, ironic detachment, or fond nostalgia.
That’s the power of this GODZILLA: not in “re-imagining” or “re-booting” the past, but in taking raw materials from the old films and refining them into something that feels newly created instead of merely recycled with a bigger budget and better effects. Yes, it’s still only a movie, but you don’t have to keep telling yourself that to gloss over the weaknesses; you can simply be enthralled – not from reliving old memories, but from enjoying this experience now.
With Godzilla playing coy throughout most of the running time, it is up to the MUTOs to satisfy the film’s monster movie mayhem requirements. This mated pair – a larger female, a smaller male with wings – are insectoid in appearance, with elements seemingly borrowed from Gayos (an opponent of Godzilla’s rival, Gamera) and the Orga from GODZILLA 2000, not to mention the titular creatures in Edwards’ own MONSTERS. Though destructive and frightening, they do evoke a tiny spark of sympathy when the male passes along a tasty treat (well, an H-bomb) to its companion: if only they weren’t going to breed and overrun the world, they might seem almost endearing. More to the point, they make for intimidating foes – one purely terrestrial, the other aerial – as they deliver a monumental tag-team beating to Godzilla.
Godzilla himself retains the classic elements of the familiar design – a scaly, upright-walking dinosaur with dorsal fins and an angry, reptilian appearance – but those elements have been adjusted. Once a mere 100-feet tall, this new Godzilla towers over his older selves, at 350 feet. He also looks heavier, more muscular, like the kaiju equivalent of a barroom bouncer, and his face suggests a battered old boxer, used to receiving and dealing out punishment.
Of course, this Godzilla has been rendered with modern computer graphics instead of a man-in-a-suit, but the problems of CGI (cartoony movements, lack of inertia) have been overcome, providing marvelously realized special effects with the spirit of the best of Godzilla’s old Toho films – which is to say, the action is allowed to play out so that you can see it, without any editorial razzle-dazzle to goose up the sequences (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). There is a convincing sense of momentum to the monster’s actions, and the massive scale is effectively suggested by slowing the movements down (though not as much as in PACIFIC RIM); the 3D photography, though not essential to the film’s overall effectiveness, enhances the illusion that we are seeing large objects at a distance (as opposed to the old-fashioned miniatures, tricked up to look big by placing them close to the camera lens).
There is a tactile quality to the monsters, which makes them seem like living, breathing creatures, not just computer-animated creations, and Godzilla actually gives something approaching a performance, in both his facial expressions and his body language. (His post-battle collapse suggests an exhausted warrior falling like a deflated balloon, leading to an image almost as iconic as the final panel from The Death of Superman.)
Interestingly, this performance was captured without the use of performance capture. Though mo-cap specialist Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong) consulted to enhance Godzilla’s movements, the special effects footage was actually computer-animated. (Director Edwards says motion-capture would have worked had Godzilla been fighting another two-legged beast that could be portrayed by an actor, but the multi-legged MUTOs required CGI handling.)
The result is somewhat akin to the 1990s era Godzilla, a massive hulk that implacably repulses the attacks of any opponents. Though the story pushes him into heroic mode, there is nothing benign in his countenance; rather, this is a mean-ass junkyard dog who just happens to hate on the thing attacking San Francisco. Oh well, the “enemy of my enemy,” as the saying goes.
The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.
Thus speaks Dr. Serizawa, precipitating the final act of GODZILLA. If he sounds a bit oracular, delivering the film’s message here and elsewhere rather unapologetically, that is actually an appropriate part of Godzilla’s tradition. Godzilla was conceived in 1954 as a none-too-subtle metaphor – in essence, a walking nuclear weapon, a living embodiment of the perils of the atomic age. This element diminished throughout numerous sequels in the 1960s and ’70s, which eventually turned Godzilla into a hero defending Earth from alien invaders such as King Ghidorah. When the character was revived in the ’80s and ’90s, his atomic origins were acknowledged once again, though the emphasis shifted. Godzilla was no longer merely a nuclear menace; he was nature’s reaction to mankind’s tampering with the atom. Thus he could be seen as in some sense a righteous character, an anti-hero whose city-stomping destruction was the consequence of mankind’s actions but whose defense of his territory yielded benefits for humanity, who otherwise might have been destroyed by the numerous monsters Godzilla defeated.
The new GODZILLA film follows through on this later idea. Godzilla is still a prehistoric creature awakened by nuclear science (by an atomic submarine rather than an atomic bomb, if I heard correctly), but he is not necessarily here to extract vengeance for that awakening. Instead, the MUTOs are the real monsters of the story, their nuclear appetite for destruction fueling the plot, and it is Godzilla’s job to balance the scales (though not without collateral damage).
Though not literally faithful to Godzilla’s original conception, the Warner Brothers film is a smart updating that speaks to current concerns; like a text translated into a new language, it has been rendered in a form that speaks to its new audience, conveying the ideas if not the exact words.
When GOJIRA (later released as GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS in the U.S.) stomped into Japanese theatres in 1954, it was seen not only in the context of the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; it directly referenced U.S. H-bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean, which irradiated the crew of the Japanese fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon. This sort of topical reference is used in the new film, but with fear of bombs and nuclear testing no longer at the forefront of our public consciousness, Edwards and Boronstein opt for an attack on a nuclear power station, eliciting painful recollections of the ill-fated Fukushima plant. We may no longer lose sleep over nuclear Armageddon, but Fukushima reminded us radiation poisoning is still a fearful long-term problem – and one that may be symptomatic of a larger problem regarding our treatment of the planet on which we live.
GODZILLA brings that fear to life and embodies it in the MUTOs, whom Godzilla must destroy to save the Earth. This may seem like a bit of a cheat, robbing Godzilla of his own metaphor, but it works in the context of this film3, which suggests that humanity is incapable of fixing its mistakes. We are told that, after Godzilla was awakened, the subsequent nuclear bomb tests were actually unsuccessful attempts to destroy the beast. Though not emphasized, this is a subtle condemnation of U.S. Cold War policy, in which the answer to the problem of nuclear weapons was – wait for it! – even more nuclear weapons.
The point is underlined when the military initiates its plan to destroy all three monsters with yet another H-Bomb, hoping that the blast will be enough to destroy creatures that would otherwise thrive on the resulting radiation. The insanity of the proposal is not lost on Dr. Serizawa, who – in one of the film’s most touching moments – displays a pocket watch that belonged to his father – a watched that stopped when his father died at Hiroshima, its frozen hands like an eternal reminder of the horrific event. A chastened Admiral Stenz can only silently acknowledge Serizawa’s point and then continue with the plan anyway – because that’s what the military does, regardless of whether it makes sense.
The result very nearly causes even greater destruction for San Francisco, which is averted only because of the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla (in one of the script’s nicer touches, the human protagonist is actually given something more important to do than simply watch the monster action from afar). This stands in marked contrast to the more archetypal message of American science fiction films (such as Godzilla’s progenitor, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), which suggested that nuclear science, working hand in hand with the military, would solve any of the problems it caused.
GODZILLA is clearly less optimistic about our abilities to auto-correct ourselves.
With its nuclear disasters and tidal waves suggesting nature thrown out of balance by mankind, GODZILLA pitches itself as a pop-message movie laced up in genre attributes. Though the actions of the human characters may be somewhat generic, the film itself is anything but. Whatever its weaknesses, GODZILLA sells itself, its message, and its monster to the audience – unabashedly and unapologetically. It suffers no undue restraint from fear of indulging in the absurd, but nor does it rely on audience good will to see it over its dramatic short-comings. Unlike PACIFIC RIM, this is no Geek Movie, simply sending out dog whistles to the tribe of the already initiated. This GODZILLA works overtime to earn any good will it receives from the audience, and for that reason, it works as well for newbies and initiates alike.
Or put it another way: In an era of over-hyped blockbusters, each straining to be bigger, louder, and more cataclysmic than the competition, GODZILLA takes a relatively low-key approach to deliver not just what fans want but what audiences need: incredible entertainment that seems somehow credible.
[rating=4] Out of five stars on the CFQ scale: must see. GODZILLA (May 15/16, 2014). From Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Boronstein, from a story by Dave Callaham. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Editing: Bob Ducsay. Production Design: Owne Paterson. Special effects: WETA Digital, Jim Rigiel; John Dykstra. PG-13. 123 minutes. Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Straithairn, Akira Takarada. FOOTNOTES:
The name of Watanabe’s character conflates the first name of GOJIRA director Ishiro Honda with the last name of Dr. Serizawa, the character who sacrifices himself to destroy the beast at the end of the original film.
Other critics have noted similarities to Steven Spielberg’s gradual revelation of the Great White, but a more apt comparison would be to Ridley Scott’s clever did-you-or-didn’t-you-see-it game in ALIEN.
This plot device also recalls GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (1971, a.k.a. GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTERS), in which Godzilla’s opponent was a metaphor for the harm mankind had done to the environment. Since Toho films stopped making Godzilla films in 2004, director Yoshimitsu Banno had been trying to launch a sequel to GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH. The project eventually led to the current GODZILLA film, on which Banno receives an executive producer credit, so it is perhaps not too surprising that there would be some similarities.
Here is an awesome glimpse of the upcoming reboot from Legendary Pictures, the company that gave us PACIFIC RIM. Scheduled for worldwide release in May of 2014, GODZILLA stars Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, Victor Rasuk, David Strathairn, CJ Adams, Richard T. Jones, Brian Markinson, Al Sapienza, Ken Jamamura, Patrick Sabongui, Yuki Morita, and Akira Takarada (who starred in the 1954 original). Gareth Edwards (MONSTERS) directed, from a screenplay by Max Borenstein, derived from a story by Dave Callaham (THE EXPENDABLES).
With any luck, this film will be the polar opposite of the misguided 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich, which replaced the familiar Godzilla design with an over-sized mutant iguana. Regarding his approach to the new film, director Edwards told Shock Till You Drop:
“Godzilla is definitely a representation of the wrath of nature. We’ve taken it very seriously and the theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it. You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s the punishment we deserve.”
PACIFIC RIM is Tombstone pizza when you asked for Lombardi’s, McDonald’s when you wanted Shake Shack: A passable example of something that was never going to be the pinnacle of sophistication to begin with, but could have been so much better. Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons get together to discuss Guillermo del Toro’s eagerly awaited Kaiju (giant monsters) film, in which a corps of mammoth robots, called Jaegers (German for hunter — did you know that?) and piloted by an international team of mind-linked soldiers, embarks on a last-ditch mission to meet the enemy on both land and sea (will there be much destruction of valuable real estate? Oh, my child, certainly there will be), and put an end to the conflict once and for all. Battle sequences are analyzed, drama and character arcs, such as they are, are deconstructed, questions of how such talents as Idris Elba and Ron Perlman are misused are pondered, and slowly, slowly, the long route to recovery from dashed expectations is begun. Also: What’s coming to theaters next week.