Godzilla Guest-Stars in His Own Movie
My expectations for the new Godzilla movie were unrealistically high. Unless it turned out to be the best movie ever made, I was bound to be at least slightly disappointed. With an enthusiastic young director who loved the source material and an all-star cast of bona-fide actors, if we Americans were going to ever make a decent Godzilla movie, this was the best chance we’d have to do it. Did we succeed? Well, I’m afraid that even after adjusting my expectations to a more manageable level, I was still a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot I liked about Godzilla. Let’s start with the creature himself. He looks amazing! Although he’s back to walking upright after the disaster that was our last attempt to import Godzilla into the United States in 1998, he swims onto shore horizontally and rises from there. It makes him more flexible… a true living, breathing creature. And it allows the camera to move along his giant body in interesting ways. Although his snout is more compact than his Japanese inspiration, it’s more animated. He doesn’t just breathe fire out of an immobile, hard rubber mouth, his cheeks puff out and his insides quiver.
That’s CGI for you, I suppose, and the effects are mostly amazing, as well. However, I strongly recommend that you do not see Godzilla in 3D. The movie was not filmed in 3D and the conversion after the fact is terrible. I don’t even think I’d recommend you see it in what we call “IMAX” in this area. If ever a movie begged for it, it would be Godzilla, but there’s nothing from the composition of scenes that play toward a screen as big as the monster itself. I warn you of these things to save you a little money, but they should not be taken into account for the movie itself. They distracted at my screening, but can’t be blamed for any of my opinions.
I also liked the way many of the scenes with Godzilla were filmed. It’s as if the audience is part of the action. There are very few wide angles that show him completely. Instead, we’re up close witnessing what we might actually see… a side angle partially obscured by buildings, a screen-filling view of a shoulder, a thigh as he walks by… Several times, I thought someone was walking in front of the projector in the theater, because people in the movie are walking between the audience’s point of view and the action. It’s all very up-close and personal; however, it sometimes made me want to have a better look at what was happening.
In fact, I’d like to have more looks at Godzilla himself. It’s like he’s a guest star in his own movie, one that should have been called MUTO. MUTO is an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism and represents the two creatures that are the real villains of the movie. They get more screen time and story time as we learn their origins and follow their path of destruction from the Philippines to Japan to Hawaii to Las Vegas to San Francisco. In late Showa era style, Godzilla is portrayed as the only hope to protect humanity and save the world, even though his path is equally destructive.
Since director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, 2010) has said he made the Godzilla he would have wanted to see growing up, we have a great battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs. But I wanted to see more. With the point of view shots that I’ve been describing, there is not a lot of the battle shown. In fact, earlier in the movie, we don’t even see a lot of the destruction occurring around the world; instead, we see the aftermath. How many times have I stated that the imagination creates more horrifying images than those that can be shown? This should be a good thing. But it’s a Godzilla movie… I want to see more.
I also want to have fun. But this Godzilla is severely lacking in fun. There’s no humor and the only smile I cracked was late in the movie when his spikes finally lit and he breathed a nuclear blast at his enemies. Here I am torn. I appreciate the serious tone, but where is the unbridled feeling of joy watching the giants battle? Many of the old Godzilla movies were silly, but they were fun to watch. I believe that is why he’s been so endearing for 60 years. 1998’s Godzilla went too far with its humor, it was just plain stupid. But with such a somber mood throughout, this one needs at least a little comic relief.
If the action is downplayed, then that must mean the story relies on the aforementioned all-star cast of bona-fide actors. I think you’ll be surprised to see that heavy-hitters such as Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanbe and Sally Hawkins have very little screen time. The weight of Godzilla rests squarely on the shoulders of Aaron Taylor-Johnson who, by an unbelievable string of coincidences, ends up on the trail of the MUTOs from beginning to end. It’s a pretty face to watch for over two hours; however, he’s only a face. With little dialogue, he’s left to act with his eyes, and he doesn’t quite kick-ass with them.
I’ll blame the screenplay by Max Borenstein for this failure and others, or perhaps the “story” by Dave Callaham. It seems like a solid set-up. There’s a family connection that spans decades and an overall quest for Taylor-Johnson to reunite with his wife and son. On paper, while not the most original ideas for a movie like this, they at least seem acceptable. But in execution, they seem… blah. I felt more attachment to a boy Taylor-Johnson encounters on a train in Hawaii than to his own son. And the way he plays it, his character apparently does, too. Perhaps it’s the lack of interaction between characters before they’re separated that makes the stakes seem lower.
The screenplay is also a little fuzzy with the details that set-up the Godzilla part of the story. “What happened in 1954” is referenced often, and it’s a nice nod to the original movie, but I’m not sure what it means. Apparently, nuclear weapons did not create Godzilla; they were used to try to destroy him. So then, where did Godzilla come from? This movie is certainly not an origin tale. Since the story doesn’t get bogged down trying to include it, this should be another good thing about it. Maybe this is even a direct sequel to the original; however, would his existence really be either covered-up or forgotten during the last 60 years?
Since I’m obviously a huge G-fan, are my criticisms too picky? I keep trying to take that into account and simply ask myself, “Did I enjoy the movie?” Yes, I did. But I can’t honestly say if it’s a true crowd-pleaser. The audience was mostly silent during the screening and I got a “so-so” reaction from the handful of people I encountered afterwards. I appreciate this Godzilla for its realistic approach and fresh way of visually representing events. There are a couple of spectacular scenes (like the skydiving drop that’s been in all the ads), but I ultimately want more. Wanting more should be a good thing. But like so much else in this movie, it’s just not quite.
Godzilla (2014) is out on home video Tuesday, September 16.