I really want to like this movie, but that statement comes with a number of asterisks.
Asterisk number one: I want to like this movie, despite the fact that the much-hyped Bryan Cranston is killed off in the first act. But he’s more or less the main character of that first act, and he acts his arse off.
Asterisk number two: I want to like this movie even though the eponymous monster gets sort of sidelined in his own film. Maybe Gareth Edwards – who previously made Monsters, a movie whose title is about as misleading as Naked Lunch – wasn’t the right person to make Godzilla.
Though, I do feel comfortable calling this the first truly decent American-made Godzilla. It’s fair to say Godzilla and America have had a tumultuous relationship, and that makes perfect sense to me from a historical viewpoint. After all, the original Godzilla movie was the realization of Japan’s atomic fears after World War II, which for those of you who were living with the mole-people for the past seventy years and change, ended with bombs that could level a city in seconds being dropped on two major civilian cities in Japan. Godzilla himself is very much an anthropomorphizing of both the sheer force of the nuclear bombs, and of the terror surrounding them.
So you can imagine the ethnocentrism involved when an American director in the fifties took that film and heavily re-edited it to star an American in Japan. “Hey, you know that monster movie which is in effect your country baring its soul to the world regarding your nuclear fears after America bombed you? Your people aren’t good enough to star in it, here’s an American.”
Like, that’s low even for the fifties.
And then you have Roland Emmerich’s take on Godzilla, which was basically just a typical blockbuster that happened to star some random super-sized dinosaur that just happened to be called Godzilla. I actually didn’t think the movie was horrible, which puts me in the minority, just…it shouldn’t have been called Godzilla.
So here we’ve the third round in the ring, and how did they do? It’s a monster called Godzilla that is actually Godzilla, and the film doesn’t come off as a racist travesty. We’re breaking ground here, folks!
I mean, it shouldn’t get a free pass because the previous attempts at it were either misguided in Emmerich’s case or awful beyond redemption in Morse’s case. I’ve scarcely seen any movie so invested in self-sabotage as Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, for the two caveats I mentioned above.
I understand wanting to build up Godzilla, I do. Cutting away right when Godzilla is about to go toe-to-toe with his Kaiju foe once is teasing the viewer; but doing it twice is straight-up trolling the viewer. The second time, the cinematography comes off as vaguely artistic – how the doors slowly close in on Godzilla’s roaring frame, gradually cutting him off from our sight – but good cinematography or not, it feels like the audience gets cheated out of something awesome. Speaking in a cultural context, what’s the point of slowly building up Godzilla if the entire world already knows what he looks like and how he behaves?
And…I’m sorry, but more needs to be said about the Bryan Cranston thing. I’m used to Hollywood lying in trailers; in this case they constructed the trailers with the intent to sucker in Cranston fans by implicitly playing up his role in the film. So then they get the asses in the seats, Cranston dies in the first act, and…why?
Can I just go ahead and ask why they killed Cranston’s character that early? Is there some narrative function it serves? It’s not like it encourages the protagonist to step up and become his own man a la the dead-mentor part of the Hero’s Journey, because he already was his own man, a soldier at that.
It’s just…why would you sabotage your own film like this? There’s a reason Cranston skyrocketed to the A-list: he’s very good at this. You secured that amazing talent for your movie, and you took pains to use it as little as you could! It’s not just that the deceptive marketing suckered Breaking Bad fans into the theater, it’s that Cranston’s demonstrably incredible acting could have been a great benefit to the film as a whole, but they refuse to use it. It’s like winning the lottery, spending and/or investing 20% of your winnings and throwing the rest onto a literal bonfire. Why?!
Godzilla himself looks good. The one word that keeps coming to mind is Organic: the big green comes off like a vivid, breathing creature. Pay no heed to the people who say that it’s “not Godzilla” if it doesn’t have a rubber suit; recent films like Avatar and Pacific Rim have well proven that CG can look, feel and breathe just as convincingly as practical effects. There’s a certain nostalgia to seeing a clearly rubber-suited Godzilla smashing up clearly miniature tanks and buildings, but it’s all about what works with the film in question. With practical effects, the challenge is to make a tangible creation seem believable, while with digital effects, the challenge is to convince the viewer that the effect occupies the same physical space as the actors. And in this case, the CG definitely succeeds.
The female lead is given a worthless role. “Oh, my darling man, I’ll just sit here vulnerable in the warzone so that you can come in and rescue me!” Stupid writing to the point of mental exhaustion. When people talk about female characters getting sidelined and marginalized as an afterthought, this is what they’re talking about.
But when the film is on, oh, it is on. The climax is shrouded in an atmosphere of deep reds and blacks, an apocalyptic landscape that smothers all hope and all life. You’ll clench your fists in your seat as the squadron falls from the sky, passing narrowly by Godzilla himself, who to them must seem like an Eldritch monster beyond comprehension.
Incidentally, this climax is also where we finally get to see Godzilla shine, fighting the two MUTOs and ultimately using his breath-power in a way that I won’t spoil, but is awesome while it lasts. And then Godzilla lets out a great bellow and it’s a memorable moment, as though a triumphant celebration of everything Godzilla is about.
…and it just makes us wish that the rest of the movie had been that awesome. There are parts in the movie that are nerve-wracking, well-shot, wonderfully acted and with superb effects, but if I feel like I need to cherry-pick things to justify about a film, what does that say about the film?
At the end of the day, the script problems run too deep for me to call this anything better than a mixed bag. Things that I was able to overlook in the theater stood out like sore thumbs on blu-ray, so tragically, I like it less each time I think hard about it. And the movie only has itself to blame: marginalizing its best two assets, Cranston and the big G himself, sunk the film, because what’s left isn’t quite so strong that it can hold it up. Much like Michael Bay’s Transformers series, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is great on a technical level, but on a narrative level, seriously needs to triple-check the demographics it’s writing for.
But, judge for yourself by watching it on blu-ray or the streaming service of your choice. Afterwards, check out the recent blu-ray Criterion release of the original Godzilla, which is absolutely worth your money. Here’s hoping that the inevitable sequel will be more of an extroverted effort.
This movie gets two and a half dismembered Kaiju limbs out of four; just barely a passing grade, but a pass none the less.