GODZILLA (2014) Review #2: Godzilla Endures
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot details and images from an upcoming movie.
Released in 2010, Gareth Edwards’ feature film debut, MONSTERS, contained fresh concepts not often associated with giant monster movies, as well as a scope that belied its micro-budget and fiercely independent origins. Subsequently, the film has sharply divided viewers into two camps: those who have embraced its emphasis on the human characters as they struggle within the context of a monster-infested environment, and those who despise its decidedly-measured approach due to feeling short-changed on monster action. And therein lies the conundrum of bringing a new Godzilla to life for modern audiences: in an era where the push of a button can make almost anybody a published critic, Internet hyperbole often serves to polarize rather than inform audiences and it’s become nearly impossible for any filmmaker to deliver a work as distinctive in vision as the original 1954 GODZILLA while at the same time paying service to the lofty expectations that fans hold for such a beloved icon. In short, the odds are that you won’t be able to please everyone.
The success of MONSTERS would ultimately put Edwards at the helm of Legendary Picture’s 2014 Godzilla reboot — in and of itself an enormous leap of faith by producer Thomas Tull considering this new production carries more than 200 times the budget and thus, responsibility of the former film. Because the character of Godzilla can mean different things to many different age groups of viewers, fandom has been rife with speculation over the past several years as to the type of film that the young director would eventually create. A familiarity with Edwards’ freshman effort, however, in addition to the casting of a serious dramatic actor in Bryan Cranston and Legendary Pictures’ wholesale inclusion of the classic Godzilla in promotion makes it relatively easy to predict where this latest entry in the 60-year old franchise would lead.
Citing Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece as his inspiration, it’s no surprise that Edwards pulls together a tight and suspenseful take on the modern kaiju eiga, a method which should be appreciated when certainly it would have been easier to throw everything at the screen in typical blockbuster fashion and bludgeon the audience into submission. His film completely dismisses the radical redesign of TriStar’s 1998 GODZILLA, presenting a marked return to the way in which the King of Monsters has been classically portrayed in cinema. The new Godzilla is massive, nuclear in origin and generally immune to military firepower. Its signature roar is properly showcased, and the character’s trademark dorsal fin and blue fiery breath are also on full display, with both being utilized to great effect.
Yet for all the nods to Honda’s dark vision of man against the forces of nature gone awry, it’s interesting that Edwards’ own film borrows much more heavily from Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, in particular GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS, over any entry in the longer-running Toho series. Similar to the third installment of the ‘90s Gamera series, GODZILLA opens at the onset of a grave, new threat, concurrent with the discovery of the skeletal remains of an enormous, ancient predator. As the mystery unravels, a symbiotic relationship is eventually revealed between the monsters, though each is diametrically opposed to the other. One creature, alien and insect-like in appearance, harbors a hostile agenda which evokes our suspicion and contempt, while the other is animal-like and almost humanoid in stature, eliciting awe and respect. Even the climax calls to mind GAMERA 3, with the fate of mankind ultimately hanging in the balance as the monsters converge upon a major city to duke it out.
Like the ‘90s incarnation of Gamera, the new Godzilla does not attack humans, but is nonetheless responsible for widespread destruction and casualties in battling with other monsters. Edward’s characterization is akin to the lone-wolf guardian — a powerful, natural force bent on restoring balance, with any human considerations being secondary. Those who are disappointed that Godzilla leans towards the giant fire-breathing turtle’s formula should take comfort in realizing that Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy is generally considered the archetype of modern monster movies, still very much relevant today whereas the latter-era Godzilla films have not aged as well and are generally not given the same consideration.
But while the monster concepts are well developed and interesting, it’s the lack of memorable human characters where GODZILLA fares less well and ultimately falls short of being a great film. Ken Watanabe, for example, portrays Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, whose name references a key figure in the original GODZILLA as well as that film’s director, though in this case, the character is simply an amalgamation of the standard scientist roles that populate many of the classic Godzilla films. With Watanabe’s character being little more than just a bystander in the escalating crisis, the veteran Japanese actor is underused and generally regulated to staring at the off-screen monster action.
Far more damaging in this aspect, however, is the way in which Bryan Cranston’s character, Joe Brody, is handled. Best known for his captivating role in the AMC series BREAKING BAD, Cranston essentially carries the film until being killed off in the first third, with Brody’s adult son, Ford, as played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson then becoming the focal point. Taylor-Johnson’s character is not engaging enough to draw the viewer in, so from this point forward, the film lacks a believable character to help ground a story that largely deals with fantastic concepts. A more effective choice would have been for Cranston to act as the audience’s eyes throughout the film, leaving him to be killed at its conclusion in order to reap maximum emotional impact.
In the months leading up to the release of GODZILLA, it was difficult to get a sense of how the monster’s updated redesign would translate to the screen. But seeing the new Godzilla and his latest adversaries in action brings to light why the filmmakers went with the final monster concepts. The battles which at certain points feature three monsters flailing and attacking each other are easy to decipher all of the action. Special attention has been to give Godzilla sense of a sheer weight and the CG has been crafted toward a scope of effects which benefits the technique, such as Godzilla surfacing in the bay area with naval destroyers being tossed around like toys.
Although there are several references to the Toho Universe — one depicting a chrysalis in a terrarium sporting a Mothra tag — these are relatively brief as though the filmmakers wished to get them out of the way quickly and not distract viewers from the story. The lack of a post-credits stinger indicates their intention to keep the focus squarely on this film without an indication of where a sequel might lead. Much more effective are several well-placed nods to the classic Godzilla series, such as a clever “King of the Monsters” reference which perfectly ties in with the rising emotion of the film’s climax, giving the clichéd tagline a fresh perspective nearly 60 years later.
At the end of the day, just as the original 1954 GODZILLA was very much Ishiro Honda’s film, GODZILLA is very much a film by Gareth Edwards and it works despite the overwhelming burden of our expectations. Though purists may gash their teeth over the idea of a computer-generated Godzilla, CG effects have been a tool inherent to this director’s style of filmmaking, and it’s a technique which he wisely utilizes here to put the audience at the center of the action without going over the top. Despite the franchise’s myriad of misfires and naysayers over the years, Godzilla continues to endure, a sentiment which is best paraphrased by SOUTH PARK’s Matt Stone when lauding the rock band Rush: “Even if you hated (Godzilla) in the 80s and 70s, now you’ve got to give it up for (him), or else you’re just being an old dickhead.”
For more information on Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures’ GODZILLA, please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- GODZILLA RETURNS!
- Legendary Pictures Previews GODZILLA and PACIFIC RIM at Comic-Con
- Legendary Pictures Sets GODZILLA Release Date
- Warner Bros and Legendary Announce Cast and Start of Production for GODZILLA
- GODZILLA (2014) Press Release
- Warner Bros Releases Trailer and Poster for GODZILLA
- Warner Bros Releases High-Res Photos from GODZILLA
- GODZILLA Textless Poster and French/Canadian Trailer
- New GODZILLA Poster and Textless Art from Warner Bros.
- New GODZILLA Roar from Warner Bros.
- New GODZILLA Trailer from Warner Bros.
- GODZILLA International Trailer
- GODZILLA (2014) Photo Gallery
- GODZILLA (2014) TV Spots
- GODZILLA (2014) Extended Look
- GODZILLA (2014) Licensed Product Guide
- GODZILLA Publicity Banners from Warner Bros.
- GODZILLA Production Notes and Images
- GODZILLA Final Credits
- GODZILLA (2014) Asia Trailer
- GODZILLA (2014) Video Clips
- GODZILLA Screens in Hollywood
- GODZILLA (2014) NYC Press Junket Report: It’s Big and Terrible
- GODZILLA Premieres in Hollywood
- “Godzilla Craves Italian” in FIAT Brand Commercial
- GODZILLA (2014) Review
- GODZILLA (2014) Cast Interview Videos
- Snickers Satisfies Godzilla
- GODZILLA (2014) Filmmaker Interview Videos
- GODZILLA (2014) Behind the Scenes Videos