Godzilla is a difficult character. He’s been a hero and a villain. He’s been a loaded symbol and an empty set piece. He’s a cultural icon and a punchline. He’s fought on our planet and in other worlds. He has decades of history and still defies simple definition beyond being a big, rampaging monster. And while this size and action is all we truly demand of the character, he can be so much more. In the character’s latest film, Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards has created a labor of love that attempts to draw from the monster’s rich history to appeal to his fans, but not make him so esoteric as to alienate those who only know the name. Although the characters and plot can barely hold the grim vibe, Edwards’ respectful and careful approach to the big guy is more than enough to hold the tension and make us cheer for monster mayhem.
In the Philippines in 1999, scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) go to a collapsed mine and discover a cavern that houses not only a humongous ribcage, but also two mysterious spores. The cavern also leads out into the sea, or rather, it looks like something massive crawled out of the cavern and dragged itself to sea. Over in Tokyo, a seismic event causes the collapse of a power plant, and engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the tragedy. Fifteen years later, their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is working in EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) in the navy, but is forced to travel to Japan and bail his estranged father out of prison. Joe has been trying to figure out why the plant collapsed, and believes the answers are in Japan’s quarantine zone. Ford reluctantly follows Joe into the restricted area only to discover that his father’s crackpot theories might not be so crazy after all.
So where is Godzilla in all of this? Very far away. After a brief glimpse of the monster’s distinctive spikes during the opening credits, the movie doesn’t even tease Godzilla. Instead, it puts the focus on threatening creatures known as “MUTOs” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Other than his 1954 debut and the awful 1998 remake, Godzilla is known for fighting other monsters, so it’s not too much of a surprise that his latest movie would give him some powerful foes. What is surprising is Edwards’ patience in revealing his titular star.
Edwards showed the same patience in his debut feature Monsters, and while that still created tension, it could also be argued he took this approach because of budget constraints (the cost of the film is usually pegged at around $500,000), and those restrictions resulted in a greater reliance on ambience and the viewer’s imagination. With a blockbuster budget, Edwards could have played to the audience’s appetite for carnage and waste no time in giving the people what they want. Instead, he shows that his approach in Monsters is even more effective in Godzilla, not only because he’s got a recognizable star, but he’s also playing against audience expectations. In our current thirst for greater spectacle, Edwards has provided something even more powerful: anticipation.
When Godzilla finally shows up, it’s cheer-worthy in a way that’s rarely seen even though so many blockbusters these days are origin stories that get “big” reveals. The audience is still patient with these movies, but we know the trajectory, so we can almost set our watches to when the hero will rise. Edwards doesn’t give us any hints. This might be confusing to audience members who are wondering what the hell these are humans are doing talking to each other and why monsters aren’t punching each other. But when Edwards finally shows Godzilla in all his glory, it’s magnificent. And then, in a way I won’t spoil here, he subverts our expectations yet again.
The director doesn’t really need to constantly showcase Godzilla because his presence is felt in every moment, and that includes his history. I won’t proclaim to be a Godzilla expert. I love the original, hated the 1998 remake, and it wasn’t until this weekend until I finally saw Godzilla movies where he fought other monsters—Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). He’s the bad guy in both, and while neither blew me away, I appreciated the classic and modern approaches. I saw the new movie with a friend who loves the Godzilla franchise, and he thought Edwards’ film was even better than the 1954 original. He explained that Edwards’ Godzilla attempts to bring in the best aspects from all of the other movies, and do so with references that only true fans will appreciate (sometimes it’s good to ask an expert). However, this never renders the film exclusive to die-hards, and we all speak the universal language of Smashing Things.
But Smashing Things is a rudimentary form of communication. There needs to be something to carry us in between the falling buildings, especially in a film where the set pieces are scarce. This puts a heavier burden on plot and character, and unfortunately, both fall flat. That’s not unusual for a Godzilla movie, but it’s still disappointing considering the picture’s talented cast. The Oscar-nominees and multiple-Emmy winner were clearly brought in to class up the joint and add gravitas through their presence alone. But Ken Watanabe is nothing more than “Male Scientist”, Sally Hawkins is “Female Scientist Who Stands Behind the Male Scientist”, and only Joe Brody has a hint of a character arc, which is somewhat undermined by Cranston’s decision to go as big and broad as the monster.
And then at the forefront you have Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of the weakest action heroes in recent memory. He’s obviously not going to eclipse Godzilla, but Taylor-Johnson’s performance is so milquetoast that I was wondering if he was scared to emote. Even his profession as a bomb tech is fairly irrelevant, and at best he’s in a long line of characters who happen to be the action’s “sphere of influence”.
For a movie that takes a serious approach to Godzilla, it’s unfortunate that the characters and plot should be an afterthought. Yes, this is traditional for the Godzilla franchise, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it. At some point, we have to hold Godzilla to the same standard as other blockbusters even if it doesn’t always play by the same rules. The scientists should do more than spout exposition (although Watanabe gets the coolest line in the movie), the hero should come off as heroic, and the plot should be more than serviceable, even if bringing us Godzilla in the best way possible is admittedly a noble service.
Despite these weaknesses, there’s really no stopping Godzilla when he’s done right. If a single good thing can be said about the 1998 version, it provided a template for what not to do, and the top of the list is “Don’t disrespect Godzilla”. The new Godzilla shows that with the right approach he can more than a cash-in. He can carry his decades of history and not collapse under the weight. When he has our attention, we can’t turn away even if he’s not on screen. There may be many “Godzillas”, but there’s no mistaking a roar that can give us chills, send our hearts racing, and get our blood pumping.