At some point in this review I am required by tradition to inform you that the original 1954 Gojira movie was not the goofy rubber monster suit spectacle that the Kaiju genre it spawned has become, but a serious, dark metaphor for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The marketing for this new Godzilla seems to be trying very hard to convince people that it’s adopting the same style.
It’s not. This is a movie all about Godzilla the sort-of hero monster punching other, more eviler monsters in the face. It’s a film built entirely around the spectacle of awe-inspiring CG creations tearing cities apart.
And I guess there are humans as well, but you probably won’t care about them very much.
in 1999 Bryan Cranston (played by Bryan Cranston) works at a nuclear power plant in a version of Japan where Mt. Fuji is visible in every exterior location. Ken Watanabe, also playing himself, works for a totally anime secret organization named Monarch that’s researching giant monsters. They find a gigantic serpentine skeleton in the Phillipines (you can tell it’s the Phillipines because everyone is poor) with several large egg sacs attached, one of which appears to have recently hatched. Unfortunately for the Cranston family the unknown creature makes a beeline straight for the power plant and Bryan Cranston’s wife bites it in the ensuing meltdown.
Fifteen years later Bryan Cranston’s son, played by a slab of raw beef sculpted into the form of a human face, is in the military and has just gotten home to his wife (a criminally underused Elizabeth Olsen) and young son after a tour of duty when he receives a phone call informing him that the elder Cranston has been caught sneaking around the exclusion zone surrounding the ruins of his old workplace. He flies to Japan to find his dad lost in a paranoid conspiracy theory about a creature that caused the 1999 meltdown that of course turns out to be entirely correct: Monarch have been monitoring a large cocoon in the ruins for the last decade and a half, and it hatches to reveal a totally fucking awesome electromagnetic-pulse inducing flying monster thing called MUTO (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Object) that promptly tears off to live free and blast the ever-loving fuck out of human civilization. The US military wants to nuke it, but Ken Watanabe has a better idea: let the other giant monster that Monarch located back in the fifties (hint: it’s Godzilla) deal with the problem. This of course turns out to be the correct course of action by virtue of being completely metal.
Oh and Cranston junior has an important part to play in all of this even though literally every other human character is more interesting than him.
Let’s skip to the important part: yes, the monsters are cool. The monster fights are great. Director Gareth Evans eschews modern cinematic conventions by letting us see what the fuck is going on and ensuring that the actions of everyone involved, both small and gigantic, are coherent and make sense. I really shouldn’t consider that a mark of quality, but it’s something most blockbusters continue to mess up. Beyond the basics, the actions of the humans are smartly and organically made relevant to the monster battles so that the two never seem to be inhabiting separate storylines in the way that, say, Michael Bay’s emotionless robots and his Transformers do.
Godzilla is teased throughout the movie in sneak-peeks and quick cut-aways, not to hide what he looks like (it’s Godzilla, everyone knows what he looks like) but to ensure that his presence never becomes mundane. The first time you see him clearly in all of his immense bulk it’s genuinely impressive, and it remains impressive throughout simply because Evans doesn’t overload the audience’s senses like so many blockbuster movies do these days. Put simply, these are fascinating creatures. MUTO is portrayed very much as an animal, with recognizable and relateble animalistic behaviors that make it sympathetic without ever humanizing it. Godzilla on the other hand is much more inscrutable. He’s compared to a God at one point, but it would be more apt to call him a force of nature. He follows some unknown programming or directive and he both helps and hinders humanity throughout the movie, at times almost seeming to go out of his way to preserve lives but also causing hundreds, if not thousands of human deaths simply by his presence. Perhaps it’s this opaque nature or maybe it’s just the visual design, but I actually found MUTO to be far more interesting than the titular monster.
Like I said, this is not a super serious gritty disaster movie. In many ways it feels like a throwback to the sort of goofiness that summer movies often possessed in the 90s. A military commander at one point talks to the President on a big red phone. Cranston Jr is at one point paired up with a little Japanese boy he has to protect, without a shred of irony or apology. Ken Watanabe turns slowly to the camera and says “We call him……. GOJIRA”. There is a scene where a dog runs away from a tidal wave. It’s not quite Independence Day level of we’re-not-really-taking-this-seriously, but it’s close.
Or at least, most of the time it’s close. See, the film kept expecting me to actually care about the human cast despite the fact that none of them are terribly well written or complex. Somewhere under the slightly overly-complicated plot there’s a story about an ordinary family trying to survive against a backdrop of huge, terrifying events, but that thread gets lost amidst a lot of clutter, as if no one quite knew how to hang an entire feature length movie on it. Normally with big-budget special effects pieces it’s the action that leaves me dazed and confused, but in Godzilla the human element is the part that feels over-stuffed and busy, composed of scene after meaningless scene of people crying and talking on phones. Elizabeth Olsen’s character could easily be written out of the movie entirely. Hell, Cranston Jr and the hunk of ambulatory drywall they got to play him could even have been saved for the last act as just a faceless soldier thrown into the thick of the action, which is really the only purpose he ends up serving. The attempts at drama are never boring, but they feel like padding none the less, as though the film is simply going through the motions of filling a feature-length run time, and they drag the movie down such that it ends up becoming a handful of really great monster scenes interspersed with some not-bad but utterly expendable character drama.
But at least those monster scenes are pretty great. Evans has his meticulously rendered photo-realistic CG creations mimic the movements of stop-motion models and guys in suits, even going so far as to shoot scenes of human characters standing in front of monsters as though the effects are being achieved with rear-screen projection instead of green-screen CGI. Beyond being a quite clever way to pay homage to the source material, it’s an interesting visual flourish that manages to make computer-rendered mayhem feel fresh and exciting again.
When all of its parts of taken into consideration Godzilla is by no means a great movie, but it’s passable spectacle. Think about renting it some time, but don’t rush out to see it in the cinema.