I grew up watching Toho’s many incarnations of Godzilla. I loved Godzilla - especially the 1989 Godzilla: Monster of Monsters Nintendo video game. I loved all of the films too, from the iconic 1954 Gojira original to the ridiculousness of “Baby Godzilla” blowing bubbles to the overly melodramatic Godzilla 1985 to the righteously badass Marv Newland animated student film Bambi Meets Godzilla (for the love of god, Youtube it) – still my favorite in the canon, and in that one we only ever see the monster’s foot, so quit your whining about his 2014 screen time! Because of its Japanese origins stemming from real nuclear horrors, it was an inherently silly franchise that somehow always carried some weight, or the illusion of weight…as if it was far more serious or important than it really was. Also our fond memories of watching it as children fogged the reality of its natural stupidity. For some ungodly reason, fans still reeling from the rape of Godzilla in 1998 placed insanely lofty expectations on this latest film incarnation thinking that this Godzilla had to be something more – it had to match our fantasies…it had to be everything we ever dreamed of.
In steps Gareth Edwards, indie director of the silly emo but shockingly effective character drama, Monsters, that had two unlikely people falling in love while trying to get out of Mexico – a Mexico that just happened to be under quarantine due to some rampaging giant walking…squids? It was a fun little genre mash-up. Edwards so desperately wanted to inject that human element into his Godzilla, but sadly his screenwriters (Max Borenstein and David Calaham) failed him by (SPOILER ALERT!) killing off the only interesting human (played with “I’m gonna act the crap out of this thing” gusto by Bryan Cranston) thirty minutes into the film. But does this human element even matter? I mean, we are talking about a giant radioactive lizard stomping buildings (and in this case, two insectoid monstrosities called MUTO’s wreaking havoc as well) - and that in and of itself should be enough to entertain. Who cares that they cast all of this Oscar caliber talent – blink and you’ll miss Juliette Binoche, watch Elizabeth Olsen cry, hear David Strathairn talk gravely about big military decisions in that great voice, or watch Sally Hawkins do…absolutely nothing - and then put in the lead the wooden and hipsterishly-voiced Aaron-Taylor Johnson. Are the humans supposed to be the stars of this?
Despite the script, which also posits the remaining characters in frustratingly convenient cliffhanger type situations and then never explains how they get from one point to the next (i.e. how did Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the kid get off that train wreck in Honolulu or how did the school bus full of kids get off the destroyed Golden Gate bridge to safety?), Edwards and his production team do a bang up job with the pacing, visual and sound elements. Edwards takes a Spielbergian approach to the suspense mixed with winks and nods to the past films. There’s a vibe early on that he’s trying to emulate Jurassic Park (Ken Watanabe plays the exposition and philosophy providing scientist – a stock character given the hero treatment in the dinosaur classic) where the MUTO’s are perhaps the velociraptors and Godzilla his T-Rex. He also tries to eek the most out of the haphazardly written “kids in jeopardy” stuff, which Spielberg was always so adept at. The FX crew and design team get the look of the MUTO’s and Godzilla right, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey works seamlessly to frame and light the monsters, though he still succumbs to that annoying trend of shooting massive FX shots in the night and often in the rain (though it’s very well photographed night and rain). In some of the standout scenes McGarvey and Edwards pull off the money shots in artful ways…especially the Halo drop POV of monster mayhem, the Chinese lantern-strewn San Francisco disaster sequences, and the “final kill” in which Godzilla’s radiation breath casts a haunting reflective glow. The sound design is masterfully constructed, and it’s nice to hear Alexandre Desplat craft a fun score. All of these elements add up to an entertaining two hours.
But with all of those great expectations (and this annoying fad of fanboys to think that everything, no matter how inherently silly or illogical, needs to reach some Nolan-esque height of quasi-realistic drama)…could there have been something more? Cranston’s performance and character hint that maybe there could’ve been, but how much more screen time did we want the humans to steal from the monster dance?
My advice to the studio – fire the screenwriters, get all new humans, and let Edwards and his crew do their thing to the sequels. They have noble intentions…maybe we should just let them entertain us. Oh, and have the monsters fight in the daylight for crying out loud!
And maybe…they could fulfill my fantasy, and in the sequel there would be Bambi. A kid can still dream, can’t he?
Written by David H. Schleicher