In 1954, Japan and nuclear radiation gave birth to one of the most famous movie monsters of all time. For the next 60 years, Japanese and American films threw everything they had at it, including other monsters, aliens, Raymond Burr and — most destructively of all — Roland Emmerich. But in 2014, director Gareth Edwards brings Godzilla back to destroy us all/save us all yet again – eventually.
In 1999, mysterious underground tremors trigger the destruction of a nuclear power plant in Japan, causing the entire town to be sealed off. Yet 15 years later, former nuclear engineer Joe Brody, whose wife perished in the initial devastation, is out to prove the real truth behind what happened. Accompanied by his reluctant U.S. Navy based son Ford, the two indeed find a deeper, darker and more destructive source of the attacks – monstrous creatures called Muto’s that feed off radiation and have designs to spawn across the globe. Despite the military’s best plans to kill the creatures, there may be only one thing that can save mankind from them – an even greater ancient monster dubbed Godzilla.
Very little of this was given away in the Godzilla trailers, as only the title monster himself was believed to be the star. Yet although the movie is called Godzilla, it may as well be called Godzilla vs Muto – or perhaps just Muto. This update may have been inspired by the 60’th anniversary of the original — and least campy — version of Godzilla, yet he may as well be sharing the spotlight with Mothra, Rodan, King Kong or King Ghidorah.
This is one of those movies where Godzilla is more the hero than the villain, with humanity being utterly ill equipped to stop the Muto’s on its own. Yet it is the evil Muto’s and the useless humans that get most of the screen time until Godzilla can prove his superiority. For a while, this isn’t a deal breaker while Edwards builds things up in often awe inspiring fashion. But with so much buildup, the ultimate payoff probably should have been a bit more.
Godzilla and Edwards have already come under fire for having so little Godzilla until the final act, and for having uninteresting humans take up so much time beforehand. However, uninteresting humans are one of the building blocks of the franchise, or are at least a prerequisite. Yet since the likes of Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olson, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn are playing the humans, it raises hopes for a little bit more. Nevertheless, these are hopes that only Cranston and Watanabe come close to delivering on.
Edwards is the real human star of Godzilla, as he tries to take the campy elements out – as much as humanly possible – and make something more artful and ominous. For some time he does just that, as he shows just enough creatures and destruction, at just the right times, to keep the pace from getting too slow. While the real waiting game is for Godzilla, the Muto’s are still devastating in their own right, as the giant female version gets the most chilling action scene of the film by stalking a train with a nuclear device.
Edwards may test the patience of Transformers/Michael Bay-raised action audiences with his pace, yet his intent is admirable. His obvious inspiration is Steven Spielberg in his Jaws/Close Encounters/Jurassic Park days, as he teases Godzilla like Spielberg teased Jaws, aliens and a t-rex once upon a time. Edwards strings the viewer alone with brief but stunning moments of carnage, wetting our appetites until the grand finale finally delivers. At the very least, that is the intention.
Although Edwards keeps everyone strung along and interested throughout, such waiting demanded a longer payoff of battle scenes and Godzilla himself. While Godzilla and the Muto’s do get their final battle, and Godzilla gets at least two jaw dropping moments of triumph, it seems too brief in the long run after all the waiting. As such, humanity is never more annoying than when Edwards keeps cutting to soldiers — led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford — in the wastelands of San Francisco, instead of just staying on Godzilla fighting the Muto’s at long last.
Of course, Edwards still has more respect for Godzilla in his limited screen time than Emmerich ever did in his infamous version. He actually lets Godzilla inspire awe, terror and even heroism, while letting him truly tower over the likes of Honolulu and San Francisco. It is a little troubling that Edwards borrows from Emmerich in having his monsters motivated by spawing nest – although at least it’s from the two Muto’s and not an asexual Godzilla burrowing in Madison Square Garden.
The original 1954 Godzilla was the least campy installment of the series by far, so Edwards is paying the best possible anniversary tribute by taking things seriously. Still, one can only go so far to take something like this seriously, which is what Godzilla attacks and monster battles are for to balance it out.
This Godzilla may be the closest the franchise gets to a Christopher Nolan style treatment, yet the foundation is still too campy for that kind of epic darkness. Cities are laid to waste, but at least it isn’t as obviously inspired by 9/11 as most city-sized movie destruction is these days, a la Man of Steel. Edwards is too smart to fall into the depths of an Emmerich or Bay, both in action and in tone, yet at least they’re a little quicker to get to their main events.
Edwards’ gradual building towards these moments are admirable in this day and age, and there are moments that have to be seen – and cheered – on the biggest IMAX screen possible. Yet with just a bit more balance between buildup and payoff, no matter how effective those elements are at time, Godzilla could have been something truly gigantic, as befitting the King of the Monsters.
The moral of the new Godzilla is that humanity’s efforts to interfere, in a matter for nature to balance out, are pointless. Ironically, if Edwards had taken that exact lesson to heart in crafting the story, there wouldn’t be such dead weight around it – and the big climax would have had more live weight to it. But when it is stringing viewers along just right and paying off just right, Godzilla proves that 60-year-old mutated lizards can still teach their decedents a thing or two.
If Emmerich had any hopes for making Godzilla an American franchise, they were tarnished in short order by his own failures. Edwards has given the monster a better shot at a future in Hollywood – but will he or someone else turn Godzilla sequels into intentional goofy madness like Japan did? Will they at least make Godzilla into the star monster of future films, or learn the wrong lessons from the faults of Edwards’ structure instead?
Time will tell on the answers to those questions. Yet Godzilla is nothing if not resilient to every single obstacle on and off screen, whether it is actual bombs or being in bombs himself. Godzilla 2014 is a far cry from a bomb, but it is so explosive in big and small ways when it works, it makes the ways it doesn’t work all the more upsetting – if not an Emmerich level of upsetting.