A Review of Godzilla

First off, I apologize for my extended absence. I was in the process of buying my first home. It meant that some movies fell through the cracks.

But I bought the new condo right as we get started with summer 2014. There will be fire, cleavage, yelling, and maybe some thought actually put into the film beyond the bytes and pixels used to create the stunts. And there will be a mass audience, including children who have not yet learned the skillful art of shutting up when the lights go down.

So, let’s start with Godzilla, heavy on the fire and yelling. I was one of the people that really liked last year’s Pacific Rim, mostly because of the amount of fun the filmmakers were having and injecting into the story. I didn’t get quite the same sense of fun with Godzilla. Now, there is a lot to like about it and it’s a step in the right direction for summer blockbusters. But this isn’t something that I am going to say must be seen.

Godzilla is not really a film about the giant lizard. Rather, it is a film about two creatures (referred to as MUTO – Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organisms) that are awaken by the radiation from power plants in Japan. Godzilla, who the military tried to kill in the 1950s via the reported nuclear tests in the Pacific, also comes back to fight them.  This fight doesn’t occur until the last half hour of the film. Until then, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) try to survive the creatures’ rampages from Japan, to Hawaii, and eventually to San Francisco. There’s also a Japanese scientist (Ken Wantanabe) present to act solemn.

I’m not a fan of the original series. I’ve only seen two Godzilla movies that I can recall – the original one and Godzilla V. Megalon. And even that latter film had the MST3K cast guiding me through. The original was dumb and poorly made but it was noteworthy for trying to capture the Japanese mood following Hiroshima. That event was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the original Godzilla ends with the doomsday weapon used to defeat the mighty beast being destroyed. Godzilla was a Cold War symbol for the dangers of nuclear weapons -which means that after 1991 he was about as relevant as Yakov Smirnoff.

That anti-nuclear weapons theme is muted in the new version, because such a mentality would make no sense. But the new Godzilla should be commended for trying to keep up with the times. The first act recalls the Fukushima plant disaster and Godzilla and the Muto are more environmental disasters than Cold War consequences. The subsequent cover up about the creatures recalls far too many things to be listed here. It’s awkward commentary, yes, but so was the original film and director Gareth Edwards must be praised for adding those elements to his film.

Another approach that is quite different from the usual blockbuster fare is how Godzilla handles the wide spread destruction necessary for this time of year. At least one city must be leveled per blockbuster, and Godzilla is no exception. But most of the destruction is only seen after the fact, with people reacting and trying to find their loved ones. Some people may complain about this (it ultimately means the film is not about Godzilla. He doesn’t even fight the Mutos until the third act.) but I thought it was a nice human touch. The only moments we see are a few brief seconds on a news report. That’s how we experience everything. The average Michael Bay action sequence goes on for so long that it loses any impact. These moments in Godzilla excite us because we don’t see everything.

One of the things I praised Pacific Rim for was the fact that it took place in a world that was responding to the presence of giant monsters. Godzilla doesn’t handle that as well, but it still tries. This human element is where a disaster film needs to focus. I don’t really care about Godzilla- he’s a giant animal who’s here to wreck buildings and kill equally giant animals. There’s not a lot of exploration in his motives there. What matters is the people.

Godzilla looks more or less like this.

At times it does feel like we’re being programmed to like this characters. Both have family connections – Joe loses his wife early in the film, and Ford trying to get back to his wife and child for a majority of the run time. But it is convincing enough, especially when we see other people going through the same journey. It’s very basic, but it works during the film.

That last paragraph contains the phrase I would use to describe Godzilla as a whole: “Convincing enough.” This is much better than the last attempt to redo Godzilla for a modern age. I know this film could be much, much worse than it is. Maybe that’s why there’s been so much praise for it. I don’t exactly share the enthusiasm. The film feels programmed to elicit certain emotions and doesn’t contain any real love for the Godzilla franchise. It could be about any monster or any disaster.  But I do share the sense that this isn’t a bad film due to the fact that it’s trying to incorporate a human perspective.

If I had to compare this to any movie it would be World War Z. Like Z, Godzilla does have a head on its shoulders and is perfectly acceptable while it’s screening. If you’re looking to kill an afternoon with friends then there are worse ways. But I am probably never going to think about this film again – it’s completely disposable. Still, I’m glad we’re at a point where even a disposable film is a watchable one. If you want to see how far we’ve come, well, go find the 1998 Godzilla adaptation and compare it to this. You’ll see how we’ve progressed.

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