“Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go go Godzilla!”
I am a fan of the big-G, and I’m not speaking in a Judeo-Christian sense in this instance. Godzilla (or “Gojira” if you insist on being a pretentious douche) is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, metaphorically if not literally. Starting with the breakthrough hit in 1954 and it’s subsequent Raymond Burr-ized edit becoming a sensation in America a couple of years later, he has stomped his way into our hearts. He has been a monster, a nuclear metaphor, a savior, a Japanese symbol, a googly-eyed muppet and finally, a monster again. This marks the fourth time that the Godzilla films have been jump started, though the two in Japan both began their continuity anew as direct sequels of the first and best film, proving that no matter how goofy America has gotten with sequels, reboots or any other entertainment buzzword being thrown around lately, we still lag behind the land of the rising sun.
With the exception of the 1998 American crapfest which was so bad that it has been rumored to cause syphilis from casual contact, he’s up to now been portrayed by a man in a suit which, let’s be honest, is as it should be. The excellent trilogy of Gamera films which saw release in the 90s proved that if a suit is well made and used in conjunction with modern effects technology, it is just as effective as CGI ejaculated on the screen by a bunch of Hollywood technowizards. Unfortunately, the new Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards (who until recently I was confusing with Gareth Evans of The Raid fame) by fiat became a computer generated extravaganza. We’ll try to forgive this indiscretion, however. After all, Revolutionary and Warner Bros., the studios behind the film, are the same folks that put out Pacific Rim, a similarly themed giant monster slugfest which ended up being one of my favorite films of last year.
So here’s the real rub that most fans will acknowledge; of all the Godzilla movies, only the first one is really more than just a fun flick where you sit through the human stuff to get to the sweet monster fights. The original is a true horror film. It was one of the first to do the anti-nuke song and dance, but it hit on a deeper metaphorical level due specifically to what the Japanese had experienced in the second World War. Otherwise it would be just another of the anti-science “sci-fi” flicks that have told us how everything from atomic research to cloning to robots are going to kill us and we should seek entropy as a species lest we destroy ourselves by playing God. These films are often fun, but also pretty stupid. With the trailers, it seemed the current Godzilla was trying very hard to evoke the same kind of response as the original by being “about something.” But does it say anything new? Is there anything besides the sound of credit cards swiping at the box office and the excuse of having new technology at our disposal to warrant yet another American-centric remake of one of the best-regarded horror films of all time?
The answer to these questions are “not really.” Is that a death knell to it? No. It still has it’s moments that should satisfy a lot of fans. It’s far from a bad film. What the dirty little secret is, which we didn’t get a hint of until the last trailer, is that this film has much, much more in common with the Godzilla sequels (and even the cartoon) than the ’54 original. Heck, it actually feels a lot more like the aforementioned Gamera trilogy than the original Godzilla. It also feels ready made to spawn a dozen more films as a franchise, though it is not nearly as obnoxious about this as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t blame the filmmaker for the misdirection in the advertisements. I put that squarely on the marketing arm which often acts under its own discretion. And the only reason I really am disappointed in the blatant set-up is that I am suffering from mythmaker fatigue. I know there have already been 30 Godzilla movies. What’s a few more?
I’ve watched a lot of Godzilla movies, so I can recognize that this one fits the pattern of at least a dozen of them. We are given glimpses of monsters while following some boring humans around, wondering when we’ll get the good stuff. In this case, the boring human is Aaron Johnson’s Lt. Ford Brody, a soldier living in San Francisco who is trained in bomb deactivation and whose family was destroyed by a nuclear incident fifteen years before in Japan. Johnson has proven he can be an interesting actor (even if he was upstaged by Hitgirl in the KickAss movies) but in this case he actually makes a bombtech feel dull somehow. For one thing, the movie is played mostly as seriously as possible. There are some funny in-jokes that will bring about a titter in fans who are paying attention, but most of the characters are played so straight that they don’t even have personality and there isn’t enough tension to offset the problem. The two exceptions to this are Bryan Cranston as Ford’s father and the great Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (which you may remember is the name of the character that destroyed Godzilla in the original film.)
Cranston, despite being the lynchpin of the ad campaign, is only featured in a small portion of the running time and that is a terrible shame. His character is the most engaging of everyone in the movie and if he’d been the focus, perhaps this thing could have gone from “pretty good” to “great.” He has a real arc, a real drive and motivation and he is able to flesh things out and make his character three dimensional. He is a shell of a man and there is a great scene in which we see an outward representation of how his life has rotted away since the fateful day he lost so much of what meant something to him. Watanabe, meanwhile, starts the film looking harried and lost. He’s been at the front lines, researching these types of creatures for a very long time and he seems to be genuinely shaken and without hope over what’s going on. As the story progresses, we see him slowly develop a new tone, built on what he seems to think is a new understanding of the world.
The “money shots” of the film are surprisingly few. There are many instances when we think we’re about to see something great only to have it pulled away like a cookie being taken from a kid who has been caught trying to raid the jar. Though I’ll admit that the destruction of the world’s most hippie-fueled anti-atomic city due to nuclear-driven monsters is deliciously satisfying. The thing is, we’ve seen so much of this sort of thing in the last couple of years that it is a bit numbing, no matter how much one may enjoy it. There’s nothing particularly new in Godzilla and it doesn’t make up for that in volume. I’d go so far as to say that Pacific Rim and Man of Steel both did wide-spread destruction better and gave you more of it. As for Godzilla himself, he works. They got the scale down, at least. I honestly wasn’t overly impressed by the effect though. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is that seemed off to me aside from his movements striking me as more cartoony than suit-zilla does, which ironically feels more at odds with the seriousness of the film.
All in all, I’m sure this sounds like I am complaining. And I suppose I am. I just found the film somewhat underwhelming. But the thing is, it still has the same charm that the old films had going for them, despite what seems like a sense of self-importance missing from the monster smackdowns that used to pop up on a regular basis from Toho. If nothing else, it is miles ahead of the previous American version. And we do finally get a knock-down drag out between the big lizard and something that looks like the Cloverfield monster (reasserting his dominance, I guess.) There are a couple of moments that did make my eyes bulge a bit in how awesome they were. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Is this a great film? I say no. But it is a competent film that delivers the goods. And I do plan on seeing it again, this time in a better theater with the sound cranked to infinity so see if I don’t end up more pleased with it now that I know what to expect.
(Three and a half damns given out of five)
*author’s note: The film was viewed in its 2-D format.