Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)
Last summer, I saw one of the dumbest and most incoherent movies I have ever seen: Pacific Rim. Who knew that a film about humans sitting inside the brain centers of Transformers-style robots and battling giant dinosaurs from another dimension could be so inane? Really, who knew? At the time, I wondered why anyone would want to combine Transformers and Godzilla. It sounds appealing to a young boy, but is there really a market for that kind of idiocy beyond the tweener set?
Well, on a budget of almost $200,000,000, the film made over $400,000,000 worldwide (but only $100,000,000 in the States), so what do I know (thank you, my fellow Americans, however, for not flocking to see it)? I guess I underestimated the appeal of the movie to diehard fans of Japanese “kaijū eiga.” But then, since I had never heard of that genre before doing research for my Midday with Dan Rodricks show on Godzilla, how could I have known?
All of this is to say that I am probably not the target demographic for a film that is being touted as a corrective to the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla (which fans of the famous monster hated, as did most critics), bringing the series back to its traditional roots, as director Gareth Edwards has claimed in interviews. It’s quite a long-running series, with almost 30 Japanese films and a number of American versions, too. If you want to learn all about the many screen incarnations of Godzilla and his brethren, I recommend William Tsutsui’s amusing and highly informative memoir, Godzilla on My Mind. I do not, however, recommend this new movie. At all. I see a lot of films, many of them crap, yet rarely do I feel like leaving. Halfway through the 2014 Godzilla, I wanted out. It was just that excruciating. How this film has managed to rack up a high critic rating on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator site, I do not know. It should be pointed out at this time that production company Legendary Pictures is responsible for both Pacific Rim and Godzilla. Hmmmmmm … Then again, they also do all of Christopher Nolan‘s work, so I won’t judge them too harshly.
Which is too bad, because I absolutely loved Edwards’s debut feature, Monsters. Now there was a terrific character-based dramatic thriller, with intelligent creature design, about aliens (the “monsters” of the title) walking the earth five years after a somewhat botched invasion. It may not have made much money (though it made back its costs, and then some), but it was a gripping story, well told, and you can watch it right now on Netflix instant viewing. Save yourself a trip to the theater, stay home and see how good Edwards can be.
So what’s wrong with the new movie? Where do I start? For one thing, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Anna Karenina), who plays what passes for a main human character, cannot handle the burden of leading-man status. Whether he is hampered by the poor script, poor direction, or his own limitations, he comes across as dim and highly uninteresting. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), as Taylor-Johnson’s, fares worse, but in her case it’s clear that it’s because the writer and director just don’t care about her character. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are around for a bit to add talent and gravitas to the proceedings, but once they’re gone, we’re left with a hammy Ken Watanabe (Inception, and usually he’s so good …) – a Godzilla film always seems to need one Japanese guy to look at the camera and say “Gojira!” – and a struggling David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, and also usually much better).
The real problem is the script. Written for fanboys, the screenplay takes for granted that what the audience wants is to see monsters duke it on screen. So that’s what we get. While the first half-hour promised something special (thank you, Bryan Cranston), when the first monster finally appeared, my heart sank. For one thing, it looked like a poorly designed knockoff of an H.R. Giger (Alien) creature; secondly, it turned out that said monster wasn’t even Godzilla, and that all of the postulating about causes and effects of various earlier disasters had nothing to do with Godzilla, but with a M.U.T.O. That’s right. A “moo-tow” (that’s how it’s pronounced, and it gets pronounced frequently). That stands for “massive unidentified terrestrial object.” There are two of them. They like nuclear power. They are nasty. They kill people. They seem resistant to humanity’s weapons. Oh, no. What shall we do?
We need do very little, for Godzilla – for no reason other than some Ken Watanabe-uttered mystical rubbish about “restoring balance to the universe” – is on hand to kick some monster butt. If you’re familiar with the Godzilla canon, then you’ll know that many earlier films featured Godzilla-as-savior just as often as Godzilla-as-destroyer. But it would be nice to have some narrative coherency and consistency within the world of the movie we’re watching, rather than relying on collective “kaijū eiga” memory. Instead, what we get is a large monster who shows up for no reason to do battle with two other monsters – sorry “moo-tows” – who appear to have been unleashed because of some kind of human error (maybe, I’m still not sure of the details). That echoes the original 1954 film’s nuclear-hubris origin story for the monster, but only faintly. Nothing gels, nothing makes sense – notice that I am not even attempting a plot summary – and the wooden performances from all involved leave one profoundly unmoved when lives are threatened. At one point, because of the clunky sound design, I mistakenly believed that the monsters were chuckling in mock-cartoonish belly laughs – “Ha–Ha-Ha” – and that seemed like the perfect complement to the mess within. The fact that I was wrong about that sound was one of my biggest disappointments of the screening.
One sequence stands out for the visual brilliance of its execution, and that is the H.A.L.O. jump into the city (and it’s actually nice to see San Francisco destroyed, rather than New York), during which Edwards uses the same Ligeti music as Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey every time the monolith appeared. It was beautiful, and genuinely scary. Of course, you can see it in the movie’s trailer (which, like last year’s trailer for Man of Steel, promises a far better film than the one delivered, and is worth watching for its own sake), so maybe you should just stick to that.