60 years, that’s one awfully long time for any movie series to be around for, but it’s true, Godzilla, ‘King of the Monsters’ celebrates that anniversary this year. He’s appeared in about 30 films since his 1954 debut, but has been away for the last decade, a long enough absence to drum up all kinds of excitement about the prospect of a new, big-budget US version.
That’s not to say that Godzilla 2014 hasn’t had its share of bumps along the way, it was first announced several years ago and there have been reports of numerous screenwriters having a crack at the script (including Frank Darabont), though only 2 a credited in the final film.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what ‘type’ of re-whatever this film is too, it’s certainly not a remake of the original 1954 Godzilla, but it seems to be somewhere in between of being a reboot of the entire series and a direct continuation of it. Really, it just feels like many a Godzilla movie, but on a much larger scale.
While the original was more serious in tone, with its nuclear fallout subtext, later most movies abandoned any such ambitions and became Godzilla Vs. … films whose primary aim was to showcase amusing fight scenes between giant monsters. While initially appearing to fit the recent trend of ‘gritty, realistic’ re-imaginings, Godzilla 2014 doesn’t forget it’s sense of fun when it really matters.
The film begins with faux-newsreel footage of nuclear ‘tests’ in 1954 (presumably intentionally), before jumping forward to 1999 (presumably unintentionally – the year after the last American Godzilla film, which itself began with some of the same nuclear test footage). In ‘99 scientists led by Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) discover a gigantic set of bones in the Philippines, while Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist working at a power plant in Japan experiences a tragic meltdown.
15 years later, Joe’s become a conspiracy theorist, desperate to discover the ‘truth’ about the disaster, while his now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has joined the military. Ford must join his father in to Japan after his Joe is arrested for trespassing on the quarantined area, where he belives similar signs of an impending meltdown are present.
Now, a lot of monster movies are known for not having particularly interesting human characters, and Godzilla 2014 has already had both criticism for this, and defence that it’s somehow true to the spirit of the old kaiju films to have dull leads (last year’s Pacific Rim certainly took that to heart). I disagree, if you’re going to invest this much ($160 million) in a Godzilla film you need to do more than just produce a shinier version of a cheap sixties Japanese film. And Godzilla 2014 goes for the slow build-up approach, not revealing its monsters until well into the film, so we need at least some investment in the human story, which takes up the majority of the film.
There are a number of good actors involved, Cranston, featured heavily in the trailers, gives definitely the best performance in his early scenes, but as his opening ‘…and Bryan Cranston’ credit betrays, he’s not in the film that much. That’s nothing on the treatment of internationally renowned actress Juliette Binoche though, who gets totally shafted with one quick cheesy scene in a car and then promptly killed off. Likewise Sally Hawkins, as Watanabe’s right hand woman gets next-to-nothing to do bar occasionally agreeing with him. As a mild positive, Watanabe is a significant character and hasn’t just been cast as a token Japanese presence. He gets to deliver the line “We call him, Gojira!” with relish but also has to spend a great deal of time standing around looking confused.
The biggest problem though, is in positing Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the film’s lead. A well-meaning military guy with a wife (an underused Elizabeth Olsen) and young child back home; he’s a completely bland unengaging character, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before. Honestly, Matthew Broderick was a much more compelling Godzilla lead.
Signed off the back of the similar yet also very different Monsters in 2010, director Gareth Edwards proves to be just as adept at handling a giant blockbuster spectacle as a tiny-budgeted indie, the designs behind the film are great, and the reveals always satisfying. He chooses to tease the fights a couple of times before finally delivering, but deliver he certainly does. I can’t imagine anyone coming to the film wanting to see a fight between giant monsters being disappointed by the final battle.
As for Godzilla himself, he’s recognizably the same lumbering big lizard as the old man-in-a-suit movies possessed, only larger. Edwards deftly combines aspects both the original, threat-to-humanity Godzilla in his initial rampage in Hawaii, and the later anti-hero, monster fighting incarnation to give us destruction galore.
I haven’t seen a great deal of Godzilla movies myself, and honestly really liked the 1998 Roland Emmerich version as a kid, for all its stupidity. In some ways Godzilla 2014 appears to be attempting to correct the mistakes of Godzilla 1998, but let’s not forget that it has the benefit of knowing the outcome of that film’s unpopular decisions. I’d been trying to watch a few of the older movies before seeing this new one last week and I have to say, the ones I saw were for the most part not great movies, but you watch them for the monster fight scenes, and after a while, I was tempted to just start looking up Godzilla battle scenes on YouTube rather than sitting through whole movies to reach them. I don’t want to suggest that Godzilla 2014 is only worth it for the fight scenes as that would be unfair, but it’s undoubtedly the case that it’s in these moments that the film truly comes alive. It suffers from a weak plot and protagonist, but is an effective showcase for Edwards’ talents behind the camera. It might have a gigantic budget and the power of a Hollywood studio behind it, but Godzilla ’14 is most definitely another Godzilla movie.