School of the Ages


Godzilla (2014) review

Posted by Matt Posner on May 26, 2014 at 9:30 AM


I don't often review movies -- not because I don't like to, but because there are only so many things I can do with my energy and some have to be sacrificed. But for Godzilla (2014), I will make an exception, because I am one of those individuals who have seen every Godzilla movie, starting from childhood. I will co-opt the common term "G-Fan" for people like me. I was a religious viewer of Saturday morning creature features, and in my childhood, I even got up in the middle of the night to watch the films when that was the only time to see them. 

The holy grail for American G-fans like me was always an American Godzilla movie. You can imagine how excited I was in 1998 to know that that movie had finally been made.

Except it wasn't. Godzilla 1998 wasn't a Godzilla movie. It was the name Godzilla slapped upon a vastly banal, sanitized, cynically manipulative turd. Toho, the studio that created and owns Godzilla, dealt with its weaknesses well in Godzilla: Final Wars, in which they had the real Godzilla fight that movie's creature and defeat it in mere seconds.

So we still didn't have an American Godzilla movie. Then Toho closed up shop "for ten years" with Final Wars, and it seemed that G-fans were out of luck in the long term.

Now the wait is over, however. We have an American-made movie called Godzilla, and it stars the real Godzilla, and it's a Godzilla movie in every sense of the word.

The holy grail for G-fans has arrived.

This film has all the conventional strengths and weaknesses of Toho-made  Godzilla movies, except one. It has earnest scientists who appear to have no personal lives. It has the military trying bizarre schemes that everyone knows aren't going to work. It has tanks. It has fire breathing, left out of the '98 film.  It has monsters knocking each other into buildings. It has disgustingly adorable little kids. It has random plot elements that aren't used properly -- and I know that sounds bad, but we G-fans kind of consider that charming after so many years of it. The only thing this movie is missing, compared to most Toho films, is goofy, lame humor coming from clownish characters.  I'll be fair:  not every one of the older movies contains humor, and there is one funny peripheral moment of the type in this film, involving some Japanese parents picking up an androgynous child at a police station. But let me get into the specifics.

After a prologue featuring Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (not the same eye-patched character as in Godzilla 1954, but using the same name as an homage), the movie starts its first act in 1999 Japan, with an American family headed by nuclear reactor manager Bryan Cranston. Cranston's job is to be earnest and deadly serious, to react to a devastating loss, and then to convert to a paranoid nutcase in the second act. He does it all with great professionalism:   I never felt that he was winking at the audience. In the second act, his son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson AKA Kick-Ass, is a Navy bomb disposal expert who has to leave his own wonderful nuclear family in order to deal with the crazy Cranston.

Elizabeth Olsen as the hero's wife is tasked with being first sexy, then concerned, then caring and responsible, then imperiled, and pulls off all of them. Sally Hawkins, a jobbing actress, gets to be Watanabe's understudy, and veteran character actor David Strathairn, who was so good in the early seasons of the wrongly cancelled Alphas, does the best he can with the role of the American admiral who has to handle the entire military operation on his own. He's miscast; he has the wrong type of gravitas. However, he's there, and he isn't a foaming-at-the-mouth type military leader, as American monster movies sometimes show us. There are also a few scenes with the superb French actress Juliette Binoche, but I didn't even recognize her:  her characteristic sweet smile and glamour have been masked by a comfortable suburban-hausfrau presentation. I thought at the time -- who's that actress? She's pretty cool, but I don't recognize her…

Cranston and Taylor-Johnson team up to infiltrate a mysterious multinational project involving a radiation-eating giant egg which happens, right when they are there, to hatch into a MUTO, a giant flying insect that looks like a praying mantis. Cranston's post-mortem information helps the officials, headed by Watanabe, to figure out what the MUTO is up to, and eventually it turns out that there is another MUTO, which is bigger and which moves quickly across the western states of the U.S. to hook up with the winged version. At this point, Godzilla finally appears in the Pacific, leading to the third act, which takes place in the monster war zone of San Francisco.

Director Gareth Edwards takes great care to limit our views of Godzilla until certain key moments. We are held off from seeing his head, from hearing his roar, from seeing his entire body in profile, and so on. All the shots we are made to wait for are good when they come. In terms of design, this version of Godzilla is bulky, with the head emerging from the torso without much neck. The hide is entirely black rather than the typical military green. There is little expressiveness in the eyes in most shots -- they often seem to be closed -- and the lower body looks too heavy to move well. The big backside and thick legs were weaknesses of some of the shabbier suits used in the Showa period of Toho movies (1950s-1970s) that could have been corrected in this CGI version.

Godzilla's roar is special to G-fans, and deserves extended mention here. This 2014 roar is well-made, but it isn't as much based on the original roar as I would like. The 1954 Godzilla's roar had an arc, going to a high pitch followed by a low pitch, and every Toho version has been like that, although some movies had a little too high-pitched variants. Godzilla 2014 has a low roar that rises a little but doesn't drop. It sounds like half of the Toho roar. Taken on its own terms, it's fine, and should work to introduce the character to new fans, but for me, an old-school G-fan, it's a little bit lacking. The website for this movie claims that the new roar is based on the Toho original. I downloaded an .mp3 of it and listened several times, but I can't find the level of similarity that would be to my taste.

The story line this time around is that Godzilla, and his opponents the MUTOs, are survivors from races of primordial super-beings that ate radiation and that fled underground or undersea when the surface of the planet came to have too little radiation for them to eat. Godzilla is described as coming from the "alpha predator"  species, and Watanabe opines that it is his role to "restore balance" on behalf of "nature." All claptrap, but such nonsense is what one would expect from a genuine Godzilla movie. Less satisfactory is the partial explanation of the name, that as alpha predator, Godzilla was like a god. Dumb -- that explanation doesn't include where the "zilla" part comes from. Explaining the actual origin of the name (gorira+kojira, gorilla whale) would have been comprehensible to American audiences. That aside, Godzilla has in this movie the same kind of cunning and measured weariness as King Kong did in the Peter Jackson remake. I am used to Godzilla being a superhero, to the idea of injury being temporary and weariness being illusory. This was done probably to sooth the fears of Japanese kids for those Showa movies. A tired Godzilla is more like Gamera, the flying radioactive turtle, which has spent most of its movies on its back recovering from getting its ass kicked. The signs of Godzilla's vulnerability are too subtle for it to bother most viewers, so I am probably off-base talking about it, but there it is.

I should note that physical dimensions seem off in the Pacific scenes. Godzilla in this movie rolls U.S. naval vessels off his back, yet is supposedly 350 feet tall. The current class of naval destroyers is 500 feet long, and recent aircraft carriers are twice that length.  I've only seen Godzilla 2014 once so far, but based on that viewing, I think they have made Godzilla too large in proportion to the ships. At least once the monsters get into San Francisco, the proportions appear to be better managed; the tallest buildings in San Francisco are slightly taller than Godzilla's height of 350 feet, and are shown thus in the movie.

The MUTOs, the enemy monsters, get  more screen time than Godzilla does, but favoring the enemy monsters is not unusual for a Godzilla movie. Most of these monster sequences are fairly predictable and familiar, but a few things are done well. First, using CGI, it is possible to emphasize the size of the monsters in contrast with people and places. This is something Toho did rarely (My favorite sequence from the early movies is found in Kaiju Daisenso, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or Invasion of the Astro-Monster). Second, there is one particularly strong sequence, involving the female MUTO and some soldiers on a bridge, that blew me away.

There are also a few badly done sequences. For example, as shown in the first trailer, soldiers do a HALO drop into San Francisco, passing by Godzilla as they descend. The editing of this sequence is very choppy and fragmentary; I was reminded of a bad music video.

The closing sequence involves a bomb that needs to be defused.  This part also was not handled well. The internal logic of the story calls for a very different outcome, and I can see no reason for how it turned out other than perhaps to set up a sequel. There are no sequel hints in this film. If I may make a suggestion, they should remake King Kong vs. Godzilla (Gojira tai Kingu Kongeru).  Also, they might also get some mileage from adapting the time-travelling Godzilla storyline from Dark Horse comics, in which Godzilla trashes the Spanish Armada and wrecks the Titanic. In a lighter vein, I also recommend that going forward they give Godzilla a chance to whoop Clover from Cloverfield, eat the aliens from The Avengers, and rip apart the mediocre robot Gypsy Danger, from Pacific Rim.

All weaknesses aside, this is clearly the best Godzilla movie in a long time. Considering only those made in this century, I would give a slight edge to Gojira Nisen: Mirenamu (U.S. Godzilla 2000) which has more humor and more appealing characters, but rank this movie  above Gojira:  Fainaru Wozu (Godzilla: Final Wars), which is acceptable but rather frenetic. (I haven't ranked the other millennial Godzilla movies, which reflect too many flaky changes of direction and often contain extended dumb uses of Mothra.)

Godzilla fans should be satisfied with this movie, as should general audiences. It's all right for children unless they are easily scared by monsters. I'll give it four stars out of five for people like me, and three stars out of five for action movie fans.

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