In more ways than one, Godzilla is very much this year’s Pacific Rim. A movie that giant-monster-adoring geeks are willing themselves to love, amped up beyond words by the prospect of great leviathans duking it out, but which fails to deliver in some fundamental respects. On a movie-making level Godzilla is the more admirable of the two, taking an almost classical slow-burn approach to the telling, but this ends up ensnaring the picture, making its shortcomings all the more apparent. It is sure to receive many a salutatory gesture for respecting its source material in a way the 1998 Hollywood version never did, but this serious mindedness throws a whole lot of attention on how goofy the whole enterprise is. Most damagingly, the (very valid) Jaws approach of keeping the creatures on the periphery leaves fundamentally uninteresting characters and plotting front and centre, and it’s this that kills the picture for long periods. Godzilla ends up kind of boring.
I’m not really one to get behind the mainstream critics, but the Godzillites seem to have picked up mainly on how slow they all say it is and found their rebuke in “Would you rather it was like Emmerich’s version or (shudder) Transformers”. Which is rather missing the repeated and salient thrust of the complaints; the reason the picture seems slow is that the characters fail to engage. The one character that does (and the trailers are highly misrepresentative in the amount of screen time they suggest for him) is killed off before the first act is over and, when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum left that can’t be filled. The complaints about complaints that the title character takes his time to stride out of oceans and batter through crumbling cityscapes are ones I can get behind more, but this wouldn’t even come up if the human interest worked. In that way, for all the comparisons, Godzilla is completely dissimilar to Jaws. The characters in that movie are the movie; they drive the plot every bit as much as the shark. Here, you can sense the writers tripping over themselves trying to get (insert Etch-a-sketched character here, in this case Ford) from A to B to C, and the result induces interminable subtitles announcing yet another military base and yet another dimwitted conversation between David Strathairn’s admiral and Ken Watanabe’s muto-dino-astute doctor, in which the former asks the latter about the peril they face to vague and ominous response.
Roland Emmerich’s version is roundly and resolutely slated for its betrayal of the character, although I wonder how much it would be chastised if he looked like a guy in a suit as here. Like Jonathan Ross (hallowed company, I know), I seem to be one of the few who admit to finding it quite enjoyable; I watched it again last year and, some irritating and obvious characters and plot beats aside, I still can’t find too much to complain about. There’s nothing to get overly excited about either, but it is engaging in that formulaic blockbuster manner at which Emmerich excels (its failure has been much overstated too; it was far too expensive to make a tidy profit, but it was still the third biggest hit of ’98 worldwide). I’m just not a purist enough, I guess.
To me, Godzilla was always the ’70s US cartoon. The one with Godzooky and “Up from the depths, 30 stories high, breathing fire he stands in the sky”. The one that saw him battling a new weekly monster over twenty minutes and habitually ended with a coterie of humans congratulating him for graciously saving the day. I watched a few of the founding film series when they were screened on Channel 4 in the late ’80s – early ’90s, but couldn’t really take them to my bosom. Perhaps I needed to be of a certain age. And really, I can get only so much enjoyment from seeing giant creatures knocking each other’s tonsils out at the expense of human interest these days. Del Toro attempted to incorporate the people into the giant fisticuff fest in Pacific Rim, but unfortunately his characters outrageously cardboard to a man (and woman). So I guess I’m maladjusted when it comes to monster mash mayhem. I can’t much see the appeal of Transformers, even beyond Michael Bay’s paralytic editing and Shia LeBouef’s LaBoeuf-ness. It’s the same thing, but with robots. Only King Kong (not Peter Jackson’s) really succeeds but then it has a much stronger backbone, and it isn’t, the occasional interlude aside, about a great big dust-up. I’m not saying it’s impossible to successfully integrate the elements, but 90% of the time it will fall back on the thinly sketched specimens of humanity sitting back while a couple of great plodders get down to business. And so it is here.
Dave Callahan (The Expendables!) is credited with the story and Max Borenstein (the, er, delayed The Seventh Son) with the screenplay. But also over-stewing the pudding are David Goyer (why not, he manages to get his undistinguished paws on most Legendary Pictures properties) Drew Pearce and Frank Darabont (both of whom are solid talents, so presumably their lack of credit suggests they didn’t have enough influence). Together, they opt to go down the route of Godzilla the defender of the natural order and balance, as opposed to the metaphor of nuclear Armageddon of the first movie (you know, the nasty monster; which is where Emmerich took his cues, knowing, as an adept if wholly predictable storyteller, that it guaranteed greater peril and predicament). The only problem is, it’s an utterly daffy idea for a movie that takes itself as morbidly seriously as this one. In some respects, these confounding antithetical elements are perversely appealing, in the same way monsters in suits are reimagined as expensive CGI monsters in CGI suits. You admire the balls in envisaging Godzilla this unadjusted way, but that doesn’t make it work as a piece of cinema or encourage narrative suspension of disbelief.
And it is disconcerting, the way Godzilla stomps about as if he’s a blown-up baby dressed in an oversize romper suit. The MUTO (the movie doesn’t have many laughs, but the best is the explanation of the acronym as “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism… except that it’s airborne”), meanwhile, is commendably abstract, with the crazy dislocated joints of one of those costumed carnival stilt walkers. It’s definitely the strangest looking creation you’re likely to see in a mainstream blockbuster, where creature design generally conforms to anodyne templates. But you’re left wondering “How, what, why?” when everything else is played for real. As for their monster-on-monster confrontations, Edwards lays on some brutal WWF slam-downs for the big lizard but when push comes to shove the kills prove to be both amusing (some grievous thwacking tail action) and uproariously ultra-violent (puking blue fire down a MUTO’s throat, then tearing its head off, is so batty you have to love it – but again, this kind of off-the-leash sense of fun comes out of nowhere in the context of the picture as a whole).
The nuclear nightmare origins are retained from the original iteration, and we have a special new creature that feeds off radiation as a result of its origins in a period when the world was many times more radioactive than now (which in a way rather lessens the whole nuclear threat idea; don’t worry, it was once perfectly normal to be full of radiation). The MUTOs are the ideal solution to the world’s nuclear waste problem, so it’s a shame the duo have to be killed off (and their spawn; as with the Emmerich movie, the third act revolves around the threat of the menace breeding). The archive footage device is over-familiar now, but it’s nevertheless appealing the way Gareth Edwards retrofits the Bikini Atoll tests with the current menace (this idea was reportedly at the director’s behest, so people should probably follow his instincts more, or he should get involved enough for a story credit). The redacted opening credits are also a great place-setter for the presumed tone of the picture. The problem is, as successfully mythologising as this is, it falls down when the plot kicks in and the awe subsides. The narrative is so literal, no manner of strange, majestic, apocalyptic visuals than can make the overall piece resonate.
Which is a shame, as post-Fukushima the nuclear nightmare is as relevant in our consciousnesses to an extent it hasn’t been since the Cold War era. But it’s squandered with a movie reality version of the dangers of the split atom*. The opening sequence is superb, and grips the emotions in a way the rest of the Godzilla sorely lacks. Bryan Cranston, a physicist at a Japanese nuclear plant, is forced to watch wife Juliette Binoche succumb to a lethal dose of radiation when the something he has been monitoring causes a massive breach of the reactor core. This is stirring stuff, but almost immediately spoiled by the sight of the entire facility, huge chimneys and all, collapsing in on itself (viewed from the vantage of young son Ford’s school – later to be Aaron Taylor Johnson).
And then we cut to fifteen years later, so all that devastating radiation unleashed in the immediate aftermath (I know, I know, the MUTO absorbs it all, but not straight away, right?) has caused no ill-effects on Cranston and Son? In an Emmerich movie (2012, for example) that would be fine hyperactive bollocks and par-for-the-course, but Edwards desperately wants you to find verisimilitude in his world. There’s a curious disconnect generally with the nuclear age Edwards and co. are playing with. The military, being idiots (and yet also the heroes, as embodied by our naval leading man) want to give the MUTOs a super-dose of an enormously powerful atom bomb to chew on. Of course, plans go awry and it becomes necessary to defuse the damn thing. But it never happens. Instead, as with The Dark Knight Rises, it is transported away to explode “harmlessly” at sea. It gets to the saturation level where one has to wonder if this is some kind of covert propaganda; radiation is only a problem in massive doses and even then, it’s okay it won’t be a problem unless you are locked up with it; and don’t worry about all that nasty waste, something will come along eventually to suck it all up (let’s commission a few more plants, eh? Future generations can worry about it if we don’t figure out a solution).
The other unappetising aspect of all this is the preponderance of military personnel and hardware. Sure, they may not be able to defeat the menace without the help of a Japanese monster, and they have the help of a wise Japanese man (although not so wise that he doesn’t need the help of a soon-to-exit Bryan Cranston), but they’re resolute and dependable, never less than defenders of the nation. There’s little other perspective and it becomes entirely tiresome, no matter how well staged individual scenes are (and most are superbly staged). It doesn’t have to be this way; just look at Cameron’s Aliens for an engaging portrayal of grunts (no offence). As it is, Broderick et al in Emmerich’s take are many times more appealing, without even being especially appealing.
The biggest mistake Edwards makes, or at least his writers make, is killing off Cranston. It’s not just that he brings the requisite conviction and Heisenberg energy to the resolutely unmemorable dialogue that besieges the picture; he has presence. (Sally Hawkins, so good in Blue Jasmine, also makes an impression in as an exposition-friendly sidekick to Watanabe.) Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a good actor, and he’s a very pretty fellow, but at current reckoning he’s a character player not a charisma monkey. He’s as good or bad as the writing he’s given to work with (well, bad would be overstating it but non-descript is about right). Poorly catered for as he is, and he’s on screen most of the time Godzilla isn’t, the writers constantly strain themselves finding something for Ford to get busy at on his mission to get home, handily fetching him up in the right place at the right time for some dramatic shenanigans with a MUTO or Gojira, poor Elizabeth Olsen fares even worse. Perhaps the actors’ prettiness is inversely proportional to how meaty their role is, as Olsen is even pretty than her on-screen husband. And she has absolutely nothing memorable to do, apart from luminesce before the camera.
I feel a bit bad about laying into Godzilla, because it really is a beautifully made movie. Joe Wright’s regular DP Seamus McGarvey ladles on the familiar desaturated green-grey wash, but there’s something more here. Edwards allows his movie to breath. There isn’t the feeling of over-editing (Bob Ducsay worked on Stephen Sommers movies, so perhaps he going extreme Cold Turkey) that afflicts the modern blockbuster. If only Edwards had content to work with too, this might have been a classic. I rated Edwards’ first, micro-budget feature Monsters, which managed a similar air of ambient foreboding. The impressively realised creatures there were also side lined, with a front-and-centre but subdued love story that I found quite affecting. I know others found this element weak swill; if so God knows what they will make of Godzilla, where there isn’t a single merit-worthy characterisation.
Edwards mounts sequences with consummate skill; I just wished I cared about them. The HALO drop set piece, set to Gyorgy Ligett’s Requiem (better known for its appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is breath taking, the jumpers’ descent lit up as red flares against a grey, crumbling city. The overgrown urban landscape seen in the first act’s quarantine zone is a masterpiece of production design, and recalls both Monsters (both have gasmasks in common besides giant beasties) and I Am Legend. A sequence in which a little girl looks out to sea, the waves turning to a tsunami initiated by the arrival of Godzilla, recalls the opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in the way it endangers the little ones. Except that, unlike Spielberg, Edwards doesn’t pull his punches. There’s no suggestion the child escapes the tidal forces. Elsewhere, the director appears to be summoning the spirit of John McTiernan as camera tracks in on the mud encrusted motionless body of Ford. And there’s a nice moment – well, there had to be one, didn’t there? – when Ford and the giant lizard make eye contact on a smoke-shrouded street. There’s none of glossy emotioneering of Bay’s LeBoeouf and his Bumblebee buddy, but it’s still a moment where the only impact is how wonderfully adorned it is. Likewise, the newfound hero status of Godzilla amongst humanity is confirmed via a huge video screen announces it is so; this the kind of really barrel-scraping, intrusive “tell-don’t-show” that adorned the (much less forgivably) TV commentary climax to Spider-Man 3.
The recurring theme developing in big movies this year seems to be hugely talented filmmakers coming unstuck with under-developed screenplays (ah, ‘twas ever the case). It blighted Aronofsky’s Noah, and now it sabotages Edward’s first bash in the big leagues (I might add Transcendence to that list, but I’m dubious Pfister could have made great things of even a great script). And then there’s the waste of a talented cast; the downside to the gradual exit of the movie star vehicle is that good solid actors aren’t able to fill a gap in character substance. Borenstein and Callaham have their work cut out for them trying to sustain the Godzilla narrative, so perhaps it’s little wonder there’s no time left to make us care. Gareth Edwards is going to make a terrific big budget movie at some point; maybe next time.
*Addendum 27/06/22: Of course, a movie version of splitting the atom isn’t much different to the movie version we were presented as “fact”.