Godzilla (2014): A movie with an awesome Godzilla cameo
Godzilla (2014) is something of a back-to-Kaiju-basics outing. Following the poorly received 1998 remake, in which special effects ruled the day and the filmmakers failed to come up with anything more interesting than a mad dinosaur loose in Manhattan, director Gareth Edwards has emphasized character over creature effects here, just as he did in his feature debut. In this re-reboot, Godzilla returns to more nuanced motivations than simply destroying famous landmarks—although there’s no shortage of that here, even if most of it isn’t exactly caused by our title character.
But while the film is far superior to Roland Emmerich’s clumsy attempt, it has its fair share of problems that have sharply divided audiences (some have even suggested this movie is the Man of Steel of Godzilla movies). A large number of complaints come down to how little we actually see of Godzilla himself. The big lizard is onscreen for less than ten minutes out of a two-hour runtime, and we don’t get much in the way of true monster-on-monster violence until the very end of the film.
In the grand history of Kaiju movies, this isn’t that much of an aberration—the 1954 original didn’t see Godzilla make his grand entrance until the last fifteen minutes, after all. And trying to do a slow buildup to a huge final brawl is understandable, and even preferable to a movie like Pacific Rim that gave us the same robot-punches-monster sequence every twenty minutes. What’s less forgivable is making it painfully obvious that the real fireworks are being saved up for the final reel. Generally speaking, an audience should never be this aware of the filmmaking tricks of the trade being deployed to artificially amp up suspense.
Still, there’s plenty of action to keep us interested, even if most of it comes courtesy of lesser monsters who don’t receive top billing, so let’s take a closer look.
The movie begins with now-requisite footage of wartime nuclear testing in the Pacific, only here, the “tests” are revealed to be attacks on a very large and scaly creature that can only be Godzilla.
The eager viewer may be disappointed that the monster’s full onscreen appearance has been significantly delayed, but that frustration is alleviated somewhat by the arrival of Bryan Cranston as nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody, delivering the kind of manic performance that made him so compelling on Breaking Bad.
We begin in Tokyo in 1999, where Joe is on edge because his plant, the Janjira facility, is being put under increased stress from seismic activity that he finds just a little too suspicious. The action gets fully underway when Joe is forced to send his employee and wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) into the belly of the reactor to see how things are going. Unfortunately, the answer to that is “really, really not good”, as Sandra is summarily dispatched by a cloud of nuclear dust. But not before she reaches a secure hatch that her husband was just forced to lock, setting up an emotional farewell that seems suspiciously close to Kirk and Spock. Hey, if you’re going to imitate, imitate the classics.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and Joe is poking around the rubble of the now destroyed plant, illegally exploring a restricted zone in order to prove a theory crafted during the intervening time when he really should have been getting past his grief and looking after his young son.
We then pay a visit to that son, the now grown-up Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s just returned to his wife and son in San Francisco following a military deployment. Just as he begins to put the moves on his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), he receives a call from Japan informing him that dear old Dad has been jailed for trespassing in a quarantined zone. An impressive Trans-Pacific cock-block, to be sure. Good son that he is, Ford hops on a plane and hightails it across the ocean to rescue Joe.
After he’s released, Joe explains to Ford that he’s trying to find out the truth about the power plant disaster. He convinces his son to help him venture back into the restricted zone to their former home, where they find data on old Zip disks that supports Joe’s theory. But then they’re caught again and hauled in for questioning at a nearby secret research facility. Here, they link up with Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese scientist named after a character in the 1954 original, who’s seemingly present only to issue tedious platitudes about screwing with nature and to later deliver the classic “God-zirrrra” warning to introduce his homeland’s most famous big lizard.
Before that, however, we get to meet the giant creature that Serizawa has been experimenting on for the past fifteen years. It seems that back in ‘99, an ancient parasite that feeds on radiation burrowed its way beneath the Janjira plant and caused the disaster, and subsequently wrapped itself in a cocoon. They’re calling it a “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism”, which has mercifully been abbreviated to the much shorter (and cuter) MUTO. But there’s nothing cute about the way it wakes up and bursts angrily (and impressively) through its cocoon. It lays waste to the facility, knocking out power for miles around with organically-generated EMP blasts, before using its massive wings to fly off into the night.
In all the chaos, Joe Brody is critically injured. Minutes later, the movie criminally kills him off, with a shot of a zipped-up body bag marking perhaps the most tragic waste of Bryan Cranston’s talents to date.
Meanwhile, the MUTO heads to Hawaii, which finally, after almost an hour of setup, brings us our first appearance of Godzilla. Though, for being the main attraction, he’s introduced with some rather perfunctory exposition: All we learn is that the Big G has been kicking around the Pacific undetected for the last 60 years, but as our trusty scientists now theorize, the appearance of the MUTO is now drawing him out of seclusion.
As the MUTO arrives on the Big Island to cause carnage in the old-fashioned “smash everything in sight” style so familiar to monster movie enthusiasts, so does Godzilla, by starting a tidal wave as he makes his way to land. This new, bulkier version of Godzilla squares off with the MUTO for about a hot minute, until the MUTO flies out of his reach and continues eastward. Coincidentally enough, Ford Brody just happens to arrive in Honololu just in time to witness the attack, and when he realizes the mainland is in trouble, he immediately signs back up for active military duty.
Eventually, it’s revealed that the scientists experimented on another MUTO way back when. Thinking it dead, they stashed its body away in Yucca Mountain with other nuclear waste, but it suddenly hears the call from its brethren and bursts through tons of solid rock to freedom. Following its instinct to find and trash an iconic city, this larger, wingless MUTO proceeds to blaze a trail through Las Vegas, as its counterpart steams towards San Francisco with Godzilla (and the military) in hot pursuit.
Finally, the humans figure out that the two MUTOs are actually a male and female on their way to copulate, while Godzilla hunts them down, presumably to deliver a similar cock-blocking to Joe earlier in the movie.
The scientists then come up with a bizarre plan to kill the MUTO duo in San Francisco, by moving a couple of nuclear warheads into the city by train, ready for detonation when the monsters arrive to breed. It’s bizarre because it overlooks the fact that the male MUTO has already devoured a Russian nuclear sub with barely even an upset stomach to show for it, and becomes even more ridiculous when the female does the same to the transport train itself, leaving only one nuke left to play with. And in another unlikely coincidence, Ford is not only one of the soldiers aboard said transport, but also the only survivor.
After Ford and the remaining nuke are recovered, the military continues to pursue this absurd strategy, arming the bomb with a countdown timer before realizing that they’ve screwed the pooch, because the winged MUTO predictably shows up to grab the nuke and bring it into the city, thus endangering the lives of thousands. And so, Joe and company are forced to risk life and limb to parachute into the city and disable the bomb, which leads to a HALO jump scene that proves to be the most impressive action involving humans in the entire movie.
The final showdown in San Francisco is satisfyingly grandiose, with all the furious screeching and over-the-top monster posturing that Hollywood can be expected to conjure up. The dark, dangerous atmosphere that the director has been crafting comes to a climax here, with viewers reaping the rewards of sticking with a movie that often focuses more on ambiance than action.
Godzilla is victorious in the final battle thanks to his atomic fire breath, a secret weapon sorely missing from the ‘98 version, but appears to pay the ultimate price as he collapses to the ground, a spent force. Which, in a silly moment, happens simultaneously with a spent and exhausted Ford collapsing in a helicopter as the timed nuke detonates, now a safe distance from the city. Perhaps all his run-ins with the monsters were no coincidence; Ford and Godzilla might be psychically linked!
Ford is reunited with his family, and Godzilla’s resurrection follows a few minutes later, as Dr. Serizawa notices the newly crowned “King of Monsters” is still breathing. Rising again, Godzilla heads back into the ocean, somehow avoiding the same kind of tsunami wave he created in Hawaii, and sinks off into the sunset. Long live the king.
When all is said and done, Godzilla turns in as faithful an homage to classic Kaiju movies as we can reasonably expect from a big-budget Hollywood release. The creatures have sufficient character to raise them above pure CGI candy, while the effects are striking enough to lend weight to the big battles… when they actually happen.
While the absence of true monster fights until the end is somewhat disappointing, it often becomes frustrating when the film deliberately teases us by building up to a fight scene, only to cut to characters seeing the action from far away, or watching a TV news broadcast of the battle instead. There’s a moment where Elle Brody seeks refuge in a BART station as Godzilla and a MUTO face off, only to have the doors swing shut right at the moment they make contact. Common sense would dictate that this should be followed by a cut to the fight from a higher vantage point, but that doesn’t happen, and it becomes just another fake-out that’s immediately noticeable to all.
And even when we finally get some actual monster battles, too many of them take place in near-total darkness. Even the aforementioned Pacific Rim had the decency to actually light the fights for us.
But perhaps we wouldn’t miss the monster action so much if we had more interesting human characters to accompany us during the downtime. It seems insane to kill off Cranston (or even Binoche) so early on, leaving only cardboard Taylor-Johnson and the barely required support scientists to carry the can. Meanwhile, Olsen is wasted in a role that has her mostly staring wide-eyed at the destruction going on around her, and could have easily been cut without impacting the finished film much.
And after taking great pains to establish that Ford is the only one who can defuse the nuke in San Francisco, the movie doesn’t allow him to actually defuse it, effectively making his entire part moot as well.
Perhaps they wanted to play up how useless people would be if there really were giant monsters using our major cities as sparring rings. Perhaps they felt having a two-dimensional cast of human characters would be a fitting tribute to Kaiju films of old. Perhaps they blew the budget on the effects and couldn’t afford to pay Cranston enough for a full appearance. Whatever the reason, Godzilla feels lopsided as a result, and wastes a lot of valuable screen time on characters who undergo little in the way of development.
All complaints aside, the movie still has much to offer both traditional creature feature fans and lovers of action alike. It’s a moody, skillfully directed monster romp, with only the poor choice of human protagonist and some wafer thin plot lines to drag it down. Given Hollywood’s capacity to utterly debase cult classics for mainstream consumption, Godzilla (2014) is about as good as we’re likely to get in terms of full-fledged effects that stay faithful to the original idea.