Godzilla the Messiah Monster, and other atomic-age aberrations

(This review is spoiler-free.)

On the sixtieth anniversary of the original Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards reboot succeeds more by the strength of the director’s undeniable talent than it does its tired and pedestrian script. Infused with Edwards’ obvious passion for the material and the genre, the film is unfortunately perched on the rickety skeleton of action and disaster movie clichés. For all the passing similarities to real world analogues, little in the film is novel or particularly exciting, and the assortment of recycled ideas keeps Godzilla from ever reaching its full potential. However, considering that it’s Edwards’ first time directing a major tentpole film the results are more than competent.

Edwards shows a flair for directorial flourish, for example, with his first reveal of the titular monster by echoing strains of Ligeti, the same notes that underscored the arrival of the equally threatening and monolithic black slab of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Edwards employs Ligeti again in the beautifully framed airdrop sequence featured so heavily in the advertising campaign (and for which I’ve previously written an analysis).

Still from Godzilla (2014)

What remains of the score by composer Alexandre Desplat is effective, if altogether familiar. Strangely, scenes frequently end with customary menace by bringing the last few notes to a sustained crescendo while the film transitions to the next scene. Such transitions arrive with such vigor and repetition that the film and its music eventually become clichés of themselves, and one has to wonder if Edwards, his editor, Bob Ducsay, or Desplat were even aware they were doing it.

Speaking of cliché: given that this is the thirty-second time someone has made a Godzilla movie, it’s curious that they still thought it prudent to spend so much time bringing everyone on both sides of the screen up to speed with the fact that it’s a giant monster movie. Indeed, the film even manages to drag on somewhat after the busy opening set inside a Japanese nuclear reactor (which might as well been called Fukushima if this prologue weren’t set in 1999), as the characters work to arrive at the information already in the audience’s possession–this was no mere accident. Edwards compensates for what unavoidably makes for some dull detective work by invigorating the procedural elements with some much needed character beats for Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s father and son dynamic. (Overlook that the idea of two people forming a relationship as they travel through a quarantine zone is uncomfortably familiar to another recent monster movie–consider it Edwards’ homage to himself and get on with it.)

Cranston portrays his role of disgraced scientist turned conspiracy theorist crackpot with aplomb, carefully balancing the character’s anger towards the incident with his frustration towards himself–both for his failure to prevent things and moreso for his inability, or unwillingness, to overcome his grief. It is in the quiet, somber moment when Cranston’s character returns to his long-abandoned home and achieves that moment of emotionally shattering and uncomfortably silent anagnorisis about his lost relationship with his son that Edwards reveals a penchant to outdo even Spielberg, especially when it comes to reveling in the theme of neglectful fathers. It is in this scene especially that Edwards fulfills much of the promise he showed in his debut film Monsters (2010), which he also cowrote, coproduced, coedited and even created the special effects. (Strains of Welles must have no doubt been echoing in his mind as he toiled away in solitude making that film.) But this marks the dramatic and directorial highpoint of the film, and Edwards never again even tries to reach it. But still, this is a giant monster movie, so perhaps the film has no choice but to tie up these strands, leave any thematic resonance behind, and charge on like Godzilla towards those unfortunate cities without ever looking back.

Aside from Cranston, the rest of cast is uniformly excellent, with perhaps Elizabeth Olson as the standout performer. It may be that her talent seems so unexpected given the considerable shadow cast by her more famous (though far less talented) sisters, but Olson imbues her role with a warmth and intelligence that almost overcomes her relegation to a mere damsel in distress for much of the film. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is enjoyable enough as her returning war veteran husband, but is given little more to do than look flummoxed and concerned in almost every scene, and has no other motivation as a leading man than to rescue his poor wife and kid.

The film does possess more than a few grievances for its often shameless use of real-world homologies. I’ve already mentioned a few that are innocent enough, but a film that contains tsunamis, earthquakes, countless buildings collapsing and even planes crashing into them ought to be made of sterner stuff than a contrived monster movie can offer. Though one should hesitate before making any proscriptions, a film that fails to show the real consequences of these disasters would do well to consider whether it might be better not to offer these images for our enjoyment. Images of wanton citywide destruction fluoresce brighter than is perhaps intended in an era when one can’t help but tally up the loss of life rather than enjoy the impulse to see it all come crashing down. Though Edwards thankfully doesn’t seem to want us to thrill at the sight of hundreds of terrified, screaming people being swept away in a roaring wave, one has to wonder what emotion he is after, especially given the rather asinine moment before when a dog breaks free of its leash on the beach to outrun the oncoming wave. God forbid the dog should get it. The film’s denouement in the Superdome, another obvious and necessary parallel this film tucks into its allegorical framework (this time of course to the Louisiana Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) shows only families being happily reunited the very next day after the disaster. Granting that this is all done amidst the wreckage and chaos of what remains of San Francisco, the film nonetheless glosses over any of the unfortunate consequences of its destruction. Though not quite so heinous as the crass and wholesale destruction of Metropolis in the odious and offensively stupid Man of Steel, the film does obviate, for example, what would undoubtedly be a lifetime of pain and suffering from inevitable respiratory illnesses for the hero and his wife after breathing in all that rubble and radioactive debris. But of course, one must remember, as I’m sure the filmmakers hoped we would, that it’s only a giant monster movie.

Promotional Poster for Godzilla (2014)

But if that’s the case, then why does it contain the same ticking-time-bomb climax as The Dark Knight Rises? Though the overblown theatrics no doubt work better here than they did in that film, the ticking clock theatrics are a well-worn trope of action films, going as far back as fifty years ago with Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964)–the counter famously ending as it does on that familiar codename 007. Though, to be fair, the premise for the climax of The Dark Knight Rises was a rip-off of a more recent 1974 Thomas Harris thriller (he of Hannibal fame) starring Robert Shaw, John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, more than it owes any credit to James Bond. This new Godzilla veers closer to its more recent predecessor, however, and even includes yet another scene where our triumphant hero flees the ruined city, nuclear weapon in tow, only to jettison before detonation. With all the money and imagination at their disposal, can’t the scriptwriters invent something other than the tried, tested and long-since detonated finales of action films past? (I am no doubt asking too much from the writer of the Expendables series, Dave Callahan–though, to be accurate, it was Max Borenstein who wrote the script, which might as well be considered his debut for all there exists of his previous credits).

The strength of the original Godzilla (1954) was the very absence of any ticking clock. The terror of the monster came from the presumed inevitability of humanity’s demise. Quite simply, nothing could stop Godzilla, mankind was doomed to be destroyed as an ironic consequence of nuclear warfare. Nuclear bombs would be the catalyst, Godzilla our destroyer. The brilliance of the film, and one of the chief reasons for its continued resonance, was the ethical paradox presented by the conclusion. The only way to destroy the monster was to create an even greater weapon of destruction, and as the melancholic final notes of Godzilla’s triumphant theme faded into the depths of the sea along with the husk of the creature the audience was left to ponder who the real victim of nuclear war had been.

In lieu of any of those ethical questions, this film is instead beset by the scourge of the modern American blockbuster to render all its heroes into religious allegories. The final battle plays out like a secular Stations of the Cross; replete with the scourging, death and inevitable resurrection (if only because there are sequels to consider). During Godzilla’s resurrection, Sally Hawkins’ character Vivienne Graham clasps her hands together in a supplicating gesture, as one might do in prayer. Ken Watanabe’s character even goes so far into the realm of the obvious as to declare the creature a god. Or a monster–another chimes in. The same dilemma presents itself in the absurd newscrawl announcing the creature’s triumphant resurrection. King of the Monsters–Savior of the city? Your enthusiasm for this conceit may vary. Regardless, Edwards’ film works better when he’s trying to interpret modern disasters than he is religion, so let us hope–and pray–that the recently announced sequel graces us with the former instead of the latter. After all, it wouldn’t do to forget that it’s a giant monster movie.

Promotional Poster for Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” (2014)

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17 thoughts on “Godzilla the Messiah Monster, and other atomic-age aberrations

  1. Great review. I never really thought about the religious aspect of it but thats probably cos i was half asleep! I agree that Edwards’ eye for a beautful shot helped elevate the movie about the bland script

    • The film does drag a fair bit in the middle, doesn’t it? The extended attempt to get the bomb to San Francisco was just about as pointless as Lex Luthor’s similar attempts involving a nuclear warhead in Richard Donner’s Superman 36 years ago (seriously guys, get some new material), only this constitutes about a third of the film. And then the military airlifts it the rest of the way, so why didn’t the scriptwriter do that from the get go and save us the trouble of watching them struggle? Anyway, don’t the US military have stealth bombers precisely for this purpose? Silly stuff

  2. I think even with the flaws in parts of the storytelling, especially when the film focuses on the human characters, the film still works as a return to the classic Godzilla films from Toho.

    While it retains most of the 1954 classic’s treatment of Godzilla as a force of nature instead of a heroic savior, it also retains the past Toho films treatment of humans in those films. Human characters in Godzilla films were never treated with any sort of respect and always seen incompetent, at best.

    Edwards’ film continues this with a major dosage of what you point out as the Spielbergian influence on the father-son relationships within the film. First with Cranston and Taylor-Johnson then with the latter trying to make it back to his own son.

    Flaws aside I thought Edwards went a long way in erasing the bad taste left by the last American interpretation of the King of Monsters (Emmerich’s laughably disastrous film of the same name from 1998). He really shows a love for the titular character and able to inject some humanity in how Godzilla behaves once we see him fully engage in the kaiju fight in San Francisco.

    While the teases that Edwards employs leading up to that final half hour became maddeningly annoying it became moot once the film finally decided it was time to show Godzilla in its entirety doing what it does best: kick ass.

    A better script probably would’ve raised this film to instant-classic status, but Edwards’ handling of the film once it focused on Godzilla made it more than just your typical summer blockbuster fare. Now with the sequel already greenlit it’s a question of whether Edwards and the writers continue following the path of grimdark seriousness or try to add some of the fun that Pacific Rim had.

    • I totally agree with you, Edwards is perhaps the best part of this production. He makes the best of a lackluster script, and almost overcomes the limitations of the material. Hopefully he’ll be on firmer narrative ground in the sequel.

      • I especially liked how He never made Godzilla really notice the humans that it was suppose to be saving. Except for the brief eye contact between the Big Guy and the Ford character in the end, Godzilla might as well be dealing with ants while taking on the latest wanna-be bullies in his block.

        I do agree with you that this film doesn’t fully understand how kaiju fighting within a major metropolitan city would cause hundreds of thousands of lives killed. One would think that they had ample time to really evacuate the city and the surrounding areas, but instead fell back on the disaster trope of using jammed roads and last-minute evacuations to add impending doom to the proceedings.

        While Godzilla was never Man of Steel irresponsible they could’ve looked at how Pacific Rim dealt with a similar situation and understand that one doesn’t need to kill hundreds of thousands to make a point about the destructive nature of Godzilla and its kaiju brethren. The rubble of the city and the surrounding areas are proof enough of that.

      • I wonder if I’m too sensitive about that. I mean, it almost seems hypocritical coming from me, given that I’ve defended the artistic merits of so-called torture porn, but I actually felt uncomfortable watching some of these buildings coming down. The tsunami in particular was pretty heinous, but again, am I just being too sensitive? Is it morally permissable to make these kind of catastrophes for our viewing pleasure? Probably, but I just don’t think the carnage was justified.

        I will say I appreciated that even when Godzilla does cause damage it’s entirely precipitated by American military action, but then the film entirely overplays its hand by turning Godzilla into a secular messiah.

      • Not at all, I think disaster porn (as I like to call it) reached both a high point and low point with a tie between Emmerich’s global meltdown in 2012 and Snyder’s wanton destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel.

        The former used the destruction of civilization as a showcase for one-upping previous disaster sequences Emmerich had done before 2012 while the latter showed no attempts at all to try and mitigate and minimize the damage.

        I know people like to justify the destruction of Metropolis as showing the true power and scale a Superman fight would cause in a city, but that totally missed the point of the character and his motivations.

        In Godzilla the destruction itself were shown as the title character being indifferent to the very people its suppose to be saving from the MUTO’s. My issues about the destruction in Godzilla has less to do with the monsters duking it out in the city, but the lack of foresight and common sense with the civil defense people in the film.

        I mean it took days for the monsters to reach San Francisco and the Bay Area yet evacuations weren’t started until they were literally right off the coast. It’s lazy writing.

        I don’t like comparing Godzilla and Pacific Rim since both went at different paths to tell their stories, but the latter really was a more humanistic story behind all the mecha vs kaiju action.

      • I agree. I consciously avoided making any comparisons to Pacific Rim, not only because I prefer it to Godzilla, but because the script’s eccentricities and absurdities are tonally consistent and seem intentional. It’s a bit problematic when a zany giant robots fighting Kaiju film has a greater sense of morals (and plausibility) than Edwards’ ostensibly serious film.

      • Godzilla succeeding in the box-office I think has less to do with its quality being higher than Pacific Rim but more on the fact that it’s a known and recognizable character.

        With Pacific Rim the ideas were recognizable, but outside of hardcore kaiju and mecha anime fans the general public saw it as Transformers with Monsters rather than a mash-up ode to two genres the influenced many adults who grew up watching and loving them during the 70’s and 80’s.

        I hope that part of the success for Godzilla will help fire up the possibility of a Pacific Rim sequel even if Del Toro’s involvement remains only as producer and not as director.

      • Part of me wants them to go really out there with the sequel. I mean Monster Zero out there, but I have a feeling that’s way more camp than Edwards and his writing team would be comfortable with.

      • There’s the problem with big budget filmmaking, risk minimizes creative exploration. It’s one thing to fool around with $20 million of studio money, quite another to do it with $200 million. The pressure and limits on a director dealing with that kind of budget must be constrictive.

  3. Why do screenwriters get all the blame for the dreadful parts in certain films? From this review and from the write-up on the Godzilla trailer I get the impression you really like Edwards as a film director. But aren’t exactly the directors the people who (most of the time) have the final saying?

    I mean, I get it. Filmmakers who do not write their own scripts and screenplays get to work with what they’ve been given. But what about Alien 3 for example – who’s to blame? The screenwriters? Studio interference? David Fincher?

    Movie making is a collaborative process, so painting one person or the other in black doesn’t always coincide with what is true. In the end of the day if someone makes a poor/ bad movie (not talking about this Godzilla film) they should be responsible for the most part.

    P.S. – this is a great place to discuss all sort of movies and filmmaking in general. Or at the very least read about it and see your point of view. No nonsensical scores and numbers at the end of the reviews, no trolls, no pointless criticism and whining. I hope you continue with this endeavour.

    • I’m not sure if Edwards had any say or input with the Godzilla script, but on the subject of the Alien 3 screenplay the fault lies with a studio that micromanaged everything about the film. Fincher hadn’t done anything of note when he was hired as director. He was famous for having done some visually stunning music videos, but nothing as a full-time filmmaker.

      Alien 3 has been well documented as an example of a film where studio interference on a film in the hands of a first-time director ruins the whole thing. Even then Alien 3 still had some nice visuals which has to be laid at the feet of Fincher doing his best trying to salvage a doomed production.

      I think with Godzilla (which I loved) the problem with the script rises from two decision.

      First, they decided on going the grim and serious path in a way to harken back to 1954’s Godzilla. This made the human characters so one-note that the film could’ve removed 2/3’s of the speaking cast and the film wouldn’t have suffered for it.

      Second, the narrative gimmick of teasing the audience with brief glimpses of Godzilla and the MUTOs were a nice touch in the beginning but became annoying by the time the final reel began. Some have compared the kaiju scenes between Pacific Rim and Godzilla and while the two films took differing approaches to how the monsters were shown the former was still able to keep kaiju overload from occurring despite having shown one right in the beginning of the film. In Godzilla, the teases of the kaiju became maddeningly repetitive that at some point the audience I saw the film with booed after the 5th instance (or was it the 6th).

      If the film was more a homage to the original 1954 then I understand the need to be grim and keep the Big Guy from the screen until the biggest moments, but the film tried to insert the more action-oriented Godzilla-types of film from the past by inserting other monsters to fight against.

      I think this was where the screenplay and a filmmaker on his very first huge budgeted film might have needed an objective hand from Thomas Tull (Legendary producer) to make the decision on what type of film Godzilla should’ve been. Either pick a grimdark story and stick with it or something more action-oriented that harken back to the All Monsters Attack phase of the Godzilla franchise.

      With a sequel pretty much a done deal, I hope Edwards has more confidence in how the film ultimately unfolds both on the pages and on the screen.

      • Ah, once again I find myself in almost complete agreement with you. I had intended to get to this question earlier, but I’m glad to find my ideas echoed in your own response, especially in your hope for Edwards’ confidence in future installments.

  4. Pingback: On Giving Credit Where it’s Due | digital didascalia

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