When Hollywood’s last crack at the King of Monsters came out in 1998, I was about 15 – the prime age for enjoying awful blockbuster spectacles. And I still thought that movie was a giant hot turd. (Matthew Broderick as a leading man? Really?)
Sixteen years later, Godzilla roars back into cinemas* in a vastly, vastly, vastly-I-can’t-state-this-enough better film. His new incarnation wears the “gritty reboot” shell beloved by modern films, but on the inside it’s still a gooey dumb monster movie. Which is a good thing! You will like this if you’re after grim but elegant visuals, but you will also like it if you just want to see skyscraper-sized behemoths scrapping with each other.
(*Meanwhile, if this movie does good at the box office “Godzilla roars back into cinemas” will be the headline used by every hack entertainment writer. If it does bad, I guess the standard headline will be… I dunno. “Rival film fights off Godzilla” or something shitty like that.)
Light spoilers ahead.
Unlike the ‘98 movie, which depicted Godzilla as a humanity-bullying monster, here he’s the monster who saves us from other humanity-bullying monsters. He’s a mythical hero, all majestic and unknowable and, admittedly, a little tubby (a design which actually works in his favour, still evoking the classic guy-wearing-a rubber suit look even though he’s pure CGI.)
Godzilla’s battles in his new film with a destructive pair of MUTOs (that’s “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object”, obviously) set up a new franchise where he’s an “apex predator” who must return every couple of years to save the day and “restore balance” while crushing landmarks underfoot.
Or something. His purpose is all explained away via pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo delivered as straight-faced as every other line in the movie; there are almost no jokes here (unless you count the callbacks featuring screaming Japanese running for their lives, which I think are only unintentionally hilarious). Where its kaiju cousin Pacific Rim was camp and neon, Godzilla is muted and serious.
Its monster battles are strikingly realised, offered to us mostly in glimpses – witnessed out of car windows, in reflections, through binoculars – until the climax, where Godzilla and the MUTOs finally have at it. It’s a very nice-looking film, especially that stunning shot of military skydivers parachuting into a monster-addled San Francisco. (A scene, which, sadly was spoiled by trailers and previews that lessen its big screen impact. Please quit giving away so much, Hollywood.)
Unfortunately, the script keeps dragging us away from the fun stuff – the monsters – and forces us to suffer through the boring stuff – the humans. It’s not a problem (in theory!) that Godzilla chooses everyday-types as the lens for its story – none of its characters are chosen ones, or presidents, or Will Smith-in-Independence Day-style wise-cracking badasses. The problem is that most of these bystanders are just… pretty boring.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is hardest hit as the awesomely ridiculously named Liuetenant Ford Brody*, whose role is to look pretty and anguished as he wavers back and forth between wanting to save his family from monsters and apparently forgetting about his family while he goes off to fight monsters. Brody’s dad is Joe (Bryan Cranston, who’s set his Act-o-Meter somewhere up around “Manic Gnashing”), who’s that disaster movie staple: the madman whose crackpot theories about impending doom turn out to be right. There’s nothing surprising about that character type, but at least Cranston’s subplot ends unexpectedly.
(*Like I had an actual double take when I realised that was the character’s actual name. It’s like it came from a focus group to determine the most generically masculine-but-not-threatening name.)
Ken Watanabe plays another disaster staple: the scientist. He’s a monster expert who doesn’t do much more than look disturbed by the devastation and advise that the military’s plan to defeat the MUTOs is dumb. (A military with a dumb rescue plan is yet another disaster movie staple, but even by the usual standards Godzilla’s military is really dumb. At no point does anyone in charge actually point out that, um, guys, our plan makes zero sense if you actually think about it. Guys? Guys?)
The worst victim of this blandness is Elizabeth Olsen, who’s burdened with the appalling boring role of Brody’s nurse wife – a bonehead who literally does nothing but stay behind in San Francisco looking scared, refusing to flee because her husband told her to stay put. Seriously. That is her plot arc. She has a son to look after, but at no point does she have any convincing maternal chemistry with him. (She’s not helped by the fact that her onscreen kid is one of the movie’s many mute, gormless children who stares at Godzilla and destruction with vacant eyes.)
Actually, none of the human females in this movie fare well. The only other notable woman is Watanabe’s assistant, who simpers and expositions and was maybe given a name? She’s played by Sally Hawkins, who has so little of the spark she showed in Blue Jasmine that I barely recognised her.
That’s not to say Godzilla is yet another Hollywood blockbuster with a woman problem. It has equal opportunity character problems for both genders! And besides, there is one badass female character: The she-MUTO, who just wants to get laid and have babies and settle into a nice nest underneath a ruined city. And isn’t that what all of us want, really?