I’m a Godzilla fanatic. I’ve been a die hard fan of this series pretty much since kindergarten. Since an old elementary school friend compelled me to watch Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1973) I’ve been hooked and devoted to the Big G and his friends and foes. In fact, it’s completely fair to say Godzilla was my gateway drug into almost every hobby or interest I enjoy today. Naturally then, it was with great interest that I followed the development of the new Godzilla, since the film was announced all the way back in 2010. While I enjoy almost all the Godzilla films, even I had to acknowledge by the time he last appeared on movie screens in 2004, the franchise had grown a bit stale. Monster rosters and story lines had been growing increasingly formulaic and bland, and while even the most mediocre entries had something for me to enjoy, it was rare they felt like anything more than fun distractions.
Legendary Pictures’ new film was a great opportunity for the King of the Monsters to be recast in a fresh light, to become something to talk about again. Most fans, however, find it hard to wash out the taste of Hollywood’s last attempt to adapt the franchise for American audiences. Myself, a majority of fandom, and even Godzilla’s home country don’t acknowledge Godzilla (1998) as a real entry in the Godzilla canon. Until trailers and production reports started rolling out, and even somewhat afterwards, the jury was always out as to whether or not director Gareth Edwards and his crew were making a true blue Godzilla movie.
Now that the film’s been out for a little while, I think it’s safe to say he has.
Most of the Godzilla movies, even those with really out-there elements (GMK, Godzilla vs. Hedorah) follow a pattern of consistent story and formula beats. Given the apocalyptic tone of Godzilla’s marketing spots and all the talk about creating a more serious and grounded universe in interviews, I was shocked by how closely the new film ended up sticking to a lot of those beats. The marketing really proved to be a bait-and-switch game, promising a serious-minded, somber monster movie and delivering us a blockbuster very much in the vein of Toho’s classic movies. Here’s a breakdown of how well these elements correspond to what we’ve seen before in the Godzilla series and some interesting and new directions that could spin off into something really unique and fresh as this world expands in sequels.
Mysterious events happen/the presence of one or more monsters is set up.
People of some expertise get involved with the brewing conflict and prepare/investigate.
Monsters appear, rampage or tussle a bit to a standstill, then retreat or leave.
Pieces and stakes get lined up for the climax as the human characters process new information and prepare to fight. Monsters either continue rampaging or recover to fight again.
The monsters emerge again for a climactic battle. Humans either watch from the sidelines or deal with a separate force or conflict. There’s a lot of devestation, but a winner emerges and retreats to fight another day. Lesson is learned.
Without too many spoilers for the uninitiated, the new Godzilla hits basically all of these familiar beats. The first 30 minutes are actually quite a bit more character centered than you’d expect from a Godzilla film, focusing on the Brody family’s emotional fallout from the emergence of giant monsters and Joe and Ford Brody’s investigation into the truth behind them. Once the first MUTO hatches, the film becomes more of a military procedural film very reminiscent of early 60’s Godzilla movies and pretty comfortably goes down the list of beats above.
If there’s one thing Godzilla and his monster friends and foes are consistently known for it’s spitting in the face of humanity’s scientific hubris and pointing out the follies of our attempts to pick at nature’s secrets. Humanity’s ambition to split the atom gave rise to Godzilla, an attempt to create a weather control machine mutates an exotic species of mantis (Kamacuras) into a giant, a scientist’s desire to unlock the secrets of Godzilla’s cells creates the rose monster Biollante. Toho monsters are almost always inadvertently created or agitated by mankind and the MUTOs are no exception. They’re carefully studied and fed nuclear energy by scientists eager to mine their secrets, and as always it comes back to bite them hard. The film doesn’t have much in the way of any real political subtext the way the first Godzilla did, but the casting of the MUTO as a result of humanity’s quest to understand nature’s secrets is very much in keeping with classic Godzilla.
For all the talk in interviews about giving the film a strong human element and characters you can care about, the new Godzilla ends up pretty squarely in the first camp. Aside from Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, most of the film’s characters are defined more by their occupations than any real sense of character or personality. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody is pretty much a blank slate that carries the audience into the action. His motivations are pretty basic and easy to understand (get back home and protect his family), and Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody really only exists to embody the stakes in the monster conflict. There’s a bit more of a personal focus in the beginning, with Ford and Joe Brody searching for the truth behind Juliette Binoche’s death, but this is pretty quickly dropped when the monsters appear. After the MUTO creatures hatch and Godzilla starts to chase after them, the film’s main focus shifts mostly to military reaction scenes where the scientists and military officers get us up to speed on where and how the next action scene will take place and what the monsters are after. It’s basic, quick, and utilitarian. Not exactly the deep character work we were promised, but it’s very much in keeping with what’s come before with this franchise.
The real deviation from the formula though, comes with the perspective from which we see the monster conflict. Most often, once the monster action rolls into high gear, the humans stand back and watch it happen. We only really cut back to them when they need to deliver some exposition during the monster battle, or react to what’s going on. Sometimes there will be a separate conflict with an invading alien force or malfunctioning piece of technology that will get resolved while the monsters fight, but it’s not too often that the humans will have a reason to get in the middle of the monster action. Sometimes it’s innocuous, and other times it’s pretty boring. This is something director Shusuke Kaneko understood and addressed in his Godzilla film and Gamera Trilogy, where the humans always had something to do in the middle of the climax that had a direct impact on the monsters.
Thankfully, Godzilla stuck this method of keeping the humans involved in the story. Most of the monster battles are viewed from the perspective of Ford or someone else in the middle of the fray, giving the audience an up-close and intimate view of the devastation happening and some gorgeous imagery from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Ford’s occupation as a military man and his climactic rush to enter the decimated San Francisco to disable the stolen nuclear warhead in danger of detonating, and prevent the MUTO’s offspring from hatching also gives him a very natural reason to stay in the middle of the battle and keeps a nice sense of momentum going. This is a great deviation from the traditional formula, where the excitement tends to flatline when we cut back to the human characters and stays flat until we get to see the monsters again.
He also keeps his trademark invulnerability to conventional weaponry, and it’s also established that nuclear weapons (at least an early stage one from the 50’s) aren’t enough to do him in either. This is an odd bit of exposition, given that we see he at least registers the pain of artillery fire on his face and gets pretty banged up from getting hit by other monsters. Still though, as a symbol of nature striking back against scientific arrogance, it’s important that Godzilla dwarf our military power, and unlike the 1998 film, this element is keenly acknowledged.
The monster’s personality warrants a discussion. Over his 60 year history, Godzilla has been everything from vicious destroyer, to heroic defender of humanity, to mighty force of nature. Since 1984, most Godzilla films have depicted him as an antagonist, or at least an anti-hero. This new one is a departure from what’s come to be the norm, and he is very much the hero of the film. He’s a force for preservation, in contrast to the parasitic MUTOs and their desire to consume and reproduce. Characterization-wise, he’s actually pretty consistent with GMK director Shusuke Kaneko’s depiction of rival monster Gamera, who was a born defender of Earth fighting for the preservation of its land and natural order, but kept the protection of the human species on the backburner. While the 90’s Gamera ultimately grew a soft spot for humanity, 2014’s Godzilla stays pretty impartial and indifferent towards us. While he definitely doesn’t intentionally try to lay waste to cities, he also shows no regard for structures and people that get in his way. He pretty clearly topples the Golden Gate Bridge and inadvertently kills hundreds of people in a tsunami as he comes ashore in Honolulu. He’s definitely more benevolent than you’d expect, though he’s still a far, far cry from the gleeful defender of humankind he was in the 1970’s.
Likely this scripting decision was made because the filmmakers understood that we’d end up rooting for the King of the Monsters regardless of his temperament and attitude toward humanity (as we always do!), and to cast him in stark contrast with the salivating, fanged, vicious MUTOs. It was another decision I wasn’t expecting, but one that ultimately worked. The effects team does a superb job imbuing Godzilla’s movements and face with a strong sense of personality, and he gets plenty of chances to shine as a character in the final battle.
the screen time debate
In regards to how well the build-up worked, it definitely succeeds in lending a real sense of weight, surprise, and awe to the destruction when it finally arrives. Myself, and several other audience members were audibly cheering in the theater when the final battle arrived, and we were hungering for it. I would argue though, that the film goes an inch too far with the teasing. After we get a full body shot of Godzilla in Honolulu, he quickly leaves and remains mostly submerged until he arrives in an San Francisco for the climax. This comes close to undermining Godzilla as a character and protagonist, as we don’t get much of a sense of his personality until he fully emerges to finish his fight. Luckily. Dr. Serizawa’s exposition and history with the monster lend him a bit of weight that keeps him from turning into the plot device he was in films like Terror of Mechagodzilla and Godzilla against Mechagodzilla.
The slow-burn pays off, at least in terms of delivering its intended effect. I do wish they had at least included one more Godzilla centered scene to provide a greater sense of character and emphasis to the King of the Monsters. A scene of Godzilla waking up to chase after the MUTOs would have done the job establishing at least some more motivation behind his desire to hunt them down. A small confrontation between Godzilla and the military also would have done some nice work fleshing out Godzilla’s complicated relationship with humankind.
The idea of withholding the bulk of the monster action until the climax though, is not new territory for the series. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah waits an hour to put Godzilla into the game (though he receives plenty of focus and foreshadowing beforehand). The original Godzilla, though it shows the monster’s full appearance in the first 25 minutes, only really shows him in short bursts until he comes ashore in Tokyo in his climactic rampage. Godzilla vs. Megalon, Terror of Mechagodzilla, Godzilla against Mechagodzilla, and Godzilla Final Wars are also pretty sparing in their use of Godzilla, though in these cases its more of a detriment. The thing that separates the strong uses of withholding from the weak ones is not the quantity of screen time Godzilla gets, but the strength of his emphasis on the overall story and foreshadowing to his appearance. Godzilla falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, where we get a serviceable enough amount of explanation regarding his motives and a decent sense of personality that keeps him just shy of being a plot device, but a little too much withholding that constrains his ability to breathe as a character. This could have been fixed with a couple more short scenes and perhaps a somewhat earlier introduction, but what we get is far from the worst that’s been done.