The best part about Godzilla was Godzilla, and that is enough reason to go watch Hollywood’s newest iteration of Japan’s most beloved kaiju. First-time blockbuster director Gareth Edwards goes the safe route but he does it right – the spiky-finned, atomic breathing prize jewel of Toho, a long-standing Japanese film company that distributes Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki films, is truly the undisputed focus of the film, and certainly not the brain dead, hermaphroditic piscivore it is reduced to in Roland Emmerich’s version, which registers an 8 on the unintentionally funny scale. Overall, Godzilla is a good introduction to American audiences to kaiju films, a monster vs. monster sub-genre of sci-fi that’s deeply ingrained in Japanese pop culture.
As a kid who grew up watching the Japanese *ahem* Gojira films, the kaiju have leveled countless cities and killed thousands of people, but somehow, there was always an endearing quality to it. It doesn’t end up feeling as heavy and soul crushing as Man of Steel’s post-apocalyptic imagery. People often argue about whether Godzilla is a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” but it’s rather irrelevant to the quality and enjoyment of the film.
To me, Godzilla films were about grown men in rubber suits clumsily stomping around in the world’s most expensive model set. There weren’t any worries about the death toll because the whole production always seemed too fake to be taken seriously, and it’s even funnier that this stuff was considered high-quality back then. But one thing in particular that the old Godzilla films nailed was the theme song, which unfortunately still hasn’t made its big North American debut. Wait for the ominous opening horns to subside and the snare dream to flare up before the strings come in at 0:47. This was my childhood! This song was partly the reason why the Godzilla series was so frickin’ epic.
After the climactic monster-on-monster beatdowns, the kaiju would disappear as quickly as they arrived, either by wading into the Pacific Ocean like Godzilla or flying off into space like Gamera. There was no mistaking the fact that the film's biggest selling point was its monsters and B-movie special effects. Human interaction was fairly minimal and inconsequential (unless it was Mothra and its two annoying fairy companions), and the kaiju expressed enough emotion through their eyes and awkward hand gestures to make some reference to some sort of plot that no one was really paying attention to. Japan was a mere battleground and the battling kaiju were too busy to care about anything other than deciding who reigns as the supreme kaiju, which is what made it fun to watch.
It was kind of like modern-day wrestling, only instead of The Rock and Stone Cold you had two guys in monster suits, and you got to see it on a really big screen. If you were lucky, Godzilla might even do his happy dance after a victory.
Edwards’ Godzilla is the opposite, a 350-foot tall behemoth that commanded respect and did not make any awkward hand gestures or have a victory dance. The wide, expressive eyes that the Japanese Godzilla possessed were replaced by barely noticeable slits, and its movements seemed more heavy, each wave of his arms and tail resulting in broken train tracks (predictably with a full car and the main lead) and waves of concrete dust. In that sense, Guillermo Del Toro's highly entertaining Pacific Rim was much truer to the original feel of kaiju films.
The new Godzilla was far too self-serious to maintain the light campiness that pervaded many of the kaiju films, and whether that is the product of the "dark" tones blockbuster Hollywood is currently obsessed with, or the progress of CGI technology that has allowed monsters to look much more realistic, is up for debate.
A compelling villain is essential to the story, and Godzilla's enemy kaiju, the two new MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), ultimately felt disappointing. Old kaiju films aren't popular because they have intricate plots or compelling human drama. The simple beauty of kaiju films is the sudden and often inexplicable appearance of a monster and its inevitable battle with another monster, which in this particular case is Godzilla. The enemy kaiju were often fearsome, sometimes featuring special powers of their own or having a body full of serrated edges like Gigan.
To pit the most fearsome Godzilla to date against two aliens, who are really only guilty of being really horny for one another, whose only offence is making San Francisco their mating ground (“Sorry, needed more leg room…”), seems just as silly and careless as Emmerich's tuna-obsessed, egg-laying giant iguana making Madison Square Garden its burrow. What Godzilla needed was a formidable kaiju foe, a King Ghidorah or a beefed up Rodan or maybe even something new, so long as it conveyed the idea that the enemy kaiju's defeat would be a monumental task. And, for once, can we have a fight in broad daylight so we can figure out what the hell is going on?
Not to pick on Emmerich's film, but he relegated Godzilla as a sidekick to the Matthew Broderick show, and strangely enough, the human elements remained (sometimes unintentionally) funny enough to keep you invested in the characters. There's generally no subtlety when it comes to Emmerich's films, but when Hank Azaria's character pees his pants after coming face-to-face with the giant iguana, it was a charming moment of self-awareness, bringing Japan's most beloved creature to American audiences. A big concern going into Edwards' Godzilla was whether or not its cast would take too much away from Godzilla as the main character (which would've been fine considering how talented its cast was), but the complete opposite happened.
Ken Watanabe, the Japanese equivalent of Liam Neeson with his propensity to play tragic, father figures, is reduced to a boring version of Dr. Serizawa, who exists only to provide some vague backstory to Godzilla's origins. David Strathairn is introduced as Rear Admiral Stenz in a long, impressive one-camera shot, but like all obligatory military figures in action films, he becomes a virtual non-factor.
Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche try to cram in enough backstory and emotion into the film's first 15 minutes for an entire season of Breaking Bad, but it’s like a knock-out punch delivered without a buildup – it ends up leaving you bewildered rather than in awe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, two talented actors who showed off their acting chops in Kick-Ass and Martha Marcy May Marlene, respectively, can only do so much with their lead characters. Taylor-Johnson’s soldier and Olsen’s nurse are short on substance and development and are largely abandoned in the second half of the film.
These shortcomings seem unforgiveable, given that Edwards takes nearly a full hour to really get the movie going. I think it’s writer Frank Darabont's doing (he makes long, sometimes plodding, films), and I was getting pretty antsy…just show me the monsters, goddammit! The human characters are usually of little interest in kaiju films, and that's certainly the case here, but so much time is devoted to them that you end up waiting impatiently for the poorly-scripted exposition scenes to end so you can catch the next 15-second glimpse of Godzilla, who doesn't get his full-body reveal until the monster battles really begin. Maybe it's because the film's relatively modest $160 million budget couldn't afford to feature Godzilla in all his glory until the final battle, but you wish Edwards would stop teasing and just deliver the goods.
At least in the second half of the film Edwards ditches all efforts to present Godzilla as a film about humans and monsters, cutting the dialogue to a minimum and instead letting the monsters do all the howling and roaring. (Do yourself a favour and watch it in IMAX.)
Godzilla's backstory has obviously changed from previous films, but there aren't any real faults to find in the new origin story. You do get the feeling that, like Bryan Singer's underrated Superman Returns, Edwards succumbs to the pressure of paying too much homage to previous Godzilla films and ends up being burdened by 60 years of history, rather than trying to make a film of his own.
It also bothered me quite a bit that Edwards felt compelled to explicitly show Godzilla as "The City's Saviour" and the "King of the Monsters" at the end of the film. He doesn’t allow Godzilla's true intentions to remain ambiguous, just like how true forces of nature like floods and hurricanes are considered amoral. There's a lack of excitement, joy and fun in Edwards' dark and brooding Godzilla, which is fine, and it felt more like one of those critically acclaimed dramas that dominate the fall/winter award seasons, rather than a summer popcorn flick.
Did I like Godzilla? In a word, yeah, I did, but just like how animation is approached differently by Japanese and American artists, so are kaiju films. There's no denying Edwards' Godzilla is much more different than what I experienced growing up, and you'll get the idiots (both Japanese and non-Japanese) who will only bemoan Godzilla's new fat-necked, thunder-thighed, slit-eyed look and miss the point entirely.
The new Godzilla won't be endearing with Japan's kawaii culture, but this isn't a Toho production. Minus the misuse of an extremely talented cast, Edwards' meticulous approach in shaping and revealing a new Godzilla to American audiences was quite a strong effort.
Godzilla gets three stars out of four.
About the Author
Jason Chen is a Canadian writer. You can find his sports-focused work on Rotowire and Hockey’s Future. More of his articles on movies can be found here. He’s also been known to tweet (sometimes a lot).