Thoughts on Godzilla: 2014 Reboot — “The Legendary Era?” (spoilers)
Well, here I am, continuing my Godzilla reviews with the new movie reboot, and as you see in the title, I’m proposing a name for the new series that we’re probably going to be getting, now that the film has done so well on its opening weekend that a sequel has already been ordered. Since Legendary Pictures is the production company behind this film (in collaboration with Warner Bros. and under license from Toho), “Legendary Era” seems a fitting name for the new age of Godzilla — though time will tell if it’s worthy of that name. (
Or if anyone other than me will want to call it that. Edit: Turns out Wikizilla is already using “Legendary Series.”)
So here we are… the fourth film in total to bear the title Godzilla (alternately transliterated as Gojira), and the second American one, sixteen years after the previous attempt at a US reboot — which, as per my previous analysis, is best seen as a movie about a different creature that was simply mistaken for Godzilla (arguably occurring in the universe of GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which alludes in passing to its events). So this is the first American-made film about the genuine article — unless you count 1956’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which is altered enough from the 1954 original that it arguably constitutes a distinct film running in parallel to it. Let’s say, then, that this is the first fully American-made film about the actual Godzilla (or one of his many avatars across the cinematic multiverse).
But this film is definitely a new start. Previous Godzilla universes (see above link) have almost invariably shared a common origin story: The American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands in 1954 awoke the beast in one way or another (either driving him from his natural feeding grounds and turning him radioactive as in the Showa Era, or mutating a smaller carnosaur into a giant, nuclear-powered creature as in the Heisei Era) and led him to rampage through Tokyo later that year, after which Dr. Daisuke Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer weapon either destroyed the beast (followed by the emergence of a second Godzilla at some later point) or crippled him (after which he spent decades regenerating before re-emerging). But this film changes that. The 1954 atomic tests are still part of the backstory, but their meaning is changed. Here, as in Showa, Godzilla was a naturally occurring prehistoric alpha predator, one of a breed of creatures that fed on radiation and evolved to live deeper in the Earth as the surface became less radioactive. (Not great paleontology, but then, the first movie said the dinosaurs died out 2 million years ago, so what the heck.) An American nuclear submarine awoke Godzilla, so one could say that America’s culpability for unleashing him is intact; but this American-produced film gives the US military a chance to redeem itself, since the Marshall Islands tests are now explained as an attempt to kill off Godzilla. I’m not sure that’s in the best of taste, considering that the original film was an allegorical protest for the deaths of Japanese fisherman and the poisoning of Japanese soil and water as a result of those tests. Although I’ll grant that the film paints those attempts as a futile gesture, at least. Every attempt in this film to use nuclear weapons as a solution proves ineffectual, and the bomb is ultimately shown as more a threat than a benefit, which is reasonably true to the spirit of the series. So it’s not as jingoistic as the American dub of the 1984 reboot (which was altered to make the Soviets more evil), but it still lets the Americans come off somewhat better, as one would expect of an American Godzilla.
Also, Godzilla’s 1954 raid on Tokyo is apparently absent from this universe, unless it happened in a different way that was covered up as a natural disaster. That’s perhaps the biggest departure from prior continuities; six out of the seven Toho Godzilla universes include the ’54 attack as an iconic part of their history, and the other (Godzilla 2000: Millennium) is agnostic on the question. Perhaps we can assume that in this reality, the American nuclear attack injured Godzilla enough that he didn’t attack Tokyo. So the world is mostly unaware of kaiju until 1999, when a mining operation unleashes one of the film’s original monsters (called MUTO for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” — not as colorful as the Japanese kaiju names), which causes a Fukushima-esque disaster at the nuclear reactor where Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and his wife work, causing his wife’s death (boy, the Brody clan can’t catch a break) and turning Brody into a conspiracy nut searching for The Truth, eventually drawing his Navy-lieutenant son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into events just in time for the winged male MUTO to hatch from its cocoon around the damaged reactor (they feed on nuclear material and absorb the associated radiation for energy, a trait they share with Heisei/Millennium Godzilla) and begin a rampage toward Nevada, where its larger mate’s cocoon has been stored by the US government until it, too, breaks out. (I guess this is vaguely an allegory for how the danger of atomic waste may not be as containable as we like to think, or maybe it’s just an excuse to bring the action to the US.) The MUTOs not only feed on radiation, but emit electromagnetic pulses that knock out all electronics around them, part of the reason the military is helpless against them. And of course, the EMP is portrayed as fancifully as it always is in fiction. It expands in a visible blue sphere — much, much slower than light — and while it’s able to knock out military hardware that’s presumably EMP-hardened, it somehow leaves a commercial GPS device on a civilian boat completely undamaged. Also, its effects are temporary, with devices coming back on again after the MUTO threat recedes. No. Nope. EMP induces currents so strong that they burn out electrical equipment that isn’t built to handle such intense currents (even if the equipment is turned off, since the pulse itself creates the current). It’s permanent damage, not just a suppression of activity.
Since Joe has information that was believed lost in the ’99 incident, he and Ford come to the attention of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who’s named after the original film’s director Ishiro Honda as well as Daisuke Serizawa, and is perhaps implicitly Daisuke’s son, in this continuity where Godzilla never attacked Tokyo and he never had to sacrifice himself. (Watanabe was born in 1959, so the timing would work. And sure, he said his father’s watch stopped when Hiroshima was bombed, but that doesn’t mean his father died there. In fact, the tie-in comic Awakening reveals that Ishiro’s father was a survivor of Hiroshima. Although Ishiro wouldn’t be the son of Emiko Yamane, because she presumably would’ve still left Serizawa for Ogata.) But it’s odd that Watanabe’s scientist-hero is named for Serizawa, since he’s more reminiscent of Professor Yamane, the thoughtful scientist who strives to understand Godzilla and argues against the military’s efforts to destroy it.
Anyway, Cranston is taken out of action pretty early on, so the narrative shifts focus to Ford, Serizawa, and Admiral Stenz, head of the American anti-kaiju task force, played to crisp perfection by David Strathairn (whose marvelous speech to the troops from the trailers is sadly missing from the final cut — perhaps because they figured we’d all heard it already). Ford kind of happens to stumble into the heart of all the action through a series of contrivances while just trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen — try not to think about the fact that she’s also playing his sister in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron) and their young son. Meanwhile, Serizawa tries to talk Stenz out of his plan to use a nuke as bait to draw in and kill all three kaiju, taking the position that Godzilla’s natural role is to restore balance and that we should let the monsters fight it out. It ultimately comes down to a confrontation in San Francisco, where the mommy MUTO (which was born pregnant, just like tribbles!) has laid its eggs — a plot point surprisingly similar to the third act of the ’98 Godzilla, which I would’ve expected this film to try very hard not to remind anyone of. Although it’s handled very differently here, more of a sidebar to the main confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTOs and to Ford’s attempts to get the nuke out of the city in time to save his family.
Yes, what’s surprising here is that Godzilla is pretty unambiguously the hero. That’s not what I expected, given this film’s effort to return to the serious spirit of the original. Most of the serious-minded Godzilla movies before this have cast him as the villain, or at best as a force of nature that had a right to exist but was very, very dangerous to the puny humans in its path. The idea of Godzilla as a defender of the Earth against more ruthless monsters is generally associated with the kooky, kid-oriented films of the ’60s and ’70s. But this Godzilla is almost tame. He does unthinkingly cause a lot of damage that threatens and probably kills a lot of humans — the “tsunami” in Hawaii, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge (for the umpteenth time in film history) — but it comes off more as benign neglect than anything else, and the casualties are mostly off-camera, so it doesn’t really make Godzilla seem all that scary. Maybe it would be enough, though, if it weren’t for certain beats that make Godzilla seem almost solicitous of humans, like when he dives beneath an aircraft carrier rather than smashing it (although his wake does threaten to capsize some other ships), or at one moment where he’s fallen in battle and makes eye contact with Ford, his fellow protagonist, in what’s essentially a moment of bonding. We’ve seen other movies where Godzilla deigned to notice an individual human (King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000), but in those cases he destroyed them a moment later. This is the friendliest Godzilla we’ve seen onscreen since 1975. Honestly I find that a little disappointing. Also puzzling, given that the first time he met humans, they tried to nuke him. You’d think he’d see us as more of a threat, or at least an annoyance. But I guess this Godzilla was designed with a franchise in mind — the alpha predator charged with preserving the Earth’s balance as more of those ancient radiation-feeding critters are drawn to the surface by the energies of the atomic age.
Still, in other ways, this Godzilla is very impressive. The visual effects are top-notch, though I’m inclined to agree with the critics that say the Big G’s new design is a bit too pear-shaped. And the 3D created a marvelous sense of scale for the kaiju. In that shot from the trailers where the soldiers in Hawaii fire the flares and Godzilla’s flank comes into view, even though I knew what was coming, the moment of the reveal still sent a shudder through me. Also in the railroad-bridge scene with the MUTO looming overhead, the 3D gave it a palpable sense of “it’s coming closer!” that really alarmed me on an instinctive level. The MUTOs are a cool design (although angular in a way that suggests a Gamera foe more than a Godzilla one). And Godzilla is truly huge and awesome here, the CGI letting us see him in a way we never really could before. Although in the final act he doesn’t seem quite as massive, both because he’s pitted against two monsters that match his size and because the camera is often at a higher vantage point to let us see the fight. There’s even a classic Godzilla-movie side-view shot of Godzilla and a MUTO facing each other down amid the skyscrapers.
And it is an excellent final battle, capturing one of Godzilla’s key characteristics: The fact that he’s not just about brute force, but is a clever and calculating fighter. When the enemy seems to have him on the ropes, he’ll suddenly rally with a sudden surprise move and totally trash his opponent. Although the greatest moment had to be when we first saw his spines begin to light up through the dust. That was classic. I’m glad they saved that for the right moment.
Which brings me to the question of pacing. I’ve seen a lot of viewers complaining that we don’t see enough of Godzilla in this movie, but I think the pacing was handled just right, very similarly to a lot of the Toho movies: The first act features mainly the villain kaiju with some hints of Godzilla, then he makes a big appearance in the top of the second act and has his first clash with the enemy, then we focus mainly on the humans trying to cope with the situation, and the bulk of the kaiju action is saved for the big battle in the third act. I think it was right not to overuse Godzilla in the first two acts, to build up anticipation. That’s a perfectly appropriate technique as long as the payoff is satisfying, which it was. As for the complaint that the human characters were boring, well, it’s true they didn’t have that much depth to them, but the performances and direction held my interest. It was appropriate to keep the focus more on the human-scale reactions to the ongoing disaster. Kaiju films are basically disaster films, and I think disaster-film protagonists tend to be kind of everyman/woman types so that we can identify with the universal dread we’d all feel in a similar situation.
The main issue for me with the characters is that I wish more of them had been Japanese. Godzilla is a Japanese creation and franchise, and I’d prefer it if Japanese characters played a larger role in the film. Even in the scenes set at the reactor in Japan, both in 1999 and 2014, most of the people in charge are Westerners. Why are so few Japanese officials involved in events happening in Japan? It didn’t help that the film was so heavily populated with the same actors who show up in every TV show made in Vancouver or Toronto. They had Garry Chalk, Hiro Kanagawa, and Terry Chen in the ’99 scenes. They had Brian Markinson and Ty Olsson at the reactor in 2014. They had Jill Teed as Mrs. Brody’s hospital coworker. I’m surprised Mike Dopud and Roger Cross didn’t show up too. It kind of undermined the Japanese flavor of the Japan scenes when they were so obviously shot in Vancouver. The movie did location filming in Honolulu and Las Vegas, so why couldn’t they do some filming in Japan, where Godzilla was born? I don’t mind Hollywood lending its budgets and talent and technical knowhow to realizing Godzilla like he’s never been seen before, but I don’t want the films to lose their Japanese flavor altogether.
Indeed, that’s the worrying thought that occurred to me the other day. This film is cleaning up at the box office and a series of films — the “Legendary Era” I mentioned above — seems assured. But I have to wonder — what does that mean for the prospects of ever seeing a Japanese-made Godzilla film again? Could Toho ever match the level of money and technology that went into this movie, and if not, would audiences be interested in a smaller-scale Godzilla movie ever again? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this movie succeeded and that there’s finally a viable American Godzilla series. I just wonder what the cost of that success will be.
Let’s see, what else? Well, I loved the opening titles. Lots of Easter eggs to be reviewed on DVD, with the text being “censored” as we watch. Plus it’s just great to see a movie using a full opening-title sequence.
As I said, for the most part, the 3D worked very well for me. But I feel it fell short at one point where it could’ve done wonders — the scene where Juliette Binoche and the people with her were running down that long corridor, trying to escape the radiation leak. It would’ve been great to get a really good sense of depth there to convey just how far away the end of the corridor was, but the scene seemed flat to me, lacking that sense of distance.
Not happy that they never quoted Akira Ifukube’s themes. This isn’t the first Godzilla film to omit them altogether, but they would’ve been nice to hear. Even if they weren’t used in the film proper, it would’ve been nice to hear them quoted in the end credits.
The new roar is pretty effective, but I wish it had been a bit closer to the classic roar. And they didn’t use the full roar with the upward flourish at the end very often, just a couple of times, it seemed. That was disappointing. Although one thing I found intriguing: The first time he gave the full roar, his nostrils changed shape in the final flourish, suggesting it represents an inhalation after the long outburst of breath. Interesting.
Keep an eye on my Godzilla: Final thoughts thread, which I’ll be editing to add discussion of this movie.