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Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Spoilers)

I got an overdue advance check this week, and figured I should catch Godzilla: King of the Monsters while it was still in theaters — which seemed uncertain, since apparently it didn’t do well at the box office and is already going out of release. So I’d need to go a bit more out of the way than usual. I considered just waiting for home video, since I have other stuff I need to focus on, but I wanted to at least see the monsters on the big screen, even if I didn’t get to see them in 3D like with the 2014 film. Anyway, I had some business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and it turned out they had an office near one of the theaters that still carried the movie — which also had a grocery store and an Arby’s nearby, so I could do four things on one trip, which decided it for me.

So anyway… Godzilla: King of the Monsters should not be confused with the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the Raymond Burr recut of the 1954 original. It’s easier to tell the titles apart in Japanese, since the Burr film’s title was translated literally into Japanese as Kaiju-Oh Gojira, while the 2019 film’s title is merely rendered phonetically as Gojira Kingu Obu Monsutāzu. Maybe that’s fitting, since in some ways G:KotM is a very, very American action film, while in other ways it’s truer to the Japanese franchise than any other US Godzilla movie.

We open with scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost her son in the climactic battle of the 2014 Godzilla and is estranged from her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), a naturalist studying “alpha frequency” vocalizations in wolves (based on a theory of wolf behavior that’s arguably been discredited). She’s living with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) at a Monarch site in Yunnan Province, China, where that secretive monster-research organization is monitoring a Mothra egg that hatches as they watch. When the containment field is sabotaged, Emma uses a device called ORCA (developed by her and Mark to communicate with whales) to use the “alpha frequency” for kaiju — sorry, Titans, as they’re called herein — to calm the rampaging larval Mothra. The sabotage is the work of an unnamed ecoterrorist group led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), which kills most of the Monarch team but takes the Russells and ORCA with them.

Meanwhile, in one of those movie-style US Senate hearing rooms that don’t look much like the US Senate chamber, returning Monarch characters Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins of The Shape of Water) are arguing against Senator CCH Pounder’s plan to turn over Monarch to the military and kill all the Titans, which Serizawa-hakase argues are vital to the Earth’s balance, especially Godzilla, who officially hasn’t been seen for five years. They get called away by news of the attack (on Titan?) and go to recruit Mark, an angry know-it-all who wants the Titans dead for what they did to his son, and who, on hearing that his wife and daughter are in danger, prioritizes shouting “I told you so” and being a self-righteous jerk over actually trying to help find his family. In a meeting with the Monarch team, he speaks out of turn and condescendingly lectures the team on what they should be doing — something pretty obvious that these dozens of trained experts should’ve been able to figure out on their own, but no, Mark is the designated hero so they all have to be dumbed down so he can get the glory. Oy. The scene also introduces two more Monarch scientists: Ilene Chen, the resident mythologist (the ever-luminous Zhang Ziyi, with a boyish haircut) and Rick Stanton, the obligatory wisecracker (Bradley Whitford trying very hard to be Charlie Day from Pacific Rim).

Jonah has Emma work to awaken “Monster Zero,” a three-headed dragon frozen in the Antarctic ice. Of course, this is King Ghidorah, with his Monarch appellation being a nod to one of the better-known English titles of his second film (usually known as Invasion of Astro-Monster). Meanwhile, an antsy Godzilla nearly attacks Monarch’s deep-sea base where they’re secretly monitoring him, and once again this whole organization of monster experts is made to act like idiots so that the obnoxious angry white guy can do all the thinking for them. Honestly, Mark is as irritating a know-it-all as the kids in the Showa Gamera movies. But he actually acts against his hotheaded destroy-all-monsters preference and urges them to back down from the alpha predator, which satisfies Godzilla so he goes on his way to Antarctica. Monarch gets there first in their flying wing, the Argo, in time to confront Jonah’s terrorists and try to get the Russells back. There’s a clumsily staged moment where Mark by himself with a pistol is implausibly able to hold a whole squad of rifle-carrying soldiers at bay and demand his family back (I think maybe the team of snipers backing him up is the justification, but it’s not very clear and it feels more like he just has movie hero plot armor). But Emma picks up and activates the detonator that frees Ghidorah, and we realize she’s been with Jonah all along.

So Ghidorah attacks the Monarch team and Godzilla shows up just in time to save them, for the first of several times in the film. I wasn’t expecting this marquee fight so early in the movie, but it’s inconclusive, with Godzilla giving the team time to escape, though Dr. Graham is killed by Ghidorah — something that should’ve been a big deal but is quickly lost in the shuffle. Emma then calls up Monarch to explain her actions, saying that the Titans need to be awakened to restore the balance of the Earth that humans have destroyed, and she advises Monarch to start making use of those bunkers they’ve been building to protect humanity from the monster apocalypse. Mark emphatically disagrees with her philosophy, and Madison is caught in the middle.

Also, Jonah has Emma wake up the giant pterosaur Rodan from his volcano nest in Mexico, which draws Ghidorah to the scene while the thinly drawn “G-Team” soldier characters try to rescue the nearby townsfolk. Ghidorah trounces Rodan and goes after the Argo, leading to Godzilla’s second last-minute arrival to save the humans. But our old friend Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) has already launched a new weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer — namesake for the weapon Daisuke Serizawa used to destroy Godzilla in the original film, but protested here by his namesake, since his buddy Godzilla will be killed. Indeed, the blast appears to kill Godzilla (along with all the fish within a 2-mile radius), but Ghidorah inexplicably survives — which Dr. Chen realizes means he’s not part of Earth’s natural balance and must be an alien. Ghidorah emits his own alpha frequency to awaken all the Titans at once (the rest are all original Legendary designs, including a new MUTO) and control them to terraform (or, well, de-terraform) the Earth to his liking. Emma is dismayed that Ghidorah isn’t acting like she expected, but Jonah is fine with letting humanity get trashed. Weird that Emma gets mad at Jonah when it was her own idea to wake Ghidorah.

Meanwhile, the adult Mothra emerges beautifully from her cocoon (how nice for an American film to get her gender right at last) under the observation of two Monarch scientists — Joe Morton as an older version of Dr. Brooks from Kong: Skull Island and Zhang Ziyi as Ilene Chen’s twin sister Dr. Ling. Yes, Zhang is playing a version of Mothra’s twin heralds, and there’s a bit inserted about how she and her sister are the latest in a long line of twins connected to Mothra, a cute but random bit that serves no story purpose beyond fanservice. Mothra uses her divine light to help revive Godzilla, and Mark realizes that the only way to stop Ghidorah is to replace him with our planet’s indigenous alpha kaiju. So he’s now made the turnaround from wanting Godzilla killed to seeing him as the savior of the planet. It makes him marginally less obnoxious, I guess.

So Monarch takes a sub to Godzilla’s underwater lair, strongly implied to be Atlantis (furthering the connections between Legendary Godzilla and ’90s Gamera). There’s an unexplained natural radiation source that looks like falls of lava, but it won’t heal him fast enough. To speed his healing, they have to set off a nuke near him, but their launch system is damaged, so Serizawa chooses to sacrifice himself to deliver it manually. It’s an interesting symmetry — the original Dr. Serizawa sacrificed his life underwater to kill Godzilla, and this one does the same to save Godzilla.

So Madison figures out that she and Jonah’s people are holed up in a Monarch bunker in Boston, and she somehow gets past a trained group of terrorist soldiers, steals the ORCA, and escapes to Fenway Park to use its sound system to broadcast ORCA’s signal to calm the Titans rampaging across the globe. (Those must be some hellishly loud speakers, guys.) Ghidorah’s having none of that, and comes in to attack Madison, who’s saved when Godzilla shows up with the whole US military at his back, an impressive and unusual visual. But in a nod to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the nuke charged Goji too much, and he’s minutes from going critical. Plus Ghidorah’s called in Rodan, who turns out to be a total suck-up to anyone who beat him in a fight and is now Ghidorah’s loyal lackey, taking on Godzilla’s ally Mothra in an aerial struggle. There’s a moment where Godzilla is almost killed but Mothra sacrifices herself to revive him, much as Rodan did for him in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

Meanwhile, Emma’s broken off from Jonah and gone to save her daughter, leading to a reunion of the family at last, but Emma stays behind to atone, using ORCA to distract Ghidorah so her husband and daughter can get away. We never actually see her death, but it’s pretty much a certainty, since Goji’s reached critical mass and is in full-on BurningGodzilla mode as in Destoroyah, and then some, literally melting skyscrapers as he walks past. (It’s not only a very impressive visual, but a rarity for Hollywood to acknowledge that heat can propagate through the air; usually people in action movies can be inches away from molten lava or an explosive fireball and be totally unaffected.) He releases his nuclear energy in spherical blast waves, saving himself and crippling KG so he can finish him off. The other Titans show up and bow to Godzilla, reacknowledging him as their alpha. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Yes, they not only heard the Fenway Park speakers from all over the world, but got to Boston that quickly from all over the world. Dr. Stanton had some vague dialogue earlier about the “Hollow Earth” tunnels established in Kong: Skull Island somehow providing near-instant, wormhole-like travel for kaiju, presumably to set up this moment. Consider my disbelief unsuspended.)

There’s no followup on the Russells, just a credits montage of headlines painting an implausibly rosy aftermath as new life blooms in the wake of the Titans’ destruction and Monarch has gone public and everything is awesome except suddenly there’s a lot of news about Skull Island and something weird seems to be happening there, come back next year for Godzilla vs. Kong, but first, watch this post-credits scene teasing another potential sequel, a tease that depends on the American “Oxygen Destroyer” being a whole lot less disintegratey than Daisuke-san’s version.

Okay, not a perfect film, and it had some of the common failings of American action films — most of all the obnoxiousness of Mark as its male lead. The problem with Hollywood’s tendency to default to white male heroes is that it all too often doesn’t bother to make them interesting or likeable because it’s presumed that they’re automatically worthy of our focus. There were times during the movie when I felt it would be better if Mark wasn’t in it, if Serizawa and Chen were the main protagonists on the Monarch side, and if the film had let the mother-daughter dynamic be the key family element instead of bringing a cliched estranged father into the mix. Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown are both strong actresses who could’ve carried the emotional arc of the film without needing Kyle Chandler, who plays a rather stock character without bringing anything special to it. Ooh, I can imagine a better version of this film where Joe Morton’s Dr. Brooks is the male lead, Emma’s mentor and Madison’s surrogate grandfather who has much the same philosophical conflict with Emma. What a waste of Joe Morton to show him in only one scene.

It’s also very American in how pure and dualistic its morality is — Titans are either good or evil, and the good ones protect humanity and pretty flowers literally bloom in their wake. There’s a token acknowledgment that we’d be helpless before their power and have to deal with a lot of destruction, but this is quickly glossed over. Many of the best Japanese kaiju films (and some of the not-so-great ones, like the Netflix anime trilogy) are about challenging human hubris, forcing us to realize the Earth doesn’t belong to us and there are greater powers than ours. G:KotM only pays lip service to the idea and then turns Godzilla into a superhero actively protecting humanity and fighting alongside us.

Still, it’s nice that Serizawa and Chen are able to school the American characters on some Eastern ways of seeing things, like Chen’s explanation to Mark that Asian dragons are seen as protectors and redeemers. And this is the first American Godzilla film that really shows deep knowledge of and reverence for the original series, with a number of fannish references and Easter eggs. Best of all, Bear McCreary’s score incorporates Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla theme and Yuuji Koseki’s “Mothra’s Song” throughout the film, the first time any of the classic kaiju themes have been used in a US film (though Ifukube’s Rodan and Ghidorah themes are not used). The film is pretty true to the “characters” of Mothra and King Ghidorah, with the former as a luminous figure of awe and benevolence and the latter as a ravenous destroyer (with its three heads snapping at each other like a pack of angry dogs). I guess the portrayal of Rodan as a hench-monster is consistent with his role as Godzilla’s ally/assistant in later Showa films, though he’s playing for the other side now. Legendary Godzilla, however, only seems true to the later Showa version of Godzilla as a heroic protector of humanity, and does feel more like Gamera in some ways.

Still, this is as authentic a Godzilla film as has ever been made in America, a good effort to capture the spirit of the franchise, even if it’s filtered through American sensibilities. The action sequences are massive and impressive, with some imaginative choreography and camera work. And despite my dissatisfaction with the male lead, the character work in the film wasn’t bad overall — not as good as Kong: Skull Island, perhaps, but not as bad as claimed by many of the reviews I’ve read. The actors were reasonably good, particularly Charles Dance, whose Jonah reminded me very much of Ian McKellen’s Magneto. Though I found Bradley Whitford’s performance disappointing since it was just non-stop snark with no depth.

Godzilla, Mark & Madison Russell, and Ilene Chen will be back in March 2020 for Godzilla vs. Kong. Hopefully the new Titan-friendly Mark will be less of an obnoxious know-it-all this time. Well, at least Jessica Henwick will be in it.

Thoughts on Legendary’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND (spoilers)

September 18, 2017 3 comments

It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing Kong: Skull Island, the second film in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” following the 2014 Godzilla. I haven’t been able to afford the luxury of seeing many movies lately, so I had to get it from the library, and there was a long waiting list. But it finally arrived, so now I can add it to my kaiju review series. (On that note, if you enjoy my reviews, please consider making a donation with the PayPal Donate button to your right.)

Although this film is set in a Godzilla universe, its links to Godzilla are peripheral. The monster-seeking organization Monarch returns, but at an earlier stage in its history — the film is set in 1973, aside from a prologue set in 1944 — and though its main agent in this film, Bill Randa (John Goodman), makes a passing reference to the Marshall Island nuclear “tests” in 1954 that we know were aimed at Godzilla (in this continuity), his own motivation for seeking giant monsters dates back to a ship disaster he survived in 1943. There are a few other references (discussed below), but aside from a post-credit scene setting up the next Godzilla movie, they’re subtle enough that you could watch this film without ever realizing that it connected to any other film. Which is a good way to do a shared universe.

Anyway, it’s the end of the Vietnam War and Randa fears Monarch will lose funding in peacetime, so he organizes an expedition to Skull Island, spoken of in legend but only just confirmed by satellites to exist, in a last-ditch effort to prove monsters are real. (This is a point where the loose continuity is maybe a bit too loose — if Monarch and the US military cooperated in attacking Godzilla in ’54, doesn’t that mean they already know monsters are real? Is this trip really necessary?) He ropes in a military escort led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s bitter about leaving the war unwon but cares deeply for his men, as well as James Conrad, an ex-RAF expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston). Award-winning photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) tags along to document what she and most of the others believe to be a geological survey of the island.

While Godzilla 2014 was justifiably criticized for its fairly superficial and unengaging characters, it seems K:SI took those criticisms to heart, because its first act is all about establishing character, developing its large and rich cast through plenty of fun interplay and banter. Hiddleston’s Conrad is introduced as a world-weary cynic but ends up as a rather generic competent and heroic type for most of the film; but there are plenty of other colorful personalities. The film also does a nice job creating a sense of the period, largely through heavy use of ’60s and ’70s rock songs and extensive visual and stylistic homages to Apocalypse Now. We get to know and like the characters quickly, which makes it more effective when the expedition’s choppers, in the process of dropping “seismic” charges onto the island with blithe disregard for the local fauna, attract the attention of the local mega-megafauna, namely Kong, who smashes their choppers up quite thoroughly and leaves the survivors scattered across the island. Packard now has a clear enemy to fight and multiple dead soldiers to avenge, and he’s ready to shoot Randa for leading them into this — it’s clear that the “seismic survey” was meant to flush out the beast — until Randa explains that there are far more monsters living in the hollow spaces under the Earth and they must be proven to exist so that they can be stopped before they devastate the world. Now Packard has both men to avenge and a country to defend, and he’s determined that Kong must die. This time, he thinks, there’s no question who the enemy is.

But elsewhere, Conrad, Weaver, and their group of survivors find a village of islanders, among whom lives Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American fighter pilot downed on Skull Island in 1944. Though he’s grown quite eccentric over the years on the island, he interprets for the Iwi islanders (even though they don’t speak on camera) and explains that Kong is the island’s “King,” defending the Iwi and most of the other animals of the island (including various kaiju species like a bamboo-legged spider and an amphibious giant mammal called a Sker Buffalo) from the Skullcrawlers, two-legged giant reptiles with skull-like, beaked heads. They live in the underground spaces that Skull Island provides access to, and Kong is the only line of defense against the largest of them. Weaver sees proof of Kong’s benevolence when she tries to save a Sker Buffalo trapped under a downed helicopter only for Kong to arrive and free it — and perhaps he recognizes her benevolence too. But then, Kong always did have an eye for the ladies.

So naturally this leads to a conflict between Conrad’s group wanting to protect Kong and Packard wanting to kill him. But even though Packard does go kind of Captain Ahab and is implacably obsessed with vengeance, his motivations are still understandable, even sympathetic. He goes too far in the end, but we can understand how he got there and thus forgive him for it. It’s a really deft bit of characterization.

But the conflict of Packard and Kong must ultimately give way to the climactic fight between Kong and the ultimate Skullcrawler, known in publicity as the Skull Devil. It’s a brutal, lengthy battle, very creatively choreographed and well-animated, and the human protagonists get in on the fight and help Kong — notably Weaver, whose fearlessness gets her a little too close to the action and gets her in trouble, requiring Kong to save her (although she’s been proactive enough throughout the movie and contributed enough to the fight that she doesn’t feel like a damsel in distress). I’d say it’s a better climactic battle than the one in Godzilla 2014, and does a better job of integrating the kaiju and human characters. Although it makes sense that a fellow primate like Kong would be more prone to bond with humans than a prehistoric reptile like Godzilla.

All in all, I liked this movie quite a bit. It’s effectively written and directed, it has strong characterization and a talented cast, and its action is creative and well-handled. It manages to evoke a lot of elements of the original film’s Skull Island sequence while also making them fresh and avoiding the cliches like Kong being taken captive or fighting off aircraft atop a skyscraper. (There is a sequence where he ends up chained in a somewhat contrived way and must break free, but I only just now realized that it was an homage.) And it works better as its own entity than a lot of franchise-building films these days. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything about it that doesn’t work, aside from the prologue maybe revealing a bit too much of Kong too soon, and the post-credits tag scene setting up 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters being a bit tonally jarring and unnecessary. Even though the tag features Conrad, Weaver, and the surviving Monarch characters who recruit them, it doesn’t feel like a part of this film — and it seems extraneous as a setup for G:KotM, since that would presumably be set in the present day, 46 years later, so it’s unlikely that any of these characters would be involved.

Even the portrayal of the Iwi tribe isn’t bad, at least not compared to prior Kong movies. Rather than superstitious savages, the Iwi are portrayed as a dignified, intelligent, and artistic people that extend hospitality to Marlow and the other refugees — although they’re still treated as exotic and voiceless, so it’s not perfect.

I said the film doesn’t dwell too much on setting up future films, at least not in a way that intrudes on the story it has to tell, but there are ideas relevant to its story that do a lot to flesh out the Legendary MonsterVerse (as I guess we’re stuck with calling it). G2014 established that ancient monsters were still lurking about somewhere, maybe deep underground, but K:SI clarifies that the Earth of this reality has large subterranean hollow areas where the kaiju live, with Skull Island being one of their access points to the surface (which I realized could perhaps explain the perpetual wall of storms circling the island — something to do with the pressure and thermal effects of a really deep hole to the Earth’s interior). Interestingly, that’s an idea that was considered for an abandoned third Godzilla film back in 1956, an incredibly bizarre premise called Bride of Godzilla, which would’ve involved a scientist building a giant naked robot double of his own daughter and using it to seduce Godzilla, yes, seriously. I sincerely doubt anything like that will happen in the MonsterVerse, though. But the “Hollow Earth” established here sets the stage for the emergence of as many monsters as Legendary needs for future films. I can even imagine a future time when Monarch uses Skull Island as the equivalent of the original Monster Island from the Showa series, an enclave where kaiju can live cut off from the rest of the world. Although Kong might have something to say about that.

Oh yeah, about Kong — in this movie, he’s apparently 31.6 meters tall according to official sources. That’s a bit over twice the height of the 1933 Kong and more than four times the height of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, but only 2/3 his height in Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. But the MonsterVerse’s Godzilla, aka LegendaryGoji, is over 108 meters, 3.4 times Kong’s height herein. But I guess that’s why K:SI has Marlow establish that Kong is “still growing.” Even so, it’s hard to see him tripling his height in less than 50 years. But I guess we’ll see when Godzilla vs. Kong arrives in 2020.

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.” Later edit: The official Legendary title is “MonsterVerse.”)

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.

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