(This review is dedicated to the memory of my brother Colin, who loved the original Godzilla movies from Japan.)
The classic Japanese monster movies of the 1950s, 60s, 70s (and beyond) went like this: Godzilla is a lizard grown to many times his original size due to an atomic accident—or maybe he’s a large dinosaur brought back to life by H Bomb testing. Though at first he seems threatening — and really was threatening in his first film or two — he emerges as the hero. Yes, the hero. To the Japanese, by the way, he was known by his real name: Gojira, combining the characters for gorilla and whale. He was inspired by King Kong as well as an unease about nuclear fallout, in the only country in history to suffer from nuclear-bomb attacks.
Early in these films, an even worse monster—named Mothra, Rodan, Hedora, or King Gidhora—descends on Tokyo to knock down buildings and end civilization. The military fires some rockets at the invader but to no avail. Dozens of extras run through the streets screaming. Finally, frantic Japanese scientists look at each other and say, “Where's Godzilla? He’s the only one who can save us now!”
That’s the cue for everyone’s favorite lizard (and I don’t mean Barney) to walk out of the sea and challenge Mothra, or whomever is up at bat this time, to a wrestling match. The Big Guy beats his chest and howls like a star of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The two monsters take turns slamming each other against buildings while human onlookers cheer for the Big Lizard. There’s a little Japanese boy shouting “Go, Godzilla, go! Get him!” Finally, the Big Guy sends his opponent packing. Having once again saved Tokyo, Godzilla walks back into the Pacific Ocean with everyone thanking him. Ah shucks, folks, it was nothing.
The new 2014 version of Godzilla returns to this original storyline, only this time with special effects that filmmakers in the 1950s couldn’t begin to imagine. It’s much closer to its Japanese roots than the 1998 version, which gave Godzilla a makeover and had him tripping over buildings in New York City while being chased by Matthew Broderick.
This new version is closer in spirit to the original, from its use of Pacific Rim locales to the look of Godzilla himself, except this time he’s rendered with millions of computer-generated pixels rather than being portrayed by a guy in a rubber suit.
I wonder, however, if the producers, and director Gareth Edwards, forgot to include the sheer fun of the Japanese originals. They’ve certainly left out the sense of humor which (intentional or not) made the 1950s films so delightfully cheesy.
This new version has some plusses going for it. To begin with, there’s the cast: Bryan Cranston, most recently of TV’s Breaking Bad, as a man obsessed with whatever it is the government is keeping secret; Ken Watanabe, as a Japanese scientist who is brilliant but spends most of his time looking exasperated and at a loss for words; and David Strathairn, who plays an American general who spends most of his time looking steely-eyed and resolved. Yay, American military. There’s a clever “Shame on you” reference to Hiroshima on the part of Watanabe, but you still want Uncle Sam around in a crisis. Or do you? The military doesn’t manage to do much of anything but shoot at the monsters with machine guns, as if that’s going to do any good. To borrow a line from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, “Don’t shoot him; that will only make him angry.”
As for the general’s plan to set off a nuclear bomb: It turns out that the evil, bug-like monsters actually feed on nuclear radiation and use it to reproduce. For them, it appears to be some kind of aphrodisiac. Dropping the Big One is only going to turn them on. Oh, who can save us but Godzilla?
The special effects are good enough in places to make you gasp, especially the giant MUTO, the pair of super-sized bugs who want to take over the Earth by destroying one city at a time. (Or maybe they just destroy cities as a way of getting their daily exercise.) But are such effects enough to sustain a whole movie?
Watching this version of Godzilla, it’s hard not to imagine the bean counters in their offices, salivating at how well this version will play in Asian markets, a calculation that these days determines the profitability of many a film. Cha-ching! The opening hour of the film spends a lot of time—too much, probably—setting things up in Japan. There’s a certain opportunism here: some of the opening scenes obviously recall the nuclear accident in Fukushima.
Later, during the destruction of Honolulu, we see a wide-eyed little Japanese boy, the very kind who was given a bigger role in the original films as a sidekick to the Big Lizard. Overall, this is an Asian film as much as it is American, which is only fair, given its origins. That should bode well for international box office.
This Godzilla is opportunistic in other ways as well. Near the end of the film the camera shows a sea of refugees gathered in a sports arena, managed by FEMA officials…. recalling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As a nearly two-hour piece of special effects, Godzilla can’t help but impress, but again I wonder if they forgot to include the fun factor. Once Bryan Cranston disappears, the baton is passed to Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing his son, a stoic young soldier without any sense of humor or irony whatsoever. He's a bit of a bore, and things become predictable. Looking for his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in the aforementioned sports arena, as the music swells and he has a hopeful look on his face, what are the odds that this young man won’t have a tearful reunion?
By then hundreds of thousands have died, and there’s been trillions of dollar’s worth of property damage, but who cares? We got our main human protagonist back together with his wife and little child.
And then there’s our real hero. Godzilla does his job here, but even with the hundred-million-dollar-plus budget, the Big Lizard just doesn’t have the same attitude he showed in the 1950s. All those pixels can’t quite live up to the legacy of the guy in a rubber suit.
Still, I’ll up it from a C grade just because of Bryan Cranston’s performance.