Review: Godzilla: Inert Actors and a Middle-aged Monster

It was in 1998 that Godzilla last dared to invade American soil. That last endeavor proved to be a critical disaster. Come on! Matthew Broderick’s silly, bumbling scientist, and a very un-Godzilla-like mutant lizard! The only thing familiar was the famous roar. Of course, seeing Manhattan’s skyscrapers destroyed, in the then new CGI, was pretty impressive. But, other than that, it wasn’t Godzilla! In director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version, downtown destruction is spare; heart-pounding action is tempered; and the King of Monsters plays only a supporting role in the film that bears his name. Perhaps ol’ King G has hit a point in his sixty-year-long career where all he has to do is show up, shoot some scenes in which he knocks down a few buildings, and fights a couple of monsters (with some rather unsatisfying collateral building damage). Despite putting on a few extra midsection pounds (even movie star monsters get midlife pudge), he still possesses the iconic name that makes audiences cheer when he (or she?) appears on screen.  Like a sci-fi version of Brando—who later in his career occasionally came out of obscurity to fill a supporting role, collect his paycheck, become more eccentric, elusive, and obese—Godzilla has a name that is carved in cinema history, and Hollywood has proved in one week that they can bank on that name with ticket sales in excess of $150 million.  Although he may need to shed a few pounds, he (or she) has certainly proven that Godzilla is back.

Since 1954, when Japan introduced the world to Godzilla, he has played the antagonist, the protagonist, destroyed megacities, fought armies, monsters, aliens; and, with the aid of pocket-size, singing, Japanese twins, he’s defeated two giant moths; he’s made us examine our neglect of the environment, as he fought a pollution-ingesting smog monster (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, 1971), and he’s made us question our use of atomic weapons (Godzilla, 1954).  Edwards’s subtle homage to the film history of Godzilla is a pleasure for the knowing Godzilla fan. He gives audiences the traditional half-crazy scientist; the scientist’s reluctant child, who holds some of their  father’s knowledge about the monster (see Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, 1974); two modern-day radiation-consuming, winged insects (versions of Mothra, 1964); and a Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe) in dramatic close-up, with grave seriousness, as he tells the military the giant lizard-monster’s name is Godzilla. (insert audience cheers). 

Despite the young and attractive Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a large portion of the cast is surprisingly older: Bryan Cranston (wearing a Barry Manilow-like wig), David Strathairn (forgettable military-commander Everyman);  Ken Watanabe (whose every close-up says, “I’m more concerned about my chronic constipation than these radiation-ingesting monsters”), Sally Hawkins (was she in it?), Juliette Binoche (also wearing Cranstone’s Barry Manilow wig—or a short-haired wig that seems to say, “Women scientists can’t have long, flowing, girlie hair; they have to have short, practical hair”; but I think they allocated the film’s hair- and makeup budget to CGI, or a trainer to build Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s massive, Godzilla-like neck). Although these very accomplished actors’ talents are grossly ignored and comic-bookized, they seem to serve the purpose of connecting the large audience of baby boomers, who grew up with the Godzilla movies during Monster Week on their local TV stations, to this 2014 version. 

Like Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which used Godzilla’s antagonist—a smog monster—as a metaphor for man’s abuse of the environment (an early example of today’s trend in environmental sci-fi flicks), environmental worry has supplanted the original Godzilla metaphor for nuclear anxieties. This time it’s mistreated nature’s wrath that we have to fear in the form of MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).  Environmental anxieties are ever-present today with some real monsters causing mass destruction, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Japan’s earthquake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; and countless Midwest tornadoes, just to name a very few. It’s satisfying to symbolically destroy that which is destroying us. We may not be able to take revenge on Hurricane Sandy or predict the next mega-quake, but we can take cathartic satisfaction in watching Godzilla pummel radiation-ravenous, pterodactyl-Mothra-bat-glowworm-like things (a result of man’s abuse of nature).  

Gareth Edwards (Monsters) establishes his cinematic vision with some stunning shots that beg to be seen only on the big screen. One moment of note occurs high above the monster-ravished downtown San Francisco as a team of soldiers skydive into the city holding flairs that stream long ribbons of red smoke. It’s a welcomed pause of cinematic beauty. While the special effects are impressive, Edwards doesn’t overwhelm the picture with a constant roller-coaster ride of action sequences. There are some careful dynamics to his pacing. However, while we’re waiting for the monsters to appear, we’re subjected to countless dull scenes, filled with characters who are about as thrilling as watching people wait in line at the DMV. I just wish this Godzilla had fewer stars, less waiting, and more Godzilla. But at least the King of Monsters is finally back!


—John David West

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