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New “Godzilla” Movie Won’t Disappoint Fans

WEB Godzilla Concept Art

Courtesy of Warner Bros

David Ives - published on 05/15/14

You probably already have an opinion of the character Godzilla - and this movie isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.

Let’s face it, some films are simply critic proof.

Take Godzilla movies for instance. The Big G has been around for 60 years now, garnering enough film appearances to make his series the longest running franchise in movie history (Sherlock Holmes holds the record for most character appearances, but not in a single continuing franchise). On top of that, you’ve got all the cartoons, comic books, spin-off novels, television commercials, and endless pop culture references. Godzilla is pretty much everywhere. Probably the only reason they haven’t put his picture next to the word ‘ubiquitous’ in the dictionary is because the photo wouldn’t fit on the page.

The point I’m trying to make (I do occasionally manage to do that) is that most people already have an opinion on Godzilla. So if you’re not a fan of The King of The Monsters by now, it’s highly unlikely anything I say about the brand new Godzilla film is going to make you inclined to see it. Conversely, if you already have a soft spot in your heart for the big guy, there’s little chance any comment of mine would stop you from wanting to watch the new movie. Trust me, I understand. I’m firmly in the pro-Godzilla camp, and nothing short of the second coming was going to keep me from seeing this film.

So, taking all that into account, rather than make a futile argument for or against Godzilla, I think instead it would be prudent just to answer a few of the questions that might have crossed some folk’s minds in the days leading up to the film’s release.

To begin with, is this a real honest-to-goodness Godzilla film, or is it something akin to that phony baloney thing starring Matthew Broderick they tried to sneak past us in 1998? Rest assured, G-fans, this is the real deal. It’s true that the monsters are all CGI instead of the classic guys in rubber suits, but the filmmakers took care to honor the original designs. In short, Godzilla looks like Godzilla. Sure, he’s a little chunkier than he used to be, but c’mon, he’s 60 years old, cut him some slack.

Okay, that’s good, but what about the tone? Is this serious Godzilla from the 1950s, goofy Godzilla from the 1970s, or action Godzilla from the 1990s? Fortunately, as endearing as the kiddie matinee trappings of Godzilla’s middle years were, this film wisely avoids the mood of those movies. After an intriguing opening credits and a prologue which establishes the world’s governments might know some things they don’t want the average citizen to find out, the movie proper opens in Japan where we find Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) & his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) preparing for their daily jobs managing a nuclear power plant. After something huge approaches the facility from under the ground, the ensuing reactor breach leaves Sandra trapped while Joe can do nothing but stand outside the safety doors and watch her die. So, yeah, with that kind of opening, you can tell there’s definitely no room in this film’s universe for a doughy smoke-ring breathing Son of Godzilla hopping around the suburbs of Tokyo. Instead, this movie aspires to be a sober adventure. That being said, this new Godzilla is also not quite the somber exercise the original 1954 film was. There is room for humor this time around, particularly in the scenes involving the media’s coverage of the appearance of the giant monsters.

Wait, you said monsters. Does that mean there’s more than Godzilla stomping around in the new movie? Absolutely. After the opening, the movie jumps ahead 15 years to the present day where Joe is still trying to sneak back into the quarantined area surrounding the plant so he can find out just what really happened the day his wife died. Reluctantly accompanied by his now grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Joe finds a way into the facility, only to discover it’s not so abandoned as the public has been led to believe. As it turns out, an international coalition of scientists and soldiers has set up shop there to study and stand guard over the now dormant giant creature that destroyed the plant all those years ago. While Joe attempts to explain to the scientist in charge, Dr, Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), that he has reason to believe the creature dubbed Muto has been sending out mysterious signals to another of its kind, the monster awakens and lays waste to the area before flying off.

Great, so Godzilla has other creatures to fight! I bet that means the movie is packed full of monster-on-monster slugfests, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. In what could potentially be a stumbling block for a number of viewers, director Gareth Edwards makes the conscious decision to play coy with his creatures for the first two thirds of the film. After the Muto makes its way to a Hawaiian airport and begins to tear up the place, the King of the Monsters makes his first appearance in all his regal glory. It’s a pretty spectacular entrance that gets your blood pumping for the battle royale to follow. But rather than stick with the monsters as they engage one another, Edwards has his cameras follow the fleeing humans instead. You see bits of the fight going on over people’s shoulders or on television sets as the news cameras arrive, and that’s about it.

Wait, are you trying to say there’s not a lot of Godzilla in Godzilla? Kind of. Not physically anyway. That’s not to say his presence isn’t felt throughout the film, it’s just that he doesn’t get a lot of stomping around time until near the end. Look, it’s obvious what Edwards is going for in the movie. All Godzilla films spend a good chunk of their time showing humans running around in between monster attacks doing stuff, whether it be secret agents tussling with aliens or little boys coping with bullies. No Godzilla film has ever consisted solely of 90 minutes of monsters knocking over buildings. But Edwards really, really wants the audience to invest in the human element, so even when there are monster attacks early in the film, he focuses on the people, especially on the characters of Ford and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). Unfortunately, whether it’s the fault of the material or the actors, the people scenes aren’t quite as involving as he wants them to be.

So you’re saying the non-monster stuff is bad? No, not bad, just kind of average. Part of the reason for this is because that’s almost always the way it is in a Godzilla film. After all, the humans aren’t the really the main attraction. But the other reason, I believe, may actually be due to the interpretation of Godzilla’s character this time around. Over the decades, Godzilla has been portrayed as a metaphor for lots of things; natural disasters, children’s wish fulfillment, even once as an avatar for the vengeful spirits of Japanese soldiers killed in World War II. He’s pretty versatile for a lumbering 350 foot tall lizard. His most successful foray into symbolism, however, came in his original 1954 debut, Gojira, where the monster was an obvious metaphor for the lingering results of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. As I wrote in my long ago review of that film, “Gojira was the first film to openly address the fact that for the Japanese the nuclear issue was not a fading memory or potential threat, but a decade long continuing nightmare. The Japanese audiences recognized immediately the anger and sorrow and feeling of helplessness portrayed in the movie. It’s almost as if Gojira represented some form of primal therapy for the entire nation, resonating so strongly that it actually received a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.” Alas, in this new film, Godzilla doesn’t represent something so personal to the audience, and so our investment in the human characters isn’t as strong.

Interesting. So who or what is Godzilla in this new movie? As Ken Watanabe’s character explains, Godzilla is not just a force of nature this time around, but an actual agent of it. When something like Mutos show up and threaten the precarious balance of nature, Godzilla shows up to try and set things right. That makes him our defender in a certain sense, but not necessarily our hero. He’ll nonchalantly stomp on people if they don’t get out of the way while he’s doing his job. Basically there are bigger things going on in the world than just our petty human interests, and Godzilla appears every now and then to remind us of that.

Oh rats, does this mean then that Godzilla is just another modern nihilistic movie which advances the theory that the human race is ultimately insignificant? Hmm. While I suppose it’s certainly open to that interpretation, I think there’s another way to look at it. You see, in Christian theology, we believe God created everything with an end purpose in mind. The universe has a goal to which it is ultimately headed, and as a result, that makes everything in it, including every individual person, significant. But while such an arrangement makes our individual choices cosmologically important, it still leaves God in control of the bigger picture. So given that God has a plan for everything, including our planet, it would make sense in a universe that contained Mutos that God would put in place a contingency like Godzilla. God’s not going to let the world be destroyed before it’s fulfilled its purpose.

Okay, okay, fine, I guess I can accept that. But that’s all film critic stuff. What I want to know is am I going to enjoy this movie if I just want to go see Godzilla do his thing and knock stuff down? That depends entirely on your expectations. If all you want is monsters beating each other up, then no, this isn’t your Godzilla. But if, like a lot of other moviegoers, you’ve grown tired of action films so overstuffed with scenes of destruction that, by the time the climax rolls around, you’re fatigued and just ready for the whole thing to be over, then you might really enjoy this film’s pacing. Edwards teases things out so much that by the time the last half hour rolls around, you’re more than primed to see cities get wrecked. And the finale does not disappoint. If you’re a Godzilla fan, there are moments worth cheering out loud for once all the monsters meet up. So, while some of the non-monster action isn’t everything it could have been, overall I’d say the approach Edwards took with Godzilla works. It did for me anyway.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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