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.