19 May 2014

First Impressions: Godzilla 2014

Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, the Terror of Japan, that giant green dancing fiend, returned to theaters this weekend with another Americanized blockbuster treatment that took itself far more serious than its 1998 Roland Emmerich counterpart. Actually after watching it, this Gareth Edwards version is forcing far less cliches than that torrid Emmerich film, and probably takes itself less seriously than that epitome of 90s tentpoles. Anyway, after watching Godzilla (2014), I began to consider it under three distinct lenses, and sure, SPOILERS from here on out:

Sociological Themes:

Godzilla was primarily conceived as a Japanese reaction to the horrors of the Atomic Age and existed as a symbolic instrument of mankind's folly come back to destroy him. This premise, of course, was dropped within a decade of the first run of Showa Godzilla flicks, so it's hard to fault 2014's Godzilla for abandoning this origin. The end result, though, is a little short on political commentary like this.
Anyone else notice that really cute Lady and the Tramp
moment between the two MUTOs sharing the
nuclear missile in the third act?

Even though Godzilla's revamped origin as an eternal prehistoric "alpha predator" seems to completely side-step his symbolic nature as representative of the dangers of nuclear arms, that's not to say the film itself is devoid of these ideas. Ken Watanabe mentions the ghost of Hiroshima and there is this constant fear and regret over detonating a nuclear device to lure the MUTOs (two new kaiju, Monstrous Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. Even if it feels a little NBE 1-y, at least they didn't force an acronym like S.H.I.E.L.D. or something...) away from the city. It's not a necessarily overplayed theme, which simultaneously feels relieving that this film isn't concerned with those kinds of messages that have been well-recorded in Godzilla's past, but also feels like they should be addressed. Then again, the political climate towards nuclear arms is drastically different than it was in 1954 and perhaps the ghost of nuclear use, as it currently exists in the movie with the solemn Japanese reminder of Hiroshima is enough.

Instead the film is more concerned with Godzilla as this literal God of the Earth that seeks to restore balance by beating the shit out of the MUTOs that are wrecking up the joint. It's not unlike Godilla vs Mothra (1992) to be honest, but with Battra and Mothra representing Godzilla and Godzilla representing the MUTOs. Got that? This ends up being the most interesting concept in the film that has farther reaching consequences within the greater cinematic narrative than the internal story, so more on that later.

In my preview of this flick, I commented that the marketing material seemed to indicate that this film would have the most interesting humans of any Godzilla film, and that's largely true, even if the main show is still the Big Green Guy. Edwards largely spends his time, though, telling a story about fathers' inability to protect their families with more than a few nods to JAWS (1975). There is a range of success to this, and it isn't this film's last reference to that original American blockbuster monster epic.

The clearest parallel is the surname Brody, taken by Roy Scheider in JAWS and here by Bryan "Breaking" Cranston and Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson as Joe and Ford Brody, respectively. There was this weird on-going theme in the sequels to JAWS that the first shark's descendents or whatever continuously stalked the Brody family for revenge. Like in JAWS IV: The Revenge (1987). There's almost something similar at work here how disaster in general and the MUTOs in particular seem to stalk the Brody family, and you had better believe that at the end Mama MUTO recognizes poor Ford's face. But let's talk parenting issues.

A huge theme of JAWS is Martin Brody's complete inability to deal with the on-going shark attack crisis on a meaningful level and a continuous failure to protect his own family. He sends his son to play in the lagoon to be safe, but sure enough that's right where the shark goes. He doesn't have any control or authority to enforce any of his actions, despite being the Sheriff. Ultimately on the boat he's reduced to an ignorant child, getting in the way between the more adult and experienced Quint and Hooper before he's forced to combine the science of Hooper (the oxygen tank) and the artful brutality of Quint (the rifle) to blow the shark's head up.

In Godzilla, the Brody's are similarly hapless. Joe Brody fails to save his own wife which exacerbates his already severe emotional abandonment of his son. Despite being arguably the smartest person in the film, his obsession is considered more a sign of mental illness than given credence, and for all of Cranston's brilliant sobbing, vulnerability, and angry, trailer-worthy speeches, he's treated like a stubborn child until his death. His son is forced to bail him out of jail, and he lives in a crummy one-room apartment. The role of adult and child have been reversed, a regression similar to the last third of JAWS.

I think critics have overly mourned Cranston's death, really he dies at a perfect point where he ceases to add anything more to the story. Ford Brody's arc parallels Cranston's fairly closely - he sends his wife away while his son is forced to watch from afar while he deals with affairs at Ground Zero. I found myself perplexed analyzing why he succeeds from a thematic standpoint where his father failed. By their natures he's a far more physical figure, his combat expertise tends to trump the intellectualism of his nuclear engineer father. Or perhaps while he initially lets go too much while Joe holds on too much, when he finally finds a balance he's able to surpass both Martin and Joe Brody's childish faults and ironically, as by far the youngest Brody, become more of a man than any of them.

Intertextuality with Contemporary Films

In addition to this heady Spielbergian fathers-protecting families vibe that runs through this whole thing, there's also the blueballs-generating effect of abstaining the display of the eponymous creature for an exceptionally long time. There's even a shot equivalent to Jaws swimming under the Orca, except naturally, for scale it's Godzilla swimming under the USS Saratoga. I don't necessarily have the problem with this that some other critics do, because it keeps inflating our imaginations. Although I agree with this reviewer, who comments that Quint, Hooper, and Brody would be entertaining enough in a film without a giant shark. There's no Indianapolis scene to really show off the talent that was brought on board.
Dave Chappelle could still take him.

While the humans are plenty interesting for being humans in a Godzilla movie, the film really becomes interesting when it begins commentating on other recent kaiju films in its own way. It's tough to even conceive of the scale of these monsters and Godzilla does a spectacular job of showing bits and pieces of its star, mostly through its influence on the world around it, wrecked buildings and tidal waves that it creates by merely emerging from the water. It's fitting to save the big brawl till the end, which gives it all the more pay-off. The film is trying to be a counter to Pacific Rim (2013), which also treated its Kaiju more as natural disasters you can punch in the face. That's still an exceptional movie that delivered all the smash 'em ups we could have asked for, and I actually may have been more frustrated with the slow burning tension of Godzilla much more if I hadn't gotten all my kaiju destruction love out with Pacific Rim. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson does out-act Charlie Hunnam at least.

It's important to remember, though, that more fights don't make a movie better. Look at Man of Steel (2013), whose fights largely become meaningless immortals battering each other until its controversial ending. Godzilla could have fallen into the same predicament, but instead saved the stakes (and the budget) until the one big super-brawl in the third act. Also considering Man of Steel's city destruction porn criticism (same goes for Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]), Godzilla fittingly seems to withhold this at all costs, showing more of the horrifying aftermath than taking puerile pleasure in watching the act. Of course, you can't have a Godzilla movie without destroying at least one city, which it does in a kind of hellish vision preserved from that first teaser, which is just as bone-chilling as it was in December.

On that note, the film also seems to counter this whole Batman Begins (2005) / Casino Royale (2006) / Star Trek (2009) / Man of Steel obsession we have with "gritty remakes" that go through these really contrived notions just to over-explain classic iconography rather than truly letting things organically develop. Godzilla himself arguably has less of a rational reason for existing than traditionally (I don't know what makes more sense - an iguana mutated by the Bikini Atoll tests; a mutated, time travelling Godzillasaurus; or the ancient million-year old radiation-eating super predator theory here). There aren't fanboy moments here disguised as self-important rhetoric. Godzilla's only purpose is to tell everyone to shut the fuck up and bow down to their god.

That's how you get this commentary on Cloverfield (2008), and even Godzilla (1998) and that film's own relationship with Jurassic Park (1993). The MUTOs are pretty damn Clover-like, and it's fitting that Godzilla gives one of them a kiss of radioactive fire breath and rips its head off (in one of the most satisfying Godzilla-villain dispatcher moves of all time). It's also fitting that his other classic move, the tail swipe, is used to kill the other one. This is the only reason Godzilla exists in this film - to blow apart these monsters that can't be represented by guys in suits, while G-Man himself is stockier than ever.

Seriously - everyone else has a rational for the MUTOs stalking around - eating radiation to gain enough energy to reproduce, but by all accounts Godzilla is pretty content to sleep forever until these jerks come along and try to upstage him. "Fuck that shit, I'm going to nuke your head," says Godzilla. Or, after his eye-to-eye bro moment with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, perhaps we should call him Brozilla. Their tag-teaming of distracting the MUTOs away from each other was a brilliant way for a puny human to team up with the King of the Monsters.

As for Godzilla '98, anyone notice that scene with the MUTO eggs that came awfully close to that film's third act which in itself aped the third Raptor act of Jurassic Park? See, all Godzilla '98 was trying to do was be a bigger, badder version of that Spielberg movie, but it failed miserably for a ridiculous amount of reasons, even if it had one of the more interesting soundtracks of all time. Godzilla '14 wades dangerously close, then literally burns this idea and shuts the door. As if Toho didn't already blow Zilla out of the water. Literally.

I also want to comment on how good this thing looks. Not to harp on Man of Steel some more (fuck it, I hated that movie), but the action was incomprehensible. Ditto for most of Mike Bay's Transformers films (tho the most recent trailer actually seems like he has a handle on things). It's a weird thing to even positively criticize, but you can tell what's going on at all moments in Godzilla, and you have a keen awareness for where monsters are and who's fighting whom. Action hasn't had that much clarity in a loud, bloated blockbuster since Gore Verblinski's At World's End (2007).

Commentary on Godzilla Films

The film constantly weighs expectation and anticipation with what is happening on screen. From the initial bait n switch in the Philippines and at the Japanese power plant there are these constant "oh shit" moments where the audience thinks they're ahead of the film but they're really not. Balancing this expectation with a film series that has such a crazy history as Godzilla is insane.

There are all these forces at work here, mostly to introduce the Monster to American shores, literally within the metanarrative, and therefore, to Western audiences. See, the Americans in this film just don't understand Godzilla, or what kind of movie they're in. They keep thinking up these ridiculous nuclear bomb plots because that's really all they have to go on. Nukes are always the only option, from Independence Day (1996) to The Avengers (2012). Going back to the Japanese understanding o the Atomic Age, the film may have something significant to say about this, after all:

See, nukes are the only way that Americans can think. If there is a world problem, we feel like we have to throw the military at it, even if everyone (including the people in the movie) think it's a pretty bad idea. Watanabe is the only one who suggests just letting the monsters duke it out, because a nuclear alternative isn't even a conceivable option. It should never be considered. Instead, he knows what kind of movie he's in - you gotta let the monsters sort this out on their own. We're at their mercy. The Americans in the movie need to get used to their military being completely outclassed, and thus the audience needs to also re-learn (especially after Godzilla '98 reversed this), that we have less control over this planet than we'd like to - and can't just nuke our problems away.

There's also this delicate balance of camp vs seriousness. Again, the Americans in the movie keep trying to make it a more serious, Battle: Los Angeles (2011)-style military adventure, but the Japanese are trying to just let it be a goofy monster mash. It ends up being a bit of both, but that works. At the end, Godzilla roars, having been anointed and earned the honorific, King of the Monsters - and he's hear to stay. Now, how do we get a King Ghidorah appearance?


  1. Interesting. There film is constantly making visual comparisons between military attire and Godzilla. The meta narrative of this film is simple: Godzilla is the military, and the military is a moral beast that will cause collateral damage but nothing stoic citizens cant deal with

  2. Jaws is a classic case of the empty signifier. It's job s to represent all the possible ill's of society. Godzilla has more to do with Vietnam films and pays homage to Apocalypse Now.

  3. You may be on to something there, they did make Godzilla a whole lot more explicitly green, even though most of Toho's rubber suits ranged around the dark grey area.

    That relationship between Cranston and his son seems to get at this - he's ostensibly anti-military, if only because he believes that they are hiding something, while his son is all-in. Since the film ultimately makes Ford Brody into the hero (at least, the human hero), and Cranston no more than a martyr, it's more leaning towards this pro-military stance.


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