Saw the new Godzilla today. Short review: I didn’t care for it.
It’s tempting to compare and contrast the film to other kaiju films, both recent and classic, but I reject that choice. I think such comparisons are completely fair, but they also muddy the waters. I could hold up classic Godzilla films, Pacific Rim, and (my personal favorite) the Gamera, Guardian of the Universe trilogy, and I could explain why each of these films are superior to this non-starter of a blockbuster, but I think Godzilla fails rather spectacularly on its own so there’s no need to get into such debates as “Who did it better?”
The short answer is that EVERYONE did it better.
I’m hard pressed to find a kaiju film that I find more uninteresting than this latest offering. I could fall back to Godzilla’s Revenge, which is mostly a clip movie, or Godzilla versus the Sea Monster, which rank among my least favorite. But even these films, for all their flaws, understood that I was there to see Godzilla. Strangely, the movie bearing his title seems damned determine to hide its title character at every opportunity. That might even work if the movie eventually had a payoff, but it doesn’t.
Before I get too deep into this review, a few disclaimers.
DISCLAIMER ONE: It’s just one opinion.
Yes, I have a very negative opinion of this film. You might not. That does not make us mortal enemies.
DISCLAIMER TWO: I am territorial.
Yes, Disclaimer One acknowledges that we are all different people with different tastes. Nonetheless, as a lifelong kaiju fan, I have a lot of time and energy invested in the genre. As such, I’m going to talk like I’m an expert. I’m going to tell you why what I believe is right, and while you are certainly free to disagree, I will tell you that you’re wrong. Because kaiju and Godzilla mean a hell of a lot to me.
Right there, I know a lot of you are going to say you like Godzilla too, but unless you can give me a rundown of the monsters in his universe, a synopsis of the various films, and an understanding of how all the different series fit together, it’s safe to say you’re a dabbler in the kaiju genre. And that’s okay, but I’m here for deeply invested reasons.
If you’re looking for an argument, you need not read further. I’m always up for a healthy discussion, but so far, there’s no argument that’s convinced me this is a good film. It is an unremarkable blockbuster at best and a dreadful kaiju film at worst. Maybe someone will come along and convince me otherwise. Good luck with that.
DISCLAIMER THREE: It doesn’t offend me.
I’ve written a lot on some really bad movies the last few years. I have a deep seething dislike for Star Trek: Into Darkness, Skyfall, and Tron: Legacy. I am still morally repulsed by Man of Steel, a movie that was an actual serious blow to my faith in humanity. I’m not saying that as a joke either. I still get enraged when I think about the dragging through the mud of Superman as a concept and a character and how that film managed to strip every worthwhile element of Superman in favor of a generic carnage-fest that is more horrifying than any horror movie I’ve ever seen.
Godzilla, on the other hand, is just a dull, average movie. It disappoints me, but it doesn’t enrage me.
With those points clear, let’s get to it. How does Godzilla fail?
FAILURE ONE: It’s a tease with no payoff.
Much has been made of the film’s deliberate coyness when it comes to Godzilla’s presence. The movie is very slow to introduce our hero, and when it does, it often pulls away just as things get interesting. This is a deliberate choice, and sometimes, it works. There’s no reason to pull out the big guns immediately, and the traditional structure of such stories is to tease the audience. I wasn’t irritated the first time the story turns away from Godzilla. Or the second. Or the third. But by the fourth, my patience was nearing its end. By the fifth, it became clear that the film simply wasn’t interested in Godzilla. He wasn’t merely a supporting character in his own movie. He was a distraction. If the filmmakers could’ve inserted a faceless tornado in the middle of the proceedings, they would’ve been happy to. Any indifferent natural disaster could be jammed into the kaiju hole in this plot, and it wouldn’t really make a damn bit of difference.
I equate this as the worst sort of failure. Strangely, if the film had elected to just have Godzilla rampaging through the city, it might even have worked. If the story was about people trying to survive as a monster walks among them, then Godzilla is a less interesting by design. He’s an obstacle in such a story, not a character. But this film chooses to cast him as some sort of savior figure, a heroic monster determined to defeat the villains. As such, his conflict should be given some attention.
Imagine if The Avengers cut the scene every time our heroes were assembled. Instead of watching the Hulk punch a space dragon, we’re treated to a view of a television watching that punch from a helicopter. When Iron Man wrestled a nuke through a portal, we cut to a group of civilians staring up at the sky. We’re told, through second and thirdhand sources, about the awesomeness that’s happening. But we don’t ever get to see it. Not really.
This is a movie where we get perhaps five or six solid punches from Godzilla captured in frame, front and center. We see Godzilla charge his foes on multiple occasions. We see monsters clash. We never get to actually see the payoff though. We know that somewhere out there, kaiju are engaged in titanic struggles, but this is never real. It’s always at a distance, and because we never see it, Godzilla’s battle and triumph come across as merely an afterthought. Godzilla wins. Movie’s over.
I keep trying to create other genres where such a violation would be seen as interesting. A martial arts flick where every time our hero gets into a fight, the scene ends. A love story where every time the characters are about to demonstrate their affections, the film cuts to a scene of butterflies. A space adventure that takes place entirely on earth, where the spaceship battles are always just out of frame. This is the reason that EVERY OTHER KAIJU MOVIE EVER MADE is better than this one.
Granted, this is how we seem to like our stories now. We’ve grown out of enjoyment for the fun elements and are all too eager to substitute the dull because we mistake it for sophistication. This is why James Bond has lost his gadgets (and his competence), and Spider-Man runs around fighting vague villains with vague goals but also is sure to feel bad a lot so that we’re reminded it’s okay to enjoy this as “adults”.
But there should be a point when there is a reward. Eventually, Godzilla should deliver a spectacular showdown. It doesn’t. I’m hard pressed to find a memorable moment for The King of the Monsters. The movie attempts to deliver these moments now and then, and it only stumbles every time. For me, the crowning moment of disappointment is when Godzilla first employs his atomic fire breath. The movie dramatically unveils his glowing spines with an almost reverential grace. It was at this moment that I was still ready to believe there was something here. Then he spits out a little bit of blue butane flame, and his enemy doesn’t disintegrate or get blasted across the city. No, the bad guy just shrieks and moans a little.
Like all great stories, memorable moments are what make or break a film. The classics, even those films that are admittedly dated and silly, have something that’s worth remembering. Every great Godzilla movie has a moment, many usually, where you can say this is WHY this film exists. The culmination of the story, and everything that we’ve been working for. When Godzilla kills the first MUTO, it’s so sudden and uninteresting that I honestly didn’t think it could be that simple. One strike? That’s it? This is what I’ve been waiting for?
I’m hard-pressed to remember any interesting action between the kaiju in this flick. Sure, Godzilla collapses at one point, looking exhausted, and I can only assume that he’s down because of the battle he’s taking part in. But there’s no moment when you see that damage. When Godzilla rises at the end of the film and heads off into the ocean, we’re supposed to feel some sense of triumph. Yet he doesn’t seem to have any wounds, and his triumph took place almost entirely off screen except for a few final seconds we are privy too.
FAILURE TWO: Boring Monsters
I wasn’t expecting to see Gigan, the cyborg space chicken with a buzz saw in his chest, or Orga, evil alien parasite. I knew that the MUTO’s were far less likely to be interesting characters because if they were truly memorable, they’d have been featured more in the advertising. It isn’t surprising that a film so disinterested in its monsters creates such uninteresting monsters.
First, there’s Godzilla himself. We don’t see him nearly enough to make him interesting, and when we do, it’s only fleeting glimpses. It’s something of a standard in kaiju flicks for the monster to stand revealed in all his majesty, brimming with unstoppable power. Here, Godzilla is a tail, a foot, a neck. He’s a collection of parts and camera angles. He never seems like anything more.
One side note: In Japan, they consider the new design to be “fat”, and while I wasn’t sure I agreed, I realized I simply didn’t see it at first because the film is so reluctant to show Godzilla as a whole unit. When we finally do get a long shot of the big guy (and the very, very end of the movie), he is indeed a round beast. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t care how fat or not-fat Godzilla is. It bothered me because it illustrated just how little there is of Godzilla in this movie. We often hear people complaining about CGI and special effects substituting for character, and this couldn’t be more true. Godzilla isn’t a character. He’s a CGI shot, out of focus, to the side. His motivations are unclear. His attitude is blank. Is he mad? Is he merely following programming? Does he care at all about killing these monsters, or is it just something he does because the writers were too lazy to give him an actual motivation?
Seriously, it’s not that hard. Godzilla’s motivations are incredibly simple. He’s here to kick ass. Maybe it’s because he seeks out conflict (Godzilla 2000). Maybe it’s because he’s looking for a safe place to lay his eggs (‘Zilla). Maybe he hates Japan because he’s the embodiment of all the angry Japanese soldiers’ restless spirits (All-Out Monster Attack). This movie doesn’t even give him that much.
Worse than Godzilla himself, there are the MUTOs. There are two of them, but they aren’t given any distinction beside one being smaller and flying. Their heads are incapable of portraying any semblance of expression. Their bodies are gangly and uninspired, and they have nothing to convey how they might fight or behave. Say what you will about King Ghidora, but the guy knows how to make an impression. He charges into battle with his three heads, spitting lightning, and destroying everything in his wake. Hell, even Mothra has her singing twins and tendency to die and respawn in cocoon form. What do the MUTOs have going for them? Nothing. They’re blanks. They have no distinct powers, no special abilities. They don’t employ interesting tactics. They seem to be rock stupid.
That stupidity is a strike against them as characters, but also makes their inevitable defeat all the more uninteresting. Their lack of personality means that Godzilla (a virtual blank himself) is fighting against two other complete blanks. It’s as exciting as watching three guys you don’t know pushing each other around for five minutes. Except, again, you don’t actually get to watch. You’re too busy looking in the other direction, watching people who are watching.
FAILURE THREE: Almost nothing in this movie matters.
By treating Godzilla as a subplot, the movie ends up making us spend a lot of time with people and scenes that don’t add up to anything. This isn’t a damning objection in itself. Many a kaiju film (especially kaiju versus kaiju) have the human cast as filler between battle scenes, but they don’t mistake it for anything else. For all the complaints ‘Zilla gets leveled at it, the human characters matter. Their actions have a direct effect on the plot and to remove them would change the course of the story significantly. Other movies like Godzilla 2000 have the humans there mostly to explain the complexities of the plot that monsters can’t really do without human help.
The humans are set dressing in this flick. They accomplish squat. The only possible exception is near the very end when our central human protagonist destroys the MUTOs’ eggs, thus possibly distracting one as they gang up on Godzilla. This is subjective, and a better movie would make a stronger point about this. But this is a movie where giving clear story beats is against the rules.
When the story takes time to make a scene seem important, it drops the ball consistently. When a tram is attacked by a monster, our human protagonist is there to save a little boy. There’s an awful lot of build up for that, which doesn’t add an ounce of drama to the scene. As if we’d be perfectly fine with watching a boy (or anyone for that matter) fall to their doom if we didn’t spend five minutes with them beforehand. And when the boy has served his purpose, he’s tossed away without much concern.
We see the female protagonist running to shelter. She’s never in any danger. To its credit, the film doesn’t seek to put our protagonist’s wife or son in contrived jeopardy, but then we’re left asking why the hell are we watching these people? Even the protagonists IED expertise exists merely to justify his presence in the final scene, but he doesn’t actually do anything interesting. Anyone could’ve finished the job.
The movie is filler, and every time it’s almost NOT filler, it always turns away toward more filler. It’s something of a cliche to watch nameless hordes of people fleeing from a rampaging monster, but that’s ultimately all this movie is.
Is Godzilla a terrible movie? No. It isn’t guilty of equating realism with sophistication (i.e. Skyfall). It doesn’t have nonsensical, artificial conflict and contradictory plotting simply in the service of false drama (i.e. Into Darkness). It isn’t a corruption of character (Man of Steel) or concept (Tron: Legacy). It is chiefly guilty of being an empty confectionery made by people who really should know better. It’s got talent behind it, but no soul. And that’s a real shame, but not terribly surprising.
But it didn’t have to be so damned determine to be boring about it. It didn’t need to take the King of the Monsters, a cinematic icon, and create the most bland, generic version of him to do so.
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