By Arturo R. García
It could have been a lot worse.
Gareth Edwards’ bid to not just revive, but redeem the Godzilla brand — at least, on non-Japanese shores — didn’t steer clear of every pitfall we discussed late last year. But Edwards and writers Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham and Frank Darabont should be credited for at least getting the adaptation part of their duties right.
Finally, the 1998 American abomination can rest in ignominy. The creative team for this installment eschewed the usual wink-nudge “blockbuster” tricks and managed to combine the best bits of some of the character’s past incarnations together into a monster that’s a little familiar, a little scary, and truly in command of the screen once he appears. That there’s already a sequel coming isn’t surprising, but that this preamble makes you look forward to it is, and pleasantly so.
SPOILERS under the cut
Discussing what works in this story means discussing what it is not — most specifically, Pacific Rim. As we noted in our discussion of that film, these two films use nearly completely contrary characterization structures. PacRim was a mecha film — closer to the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Gundam Wing than the Toho Studios legacy. It was a story about humans rising to the occasion against a blunt threat, and it delivered on that front, with style.
Godzilla films, on the other hand, are about seeing how far the titular character can and will go in a fight. Unlike the otherdimensional beasts in PacRim, his enemies and allies have been treated as members of a rubber-suited ensemble — which Edwards has acknowledged in name-dropping Destroy All Monsters as an inspiration.
Humans in these movies are there to deliver exposition and act as seconds for the monsters. Thus, maybe the most common complaint about any given kaiju film boils down to Too Much Human. And it’s one that, unfortunately, this film can’t avoid, which makes it awkward here for Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. As Ford and Elle Brody, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are shoehorned into ill-fitting protagonist roles without the benefit of characters strong enough to generate the right level of viewer investment.
Taylor-Johnson has a slightly better time of it, mostly because Ford has something closer to a story arc: his parents’ deaths are directly connected to the rising kaiju threat, and his expertise as an Army bomb specialist makes him useful as the battle wears on. So when he provides Godzilla with a helping hand in the form of a well-timed explosion, that particular moment isn’t unearned.
Unfortunately, practically everything else for the character is. None of the calamities Ford suffers — the loss of his parents (Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, making the best they can of getting thrown in the fridge), his separation from Elle and their son, and coming, quite literally, face-to-face with creatures that defy our understanding — seems to register. It’s not strictly Taylor-Johnson’s fault that the story doesn’t allow Ford even 30 seconds to process what’s going on, but it is troubling that he shows more warmth in the scenes where Ford saves a stranger’s son than in any interactions with his own.
But at least Ford gets to do that much; as a character, Elle is given nothing to do but seconds of fretting at a time in between action sequences. She represents a missed opportunity on two levels: as a nurse, her character could have been a way for the writers to show us the human cost of the devastation spreading west besides the rather impressive-looking wreckage. And while the matter is out of her hands, her half of the viewers’ “human interest” couple is drawn especially flimsily compared to the women of the Godzilla films of the Heisei series in the 1990s, who were consistently positioned at the forefront of the action while allowed to have their own reactions to the chaos du jour.
Speaking of Western, it’s also disconcerting to note that, despite acknowledging the character’s Japanese ties — Edwards’ story, like some other entries in the franchise, is presented as a delayed sequel to Ishiro Honda’s 1954 starting point — and setting a fair amount of its action in Hawaii, the only POC character who isn’t seen taking orders is Ken Watanabe as the weary Ichiro Serizawa. There’s moments where Serizawa threatens to slip into Mystical Asian Man territory, since he spends more time acting as Godzilla’s herald than providing useful analysis. But there’s something about the look he gives Godzilla at the end of the film that might justify this characterization. More on that in a bit.
But let’s not repeat Edwards’ mistake. Because the monsters he and his team deliver are as impressive as their humans are rote. The key additions, it turns out, are the MUTOs, a nasty couple who hold up just fine alongside any member of Godzilla’s rogues gallery.
With flat heads, fiendish eyes and screechy vocalizations, the MUTOs are instantly, legitimately creepy. In a particularly nervy move for a post-Fukushima world, they’re introduced as the cause of a nuclear disaster. And they’re a sight to see once Edwards finally allows the monster mash to unfold. Even if the outcome is never really in doubt, you find yourself wondering just how Godzilla is going to win, and that’s worth commending. Also, it must be said: as on-screen couples go, the two computer-generated MUTOs display more believable chemistry than poor Taylor-Johnson and Olsen.
That the MUTOs are so easy to hate makes the creative team’s handling of this new Godzilla stand out even more. While the film’s overall look and tone is reminiscent of the no-nonsense Heisei films (including, curiously enough, the critically-lauded Gamera trilogy of that era), this Godzilla is nearly as much of a do-gooder as his Showa Era incarnation.
It’s one thing for Serizawa to call this Godzilla an agent of the planet itself. But nobody could have expected the new King of the Monsters to behave this generously toward the humans in his wake. This Godzilla allows the human Navy to trail him like a dolphin would friendly scuba divers; he only barrels through the Golden Gate Bridge after the military begins firing on him (and Edwards makes sure not to show any humans being killed as the beast does so); and when he leaves the site of the battle, Godzilla makes sure to do so through a fortuitously-placed corridor of prior damage, quietly slipping back into the ocean.
This might also be the most vulnerable Godzilla we’ve ever seen; the MUTOs are formidable enough, sure, but it’s still a little jarring for the fight to make him not just collapse, but lose consciousness for hours afterward. The upside is, knowing this Godzilla is beatable made it worth the cheer when he unleashed his fiery blue breath once again, particularly in the fight-clinching kill. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see this Godzilla throw dropkicks or take flight. But for now, let’s at least cling to the hope that he’ll retain his predecessor’s energy-conversion trick.
Hope, by the way, is what appeared to be behind that look from Serizawa toward Godzilla as he made his way back to the sea. It’s the most interesting thing about his character as this series is now confirmed to move forward. We don’t know exactly what his organization, Monarch, was up to aside from ill-advisedly “studying” the MUTOs. But he feels connected to monsters in a way his harried assistant Vivienne (Sally Hawkins, also underutilized) does not. That demeanor, as well as his group’s disturbingly well-staffed mining operation in the early going, suggests that Monarch will provide the means for a reborn Mothra to emerge.
A second movie, by the way, is the best possible news for Taylor-Johnson if he wants to dig deeper into the Ford character. The shared look between Godzilla and Ford toward the end of the battle — not quite friendly, but definitely not hostile — is definitely something to build on. And with this universe’s America sure to demand action following this conflagration, placing Ford at the wheel of a new Mechagodzilla would add necessary stakes to their next encounter.
And if you’re a Godzilla fan, even talking about these possibilities, as well as Edwards’ alleged vision for a revamped Destroy All Monsters battle royale, is something worth celebrating. Edwards and his team have given the brand, the franchise and the character perhaps the best 60th birthday gift of all: he’s once again relevant in a manner closer to Honda’s original vision. The King is back. Long may he roar.