Godzilla rumbles through the city in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action adventure “Godzilla,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
The famous aphorism “you cannot step twice into the same stream” is often ascribed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, although the phrasing actually comes from Plato as an encapsulation of the Ephesian’s assertion about ever-present change in the universe.
Legions of kaiju fans flocked to theaters last weekend hoping that Gareth Edwards’ new film “Godzilla” would allow them to reconnect with the King of Monsters and relive the sheer giddiness they experienced when they first watched Ishir? Honda’s 1954 genre-kickstarter, the classic Toho film “Godzilla.”
In many ways Edwards’ big-budget, CGI battle royale fills the bill – but plot contrivances, stock characters, cliché drama and continuity errors tarnish what could have been a far more compelling story.
The original 1954 “Godzilla” featured a giant monster spawned by nuclear radiation. Its success in Japan and internationally launched the entire kaiju subgenre. Godzilla became a pop culture icon. Toho Studios has made more than two dozen feature films starring Godzilla, with titles such as “Godzilla Raids Again” (1955), “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962), “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (1964), “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” (1964), “Destroy All Monsters” (1968), “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” (1971) and “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla” (1974).
American filmmakers have also tried to cash in on the franchise. The first adaptation was “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” in 1956 – a film which incorporated footage from the 1954 “Godzilla” and added new footage featuring Raymond Burr. “Godzilla 1985” was also reconstituted from a Japanese film, “The Return of Godzilla.” Then, in 1998, Roland Emmerich helmed “Godzilla” starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. That film earned almost universal denigration from reviewers and left audiences wary of ensuing monster movie projects.
As Godzilla celebrates his 60th birthday with the release of Edwards’ new film, it is evident that audiences are ready to embrace the King of Monsters once more.
Edwards’ “Godzilla” opens in the Philippines in 1999. Two scientists – played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins – are whisked across lush, mountainous landscape to a mining operation where workers have discovered the fossilized bones of an enormous creature. There are also a couple of big sacs hanging from the ceiling of the cavern which audience members immediately identify as monster eggs – but no one in the mining crew has figured this out, apparently.
Fortunately, the scientists are as observant as the audience.
The focus switches to coastal Japan. Husband and wife Joe and Sandra Brody – played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche – work at a Japanese nuclear power plant. The two are concerned about a string of tremors and are on the verge of shutting down the plant when disaster strikes: the quakes – which the audience knows are most likely caused by a monster – result in a nuclear meltdown.
The action picks up 15 years later, with Joe zealously trying to access the quarantined Japanese town where he once lived to prove that the government is hiding the truth about what happened. Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who was a child when the meltdown occurred, is now an adult with his own family. Ford serves in the U.S. Navy as a bomb disarmament expert. His career choice is emphasized for reasons that will later become evident.
When Joe and Ford sneak into the not-so-secured quarantine zone, they get caught and taken to the one place most clandestine government officials would not want them to see: The place where they’re keeping the monster. On the upside, the audience gets its first glimpse at the monster.
Except, it’s not Godzilla.
Nope, this is M.U.T.O. – Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism – and M.U.T.O. is one ugly kaiju.
Things quickly start to deteriorate from this point as M.U.T.O. decides he’s through letting scientists – still the same ones played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins – poke and prod him and collect various specimen samples because, um, science. M.U.T.O. one heads out to sea to cross the Pacific Ocean, putting it on a course that will eventually lead to the most populous area on the California coastline. Following M.U.T.O. is the U.S. military, headed up by Rear Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), and another monster – good old Godzilla.
Before the big building-smashing, block-rocking climactic smackdown, a third giant monster joins the brawl.
Edwards makes the audience wait for his titular character. He provides a compelling backstory and allows the viewer titillating glimpses of Godzilla as the film progresses, but the slow-boil pace means the creature doesn’t dominate the screen until the third and final act. That titanic monster battle – no doubt forged by an army of digitizers – is the heart of the film. It’s worth the wait, and seeing it in 3-D is worth the extra admission price.
The utter splendor of watching Godzilla scrap with two malevolent kaiju, bulldozing San Francisco in the process, is gleefully dizzying for fans of the genre. The third act is absolute creature-feature paradise.
Getting to that pinnacle, though, is hard work. Edwards’ “Godzilla” suffers from many basic storytelling foibles.
While the audience is waiting for the hardcore action to begin, Edwards tries to fill space with human drama. Unfortunately, his characters are underdeveloped. The Brody family suffers an emotional loss early on in the movie – but the grief of that event is conveyed in a formulaic sequence that diminishes its potential power.
The two scientists – Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) – are little more than stock characters. Serizawa spends most of the film grimly censuring humanity for its arrogance while Graham obedient concurs and looks terminally apprehensive.
The characters the audience cares about don’t get enough screen time. Other characters – like Ford – never connect with the audience. In fact, the most empathetic character in the film is Godzilla.
As for plot contrivances, it is never explained why Joe and Sandra Brody are working at a Japanese nuclear power plant in the first place … or why Joe speaks fluent Japanese … or why all the Japanese workers at the plant speak fluent English. It’s not that it couldn’t happen: It’s that the only reason it seems to happen in this film is so that the action can eventually be redirected to American soil. Specifically, it sets the groundwork for introducing characters who are on site witnessing the devastation of San Francisco later on in the story.
Ford has to be the most fortuitous character in cinematic history. He’s in Japan when the first monster arrives and he’s there when it reawakens after a 15-year dormancy. He’s in Hawaii when it makes a pit stop to munch on a nuclear sub. He’s on a train in the middle of the countryside … you get the picture. Oh, and when the military needs someone to switch off a live warhead, he’s a bomb disarmament expert.
And then there’s the huge problem with the entire scene at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. One would think such a facility would utilize some form of aerial or perimeter surveillance.
The kaiju films of Toho Studios weren’t exactly Academy Award contenders. Looking back, the stories weren’t particularly high-caliber. The characters weren’t all that compelling. The special effects … well, let’s face it: The monsters were guys in suits. There’s a word for it: suitmation.
Despite its flaws, the new “Godzilla” is superbly entertaining. It manages to mix a conscientious – albeit muddied – message about hubris and unimpeded human folly with colossal scuffling monsters flattening large metropolises. Its slow-building tension makes it a fun ride – and its finale is a spectacle that is exhilarating to behold. The film’s impressive score, provided by Alexandre Desplat, definitely enhances its impact. Cranston is clearly the human star of the story, but others – particularly Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife Elle and Strathairn the admiral – give solid performances.
Edwards’ “Godzilla” provides substantiation of that aphorism “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Watching a Godzilla film as an adult doesn’t quite stir up the same level of astonishment as watching the old Toho films as a kid – at least not until the monsters start knocking over buildings and tearing each other to shreds.