by Kathie Smith
Since his immaculate nuclear conception in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, Godzilla has gone through many transformations, made evident in the barrage of tutorial articles preceding Gareth Edward’s blockbuster attempt to pull audiences into the fray of kaiju mania. Godzilla’s grave beginnings—a bold reaction to Japan’s subjugation to the imperious will of the United States’ atomic weaponry—fairly quickly morphed into populous camp, and finally in Ryuhei Kitamura’s Final Wars (2004), a gleefully meta moment of allegory and excess. The essence of this amorphous icon, however, has largely been a proprietary export of Japan, and a parallel phenomenon to America’s own imaginative realization of giant monster movies with films like Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. For better or worse, Ray Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus (from 20,000 Fathoms) failed to spawn the cultural sensation that Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya’s Godzilla did, making The King of Monsters ripe picking for a creatively bankrupt Hollywood system addicted to a tradition of big, loud, and wow.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Producers: Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, Thomas Tull
Writers: Max Borenstein, David Callaham
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn
US Theatrical Release: May 16, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Edwards’ Americanized episode in the serialization of the Godzilla fable, something of a geo-political re-writing of a fictional history, pays respect to its appropriated themes—from Godzilla, yes, but also from nearly every monster movie since—to the point of almost imploding if it weren’t for a well-conceived sense of spectacle. Unfortunately, Edwards is not content with a decent dose of well-informed kaiju extravaganza and attempts some dramatic pastiche (at the expense of actors like Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, and Elizabeth Olsen) that falls completely flat. Although this refab allows us to wash the bad taste of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version from our mouth, Godzilla is little more than another McSummer Movie.
Following an inspired title card sequence of partially redacted text layered over stock footage of nuclear tests (government secrets, oh my!), we land in the Philippines where Dr. Serizawa (Watanabe) and his assistant (Hawkins) inspect an underground lair (in the style of H.R. Giger, no less) of larger than life organic debris. The sheepish spoon-fed dialogue lets us know that “it’s not him” and, just in case you have your eyes closed, that one of the egg-like structures is broken “like something came out of it” while an aerial view shows a massive path from the cave to the ocean. Meanwhile, outside of Tokyo, a nuclear power plant under the lead of Joe Brody (Cranston) is receiving strange seismic readings that are too consistent to be an earthquake. An eerie reference to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami causing the Fukushima Power Plant disaster, a cataclysm overwhelms the plant causing it to completely collapse, killing Joe’s wife (Binoche), who also works there.
Flash forward fifteen years: the nuclear plant and the surrounding area is a cordoned-off military zone. Access is strictly denied for purported reasons of radiation and safety, but Joe, still grieving for his wife (and if you forget, occasionally he will blurt out the lines like “My wife died in there!”), thinks the government is hiding something and obsesses over finding the truth. Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who works for the military and now has a family of his own in San Francisco, has moved on but keeps getting pulled into his father’s fanatical mire. When Joe gets arrested (again) for breaking into the restricted zone, Ford’s wife (Olsen) convinces him that he needs to go Japan and help his father. Needless to say, Ford’s visit to Japan offers some proof that his father isn’t crazy as the government’s well-hidden secret—a massive unidentified terrestrial organism, a.k.a. Muto, that’s been sucking up all the nuclear energy—awakens, and it’s game on.
As it turns out, this Muto has been patiently waiting for its mate to hatch, clearing the way for an entire rookery of the giant bird-bug creatures. But Muto copulation will not be happening on Godzilla’s watch. While the US military wrings its hands over what to do about Mr. and Mrs. Muto and her swinging sack of glowing eggs, Dr. Serizawa (with his brow constantly furrowed while clutching his father’s watch stuck on 8:15 when a US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) insists that Godzilla will return to “restore the balance.” That balance, it would seem, correlates without any irony with the military’s objectives to destroy the Muto. And suddenly, Godzilla, once a powerful emblem of the dire products of war, has become an omniscient ally in battle and one that, by the end of the movie, is more worthy of our sympathies than innocent men, women and children.
If you forget the metaphors and the pesky characters, Godzilla has a grand monster mash that steals the show from the emotionally vacant story. The Mutos are an imposing vehicle for rousing the mettle of our hero, but nothing compares to the satisfaction (which I’m sure I share with many people) of Godzilla’s first full appearance and the camera traveling from toe to head just in time for the eruption of a mighty roar. Godzilla is done right in so many ways—his roar appropriately shrill, his spiky back fins arranged in three rows, his stance wide and trunk bottom heavy, and, just when he needs it, his glowing atomic power radiating up his back and out his mouth directly at the enemy. It’s too bad the rest of the film couldn’t have supported this minor success.
The teaser trailer released late last year—depicting a military free fall into San Francisco, red streams plotting the course of the soldiers through the dark and foreboding atmosphere, accompanied by the haunting music of György Ligeti— alluded to something of an elegant presage that, unfortunately, never fully materializes in Edwards’ Godzilla. Perhaps giant monster movies are no longer the place to pose big questions of existential anxiety or human culpability; that artistic legacy has been left in the hands of films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and, more pertinent to Japan’s contemporary nuclear anxiety, Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope. Godzilla, despite its patient monster-propelled fight for God and glory, is no more than a stocking stuffer to the summer season of movies that hopes to ingratiate itself to a larger tradition of movies that actually had something to say.