When it was announced in March 2010 that Legendary Pictures acquired the rights to produce the Godzilla property from Toho Co., there was very little reason to get excited. Godzilla amassed a massive worldwide fanbase, but North American Studios haven’t treated Gojira too kind leaving a poor feeling of expectation among these fans, at least.
The History of Failure
Most fans’ exposure to a major North America studio reboot was the disastrous Ronald Emmerich 1998 version, Godzilla. However, the history of mishandling of this property stretches back the original 1954 film, Gojira.
Jewell Enterprises managed to gain the international rights of the classic Japanese monster film and wanted to bring it to an American audience. Instead of remaking it for a new audience, they write in a new character into the original script played by… Raymond Burr (?!)
Through careful editing, Jewell used a vast majority of the original movie’s footage and shot some new scenes involving Burr’s character. That footage was edited into a “new” version of the original movie and released as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956).
As an editing experiment: it is impressive to see. As a film: this awkward production dilutes the themes of nuclear devastation, which gave Gojira depth not found in other monster movies. The Godzilla (1998) reboot is arguably worse (and the less said about that movie the better). If Godzilla fans wanted their monster fix, the best way to do so is binge the Japanese movies ending in 2004 with Godzilla: Final Wars.
When the project came together, fans had more reason to be optimistic. Young indie filmmaker, Gareth Edwards was hired as the film’s director, coming off the heels of the critically acclaimed monster film, Monsters. He assembled the cast of Kick Ass‘ Aaron Taylor-Johnson, The Last Samurai’s and Batman Begins’ Ken Watanabe, “Scarlet Witch” Elizabeth Olson, and “Walter White” himself, Bryan Cranston. The production seemed determined not to repeat the mistakes of the ’98 Godzilla. When the teaser was released, everything looked like it was going to be great for the giant lizard.
Do you remember the feels you got when you saw that?
A True Reboot
Edward’s Godzilla received mostly positive reviews: 74% on Rottentomatoes (average score of 6.6/10) and a 62/100 on Metacritic. It was a box office triumph for this franchise and grossed more than $529 million worldwide, prompting the start of Legendary’s “Monsterverse.” Godzilla would be followed up by Jordan Vogt-Robert’s Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Michael Doughtery’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters late this month along with the forthcoming Adam Wingard-directed Godzilla vs King Kong.
By the measure of the film industry, Godzilla is a success–no defense necessary.
Since its release, Edward’s Godzilla has faced a bit more of a mixed reaction from audiences scoring only a B+ on the industry standard audience-scoring site, Cinemascore (which doesn’t sound bad until you consider the Fifty Shades of Grey sequels scored the same number).
Common fan complaints of the movie include “Too little of Godzilla” and “Uninteresting human characters and a slow pace.” Respectfully, I think we are missing out on a well-done blockbuster, one that has a vision and feels massive in scope. Let’s dig into why this Godzilla is the reboot for which we were all waiting on.
Why It Works
In the modern age of film making, studios are increasingly reliant on big brand-name blockbuster hits with massive opening day weekends. With a bigger demand for these movies, more inexperienced directors or studio directors without an authoritative voice are being placed in the middle of these huge scale productions.
From Jurassic World to the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, it is hard to see film making of any true style or point-of-view. The action scenes feel cookie-cutter and lack rhythm and impact. Just compare Jurassic World to Jurassic Park and you can see the level of difference in the film making (and you can do that with the Pirates series as well).
The 2014 Godzilla has everything that many forgettable big-budget films lack–the voice and visual aesthetic of director Gareth Edwards.
Edwards already showed great promise behind the camera with his largely inventive low-budget monster movie, Monsters, and he brings that sense of indie flair to big budget film making. (Rogue One anyone?) He isn’t afraid to play character relationships purely in visuals and applies mastery to scale.
How many movies have you watched where you knew the budget was massive but you never felt that sense of scale? Even many of the Marvel movies (as good as many of them are) don’t feel as grand and massive as they probably should.
The Amazing Spider-Man cost $230 million but the digital sets and effects look fake and the film feels small when it should feel big. Meanwhile, Godzilla cost $160 million and it looks like it costs double that.
Before Edwards made Monsters, he was a visual effects artist, so he knows how visuals effects work and how to best utilize them. Edwards manages to get every visual effect shot not only by making things look big, but also grounding them in a human perspective. He places people and other objects in the frame next to the big monsters to give everything a sense of scale and weight.
When Edwards first tilts up to Godzilla’s first reveal at the airport, the only word that could escape my mouth was, “Wow.” Edwards also brings in just the right amount of handheld aesthetic that helped make Cloverfield feel so intense without having to conform to the rules of the found footage style.
Edwards also uses this opportunity to give this movie a feeling of foreboding and horror The halo jump (see the teaser above) feels like the characters are descending into hell and Edwards is able to communicate ever inch of that drop into the pit. He learns the right lessons from his influences. Edwards cites Alien, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third as major influences over the film:
I grew up watching Spielberg movies, what they did so well — as well as having epic, fantastic spectacle — they made the characters feel real and human. We were trying to do the same thing here
Spielberg’s influence is seen all over this film. He always directed his action scenes with an acute awareness of suspense and horror (something he, no doubt, learned from one of his own film making influences, Alfred Hitchcock). Edwards elevates the action from a simple spectacle into something greater with a skilled touch. Combine the Spielberg influence and Edward’s sense of scale and you have a monster movie that few can rival.
The Human Character Criticism
Although it might seem a contradiction to talk about the human connection in a movie that has been mostly criticized for any character that isn’t played by Bryan Cranston, that is precisely missing the point of the movie.
Not only does the movie have a much stronger command of its characters than what is suggested, but also the human’s eventual lack of impact on the finale is entirely the point. The original movie in 1954 was a metaphor for the atomic bomb and nuclear destruction (and there is a little bit of that here). Fifty years later, this movie is more about the order of nature and futility of mankind.
We like to think we are above nature and in control of it, but we really aren’t. This is entirely why we always see the monsters and the fights through the human perspective. We would see these events through news networks, cell phone footage, and from the ground where we wouldn’t have any effect on the battle.
Simply put, nature is bigger than us.
One could make the argument if the characters don’t have enough of an effect on the outcome of the story then what’s the point? That is a flawed argument though.
First, you need human characters. Without them, the point of the movie is lost. Next, the human characters have a different theme by dealing with family. From the film’s opening 15 minutes to the last frames, the movie shows our main character Ford (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) literally watching as his family be destroyed.
Throughout the movie, he is trying to get back to his own family to make sure his current family doesn’t face the same fate as he did as a little kid. Along the way, he saves a little kid and helps him reunite with his family, something he never got to do when he was a child himself.
Ford has one goal–reunite with his own family, which gives his character and the movie an emotional center that people claim it lacks. Edwards doesn’t miss a beat trying to highlight this goal which always makes it strange to me when people claim the human characters have no agency (although I’m willing to grant this, Elizabeth Olson’s character is more of a plot device). Ford’s family is separated in disaster both at the beginning of the movie and also towards the third act. He doesn’t change nature but he can save his family, something his father wasn’t able to do. Lots of good parallels.
The (Lack of) Presence of Potential
But let’s get to the main criticism of this movie, the lack of Godzilla and the slow burn nature of the film.
Now, sure I would like to have seen more Godzilla as well but Edwards shows remarkable restraint in holding back. He forces us to realize showing more early doesn’t work as well with the thematic structure of the movie. Perhaps the movie teased Godzilla out a bit too much, but ultimately the payoff is worth the wait.
The buildup works and the third act scenes of monster vs monster destruction are so expertly handled. Not to mention, the actual monster fighting is extremely crowd-pleasing giving this story the best of both worlds.
We have a strong viewpoint from Edwards: some bold choices, considerable restraint, the eventual crowd-pleasing, and massive scenes of destruction we all craved. There is no contradiction either because the movie remains consistent in tone; however, it is hard to deny how intense and terrifically staged is the final battle.
Godzilla is a force of destruction, just like he is in the ’54 version. He is also the hero in the nearly endless amount sequels Toho produced throughout the franchise. Going into the movie in 2014, I assumed it would be only Godzilla but I was pleasantly surprised to find this version had two other monsters (and if Guillermo Del Toro has taught us anything, you can never have enough monsters).
The design of the MUTOs isn’t exactly the most memorable aspect of the movie and probably won’t stand the test of time the way other Godzilla villains have (after all, the MUTOs feel like a variation on the Cloverfield monster). Although they aren’t anything special, they work and prove to be a worthy foe for Godzilla.
Unlike the 1998 completely divorced version of the famous monster, this felt like Godzilla. It was a unique take on the character. The design is familiar but a little different. And he finally looked so huge. It felt new; yet, respectful.
The 2014 Godzilla isn’t a perfect movie. The female characters don’t get a ton of visibility. And even though I think Aaron Taylor Johnson is better then many believe, he can be occasionally stilted in his character. Still, whatever minor issues this movie has, the movie has too many other things great about it.
This is blockbuster film making–something a filmmaker with a distinct vision, visual aesthetic, suspense, and thrills would develop for fans of a franchise. After enduring years of poorly redone North American versions of the character, here is a reboot that finally works.
I’m excited for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It looks like it is bringing its own visual aesthetic and viewpoint to the table with plenty of monster action and will continue some of the themes from this movie. Regardless of how good or bad that movie turns out to be, Edward’s Godzilla finally got the character right and managed to bring something unique to the series as well.