It’s always struck me that for as long as “big summer tentpole movie season” has been a thing, it generally starts on or around my birthday. It’s probably only contributed to my raging sense of self-entitlement that every year Hollywood seems to present me with a bright, shiny gift of special effects and noise. This year in particular seemed to have me in mind, with Gareth Edwards much-publicized Godzilla remake/reboot/apology/do-over hitting screens. I suppose I should thank Edwards for giving me such a nice gift, though not because the movie’s good, but because it should be piss-easy filling up a column talking about everything wrong with it.
The film stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as a military bomb disposal expert (who spends most of the movie with this flat, confused look on his face that kept reminding me of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) whose crackpot dad is trying to prove that the government is hiding something at the site of the nuclear plant he used to work at, before it was destroyed under mysterious circumstances. Of course, he proves correct, and the duo are captured trying to break in. By -astonishing- coincidence, this happens on he same night that MUTO, the monster that destroyed the plant, finally re-awakens and escapes. Mankind’s only chance for salvation is Godzilla, who has apparently just been chilling in the ocean for the past few decades not bothering anyone and doing crossword puzzles, and the Big Guy emerges from the ocean to save the day. Now, if we just saw him get to do more of the saving, we might have had a decent movie on our hands.
The movie has a lot of problems, but when watching it, the one that came back at me most, that had me sighing with frustration constantly, was the very overt sense that Gareth Edwards just wasn’t that interested in making a monster movie. We’re constantly cutting away from the action, seeing the aftermath of rampages, or returning to the human characters, to the point that the first hour and a half is one long exercise in blue-balling. When Godzilla finally makes his triumphant grand entrance (no less than almost halfway into the damn movie) and lets out a triumphant roar, we immediately cut away to Johnson and co-star Elizabeth Olsen’s kid watching it on TV. The film keeps denying us any kind of significant monster action. Not even fights, just basic scenes of destruction and chaos as some overgrown blob of CGI smashes stuff, is that too much to ask? You could call it a bold directorial choice, but you could call walking into a biker bar dressed like Twilight Sparkle bold too and I seriously wouldn’t advise either.
Perhaps if the human characters were at all interesting and likable, I wouldn’t mind watching them rather than thousand-foot tall atomic monstrosities wrestling to the death (I mean, hypothetically) but what we get instead is a collection of mostly dead-eyed homunculi. Johnson spends most of the movie wandering around with his mouth ajar, constantly in the middle of the action and usually for contrived reasons. Bryan Cranston is the closest you can call a standout, but sadly he isn’t in much of the movie. Ken Wattanabe plays the token-est of token Asian characters, unable to say even the simplest thing without pumping it so full of mystery and woe that he sounds like a raving crackpot most of the time, like Emmet Brown if he were half-asleep and drunk.
As a general moviegoer, Godzilla often left me frustrated or outright bored, often denying me the effects-driven spectacle I came here for in favor of bland characters doing uninteresting things. As a hardcore fan of the Godzilla franchise and character, though, I’m even less charitable.
The Big Guy’s gotten a new origin, one that completely strips him of any previous role or symbolism. Rather than being created by atomic testing, a true monster of mankind’s own creation, his existence is now entirely natural. Godzilla, the film now tells us, is from a time when the Earth was far more radioactive than it was now, a species that went dormant after retreating from the surface to get closer to the core’s radiation. The only one left, our hero, was awakened in the 50s by atomic submarines. Any and all connection to atomic testing (which we learn were actually attempts to kill it), and Godzilla’s role as a symbol of man’s nuclear folly coming back to haunt them, gets chucked down the tube like a used condom.
Now, the nuclear allegory is something that’s grown more and more distant since Ishiro Honda’s original film, but to completely strip away that aspect of the character feels inescapably wrong to me, especially in light of the new role haphazardly thrust upon him. When someome pushes him onscreen, Wattanabe will usually slur something about him existing to “restore balance”, of course without explaining why, or what the “balance” even is. Is Godzilla a savior? A giant, green guardian angel? Sure, it’s been done before, but when mixed with his new origin as a natural organism, something just doesn’t seem to work. If he’s a natural organism, why is is role to safeguard mankind? Maybe if the film had stressed his ambivalence more, treating humanity as a nuisance at best, and avoided painting him as a hero towards the end, the film overall would have felt less ideologically muddled. He needed to step on more people is the best way to put it.
When Godzilla finally actually gets going, and the film decides we’ve been patient enough to actually see some monsters fighting, it works. Even if we’re still constantly cutting back to Kick-Ass defusing a bomb or whatever, I’d even call it enjoyable. But it takes so damn long getting there, and the violent changing of gears in Godzilla’s role and origins seems spectacularly mishandled when you think about it too hard.