Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla” (our review) did so well this weekend (almost $200 million worldwide) that by Sunday they had already announced a sequel was in the works. And of course, with a massive opening like that, it’s to be expected. The monster movie is a triumph, at the very least, for director Gareth Edwards. His directorial career started with “Monsters,” a super lo-fi, low-budget monster movie about an unlikely pair of strangers trying to travel from Central America to the United States, in a world (and particularly the border of Mexico), now infested with gigantic creatures, that resembles a police state.
Having little to no budget, Edwards had to rely on characters, dynamics, chemistry and inventiveness: the filmmaker and former VFX helmer had to use his disadvantage—not really able to show his creatures—to his advantage. And cleverly he did, only showing the creatures in small bits, from the characters’ POV and playing coy with the monster throughout until the very end (and even then you only got dark, rare glimpses of them). It totally worked, and if you’ve seen “Godzilla” and are reading this you’re hopefully thinking, “Damn, that’s exactly what he did for his new kaiju monster film,” because he adopted the same methodology for “Godzilla.” And good on him for making such a successful leap from small indie to gigantic tentpole; this risk pays off in many respects.
But “Monsters” was Edwards’ baby. He wrote it, directed it, acted as his own cinematographer and was the head production designer on it; this was his world and his vision. Consequently, “Godzilla” is much the same, it feels mostly like a unified vision and from a filmmaker who’s likely going to be ratified with a modern day auteur stamp any minute now if he hasn’t already. But where “Godzilla” drifts away heavily from the filmmaker is in the writing.
When you’re a studio that has a $100 million-plus project on your hands, you bring in the big guns and then it can often become writing by committee or writing to fulfill certain trope obligations. And while Edwards worked closely with his writers, there are quite a few hands that the script passed through. Dave Callaham is credited with the story and Max Borenstein is credited with the screenplay—only one screenwriter isn’t so bad, right? True, but Frank Darabont also did a uncredited rewrite of the film and we’ve been hearing that at least one more well-known young and popular auteur did an uncredited rewrite as well. And this is where “Godzilla” really starts to lose focus and some of the ballsy gambles in the movies just don’t work. But “Godzilla” is here and not going away. We thought we’d take this opportunity to take a look at what worked and what didn’t in the latest iteration in this movie about the King Of All Monsters. Suffice to say there will be *spoilers*, so please don’t read until you’ve seen the movie.
“Godzilla” has its heart in the right place. This is a would-be intelligent and inventive summer tentpole in the vein of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Rian Johnson. Never does “Godzilla” feel like a cash-in. Its first act is a long set-up and investment in the story; the movie isn’t just about monster fist-fights, and the film, while not always successful, at least aspires to something ambitious and awe-inspiring. In other words, Edwards is a well-meaning, genuine filmmaker who brings a big level of authenticity to “Godzilla.” It (almost) never feels silly, it has an air of drama, real stakes, consequences and global implications. This is intended as serious filmmaking and we hate to bring up Nolan again, but it feels cut from the same cloth; to take a fantastical subject and treat it with honesty and respect in hopes of translating something genuine to the audience. In that regard, “Godzilla” mostly succeeds.
While “Godzilla” DP Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement,” “The Avengers”) has spoken out about 3D recently—“I think it’s very much a marketing gimmick. As a cinematographer I absolutely despise it”—he’s done it before. Most notably during “The Avengers,” with McGarvey noting in the same interview that shooting native 3D on the set of that blockbuster movie lasted one day. While “Godzilla” wasn’t shot in 3D, it is being released in the format (converted, of course), and while it’s not particularly enveloping the way films like “Hugo” and “Life Of Pi,” it doesn’t hurt the movie either. “Godzilla” looks appropriately dark in trying to shroud its mysterious, camera-shy monster, but it’s not oppressively dark or tenebrous to an affected degree. The movie looks good and the POV style—you mainly see the monster from the human’s perspective, which means legs and tails and not full view—might be frustrating to some, but it feels natural and realistic.
We’re not going to argue here at all about “Godzilla.” His look is more classic than groundbreaking and that’s totally OK—there’s no point in fixing what isn’t broken. The visual effects are top notch, and Godzilla looks really gigantic and immense. Particularly cool are the “fin scale” shots when he’s swimming to shore. The visuals are really impressive and perhaps more importantly, feel realistic to the world of the movie around it. And give a shout out to the sound design, too, which helps make for an immersive “Godzilla” that goes far beyond his iconic roar.
The Action/The Fights
While some will argue there’s a paucity of fight sequences in the early stages of “Godzilla”—the first battle between the M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and “Godzilla” appears off screen on television—it’s a smart and inventive tease of what’s to come. When Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s finally throw down in the ultimate battle for global supremacy, it’s through thoughtful filmmaking that doesn’t lean on volume or fast camera moves. Quite the opposite, in fact. The camera is largely still and from afar so you can absorb this unholy spectacle, which is a nice counter-intuitive choice. Particularly when compared to most blockbusters that don’t know when to sit still.
The Cast, Minus One Particular Guy
Even going back to “Superman: The Movie” where Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando co-starred, the idea was that including top-notch actors in your popcorn spectacle would elevate your (potentially silly) movie and lend it some gravitas. From Tim Burton‘s “Batman” through the Nolan years, that idea has been leveraged over and over again. And it’s smart thinking that “Godzilla” takes it to heart: fill your movie with excellent actors and not only will you not strain credibility, you’ll make for an involved world with emotional and dramatic stakes that leave you all the more hooked and engaged. The terrific cast of “Godzilla” certainly do that, especially Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe. Unfortunately, none of these characters have a lot to do or are wasted in the movie ultimately, but let’s at least give props to the casting choices and their performances (about as good as they can be given the circumstances of the plot).
“The Hidden” Godzilla
One of the chief complaints leveled toward Edwards’ movie is the “hidden” nature of “Godzilla.” The audience is nearly taken through two full acts of a movie with no monster in plain sight, until things really get moving in the final third. Well, less is more and Edwards knows that. While most studio thinking is that you want the movie to open with an action sequence and the King of the Monsters kicking super ass, this one leaves you wanting more, and endeavors to the put the audience in the shows of the masses looking up to see Godzilla on the horizon. “Godzilla” adopts the Spielberg-ian “Jaws” m.o.—tease your monster, show him in bits and pieces and then unveil him for the finale. And Edwards’ orchestration of that is quite strong and runs counter to most blockbuster thinking. Of course, there’s a reason why it’s not as classic as “Jaws,” but we’ll get into that further down the piece.
Alexandre Desplat is one of the world’s greatest composers, and landing him for “Godzilla” is just one of the many ways the Legendary Pictures‘ movie tries to hire top-notch talent across the board, be it a DP, the cast, and terrific below-the-line craftsmen. But Desplat’s score isn’t really that memorable, and even forgettable at times, especially when compared to his run of incredible scores. But worse, the movie seems to cross that fine line between melodrama and melodramatic as there are a few times, especially during crucial moments, where the music goes too big and overwrought. Don’t get it twisted, Desplat’s worst score is still better than most, but by his standards, it’s certainly not his best.
For the first thirty minutes or so, “Godzilla” creates a world you’re willing to invest in and care about. A tragic disaster hides a bigger conspiracy, tearing a father and son apart, with the drama spread across two continents. But after all that time and consideration spent creating an emotional backstory and achieving a deep investment in the characters, this is all mostly ditched for what becomes another ninety minutes or so of people staring at radars, staring with concern at the horizon and asking, repeatedly, where the monsters are (it’s basically the cinematic version of “Where’s Poochie?”). After Bryan Cranston’s death (which we’ll get to), the audience gets an exposition dump by Ken Watanabe on a military ship, and the film ostensibly switches gears to focus on Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But even that isn’t quite true. “Godzilla” essentially becomes a military action picture, with everyone always seemingly arriving just a couple minutes too late after the slow moving monsters have destroyed something. Granted, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance doesn’t help matters, but he (and the rest of the cast) can only do so much with what they’re given. How much can you ask of Elizabeth Olsen if she spends most her performance on the phone or waiting for the phone to ring? How much can one expect of Ken Watanabe, whose sole job seems to be standing out of frame, only to walk in every twenty minutes or so with grave worry or concern? One wishes that writer Max Borenstein (and all the ghostwriters) had given the characters and story as much the texture as the monster’s skin.
Killing Cranston And Making Aaron Taylor-Johnson The Lead
As we mentioned, “Godzilla” does a great job in the opening, giving us a character in Bryan Cranston committed to unveiling the truth about the event that killed his wife (a fantastic and complex motivation), though still deeply haunted by her death, and exiled by his only remaining family, a son who has grown up under the shadow of his father’s obsession over the one day that changed both their lives.
It’s far richer stuff than you’d expect in a monster movie, and for a moment, it looks like Cranston’s damaged but driven character will be the conduit through which we’ll witness the rise of the rebooted “Godzilla.” Nope. After spending time making us care for him, Cranston is killed off—rather dismissively at that—with the POV baton passed to his son, Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. And this could’ve worked had the son carried on his father’s duty, exposed what really happened and grew closer to the man he despised growing up, even if after his death. However, Cranston’s demise is so anticlimactic (and mostly off screen), it’s essentially a baffling non-event. Had the movie tried to leverage his death for peak emotional impact, perhaps it would be easier to swallow Ford Brody becoming the new lead. But with little in the way of motivation and emotional transference relayed between father and son, the movie really drops the ball with Cranston’s death.
The script then ditches most of the elements surrounding Cranston’s character, and instead focuses on Ford Brody doing his soldierly duty, while getting back to his family. The screenplay is so unfocused that at one point, Ford is randomly saddled with a lost Asian child to care for, after the little boy gets separated from his parents, only for that kid to exit the movie as quickly as he came in. Nothing Ford does has anything to do with the first act of the movie, which undermines the character work and strips the film of any thematic or narrative weight.
Character And Emotion In A Monster Movie
Let it be said, that a movie always tells you what it wants to be. One of the chief complaints about the criticism against “Godzilla” has been along the lines of, “Well, you’re not supposed to care about the humans and it’s a monster movie, what did you expect?” Well, frankly, we didn’t expect anything other than hopefully a good movie. Which is what we hope for each and every time, no matter how good or bad a movie looks from the outside. Make no mistake, “Godzilla” does want you to care about it’s characters. It asks you to invest in its world. So, it’s strange to blame the critic that then finds the movie disappointing when it abandons all its rich character melodramas in favor of something more substandard. As explained above, the film lays out clearly how it wants you care, think and feel about the environment and people it presents, and for reasons that are rather baffling, discards it all, when really, it could have taken all of that along for the ride in the same movie we all experienced. Imagine Bryan Cranston living and having to come to terms that this creature—that he wants to expose and probably kill because it’s at least partly responsible for his wife’s death—will be better for the greater good of mankind because it will defeat the M.U.T.O.s. Imagine, the already embittered and been-through-emotional-hell Cranston putting his own personal baggage aside to help the monster while his son Ford is having his own simultaneous journey to disarm the bomb and get back to his wife. There is a much more layered and textured version that could’ve been explored, but a different, less challenging path was chosen.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Ford Brody
Can you remember the last time critics gave a movie good reviews, but said its lead was totally bland, terrible and forgettable? That’s what happens in “Godzilla” and it’s clearly not a dealbreaker for some, but it sure makes for a boring second half of the movie if you at all care for the characters, their dilemmas and emotional baggage. The first problem is that Bryan Cranston outclasses Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a major way (an actor we’ve never disliked before, but one who just seems sorely inadequate in this movie). As does Elizabeth Olsen even over the phone (she’s terrific in her small scenes and acts circles around him). The second problem is that Taylor-Johnson’s character is completely underwritten and is more of a cypher for the plot. “Godzilla” begins as a character-based movie and then becomes a plot-based one—Ford Brody simply exists to be the military man or the one human to disarm the a nuke and represent “society” fighting alongside Godzilla while he goes toe to toe with the M.U.T.O.s, but his character is bland and one-dimensional, and thus the movie suffers. There’s been defense of this approach; there are grave casualties to the individual when a global calamity strikes. So that might be the point of Cranston’s death, but the execution of it simply doesn’t work and alas, you’re largely left with one person to represent the audiences’ window to Godzilla, and this guy is pretty damn anonymous and uninvolving.
“The Hidden” Godzilla
Again, in theory, we love the idea of the camera-shy “Godzilla” you only see in small doses, because less is more, but the problem with adopting the “Jaws” method is you’ve got to adopt it all the way. “Jaws” succeeded because it had actual characters, people you cared about and terrific narrative drive and focus. “Godzilla” doesn’t have that. It splits its time (and the difference) trying to subtly suggest Godzilla is the hero of the movie, and then having one boring human act as the man to help him. So who is the actual lead? Godzilla? Ford Brody? Aside from the cool fights, do you actually care?
The Atomic Fire Breath Doesn’t Really Work In This World
Borrowing a page from the Christopher Nolan book of approaching pop culture myths and heroes, “Godzilla” takes the basic premise of what would happen if a giant lizard actually rose from the sea and applies it to real world setting. And this mostly works …to a point. While the filmmakers present what a logical military response might be, we don’t really learn all that much about the monster. We do know that he lives deep in the water to be closer to the radioactive core of the planet (or something), and he emerges to restore balance to the planet when two other monsters go around slowly destroying things, trying to mate and lay down babies from glowing wombs (or something). It’s all a bit hazy, but since this is a monster movie, you’re willing to roll with it. But even that leeway has its limits. When the climactic battle occurs between Godzilla and one of the M.U.T.O.s (who look borrowed from “Cloverfield“), and our hero monster unleashes his atomic fire breath, it’s a bit out of place. We don’t know much about Godzilla, and while it might be part of the canon, it isn’t clear at all how he harnesses this ability, why he didn’t use it earlier or even where it came from. The way it’s written is a convenient inclusion of the genre tropes, but with little context or explanation. Despite having his name in the title of the movie, not only is Godzilla not seen for much of the movie, by time the credits roll and he swims back into the sea, we don’t really know all that much more than Bryan Cranston did at the beginning of the film.
Thoughts? Agree or disagree? Be sure to weigh in below.