So I just saw Godzilla, and I thought I’d write up a quick impression of the film. Fair warning, spoilers may be ahead.
I can’t really say what I was expecting of this movie. I really like the giant monster concept, but I can’t say I have that much experience with giant monster media. Still, watching this film I came to the realization that a giant monster movie is really a blend of two other genres: the disaster film, and the superhero film. In a disaster film we watch to see humanity overcoming extreme circumstances, and to see a crisis bring out our noblest impulses, plus it’s cool to see buildings blown up. The superhero film lets us enjoy a large scale mythic conflict, and throwing people through buildings is also cool. A good giant monster movie will blend these two elements. Does the movie do this? Well, I’m not sure.
THE BAD THINGS
Women in Refrigerators: This is probably the worst thing in the film for me. Female characters in this movie don’t DO anything. One character fits the trope perfectly; she dies simply to give motivation to male character. The other female character never really does anything during the film except react. Her whole point in the story is to show her worrying about the main character. Her scenes could have been skipped entirely without even removing her overall impact from the film. So, empowering to women this movie is not, as feminist Yoda would say.
Bad Acting: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody) is not a good actor, or at the very least not a good actor in this. He looks here like he popped out of the same clone batch as Tobey Macguire and Jake Gyllenhall, and spends the entire movie looking like he is about to cry. This man does not come off as a badd-ass EOD specialist. He wears the same stupid expression throughout the film. Maybe he just couldn’t give a shit because it’s not an arty enough film. Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody) really knocked it out of the water. Sadly, many of the more interesting characters are not the main character. I found Dr. Sherizawa particularly compelling, and I would have liked better insight into his background and motivation rather than following around a very bland American main character-kun.
Stupid Decision-Making: There are multiple types of decision making by characters in movies. Good decision-making is when character makes a choice that makes sense according to the character’s personality, their goals, and the information they have at the time. Now, these choices do not have to be the right choices, as tragic decision making can be a powerful dramatic tool and sometimes things don’t go as expected. But when a character should know better, and does something very stupid when the solution is obvious to anyone else watching, and there isn’t a strong narrative reason for the decision, it just ruins the movie. At best it can ruin sympathy for the character; at worst it snaps disbelief like dry cracker.
Thankfully there are only one or two really bad moments compared to some recent films, but they still got to me. First, the military sends jets to deal with the creatures at one point. The creatures are known to send out EMP bursts when threatened or just because. These then knock out all of the jets systems and cause them to crash. I can just see the pilot trapped inside screaming “Oh how could we have prevented this entirely foreseeable event! Such tragedy!” You would think some form of jet with EMP shielding, or using a helicopter which can autorotate to safety if disabled, or just not using flying vehicles.
The second time is when the bridge is being evacuated. The authorities need to move people off the bridge, but have closed off three lanes of traffic so they can send in tanks. The tanks are there to back up the destroyers waiting in San Francisco Bay. Why? What do you think the tanks are going to do to things that get through the destroyers, let alone the nuclear bomb Godzilla shrugs off in the opening?
Teasing/Trolling: There are several scenes in the movie where you think you are about to see a cool giant monster fight, or giant monsters doing ANYTHING for that matter, and then you don’t. The film cuts back to the human characters, or reveals the monster is already long gone. It gives you crumbs of what you want, but the actual scenes are few and far between. There is something to be said for letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the gap, but there is also the principle of show, don’t tell. I didn’t want the suggestion of Godzilla; I wanted to see the whole thing!
That’s Not How Radiation Works: The movie is sort of riddled with science fail, but I can’t be too disappointed about that since Hollywood and the general public seem to have little idea how radiation works. Nuclear weapons for instance have relatively little radioactive material in them; their deadliness lies in their extreme explosive force. Likewise, there is no period where the earth was “10 times more radioactive”. Godzilla is of course a product of it’s time, and moving away from radioactive giant monsters I feel would hurt the core themes of the franchise. Still, some better education of the subject would be nice.
THE GOOD THINGS
Very Little Human Drama: I know this may not seem like a compliment, but there are a number of movies out there that we watch purely for spectacle. We want to see giant robots fights. We want to see a villain punched across the city. We want to see dragons crush Tokyo Tower. We don’t want to see some whiny little shit-hat deal with his girlfriend problems or trouble at school or inability to find a job. Not here. We paid for the fantastic, we don’t want the mundane. Done well, human drama can make characters more evocative and relatable, but so often these storylines feel like boring tangents that wander around without purpose. I don’t CARE about this kid reconciling with his estranged father; I just want somebody to punch something.
Godzilla keeps its human drama short, simple, and plot relevant. Every moment of it felt like it was relevant and organic to the story. The main character wants to get back to his wife and son, and survive the disaster. That’s it. No weird failing marriage plotlines, no purposeless bullshit, just dealing with the monster.
The Military Isn’t Evil: I’m not saying that the military is automatically a force for good, but the careless military that doesn’t care at all about civilian casualties has become a terribly overused trope. Militaries are ultimately forces meant to protect their home countries, and if they can’t be driven to care about the people of those countries they would do a poor job of protecting them. In Godzilla, every action seems to be taken with the idea to minimize human casualties. Even the stupidity on the bridge is done in the name of saving civilian life. So kudos to the writers for that.
Cool Scenes: The movie has several cool scenes, some of which don’t even involve the monsters. There is a fairly awesome sequence of a HALO jump taken by the main character and others to try to get around the monsters’ EMP fields. The scene is very well done, and nifty looking. Monster fights are quite nifty, although I do wish their had been more of the actual fighting shown. Godzilla is awesome in battle though.
Sense of Scale: The movie does a really good job of getting the sense of scale for the action right. The movie opens to this vast, vast excavation, and I feel that sets a certain tone of “bigness” to the whole film. Even the characters are usually shot from further away to make them look smaller. It’s a nice touch that I appreciate.
So how is the movie as a disaster film? It’s good, but not particularly compelling. The characters are bland, and you don’t really get to see them shine in any real way. You don’t get to see much of Brody’s higher nature (or lower nature, or anything other than I’m-gonna-cry-face) and no one really sacrifices anything. The spectacle is good, but most of that is off camera. We get to see effects, but not actions. So it’s a fairly meh film on that point.
How is it as a superhero film? Really good, but anemic. The conflict is huge, the scale is huge, and the action is awesome, but there is just so little of it. It’s a shame, because the fights are really good – the first time Godzilla breathes radioactive fire it’s incredibly cathartic – but the whole thing leaves the viewer crying for more meat. Please sir, may I have some more?
I do recommend seeing Godzilla in the theater, as a theatrical showing really suits something of this scale, but you may want to wait for cheaper showings. It is worth seeing at least once, and I anticipate some decent RiffTrax for it shortly. Giant monster fans should like it, but it’s certainly not a terrible movie, and should be reasonably enjoyable to anyone action-inclined.