I remember liking Gareth Edward's 2010 “Monsters” a lot less than some of the other giant monster reviewers on the Internet. In fact, the crux of my review is this paragraph -
The problem isn't that the characters seem only peripherally connected to the monsters - they aren't connected at all but there's a general feeling of unease once Andrew and Samantha are forced to cross the infected area because a night of tequila drinking and stolen passports costs them two seats on the last ferry - It's that we don't really learn enough about the characters outside the events of the film to give a rat's ass about whether they make it.
Perhaps not ironically, this paragraph fits exactly into Gareth Edwards' “Godzilla” without any editing whatsoever. Admittedly the tequila and passports thing doesn't happen in Godzilla, but the main human character making his way through monster destroyed sets very much does. In fact that is 90% of Godzilla, and Godzilla not interacting with the characters at all is the 99% of Godzilla.
We begin with some grainy test footage a-la Bikini Atoll, and other Pacific test sites with Godzilla's fins fitted into the shots, before long we get to spend a few minutes with Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody) and Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody) as workers at a Japanese nuclear power plant that is experiencing strange seismic tremors. Before you can say, er... “Tremors” an earthquake shuts the plant down but not before Juliette Binoche dies.
Jump ahead a completely unnecessary 15 years when Bryan Cranston's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is back from a tour in Afghanistan and married to Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and has a kid named Precious Snowflake (or something) because he's in the film solely to facilitate Elle seeing monsters on the news. Anyway, Ford isn't home for even long enough to give Elle a once over before word comes in from Japan that dear old dad has been caught in the “Restricted Zone” again. Ford jets immediately off to Japan from San Francisco to bail pops out of jail, while there he gets roped into heading back into the same restricted zone.
Restricted Zone? Shades of Monsters... In fact, once Godzilla gets lumbering along there is a lot of Monsters in here. Gareth Edwards doesn't have enough flicks under his belt for trademark scenes yet, but he's working his way there. We have -
- Formerly inhabited wasteland
- People on boats moving slowly through flooded city ruins
- Spring loaded cats
- Extremely irritating main characters
- Spring loaded cats
Okay, that last one was sort of a joke but only just barely. This time both of them are arrested, but not before learning that the nuclear power plant that was supposed to be shut down for radiation leakage is still operating and that there is no radiation leakage in the city ruins. Why this is a revelation is anyone's guess, but Joe makes a point to show it as if he is just putting 2 and 2 together. Once arrested they are taken to the nuclear plant where Dr. Serizawa is overseeing the care and feeding of a giant seed or egg or something.
Back in the plot, now 15 years older than where we started, before you can say Bryan Cranston's dead, he's dead, but not before finally revealing the depth of his mania. See, he's figured out that “something” was “out there” and that “you people were covering it up.” He keeps going back into the ruins of the town around the nuclear plant because he needs the zip disks with the seismic data from 15 years ago to prove to the world that “something is out there.” This sort of irritating ambiguity should probably be on the punch-list up above, but I am being charitable because one of the things I like about Godzilla is that Gareth Edwards doesn't give us yet another origin story... at least not for Godzilla. I like to think there was some discussion at Legendary Pictures along the lines of “We really need today's audience to learn where Godzilla comes from so they can have an emotional connection to the toy line and video games we will be releasing in conjunction with the film” and Gareth Edwards said “There are 29 films already. Fuck off.”
Once Ford is alone and trying to get back to Elle and Precious Snowflake the plot of the film is pretty much revealed and it's right there at the beginning of this sentence. Yes, for all the monster mayhem promised in the trailer this is a bigger budget, fewer Mexicans, non-romantic non-comedy version of Monsters.
But we don't come to monster movies for that stuff we come for monsters and at least the monster work in Godzilla is good, though we are still stuck with gray CGI monsters fighting at night, in the rain, and barely engaging in any wanton destruction for destruction's sake. Like in Monsters, the monster action is kept way in the background. Even when the title monster is on screen it's usually on another screen, like a TV that some useless peripheral character (Elle) is walking past, or better yet, that no one is watching at all.
This is a trick that was first perfected in Cloverfield when 10 seconds of the entire 90 seconds of monster time was displayed on a TV in a Radio Shack that the main characters walked past. This technique is known colloquially as the “I am too much an auteur to make a cliched monster film so I will separate the audience from the monster film to remind the of the artifice of film and the fleeting nature of life...” When I type that it sounds like Inspector Clouseau speaking, just saying. Which, colloquially is long hand for “I don't like Monster Movies and I know you don't either but Legendary Pictures gave me 300 Million Bucks and I couldn't get a romcom script to Jennifer Anniston.” That is still longhand for “Screw you Big McLargehuge.”
There are other folks in the story here, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) who has almost enough lines to make me wonder why they had him in the film at all, and Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) who literally exists in this film to describe the things we have just seen and the things we are about to see from the military perspective. He exists solely in one set, a submarine bridge, that looks like something from a SyFy Original Pictures Special Presentation.
The score here by Alexander Desplat is completely unmemorable and he never manages to work in ANY of Akira Ifukube's well known Godzilla score elements in the proceedings. This was sort of a double letdown too as, like in 1998l, Godzilla's voice was changed too and gone was his trademarked roar.
The script by, well by the time he wrote this, one time scriptwriter Max Borstein would have been better if he, I don't know, watched Toho giant monster movie or two or at least pepper executive producer Yoshimitsu Banno (of Smog Monster fame) about what he knew of monster movies. But it appears that this was not done and so we are left with Godzilla. A bunch of awesomely huge plot holes too, but this isn't a Hall of Shame review so you can go find them yourself. I'll give you a hint, they start right after the credits. Someone should sit both Max Borstein and Gareth Edwards down, even Clockwork Orange style, and make them watch Shosuke Kaneko's Gamera Trilogy.
Now those are monster movies!
Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate this film though, I just didn't like it.
It was an admirable choice to create a new monster for Godzilla to kill and not fall back into the Toho stable for someone like King Ghidorah or Mothra. Instead we get the MUTOs, an acronym for Monstrous Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, representing two monsters, a male and female breeding pair of parasites who eat radiation and that at one time did battle with ancient prehistoric Godzilla monsters in some far flung age. It would have been great if the monsters were any color but slate gray, but I am so tired of saying that and so expecting of monotone monster visual boredom now, like gray cars on the road, I barely notice anymore.
This time the nuclear angle is completely abandoned other than as a food source for the MUTOs and there is no central metaphor that drives the film further into the depths of drama. In 1954 the Godzilla was a metaphor for the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1970's Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster the Smog Monster was a physical embodiment of pollution, Mothra was nuclear testing, Rodan was rapacious mining. Admittedly the metaphor thing was sometimes super-thin, and some of the best films in the showa series were the space invasion ones where there wasn't any metaphor, but here though, somewhere in the last decade at least, monster are no longer representative of something bigger than humans, they just are bigger than humans.
Cloverfield, Monsters, Pacific Rim, Godzilla... Al of them full of sound and fury signifying nothing. I close this out with another spot-on paragraph from my review of Monsters:
The monsters, like in Cloverfield, are aloof to mankind and our weapons, mostly. They don't seem to want to invade cities and flatten stuff, but it happens. They are like big dinosaurs I guess. And since the cast isn't really interacting with them, it doesn't matter.