by Gary Westfahl
So, if you’re longing for the experience of watching an enormous dinosaur trample his way through a contemporary city this weekend, access your Netflix account, or find one of the few remaining DVD rental stores, and check out a Godzilla movie. Any Godzilla movie. The original 1954 film is, of course, a must-see, preferably the version without Raymond Burr (though his edited-in performance has its moments); films like King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla 1985 (1984), and Godzilla 2000 (1999) provide solid entertainment along traditional lines; there are bizarre, even disturbing efforts like Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991); some films are better than you would expect, like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004); and even complete disasters like Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), and the first American Godzilla (1998) are more enjoyable than the Godzilla movie currently showing in your neighborhood theatre, which is by far the worst Godzilla movie ever made.
Perhaps that is an overstatement, since few films are as risible as Godzilla’s Revenge or as laughably inept as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster; so let’s just say that if you’re holding a competition to determine the worst Godzilla movie ever made, director Gareth Edwards and writers Dave Callaham and Max Borenstein have definitely come up with a contender.
To explain what is so utterly wrong about this movie, one might begin by noting that it is inaccurately titled; truth-in-advertising laws would instead dictate that it be called The Adventures of Two Dull, Characterless Monsters That Look Like Rejects from Pacific Rim, and the Contrived, Annoying Personal Dramas of Ford Brody and His Late Mother, Father, Wife, Son, and the Cute Little Japanese Boy That He Briefly Adopts, Along with a Few Cameo Appearances by Godzilla. Oh, and there’s one more recurring feature of this two-hour ordeal that would have to be mentioned: And Ken Watanabe, Looking Concerned. Really, it is as if, in his very first scene, Edwards instructed the actor to “Look concerned” and never gave him another instruction; if he asked “Should I shout? Should I smile? Should I cry?” the director replied, “No, just keep looking concerned.” And if people leave the theatre with Watanabe’s doggedly concerned expression imprinted on their memories, that is because much more screen time is devoted to that actor’s face than to the film’s purported star, Godzilla, who is not fully observed until the end of the film’s first hour (as I can attest due to frequent glances at my watch, an inevitable response to boring films).
Regarding the story line that ties all these elements together, I will strive to explain the best I can, but if I make a mistake or omit some key data, please bear in mind that this is a film that seems willfully determined to keep its audience as confused as possible for as long as possible, and the explanations it does provide are belated, brief, and inadequate. Millions and millions of years ago, we are informed, the entire Earth was highly radioactive, giving rise to a number of enormous monsters that survived by feeding on radioactivity, doing this so efficiently that they could transform a lethally radioactive wasteland into a completely safe environment after a few years. (None of this accords with geological history or the laws of physics, but monster movies have never been strong in these areas.) As the planet grew less and less radioactive, these creatures migrated deep underground or underwater in search of more radioactivity and eventually became dormant. But gosh darn it, humanity went and invented atomic bombs and woke them up, beginning with Godzilla in 1954 and followed in 1999 by the discovery in a Philippines mine of another creature, a “parasite” of Brobdingnagian dimensions called a Muto, which stands for Monotonously Unappealing and Tedious Opponent. (Actually, it doesn’t, but does anybody care what it really stands for?)
This monster burrows its way to a Japanese nuclear power plant and causes a meltdown that kills Ford Brody’s mother, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche), and turns his father, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), into an obsessed crusader determined to prove that the government is covering up the real reason behind his wife’s death. Fifteen years later, another Muto springs to life from some nuclear waste buried in Nevada; at the same time, both the first Muto and Godzilla wake up again; and all three of them decide to go to San Francisco, since that neglected metropolis had been deprived of the company of enormous monsters since 1955, when it was visited by a six-armed octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (a film that bears some resemblance to Godzilla, but one could say that about many other films). The Mutos, one male and one female, want to mate and give birth to thousands of baby Mutos; Godzilla, who doesn’t like Mutos, wants to beat the crap out of them. The man in charge of the American military response, Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), thinks he can deal with these monstrous problems by setting off a hydrogen bomb near San Francisco, inspiring Japanese scientist Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) to look concerned (yet again); but it does mean that Ford Brody (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), a young army specialist in disarming bombs, may finally be able to actually do something heroic, instead of merely reacting to each violent event and constantly fretting about the safety of his wife, Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen), and son, Sam Brody (Carson Bolde).
If all of this sounds like an amazingly and unnecessarily convoluted way to set up the sort of monster-vs.-monster wrestling match that the Japanese movies routinely offered with much less effort, one might overlook the overlong prologue if the final battle itself was a masterpiece of drama and special effects; however, while the last twenty minutes are certainly better than the rest of the movie, they really aren’t worth the wait. And the entire film is So Dishearteningly Empty. In the Japanese films, even the awful ones, Godzilla actually stands for something: in the first film, he is a haunting representative of the damage inflicted by nuclear weapons; in later films, he mutates into a symbol of Japan, battling for his country’s values against various evils – totalitarian aliens, destructive pollution, soulless technology, and eventually, duplicitous Americans. The first American Godzilla film introduced the concept of the meaningless monster, who engages in colorful destruction and demands a military response, but the resulting conflict is nothing but mechanical melodrama, with all the evocative depth and significance of Mario striving to dislodge Donkey Kong. Still, Edwards’s film achieves the impossible feat of making viewers look back with warm nostalgia at Roland Emmerich’s execrable Godzilla; at least it was lively and kept Godzilla in the spotlight, and hero Matthew Broderick was far more animated and engaging than the woodenly vacuous Aaron-Taylor Johnson.
So, the question becomes, why is it that American filmmakers, blessed with enormous financial resources, state-of-the-art special effects, and long experience in making successful films, have been consistently unable to make a good Godzilla film, a skill long ago mastered by the Japanese? One problem is the desperate intensity with which profit-hungry American producers seek to avoid displeasing any potential customers. For this film’s story might have inspired any number of meritorious messages, but they are all studiously avoided.
Since radioactivity awakens the monsters and causes a catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, perhaps one might say something about the negative effects of the invention and use of atomic power; but no, a worried investor would point out, some Americans are big supporters of nuclear energy, and we can’t afford to offend them. (True, Watanabe sometimes directs his concerned expression at a pocket watch owned by his father which stopped on August 8, 1945, when he was killed by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, but neither he nor anyone else comments on the event’s significance.) A single remark from Serizawa involves the common notion that monsters like Godzilla represent the “revenge of nature,” fighting back against human degradation of their environment; but the subject never comes up again, as the filmmakers do not want to align themselves too closely with the tree-huggers. As the monsters’ destructive campaigns finally make them impossible to conceal, someone might have noted that the world would surely have been much better prepared to deal with these menaces if governments had not spent sixty years pointlessly keeping their existence a secret; but no, suggesting that our noble leaders might have been unwisely lying to their constituents is a bit too controversial. When Stenz prepares to set off his hydrogen bomb, Serizawa might have gone beyond his soft-spoken objections and started screaming at the general that he was about to stupidly slaughter millions of people with a weapon that couldn’t possibly be effective against monsters that feed off of radioactivity; but hey, we can’t allow anyone to criticize the brave, virtuous soldiers who are dedicated to preserving our nation’s freedom. Since condemnations of nuclear energy, humans damaging the environment, untrustworthy officials, and stupid generals were endemic in scores of earlier science fiction movies that failed to arouse a single complaint, one is utterly dumbfounded by the thoroughgoing timidity of contemporary filmmakers; and if they respond that they are only playing it safe, they need to be reminded that surely, in any creative endeavor, being completely risk-averse is the riskiest strategy of them all.
There is precisely one recurring theme in this film, and it is the most innocuous one that could be imagined: the importance of family values. Thus, Joe Brody is distraught over the loss of his wife and advises his son to value his family above all other things; Ford Brody accordingly can’t stop thinking about his wife and son and does everything in his power to get back to San Francisco so he can keep them safe; and while he is separated from them, as noted, the film provides him with a temporary substitute son to protect while the monsters are attacking Hawaii. Yet the film’s relentless focus on the Brody Bunch relates to another reason why this film, and other contemporary American films, are so often disappointing: their absolute inability, or refusal, to deal with collective tragedy. Surely, the most moving sequence in the first Godzilla movie is the television program that documents the innumerable casualties caused by Godzilla’s first attack and shows children singing a hymn to commemorate their deaths, conveying that an entire nation is mourning its incalculable losses. Even in later films that pay less attention to the catastrophic impact of the monsters, one always observes mobs of unidentified, terrified citizens fleeing from them, again emphasizing that something awful is happening to a lot of people even if we know very little about their lives.
But smart American producers follow their rule book, which states that you can’t make audiences care about crowds, you can only make them care about individuals. So, yes, in Godzilla, there are scenes where masses of people are running, hiding, and suffering due to the monsters, but at the center of every shot is Brody, his wife, and/or his son, because they are the only people that audiences have been properly programmed to care about. And at the end of the film, yes, hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans have died, but this is only referenced in fleeting images on television screens; Brody, his wife, and his son are safe and sound, and that, in the eyes of the filmmakers, provides their film with a complete, one-hundred-percent, happy ending. This attitude, of course, surfaces in other recent films like Man of Steel (review here ), wherein the battle royal between Superman and his Kryptonian foes may have caused millions of deaths, but Lois Lane is all right, and Perry White rescued Jenny from the rubble, so everything’s okay, right? And that is what makes these films so infuriating: they are not merely misguided, they are immoral. It is evil to tell people that what amounts of genocide is a matter of no importance as long as a few special people are protected. So, if the producers of Godzilla are now congratulating themselves on having successfully dodged all possible controversies, let them consider this: I’ve just accused them of endorsing the Holocaust. Well, yes, that’s an overstatement too, but maybe it will open someone’s eyes.
If there was one film I could force everyone in Hollywood to watch, it would be Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). It is a film without a hero; it is a film about a population of people who are being brutally oppressed; it is a film that, almost ninety years after its release, remains involving and incredibly moving; and the film convincingly demonstrates that filmmakers can, and should, make audiences care about scores of people that they have not been individually manipulated into liking. And if the 1954 Godzilla fails to match the emotional power of Eisenstein’s masterpiece, well, at least director Ishiro Honda was trying. The makers of this film aren’t trying, and they don’t even seem to be aware that they should be trying, which might in another context provoke a discussion about the “banality of evil.” (“What?” they might say. “Killing off half the population of San Francisco is an issue? Hey, we got nothing from our focus groups about that.”)
The other film that provides a damning contrast to Godzilla is Pacific Rim (review here), which is visibly a fond tribute to monster movies made by a director, Guillermo del Toro, who knows and loves them, whereas this film seems like it was constructed by a team of accountants consulting marketing research. Del Toro provides viewers with sufficient amounts of the monstrous battles they want to see, unlike Edwards’s infrequent and incoherently edited confrontations, and his story involves both collective effort and collective suffering. Pacific Rim is also a film with a provocative message, which is that certain forms of cherished technology, and certain forms of cherished entertainment, may someday become obsolete, and while that it is sad, it is also inevitable. Paradoxically, del Toro’s film was so well made that it made one long for additional monster movies, where Edwards’s Godzilla is so lifelessly irksome that it functions as a call for Godzilla’s permanent retirement from films. Perhaps, though, if he cannot get Pacific Rim 2 into development, del Toro might be asked to rescue the now-beleaguered King of the Monsters, or we could just return the character to the Japanese filmmakers who, unlike Roland Emmerich and Gareth Edwards, have always respected and understood this iconic figure. For Godzilla still might have something worthwhile to say, if placed in the hands of someone who is actually willing to say something.