Dinosaur Train Wreck: A Review of Godzilla
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.
23 thoughts on “Dinosaur Train Wreck: A Review of Godzilla”
Clearly you don’t know shit about Godzilla
As a fellow critic, and Godzilla fan, I must say that I disagree completely with your statement of this being the worst Godzilla movie ever made. I think the mood was captured very well. The characters could have been stronger, and yes we could have seen now Godzilla, but when the movie pays off, it pays off. I believe you’re getting to put too much reality into this review, complaining about empty characters. Look at every one of those Godzilla movie you mentioned. Those are filled with empty characters. Even the original. There are a lot of scenes in the original that could have been cut. Heck, the critics back then panned the film!
This movie at least took the army role better than that of Pacific Rim, which to me was kind of a big joke to begin with. I thought the creature designs on both MUTO and Godzilla monsters were great, intense, and the action worth sitting through a little story.
If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s your decision, but to call it one of the worst is just stupid. How you’ll put a film with some believable dialogue below a film with a sentence “Take that, you dinosaur.” is beyond me.
As a life long fan of the Godzilla film series (with the exception of ’98 which goes without saying) I had mixed feelings about your review and was following along right up until you said anything positive about Pacific Rim which was categorically awful in every way. I enjoyed this new Godzilla film. It’s not perfect but it’s a heck of a lot better then Pacfic Rim.
Poor review by a poor reviewer. This movie isn’t great but it’s no where near as bad as this inept reviewer is making it out to be. This review is kind of like the movie it’s reviewing: Very little review, way too much dialogue that goes nowhere.
Just another example of why reviewers are useless people. They contribute nothing.
I agree with all the critisms, particularly the very poor use of Cranston’s talent. Nevertheless, I was VERY entertained by the monsters and special effects. The creatures looked real and the fighting scenes were impressive.
Exactly what I thought, movie was too damn mushy
This is a very good review I must say and I appreciate the honesty and research that you have done. I plan on seeing Godzilla this weekend and after reading your review I definitely will watch it mainly because I am also used to those poor story line types that you speak of and I agree with the whole Crowd behind the scene affects that demonstrates what you are saying. One movie that comes to mind right away is 2012 because here we have the main actors in a plane and mean while the whole earth seems to be turning its self inside out , flipping entire pieces miles wide of the city like pancakes and people falling for ever into a great void with hardly any remorse or care to the nameless thousands that died but hey, their plane made it!. I am sure there are many examples of this in the movies and to some degree the stupidity is what makes some parts funny. What would a horror movie be without the guy or girl saying to them selves , Hey I know there is a monster some where so ….let’s walk into that dark room where I heard that noise. I feel this is a good example of the same thinking that works as well as those Generals that look like they would rather run away than fight. For once the audience doesn’t have to think of everything as today’s Media exposes us to an ever increasing knowledge of war and famine around the world and it is nice to just concentrate on one thing at a time. I don’t know about you but I hate films that get many stories happening at once and to the point that the film becomes annoying trying to follow it.
This is a monster I have followed since i was a kid and still love these films today!
You’re right on target here, in a way the makers of this film certainly weren’t. What struck me most, and disturbed me the most as well, was the way this film completely reversed the whole ideology of Godzilla. (Yes, most of the films have an ideology of sorts.) Whereas before, Godzilla, awakened by a nuclear bomb and thus powered by manmade atomic energy, served as a symbol to warn mankind about the dangers of nuclear technology.
Now, as you point out, some may have found such a message “offensive,” or counter to their ideology, but that is beside the point. The point is, the Godzilla movies, even the silly ones, could be said to carry that message. But with this film, it’s “natural” for the monsters to feed on radiation, and there’s the hope that nuclear bombs might kill these monsters. Thus, nuclear power goes from being something to be cautious about, to being natural and something potentially positive.
I’m not arguing that either view is “right,” just that this film reverses what had been long-standing and important symbols and context for the character of Godzilla to exist in, and did so in a movie that is, as you point out, just plain lousy.
On a related note…I think the more recent Japanese Godzilla movies have all been pretty amazing to varying degrees. I don’t understand why some enterprising American studio hasn’t just rereleased them here, and called it good. Yes, they’re still guys in rubber suits, but the effects are always top-notch and very engaging. They’re far, far better than any American “product” that’s been produced – including Pacific Rim.
This review entertained me so much. I watched it lastnight and couldn’t help but agree to every point made. It was terrible, far too cheesy but not even in a way that it made me engage with the characters and it was far into overkill. Godzilla spewing that blue gak? It made me laugh too hard to take this seriously. I felt like I was watching a human version of Pokemon.
Your best in a long series of excellent reviews.
Really? The worst Godzilla movie yet? Did you happen to see that piece of God awful crap starring Mathew Broderick? If you did ( and I can only imagine that you did ) and you think it was better than the latest Godzilla movie, you have freaking rocks in your head.
The point of a Godzilla movie is that there is a whole lot of cheesy stuff and semi-superficial characters leading up to a big monster fight. It’s not ever going to be movie worthy of an Oscar. But what we have to ask: Is the movie worthy and respectful of its legacy.
In this case: yes.
We have Godzilla, who is loved best when he is the hero, fighting two other monsters. We have the drama of wondering “will our hero win?” as there are moments when it looks like our hero will be overwhelmed.
And we have the view of these throwbacks to a prehistoric era from humanity. We only see the monsters when a human or other set of eyes on screen can see them. If they are unseen/unnoticed, we get no footage. We are part of the experience. The perspective is well done.
This is a classic Godzilla movie, but with effects that are more than rubber suits. Instead of a processed cheese food product, we get a proper cheddar.
Ultimately, the human characters are there only to give us someone to worry about specifically (and that Brody dude REALLY should have died, as many times as he was in a situation where everyone else bought the farm).
As a Godzilla movie? it is a great new addition. It respects its fans and its franchise. (unlike some I could name: Starsky & Hutch, Bewitched). It understands that these movies are beloved, despite the cheesy scenes of people looking terrified, and scientists trying to figure out how to fix it, and horrible special effects. They are beloved. This Godzilla has all of that. People looking terrified, scientists trying to figure out how to fix it…but with effects that make it seem grander. It is Godzilla, given a budget worthy of his scale(s). And Godzilla roars.
If you love Godzilla movies, truly love Godzilla movies, you will appreciate this one. Is it short on character depth? Yes. Are the originals shining examples of character depth? No. Ultimately, these are just the filler for a good, old-fashioned monster throw down.
This movie belongs in the Godzilla Pantheon (unlike the Matthew Broderick Debacle). It is a true Godzilla movie.
(and if you’re going to say that the 1998 Godzilla with Matthew Broderick is better than this, I don’t think anyone can take you seriously at all.)
Watched it last night. A very boring movie not worth the price of admission. The only character we could have cared about, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), dies early in the movie. The rest of the characters are forgettable. Rent Pacific Rim instead.
The movie is very well directed. The use of strongly foregrounded characters or things coming out or into the background make good use of the 3D. There is a scene of where the hero is in a vehicle that is rolled over that uses the tubular perspective to give the action real impact.
However, the script is pretty much as bad as the review says. Good direction can’t save it. By and large, the camera depicts the monsters as indifferent to the scurrying hordes of people, interested only in each other or in radioactive substances. There is a complete randomness to the deaths of unspecial characters.
As to the moral aspects, the way that viewers are supposed to feel about the characters, it is true that the script insists that only some characters are worthy of emotion. This is not immorality I think but a different morality. When drones of the American empire kill people, it doesn’t matter. Movies and TV shows like Godzilla are only reflecting a world in which “we” the American people act as though only certain designated people really matter.
I think any pure Fan of the Godzilla franchise will enjoy and appreciate this movie. A lot of great reviews on this site, well, except for the author of the article…a little too negative.
This is a silly review… this movie fit well with other Toho creations, in that it could bend the rules of reality to make Godzilla fit. Godzilla wasn’t dancing, he wasn’t talking or flying with his breath. The only issue I had is that they hired a person from Wal-Mart to wear the suit. The enemy monsters were perfect, I didn’t expect an enemy monster at all, which was a pleasant surprise. The design had elements of Megaguirus, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan, Biolante, and Orga all wrapped into two specimens… Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (for those that weren’t paying attention to the film). I was actually pissed before going to see it, I was ready to type up some hate mail before watching it. I felt they would try to go the more “realistic” route like GINO, but they pulled through. I am pleased with it, just not the look of Godzilla, whoever designed THAT should be fired. What the reviewer has to do is sit back, and CHILL THE F OUT! Short fight scenes? Final Wars ring a bell? It could have been way better but failed, we saw a bunch of dumb crap human vs alien fighting. This isn’t the best Godzilla, but it is far from the bottom of the stack.
I agree with most of what you said. And I appreciate the homework and analysis you performed to support such thoughts. Most audiences completely miss the point of movies nowadays. “For Godzilla still might have something worthwhile to say, if placed in the hands of someone who is actually willing to say something.” is the best line of your review, to which, I completely agree with. This new Godzilla flick made me appreciate a master like Del Toro and Pacific Rim. PacRim never was more than what it wanted to be, and it that regards it succeeded. It was about the monsters and the robots and a side of humanity. I wish Hollywood would stop ruining films, I hope they never make Akira or even make an attempt at any Ghibli films (which I’ve heard rumors of).
The mutos were sooooo generic with no life or purpose it was depressing. Starship Trooper bugs had much more personality. Really, aside from a few beautifully shot sequences and Godzilla breathing “fire”, there wasn’t much more purpose or reason to the film. Godzilla didn’t stand for anything really.
Disappointing. Its the only way to describe this movie. Obviously nothing can compare to the original, but for many fans this was to be the redemption for the 1998 Godzilla which failed to capture audiences. Like the 98′ film I left the theater feeling hugely disappointed. The first hour and a half is just disjointed scenes of actors over emoting (as Rolling Stones review pointed out) with very little involvement from the tittle character, while military muscle men run all over the place not getting a whole lot done. Lets not forget that even though we didn’t physically see jaws for half the movie his presence was felt all the way through, not the case with this movie. By the time the climactic battle took place it seemed that Brian Cranston had been in a completely different movie. I was also disappointed in how Godzilla looked. His form was a huge upgrade over the 1998 film literally he was much bigger, and he looked like the old Toho Godzilla, but he also looked fat and old. This Godzilla was so out of shape he literally collapsed at the end of the battle and took a nap. I’m not sure why that was the image of the “king of monsters” that was decided upon for this film. I have to bring up the elephant in the room that no review i have seen seems to want to tackle. The imagery of mass destruction and towers falling was not only reminiscent of 911 but seemed taken straight out of CNN footage from the attack. I understand that Godzilla is a harbinger of natural destruction and a certain amount of chaos is implicit, however the images of buildings collapsing an fire men rescuing people out of giant piles of rubble as jets fly overhead is just stomach churning and brings my memory right back to ground zero. They really could have used more tact in the imagery they depicted. Overall I found the new Godzilla to be a huge let down and can only sum it up with the word, disappointing.
Thank you for a spot-on review that plainly articulates the many shortcomings of this movie. The idiot director is hoist by his own petard of seriousness here with your banality of evil holocaust comparisons. So so true about Hollywood Suits and crowds vs. individually manipulated heroes.
“much more screen time is devoted to that actor’s face than to the film’s purported star, Godzilla”
— The man’s got jokes!
Well, your view isn’t shared by all.
Godzilla works best when he is the anti hero. You don’t want the big guy to be around, but he will defeat the more dangerous entity.
Great review that is spot-on. A far better giant monster movie is The Host from Korea.