Warning: spoilers below.
This past week I saw the newly released Godzilla film directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
The film centres around the emergence of an ancient and gigantic creature referred to as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) from the ruins of the Janjira nuclear plant that had been destroyed fifteen years previously. While military forces try to contain the creature at large, its activity attracts the predatory attention of Godzilla, a leviathan that had been awakened from the depths of the ocean in 1954. After failed attempts to kill Godzilla with nuclear bombs, the government had covered up its existence.
I grew up watching Godzilla movies — my father having gotten my brothers and me watching them from a very young age — so I was very excited for the release of this film. While I do not feel it is a badly made film, it could not help but feel disappointed with it as a whole.
One strong aspect of my disappointment was that the focus of the plot was completely different from what the trailers led me to believe. While promotional materials in North America would suggest that the film is a more realistic depiction of Godzilla as an unstoppable force of nature that humanity is trying to deal with, the plot of the film — as you can see above — has nothing to do with that. It was a noteworthy realization for me while watching it that the ranting and raving of Cranston’s character in the trailer isn’t actually talking about Godzilla at all, but the MUTO.
The unfortunate fact of the matter I found was that the plot actually has very little to do with Godzilla at all, except that he can stop the MUTO. We get the introductory footage from 1954 showing the military trying to deal with him, some exposition in a briefing room about where he came from, and that is pretty much it. Most major incidents that jumpstart the story and keep the plot going have nothing to do with him.
The central conflict is about the MUTO, including how the main characters are even tied to the plot at all: it is Joe Brody’s (Cranston) obsession with the destruction of the Janjira nuclear plant causing his wife’s death that involves him and his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) with the story in the first place.
That brings me to my issue with the human characters. Much of the film focuses on the people rather than the monsters, often to the point where the monsters are neglected — the reveal of Godzilla himself abruptly cutting to Ford Brody’s young son lying on a couch while news footage shows clips of Godzilla’s first fight with the MUTO in the background.
Now, this isn’t something I find to be inherently bad; if you want to make a more serious film about giant monsters you don’t want to fill the screen with them fighting and smashing things for most of the movie. I get it. However, I found the human storylines to very boring, when it was crucial that they get the audience invested in what is happening to the human cast while these giant monsters wreak havoc.
I think the main reason for this was because Joe Brody dies rather early on, and the emotional centre becomes Ford trying to reunite with his wife and son in San Francisco, who also end up in the path of these monsters. Ford Brody and his family came across as just too bland to me. I think it would have been far more interesting if Joe Brody had remained alive (at least through most of the film) and been directly involved as the conflict developed. We could have had Ford directly in the field with other soldiers while Joe stays with the higher-ups to give us an emotional anchor within each viewpoint respectively. As a result the film could have also dealt with Ford’s relationship with Joe and their estrangement during the 15 year gap between the destruction of the plant and the present day disaster.
Despite my criticisms of the overall story, there are many aspects of the film I still really liked. I thought the monster designs were very well done. Godzilla looked much more like an animal than a guy in an elaborate costume, while at the same time maintaining the classic look. The MUTO were interestingly designed as well and maintained the long tradition of Godzilla fighting giant invertebrates.
Furthermore, the set piece of the soldier’s HALO-jumping into the city was quite something. It was a very creative perspective to show giant monsters fighting from. The use of Godzilla’s atomic breath was also well built-up, with the presentation of his spikes beginning to glow and the blue colour of the blast being very good touches as well. In fact, whenever the monsters were directly engaged with the action on screen it was pretty compelling. You’d just be surprised how infrequent that actually is.
My favourite sequence, to keep things positive, would be when Ford and the other soldiers are transporting the nuke to San Francisco via train and have to stop before a bridge for fear that the MUTO has destroyed it. It’s night, the fog is thick, and they know the MUTO has been active somewhere ahead. The sequence really stood out to me because of how well it managed to be very suspenseful, which one might think would be difficult to do when dealing with a giant monster.
To summarize, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is not a poorly made movie, but fell flat due to being overly fixated on the human element of the story which simply wasn’t compelling enough to justify the lack of screen time or focus given to Godzilla himself. When the monsters are given attention the movie really shines, but those sequences are too few compared to the grounded human scenes, which are dominantly boring.