The King of Monsters comes to America, only this time, he wasn’t a riff on Jurassic Park. No, this Godzilla was a massive improvement over the limp 1998 version (which is an okay monster flick on its own if it was completely stripped of the name Godzilla) and features the titular monster coming to humanity’s defense (sort of) against two raging MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). There’s no denying that the reboot is pure monster mash fun—well, when it’s not focusing on the bland cast of human characters–but it doesn’t come close to the somber warnings of nuclear warfare that Godzilla used to embody.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering that American audiences prefer the action-heavy monster attack film to one that serves as a reminder of how dark humanity is. For proof, look no further than the 1956’s Godzilla, King of Monsters, the Americanized version of the first Godzilla film, 1954’s Gojira, which adds an American reporter to the movie and dubs over Japanese actors. Godzilla, King of Monsters only featured 40 minutes of the original film. Cuts included the plot points of irradiated tuna fish, references to Nagasaki’s atomic bombing, images of people fleeing to their bomb shelters and emotional arguments about what exactly Godzilla is and what he represents. Not only was the United States censoring any image that conveyed the absolute destruction and chaos the hydrogen bombs brought to Japan, but they were creating, in a sense, a action flick that focused primarily on the monster’s path of destruction and stripped the original film of its warnings about the usage atomic weapons.
2014’s Godzilla, directed by Garth Edwards, should be treated as such; a disaster spectacle that is more entertaining than thought-provoking. It’s no surprise that this is the direction the reboot film took, especially considering Godzilla’s evolution through 30 plus films over 60 years from a force of nature punishing humanity to an action hero and pop culture icon.
The 2004 release of Godzilla: Final Wars marked the 50th anniversary of the Godzilla franchise, and the Japanese film company Toho announced that it would not produce any films featuring the King of Monsters for the next ten years. Plans to develop a Godzilla IMAX 3D short film eventually evolved into a theatrical production, and in 2010, Legendary Pictures announced its acquisition of the Godzilla license. With Warner Brothers backing, Legendary revealed its plans to reboot the franchise in time for Godzilla’s 60th anniversary and make a film closer to Gojira, which introduced the gargantuan kaiju to Japanese audiences.
The reboot retained some of its Japanese origins, but unlike Gojira, in which Godzilla is created from to the atomic bombs and represents the nuclear holocaust, this new monster already exists as an alpha predator and responds as a punishing force of nature when the military uses atomic weapons to try and kill him. This, of course, fails, and humanity finds out they have a bigger problem than Godzilla when two MUTOs awake and rampage across the United States in an attempt to find a place to mate. Unfortunately for the MUTOs, they disrupt the balance of the natural order, and Godzilla arises to destroy them in a plot that’s reminiscent of the Showa era of Godzilla films.
The subplot follows Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a lieutenant in the navy and explosive ordnance disposal officer (although we never see him diffuse a single bomb throughout the entire film), who spends the movie trying to get back to his family—that is, when he’s not abandoning them and throwing himself into dangerous mission after dangerous mission. Whether his “not death wish” comes from his mother’s tragic demise in the opening of the film, his father’s death after a MUTO breaks out of containment (Bryan Cranston’s character’sdeath before he even meets Godzilla was a MASSIVE misfire), or his general sense of wanting to protect humanity, isn’t clear. He’s just not a compelling character. In fact, Godzilla is awash with bland characters who take too much of the screen time away from Big Daddy.
The best performances come from Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishirō Serizawa and Sally Hawkins Dr. Vivienne Graham, two Monarch scientists who investigate and research Godzilla and creatures like him. Unfortunately, after their extended role in the beginning of the movie, both are just forgotten about until the final shot of the film. Godzilla also stars Elizabeth Olsen as Brody’s wife Elle, a trauma nurse who’s not given anything to do other than blandly stare at the television screen as the monsters fight in front of the cameras. She later abandons her son so that she can remain behind in the doomed city of San Francisco and help the wounded, but her motivations are never really clear and her decision to stay behind would be more of an emotional moment if the audience was actually invested in any of these characters.
When Godzilla premiered, the film received criticism for not featuring enough of Godzilla himself. In fact, he’s only in the movie for about fifteen minutes of the 122-minute runtime. When he is featured, he’s covered by shadow, fog, and darkness. While it does build tension until his final reveal, the lack of Godzilla is definitely a disappointment, but when he does appear, it’s equally glorious and terrifying. This Godzilla is MASSIVE and he packs a mean punch. The action sequences of Godzilla fighting the MUTOs are also thrilling, but the film has a frustrating habit of cutting away and focusing on, again, the very bland characters, just as the action reaches its climax.
At the end of the day, Godzilla is a glorious spectacle of destruction and chaos that serves as a fine introduction to the rebooted monster and the larger MonsterVerse. There isn’t a lot of substance to the film, but nothing compares to the excitement of seeing the King of Monsters arise from the flames of a destroyed city and let loose his massive and iconic roar.
Let me know what you thought about Godzilla and if you’re team Kong or Team ‘Zilla. Check out my website for all things pop culture, and as always, stay nerdy!