Roundtable: Godzilla (2014)

Spoiler warning: this discussion reveals important plot details.

Anton: I’ll admit, I’m not a kaiju devotee. When I was a teenager, I watched a few of the old Godzilla movies, the ones where two guys in rubber monster suits slug it out amid model buildings, and I remember laughing a lot but not being terribly interested. When I finally saw the original Gojira, I found it underwhelming and kind of boring—although I think that one’s due for a re-watch. And I think the late-90s Godzilla is mediocre but hardly abysmal. (In fact, I’m surprised how much the opening credits sequence of this new one reminds me of the stock-footage montage that opens the 90s version.) This is all to say that I didn’t come to Godzilla 2014 with many expectations, other than the marketing. So for me, this is the best Godzilla movie I’ve seen, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

In our age when buzz and speculation is what amounts to criticism in most circles of filmgoing, we shouldn’t discount the expectations marketing sets in our evaluation of a film. (I should add, though, that I always try to set what I thought a film would be against the more important aspect–what it’s trying to do.) So after the trailers being all Breaking Bad, I was disappointed that Bryan Cranston’s father character dies so early. I think the film would have been much more interesting if it followed his obsessive, truth-seeking, mad scientist than his son, who is only moderately interesting.

I understand, though, that having the human characters be only of marginal interest and importance is an aspect of what some have described as the film’s post-humanist stance. I’m not convinced that’s the only reason we get a fairly flat lead though. Studios generally require young male leads for all their big movies, with few exceptions.

And speaking of kaiju movies, Pacific Rim had much more interesting characters.

Anders: Comparisons between this new Godzilla film and last summer’s Pacific Rim are going to be inevitable, since they are the most recent big-budget Hollywood entries in the kaiju genre. Also, in their own ways, each film is deeply indebted to the history of the genre, as well as to other popular monster/disaster movie films.

This Godzilla is fundamentally interested in paying closer homage to the original King of the Monsters than the disastrous 1998 version (dubbed GINO or “Godzilla In Name Only” by diehard fans), hewing closer in look to the original monster, even if it cranks up his size several levels.

Anton: So you would label Godzilla 1998 a disaster?

Aren: I have to make the confession that Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was my favourite movie when I was eight. So I can never hate it, no matter how much my brain and other cinephiles shame me for it.

Anders: Oh, I remember enjoying it as much as any of those late-90s blockbusters, but subsequent visits revealed it to be a pretty terrible film overall, saddled with awkward and unfunny jokes like the “Mayor Ebert” bit. But it is especially disastrous as a “Godzilla” film. Emmerich's titular creature bears little resemblance to the original monster, and doesn’t really retain any of the visual or narrative characteristics associated with the king of the kaiju. The film pretty much could have been called anything else and wouldn’t lose anything. It only attempts to benefit from the association, carried along on a famous pedigree that isn’t really earned.

Edwards’ Godzilla in contrast is, while not perfect, unquestionably a Godzilla film. It makes some tweaks to the original idea (in this film the 1954 atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific are an early attempt to kill the beast rather than its origin). But it also retains some of the goofier aspects, such as the original’s “atomic breath,” which Godzilla uses on the MUTO in the climactic battle. He also retains his almost heroic status from some of the subsequent Japanese films, where he is seen as a defender or, at least, the lesser threat of two monsters and the default hero.

Pacific Rim is also indebted to kaiju eiga, but is equally an homage to mecha-anime shows as well. I would agree that Pacific Rim’s characters, while maybe not paragons of realism, are more unique and interesting. Del Toro, for all his anti-human influences, like H. P. Lovecraft, is fundamentally interested in finding the humanity in the monstrous. Its tagline, “To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own,” emphasizes this. In Godzilla, humans are fundamentally useless, even dethroned from their role as villains.

Aren: I think I’m liable to overpraise Edwards’s Godzilla because it avoids so much of what becomes exhausting in modern blockbusters: overstimulation and fan-service. It’s strange for a film based around a giant CGI monster that bashes things to be restrained but that’s what Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla is. It holds off showing Godzilla until around an hour into the film. Even then, it deliberately cuts away from its initial fights with the male MUTO. Godzilla is very much styled after Jurassic Park and tries to capture that film’s structure and sense of awe. It knows that for the final fight between Godzilla and the two MUTOs to have maximum effect, the audience needs to be denied such violent catharsis until the optimal moment.

Anton: Totally! Well done, Mr. Edwards. He gets that suspense is not the same thing as stimulation, and that awe is not the same as feeling overwhelmed.

Aren: To take a step back from being overly analytical, I wanna say I find it insane how similar this film is to Jurassic Park. Think of how the opening scene with Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins showing up at the Phillipines dig site to examine the monster skeletons underground is a combination of Martin Ferrero’s Donald Gennaro being shown the mosquito in amber in Costa Rica and Sam Neill’s Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler examining the velociraptor skeleton.

Anders: I half expected the mine supervisor in the Philippines to respond to Watanabe and Hawkins with, “Grant’s like me. He’s a digger.” Seriously, the Spielberg vibe here is very strong. If Super 8 was an homage to Spielberg films like E.T. and the films he produced like The Goonies, Edwards’s Godzilla is pretty much an all out homage to Jurassic Park and Jaws; heck, the central family is named Brody! Those Spielberg monster movies, while pretty much the definitive blockbusters of their respective eras, feel relatively restrained in the Michael Bay-era.

Anton: Or in the Marvel era.

Anders: And so does Godzilla. And I appreciated that.

Furthermore, the Spielberg connection is strongest, as you point out, when it aims for that sense of awe. As other critics have pointed out, this film makes considerable use of the “Spielberg face”, the signature shot of a person looking wide-eyed, either in terror or awe, at something off screen. We could consider Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa as this film’s version of Francois Truffaut’s Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a man whose relationship to the central enigma is a lifelong quest to finally see it and who finally does. Likewise, audiences are kept in the dark as long as possible, and the film becomes a kind of quest to see.

Similarly, Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody is, like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, a man driven by an obsession to know, and it likewise tears his family apart after the death of his wife. But unlike Roy, who eventually gets to experience the truth and travel on the alien spacecraft, Joe dies never even seeing Godzilla!

Anton: I just want to interject, and say that the marketing was very smart in keeping things hidden and subdued–only hinting at the spectacles to been seen–which allowed the narrative to actually achieve that sense of awe. Any awe Transformers even tries for is completely deflated by the time anyone sits down in the theatre. (Come to think of it, Godzilla 1998 had a great teaser trailer . . . Okay, I need to stop complimenting that movie.)

Anders: I was going to say that for all the trashing of Emmerich’s film I’ve done, it did have a pretty effective teaser trailer.

I think the biggest difference between Godzilla and the work of Spielberg is summed up nicely in David Ehrlich’s piece on the Dissolve, where he calls it the “first post-human blockbuster.” Spielberg is nothing if not a deeply humanist filmmaker. For Godzilla, meaning and purpose, if it exists, has nothing to do with the human characters, or the audience for that matter. And while it certainly makes Godzilla an interesting film (and avoids the kind of plot dynamics where the central characters personal crisis are deeply entwined with the global crisis), it does make it one that is obviously going to connect less on an emotional level with most audience members.

Aren: I think that’s a good point. Spielberg is very invested in how the experience of something fantastic fundamentally changes his characters. Godzilla is much more interested in the insignificance of the humans next to the enormous monsters, not exploring some kind of spiritual connection between the two. The only moment where Godzilla and the humans are equated is when Godzilla falls over after killing the male MUTO, and Ford Brody falls over as well. The shot cuts from Godzilla’s head hitting the ground frame left to Ford’s head hitting the ground in the same frame position. But I took this mostly as Edwards making it clear that Godzilla is as much the hero of this film as Ford is, and that both share a tenacious will to survive. But there’s no relationship between Ford and Godzilla, so there’s not much to take more than this frankly. This isn’t E.T. and Elliot or Joe Lamb and Cooper (the monster) in Super 8. This is just a visual cue from the director that Godzilla is the real protagonist.

But back to Jurassic Park for a second, this movie really does riff on it at every opportunity. Max Borenstein’s script follows almost the same structure as Jurassic Park and certain moments are beat for beat. I think mainly of the scene in Hawaii on the monorail train. It is a mirror version of the Tyrannosaur paddock scene in Jurassic Park. It happens at the same point in the film. It attempts to have the same impact as it’s the first time ordinary citizens are witness to the horrors of the monsters. We have the train lose power, just as the SUVs lose power. The main character is stuck with a kid who is separated from his parents and terrified. The monster appears, and everyone tries to stay calm, but technology causes the monster to attack. In Jurassic Park the kid turns on the flashlight, while in Godzilla the power returns and drives the train towards the MUTO. Both vehicles are even on tracks, so there’s no chance for the characters to escape at that moment, for chrissakes. I’m glad Godzilla is borrowing from one of the best action scenes ever, because it’s an effective scene. It’s just crazy how similar it is.

Anders: Or the scene when Ford Brody and his military colleague are crossing the train bridge and the MUTO rises up and they have to keep still. Apparently the MUTOs, like a T-Rex, can’t see you if you don’t move. It’s effective though.

Aren: I also think there’s a perverse sense of fun in this film. I really dug that it didn’t take itself too seriously. I didn’t expect that when the trailers, however effective, made me think this was going to be all Nolanized and devoid of humour. But the fun, and even some humour, is there. It’s present in the joy the film takes in the monstrousness of the MUTOs and in the childlike joy the audience experiences when Godzilla punches them or unleashes his atomic breath.

It especially comes through in any scene between the two MUTOs. When they’re reunited, we get this perverse scene where the male MUTO hands over the bomb to the female and they both hold it in their mouth for a moment. Matt Zoller Seitz compared this to the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. He’s not far off. Here we’re witnessing these two monsters having as close to a romantic moment as they can achieve. It’s sweet, but also messed up to see these giant bug-like monsters together and understand they intend to mate. It gets even weirder when the female picks up the bomb and brings it down to her egg sack, as if she’s a pregnant mother rubbing her stomach and telling her child of all the wonders it’s about to witness in the world.

Let’s be glad that Godzilla strikes a nice balance between gritty disaster flick and summer monster melee. In the same film as we get soldiers performing a HALO drop into San Francisco scored to “Kyrie” from Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem” (famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), we also get Ken Watanabe staring out at two giant monsters duking it out and declaring, “Let them fight.” What a weird, kind of awesome, combination.