It comes maddeningly close to excellence, but Godzilla is fatally flawed.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
You ask people why Jaws works and most will reply that it’s because you don’t see the shark all the time. Jaws is paced expertly, saving the big reveal until the very end and instead spending its run-time teasing you with little glimpses of it and showing you the effect of its terror, constantly baiting the audience with the threat of the shark and the promise of the shark but realising that it doesn’t carry much impact if it’s on-screen too often. They wouldn’t be wrong, it’s a key component of the suspense tease of the film, but it’s not the whole reason. Jaws also works because it has characters; real characters with multiple dimensions whose plights were just as interesting as that of the chaos the shark was wreaking. They didn’t feel incidental to the plot and, most importantly, it didn’t feel like their existence is just marking time until the shark can turn up and do its thing. That’s why their boat trip to the sea to find the shark is so captivating: you’re scared for people, not just waiting for fireworks.
Gareth Edwards’ remake/adaptation (whichever you want to call it entirely comes down to your personal perspective) of the classic 1954 Japanese monster movie Godzilla is a master of The Tease part. It gets that having Godzilla turn up from frame one and tear sh*t up until the last of the 123 minutes the film runs for are done is a bad idea, one that would create fatigue for the audience and end up making his rampage duller the longer it ran on. It gets that you don’t give a clear shot of the monster until it’s close to wrapping up time because that lets the audience fill in the blanks, an act which is frequently scarier than whatever you’ve actually come up with. And it gets that you don’t deliver on your promised monster smackdown at the hour mark of your two hour film because that leaves you little else to go after for the second hour. It gets all that, and its masterful approach to The Tease is why every even-slightly prolonged section involving a monster is giddy-inducing instead of “seen it all before”. It gets that better than any film I have seen in the cinema in a long while.
What Godzilla forgot, though, in the gorgeous execution of The Tease, was to add any characters. This basic, fundamental tenant of pretty much any great film is completely lacking here and that fact is what almost kills the film. Godzilla gets so much right, The Tease, the cinematography, the score, the effects, that it comes close to excellence; when this film is on, it is frakkin’ on! But by skipping out on this one thing, this one crucial element, the film is kneecapped irrevocably. What could have been an excellent film, a strong contender for one of the year’s best if/when some of the Summer’s more promising titles flop disappointingly, is instead a frustratingly good one where its flashes of greatness are heavily outweighed by the one thing it does wrong which, not coincidentally, makes its biggest strength almost just as much of weakness.
OK, that’s the spoiler-free version. I’m not saying that the rest of this review is going to dive into every single aspect and plot-point or anything, but it is going to have to reference something that a fair bit of the marketing material did a good job of hiding if you weren’t voluntarily looking for it. And, honestly, I kinda wish I didn’t know it going in, because then I might have appreciated The Tease even more. So, if you haven’t seen the movie or you just plain don’t care, stop reading now. You basically already know what I thought about the film by this point, anyway. If you have seen the film or just plain don’t care, keep reading. Again, there are no giant spoilers (the thing I’m referring to is basically made explicit by the 45 minute mark) but you may enjoy the film more if you go in dark to its plot and stuff.
Still here? OK, then. Let’s talk about The Tease.
Wisely, Godzilla saves its giant monster smackdown, between Godzilla and a new creature classified as M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), for the final 20-or-so minutes. In addition, you don’t even get a clear shot of the titular monster until the very last minute of the film. Instead, the film baits you and teases you. A shot of his enormous foot here, the disappearance of its tail as it slinks around a half-destroyed building there; as you probably expected. What you probably won’t be expecting, though, is just how far the film takes that tease. Godzilla doesn’t just limit The Tease to a shot of the monsters, it also limits it to the destruction in general. There’s a section where a M.U.T.O. begins destroying Las Vegas in broad daylight, but the film cuts away to the aftermath just as the destruction is ramping up. The M.U.T.O.’s escape from its dormant pod is shot in low light, with occasional flashes teasing us as to its appearance but it also basically cuts to black when it seems like we’re really about to see some mayhem. And, in the film’s standout example of how it gets The Tease, there’s a bit in Hawaii that I absolutely refuse to spoil because it will be the point where you are either on-board with what the film is trying to do or where you check out in frustration.
If you can’t get what the film is trying to do, you may find the whole experience the film equivalent of yelling “either sh*t or get off the pot!” at someone. I, however, adored it as it trained myself to savour any piece of monster destruction I could get; it made those moments hit that much harder. And when the film finally lets go of the reigns and gives you what you came here to see? Man, it is an amazing feeling, let me tell you. The fight itself is a slow, primal, animalistic affair, like watching two mad caged animals going at one another (which makes sense, considering the fact that they kind of are animals), that may have been underwhelming for most audiences in a post-Pacific Rim world if that build-up hadn’t been so masterful as to make a release, any release, feel like the coolest thing in the entire world at that moment in time. I cackled with maniacal glee multiple times during this film and that was even before the really amazing moments entered the fray. Edwards and his team get it, they get how to make what otherwise would have been mundane instead be a super awesome piece of ridiculous fun because they build up to it near-perfectly.
Credit should also go to the cinematography and visual effects. In line with the teasing nature of the film, the cinematography holds off on giving you a clear shot of monsters causing carnage until near the end of the big fight. Instead, it opts to show the action from a ground level, from the perspective of a bystander in the chaos, to fully impress upon you the scale of the action and the destruction. It more than works, the first time the M.U.T.O. clambers out of its hibernation pod and effortlessly breaks through the containment barriers is shot on the surface just above the containment pit which makes the reveal of one of its legs that much more of a “sh*t has gotten real” moment. There’s a section on a train bridge which manages to communicate the pure terror of being in the same area as a giant monster better than a lot of recent films I have seen. And then there’s the entrance of Godzilla himself, which takes about an hour to occur, incidentally, and which really needs to be seen to fully grasp the effect of.
However, and thankfully, Godzilla also gets that shooting action from the perspective of bystanders (to make it feel like you are really there) does not give carte blanche to make the action incomprehensible. Shaky-cam is kept to an absolute minimum and pretty much any action depicted on screen is shot by cameras that are steady and clear. You can always tell what is going on where and who is involved when. Everything is clear, everything is viewable and you have absolutely no idea how happy I am to finally see a Hollywood film that understands that shaking the camera like an epileptic having a stroke at a flashbulb convention does not make things more exciting. And on that note, yes, a lot of the destruction and more monster-heavy sequences are shot at night under cover of darkness. But, and this is crucial, the film still lights proceedings enough that, combined with the stable camerawork, you can still tell what’s going on at all times, which works gangbusters during the finale.
The score, meanwhile, handled by Alexandre Desplat, is damn near perfect here. Eschewing both the gritty drone of your Hans Zimmer (or Hans Zimmer wannabes) and the faux-John Williams score of a lot of modern day blockbusters in favour of something that resembles classic Hollywood that’s been a bit updated for the modern day. There’s a lot of brass, drums and urgent violins, bombast, that recall the style of classic monster movies from the 1960s. But when the action slows down and the film is instead trying to create a more unsettling atmosphere, Desplat is more than happy to oblige with severely off-key instruments or, in a segment that I’m pretty sure took place on the Golden Gate Bridge, a choir that sounds like its announcing the incoming apocalypse. It backs the action exceptionally; creepy and portentous at one moment, bombastic and energy-filled the next. I realise that I’m doing a terrible job describing it, it’s one of those things you really need to experience to get why it works.
As for the effects… well, you don’t really need me to tell you how good this film’s special effects are. You’ve seen the trailers, you know what to expect. The M.U.T.O.’s design is excellent, heavily indebted to that of a bat but twisted enough to make the result much more nightmarish with its long, spindly arms and horrifying eyes, face and mouth. Godzilla, meanwhile, is likely going to be more subjective. Yes, he is much bigger than anything else in this movie and the scales on his back are rather a bit terrifying when they’re all you can see of him swimming through the water and bearing down on the camera, but his face is also rather a bit cute. He looks strangely endearing and a bit huggable at certain angles which should spell the death-knell for his design… if it didn’t fit with his character in this particular film, which it does. When it comes time for the monsters to make some destruction, though, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that things look great. Not only do things get smashed real purdy-like, the monsters move with real weight and heft. Not clumsiness, but force, how one would probably expect two animals of their size to move and duke it out and it is ultra-convincing.
So, right now, I imagine that you’re prepping to go to the cinema and fling all of your hard-earned moneybills at the people who hand out the tickets. You’ve probably read all of that and decided that this is officially your favourite film of the summer, sight unseen. And, in fairness, were there not this giant, puss-filled flaw blemishing Godzilla’s face, you’d probably be correct. There were a tonne of highs in this film that I am expecting the rest of the summer to have a hard time matching. Unfortunately, Godzilla has a giant problem that keeps dragging down the rest of the film the more and more it ruminates in my brain. Hell, if everything else surrounding this problem wasn’t so good, it would have killed the film outright for me. So, here’s the problem.
Godzilla has no characters.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Callum, that’s not a problem for me. I didn’t come here for world class storytelling. I came here to see giant monsters tear sh*t up.” And you are more than welcome to want that out of your movie. That still doesn’t stop it from being a problem, though, and it becomes a major problem because it almost serves to undermine the hard work that The Tease puts in. We spend so much time with these humans whilst waiting for the next glimpse of a monster that the realisation finally sets in: I don’t care about any of these characters because none of these characters are characters. At best they’re exposition machines, at worst they are quite literally nothing.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who, to put it in the bluntest possible terms, does nothing. He has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a kid, a father (Bryan Cranston) who lost his wife, Ford’s mother, in a nuclear power plant destruction 15 years prior that he insists was not an accident, and he works in the army as a bomb disposal expert. All of this is just window-dressing for the fact that he does nothing. At no point during the story does Ford have a narrative reason for being in a scene, at no point during the film does he alter the course of the plot (barring one instance in the finale that seems to have been engineered to stop me going on this rant, take a guess how that turned out) and at no point does his character display any personality or charm or charisma that makes spending time in his company in any way worthwhile or interesting. I could excuse this if the point was to show what the perspective of the film’s events would look like to a guy on the ground, except that most of the carnage scenes don’t involve him or even focus on him, instead locking onto various other crowds of bystanders. His scenes feel poorly copy-pasted on from a much less interesting and dull version of Godzilla; you could excise them entirely and lose nothing, yet pretty much the entire first hour involves him or characters and events relating to him (because OF COURSE), even though they add nothing to the film.
This focus on Ford and his various acquaintances comes at the expense of a much more interesting angle involving the U.S. military and two scientists’ (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) attempts to stop the monsters and contain the damage, with the military trying take care of things themselves, making things worse in the process, and the scientists (one of whom is the world’s leading expert on Godzilla and WHY WAS HE NOT THE MAIN FOCUS OF THE FILM) attempting to convince them that Godzilla is their only hope. Unfortunately, thanks to the focus put on Ford and his attempts to get back to his personality-less family, nobody here gets to do or say anything that doesn’t amount to spouting exposition which, again, means that Godzilla has no characters and nobody worth giving a damn about. I’d call the humans one-dimensional but that insinuates that there’s enough going on with them to class them as one-dimensional. Maker, I cared more for the M.U.T.O. and that’s supposed to be the villain and had that caring come from one single ten-second scene!
Which, ultimately, is what nearly causes The Tease, which I have already named as the film’s secret weapon, to become its biggest weakness. By spending so much time in the presence of these non-entities masquerading as people we’re supposed to care about, it makes the appearance of some monsters that much more of a treat. However, it also makes the quick snatching away of that treat even crueller because we’re thrust back into the company of these characters that have no bearing on anything and barely factor into or appear during the carnage caused. This should either have been focussed on the military and the scientist’s attempts to save people from the wrath of the monsters or a personal tale of people stuck in the middle of the chaos trying to get away. Instead, Godzilla wants to do both and it does so at the expense of the two coalescing and crafting characters that we, the audience, are supposed to give a damn about. Rather than having the human side feel just as relevant, it feels like we’re just marking time until Godzilla is allowed to show up. None of these scenes are dull, it’s just that they coast by on the promise of more Godzilla and have no real reason in this film to exist.
Oh, and whilst I have the time, I’d like to quickly comment on this. Because the film doesn’t have real characters worth investing in and it can’t be bothered to go back and craft some, Godzilla instead tries to engender some sympathy for the people stuck in the wreckage of the mayhem by putting kids into the centre of it and going “LOOK! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” It does this three times, which is three times too many, and it never works. It even strands an entire school bus full of children on the Golden Gate Bridge in gridlock when Godzilla shows up, for the love of the Maker! That’s how blatant it is in trying to get a “OH, NO! PLEASE DON’T HURT THE CHILDREN, GODZILLA!” reaction out of you. It’s cheap, overly-manipulative and I’d get angry if were done with a single bit of effort or care, which is not. Can we please retire this device and instead invest some effort into creating actual characters that we, the audience, will care about in future? Is that too much to ask?
I am really glad that I don’t have to score films here on this website, because I’m honestly stumped with regards to this film. Look, when Godzilla is on, it is f*cking on and the feeling that comes from those moments of genuine excellence have been almost unparalleled for me, so far this year. When it works, it more than works. It’s never anything less than an enjoyable and watchable film, even with the total lack of characters. The issue is that it touches excellence so often that it can’t help but call even more unwanted attention to that “no characters” issue, not helped by the fact that only Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe & Sally Hawkins seem to be putting in any effort (with Watanabe’s facial expressions and general mood leaving hints of a far better lead character story, that for some reason the film chose to ignore in favour of Lieutenant Beef McFaceSlab), and that issue is retroactively spoiling the film for me. Hell, it may even happen to you, too!
Godzilla, then, is ultimately one of those movies that comes at you with a tonne of potential and fulfills maybe half of it. When it does deliver on that potential, it is sensational, but it also makes those times when it doesn’t sting even more and ultimately makes the film a disappointment. A great time, but a disappointment all the same.
Callum Petch wades through the buildings towards the centre of town. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!