Wednesday, May 21, 2014

King of the Monsters

So, I went to see Godzilla. My assessment: it wasn't half bad, and could have been a heck of a lot worse.

That's a compliment, coming from a curmudgeon like me. I enjoyed it. Nothing about it annoyed me exceedingly. There were a number of stupid plot points, like the decision to ship a nuclear warhead by train and then by ship directly through the path of a marauding, radiation-devouring MUTO when it would have been quite easy to have flown it around the creatures to its destination on the other side of San Francisco Bay, but, well, whatever. It's a movie about giant monsters.

I haven't seen a huge number of kaiju movies, but I have seen some of the old classics, and this entry strikes me as being very much in the same vein. The force/character Godzilla has been called a personification of the ghost of guilt and dread that hung over post-war Japan in the wake of the bombs. This movie therefore very appropriately begins with archival "footage" of the Bikini Atoll test in 1954, which, as a nice touch, is the year the original Godzilla came out.

My grandfather, who was in the navy, was present at the Bikini tests, though he never mentioned anything about massive unidentified terrestrial organisms. Later on my grandparents lived in Japan, and my dad has talked about experiencing earthquakes out in the countryside, watching the road undulate as ripples ran across the land. He's also talked about the atmosphere of the country less than two decades after the war. It's no surprise that kaiju movies originated at that time and place.

The current Godzilla opens with a nuclear disaster that makes one think of the catastrophic, tsunami-triggered Fukushima meltdown a few years ago. Godzilla himself, when he finally strides ashore in Hawaii, creates a tsunami in urban Waikiki, the visual handling of which reminded me very much of the chilling footage that emerged from the Tōhoku earthquake, further strengthening this connection. On the American side, we have a MUTO hatching out of the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.

The tone of the movie is dead serious, which is fine with me. I immensely enjoyed last year's Pacific Rim – it's symptomatic of my lowbrow tastes, I suppose, that I've seen Pacific Rim several times now, but haven't the least interest in watching the Hugo-winning Gravity – but, in view of Godzilla's subject matter and inspiration, I think this more joyous approach would have been inappropriate. The 1954 Godzilla was actually rather grim.

And it doesn't bother me that the MUTOs are defeated through no action of the human principals, for this also is quite canonical. Just the other day I watched Ghidora, the Three-Headed Monster with my daughter, and it reminded me of the 2014 Godzilla at several points, most of all through the role of Godzilla as a force of restoration. The massive coincidence involved in having the main protagonist, a military bomb expert, be the son of the guy who first caught on to the cover-up, and actually present at the hatching of the MUTO, is also no stumbling block. Ghidora, after all, features a detective looking for a missing-princess-turned-Venusian-prophetess, brother of a journalist covering a group watching for extraterrestrials, whose love interest is a professor studying the "meteorite" from which King Ghidora hatches.

There are some beautiful visuals in this film. I especially enjoyed the overgrown, ruined Japanese city behind the quarantine zone, and the unearthly night scenes of the monster battle in San Francisco. There are also some really great shots of Godzilla swimming under aircraft carriers, etc. The cinematography is generous: it gives us a lot more than it need have.

Part of the score is provided by György Ligeti, whose work is known to me chiefly through the haunting monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This might have been an inspired choice for Godzilla, but unfortunately the viewer has been assaulted with so many action set-pieces by that point that the element of dread mystery has been squandered.

In that connection, it's apposite to note that many reviewers have compared Godzilla to Spielberg movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park. We have the slow build-up – which is typical of the old kaiju movies, and works perfectly here – but also the slightly bland, well-rounded plot. I'm no huge fan of Spielberg, as I like little eccentricities and inspired wing-shots as opposed to mainstream spectacles for mass consumption. But, as I said, the formula certainly works well here.

The main human protagonist is a thing of cardboard, as are most of the characters. That's a disappointment, but of course the real protagonist of a Godzilla movie is Godzilla himself. The people are just witnesses. And that's my only serious criticism of this movie: Godzilla's "character" (such as it is) is not fleshed out. We need more information about his motivations. Why, exactly, does he rise from the deep to destroy the MOTUs? How is this related to his "awakening" in the 1950s and the Bikini "test"? In Ghidora we have thought-processes related to us by tiny telepathic pop singers from Infant Island; we don't need that here, exactly, but Dr. Serizawa (the token Japanese character) could at least have said something coherent on the subject. It doesn't have to be all spelled out, but the movie is supposed to be about Godzilla, after all, and not these insectile MUTOs.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. It's definitely something to see on the big screen. There's talk of a sequel featuring a monster island. A writer at HuffPo has offered the unsolicited opinion that this would be a mistake, as Jaws II and Jurassic Park II were disappointments. But this is Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, not a shark or a mere dinosaur, and I for one would welcome such a film. If there's anything the world needs now, it's movies about giant monsters rampaging across the earth.

UPDATE: Mr. Ryan Harvey, who knows much more about you-know-who than I do, reviews Godzilla in glowing (and much more eloquent) terms over at Black Gate. As struck by the visuals as I was, he makes a comparison I wish I had made, namely, between the nighted city scenes toward the end of the movie and the engravings of Gustave Doré. To the right we have God's defeat of Leviathan as described in the Book of Job; but in Godzilla, of course, the leviathan is the god.

Says Mr. Harvey: "Although Godzilla '14 tells a complete story, it feels like the start of a fourth series—the Legendary Era—that could stretch on for ten more films and fly off in astonishing directions that include alien invasions, three-headed space dragons, and fighting robo-replicas."

May his words prove prophetic!


  1. Very glad you agree with the Gustav Dore comparison! Thanks for the kind words about my review.

    1. Sure thing! I enjoyed your Godzilla series as well.