“Ain’t It Cool News” main man Harry Knowles gets criticized a lot for contextualizing his reviews in terms of his own experiences, and sometimes I don’t think that’s the best approach. But I’ve been a Godzilla fan since first seeing “Godzilla vs Megalon” in the theater in 1976. I read the Marvel comic, watched the TV show…well, you get the picture. The King of Monsters has been a part of my life for a long time. I’ve found things to appreciate about all his LEGITIMATE incarnations–I don’t count that 1998 Tri-Star atrocity. I like Godzilla as hero, as villain, and as impersonal, neutral-alignment force of nature. I’m an unapologetic Godzilla fanboy.
When Legendary Pictures got the rights to produce a new American Godzilla film, I have to admit that the shadow of the 1998 movie loomed over my expectations like the silhouette of Gojira himself. Even with indie director Gareth Edwards–whose “Monsters” I was not terribly enamored of, for some of the same reasons that some people aren’t liking “Godzilla”–at the helm, would this be just another mindless summer-movie behemoth, or would it be more?
Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” is a fusion of the best elements of the classic Toho Godzilla films–Godzilla as a lumbering, terrifying force of destruction who ALSO happens to be a force of nature and even a hero–into one unified approach. What he is NOT here, is a villain, although it’s easy to see how ‘puny humans’ (I’m a Hulk fanboy too) could see him as such, at first. He’s big, scaly, and breathes atomic fire, after all.
Making a Godzilla film is a delicate balance. Put the humans front and center, or the monster? Show us the monsters full-on–what I call the ‘monster porn’ approach of the Toho films, although the term has nothing to do with sexual content–or give us the view we would have if we were in the situation–an ant’s eye view, as if looking up gigantic arms and legs at the faces of beasts who, to our limited understanding, might as well be gods?
I was a big fan of Matt Reeves’ “Cloverfield”, and when I saw it, all I could think of was–this is the way it would really feel to be in the middle of something like this. You’re not going to get a clear view, unless you’re on top of a building. And I wondered what it would be like if someone made a Godzilla film that way. In some respects, that’s what Gareth Edwards has done.
If you’re expecting wall-to-wall “monster porn”–don’t. In many ways, this movie is about restoring dignity and awe to Godzilla, after that thing in 1998. It’s hard to be in awe of something when you’re shown every inch of it right down to the pores in its scaly skin. Somehow, the Toho films managed to mostly do that, but this film is wise to use the approach it does. The sequel can lean more heavily on the monsters. This one needed to be simple–mankind and two potential threats way beyond the scope of our technology: Godzilla himself (who ends up being a defender, not a threat) and the MUTOs, two monsters who basically just want to mate.
I’ve heard a lot of bitching about this movie–I’ll be blunt about it. “The human characters are cardboard.” No, they’re not. Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody isn’t some kind of hero on a big scale–he’s a young man who, for most of the movie, just wants to get back to something familiar–his wife and child–because everything in the rest of his world is coming apart around him. How complicated does that have to be? Brody’s there as an anchor for the non-Godzilla fanboys and fangirls in the audience, as are his wife and kids–as a lens to see the superhuman chaos through. They’re simple. But that’s not a crime or a flaw, and people are making way too big a deal of it.
“Godzilla’s not in the movie enough.” In the first film of a series, meant to introduce Godzilla to people who may have no idea why some of us think this giant lizard is so cool, putting him front and center, on full display from frame one, isn’t likely to accomplish that. This movie feeds us background, gives us bits of legend, gives us glimpses, and then, at several points, including at the end–where, dramatically, it really counts–gives us full-on monsterrific spectacle.
Godzilla, himself, is perfect. Immense scale–of an almost inscrutable, Lovecraftian dimension next to the humans–and yet eyes that betray some sort of ancient consciousness, if perhaps not what we would call intelligence. But who are we to judge? This is a film that evokes a world in which humans have reason to confront the idea that there are things in the world that don’t even care if we’re there. They’re much too big to notice us–unless they just happen to.
And yet, Godzilla is a hero for doing precisely what it seems he was made to do–be Nature’s policeman, directing the traffic of creatures beyond human understanding and steering them out of the path of mankind–which is where Big G would rather be, too.
I think, despite the reviews–which actually have mostly been good, from what I’ve seen–this film is going to be an enormous financial success. It has intelligence, thrills, heart and charm. It will do for general audiences what the Toho films did for those of us who are already Godzilla fans. And we’ll get a sequel where, perhaps, we’ll see Legendary Pictures’ versions of Rodan, Mothra or Ghidorah. AND people will, hopefully, discover the classic films, like 1954’s “Gojira”–the first Godzilla film, and still the best.
But for now, it’s enough to know that there’s an American Godzilla film playing in theaters that actually, finally deserves the name.