Don’t Cry for Me, Janjira
Worry, boredom, frustration, disappointment, confusion. That’s the trajectory of my feelings regarding the 2014 American Godzilla film, directed by Gareth Edwards.
Prior to seeing the movie, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, because every trailer I saw and every word-of-mouth review I heard from people who attended early screenings filled me with doubt.
I was bored when I watched the film, because nothing it did entertained me. Then I grew frustrated. I observed the efforts of Edwards, his cast, and his crew. I viewed their combined vision, which cost 160 million dollars and countless hours to produce. I watched and I waited for all of this effort to give me something that I could enjoy. I would have settled for almost anything. A fight. A striking visual image. An iota of emotional resonance. Something to engage me. Something to thrill me. Please, for the love of Godzilla, give me something to love. I’m begging you.
Then the credits rolled, and all I felt was crushing disappointment. I felt like I’d wasted two hours of my life.
Afterwards, I jumped on social media to be part of the conversation, and that’s when the confusion settled over me like a thick winter coat. Practically all of my friends had positive things to say about this new Godzilla film. Favorable comparisons to Pacific Rim were inevitable. One friend said they enjoyed it as much as Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to monsters and giant robots. Another claimed it was far superior in terms of establishing a serious tone. He praised the film’s ability to make humanity’s technological mastery seem insignificant in the onslaught of an indifferent Nature. Yet another dismissed the human-centered drama as laughable, but lauded the giant monster action.
I wondered: did we even watch the same movie?
Is there something wrong with how my brain processes film?
What on Earth were they talking about?
So let me lay out all of the problems I had with the film. Maybe this way I can come to some sort of understanding.
Aside from Bryan Cranston, I didn’t care about any of the human cast.
I didn’t care about Ken Watanabe. I felt he was wasted in his role as Dr. Serizawa, the resident mad scientist. His dialog was painfully devoid of context. Every time he expounded about the movie’s monsters and the best manner of dealing with their rampages, it felt like a clumsy information dump. “I believe Godzilla will restore the balance,” he says. What? Why? Why do you believe this? What was Serizawa’s specialty supposed to be again? Is he a nuclear physicist? A biologist? A paleontologist? I don’t know. I never learned anything about his character, aside from a tiny bit of business about his father dying in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This was meant to humanize him, but a single note of backstory is not enough to build a character unless it’s thoroughly fleshed out. The only decent thing that Dr. Serizawa does in the entire film is to urge the military not to use nuclear weapons. This was reasonable: the military had tried using nukes in the past. They didn’t work. It was a failed hypothesis. Yes! Actual concern for the safety of other human beings! Valid reasons! Could this be the seed of drama from which interesting developments will bloom? Nope. Serizawa’s concerns are dismissed, and he sulks a bit but doesn’t really try to stop the military’s lousy plan from proceeding.
I didn’t care about Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and but it wasn’t because of his performance in the role of the protagonist, Ford Brody. Others have already observed that Taylor-Johnson seems cold and aloof, but I can reconcile that with the traumatic circumstances of Brody’s childhood and his strained relationship with his father. No, it wasn’t Taylor-Johnson’s acting. It was the writing. I didn’t care about Ford Brody because the character was completely hollow. He had no spark, no personality, nothing to make him unique and interesting. Nothing to make him a person rather than a cipher. Brody has a wife and a young child who are similarly undefined. I don’t care about children characters just because you place them in danger. I don’t care about spouse characters just because you make them shed tears for the safety of their loved ones. That’s lazy, Hollywood hackwork that substitutes danger for characterization. Show me who these people are. Give me a reason to like them. Show me their hopes and dreams and fears. Make me want to see them succeed. Fear of death is the baseline. Everyone is afraid of dying in some giant catastrophe. Everyone fears that sort of powerlessness. Give me more. There’s more characterization in the few minutes that Brody spends looking after a young child who is separated from his parents at the airport during a monster attack than in any of the scenes involving Brody and his family, and that’s a problem. If Brody’s so willing to protect a stranger, I should feel his concern for his own family. It should radiate outward from his very bones. It should be palpable. That doesn’t happen in this film, because Godzilla (2014) is written like an emotional shortcut, without any real development of character or plot.
This movie squanders all of its potential for human drama. For example, Elizabeth Olsen plays Elle Brody, the wife of the hero. She’s an emergency room nurse in a city that’s suddenly transformed into a battlefield for giant monsters. This could have been an opportunity. Elle Brody could have displayed her heroism by rising to the call of duty. She could have performed triage in desperate situations. She could have cared for her patients while the city crumbled. She could have guided panicked residents to shelter. She could have shown courage and resolution in the face of unspeakable danger. Instead she cries a lot and waits for her husband to come home. This is all that Mrs. Brody does for the entire film. Meanwhile, Mr. Brody is jumping out of airplanes and escorting military trains and defusing nuclear bombs, and none of it matters, because the movie gives me no reason to care.
“Okay, Paul, we get it,” you say. “You didn’t like the human-focused elements of this story, but that’s no surprise. You’re a robot, an unfeeling lump of transistors and steel, with a diffusion pump where your heart should be. At least you thought the giant monster stuff was cool, right?”
No. No, I did not.
I did not like the giant monster action in this film. There wasn’t a single moment that wowed me.
I hated the design of the M.U.T.O. creatures. Their spindly legs and their implausible wings annoyed me. They reminded me of a second-rate Megaguirus, my least favorite monster from the Millenium series. Perhaps these giant goofy bugs would be more palatable if they were the result of humanity tinkering with genetic manipulation. I kept hoping that that the M.U.T.O. were actually a secret military experiment gone horribly awry. Then at least their desire to feed on nuclear energy sources would make some sort of sense, as would their ability to generate technology-crippling electromagnetic pulses. Nope. These ridiculous things are merely the products of natural selection, and their improbable existence is hand-waved away with a single line of dialog.
And then there’s the Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I think Godzilla is in here, somewhere. Never mind that it’s about an hour and a half into the movie before you get a good look at him. That by itself is specious complaint. There are numerous Godzilla films that delay the reveal in this manner. The reason it’s a problem in this film is that while Godzilla is absent there is nothing interesting happening onscreen. Godzilla vs the Sea Monster had a dance contest and adventure on the high seas in a stolen yacht. Godzilla vs Monster Zero had alien intrigue. Godzilla vs Megalon had car chases and a pair of swingin’ bachelors playing with their cool inventions. Even the execrable Final Wars had Matrix-style shenanigans and Don “The Predator” Frye’s bodacious mustache. What does this movie have to offer when the titular character is not around? Nada. Zip. Zilcho.
Much has already been said about Godzilla’s new rolly-poly design. I’m not going to complain about that, although I will quibble about the shape of his feet. They are stumpy and blunt and weird. I prefer the splay-toed design. I’ll also kvetch about his atomic fire breath, an effect I’ve seen countless people praising online. Really? You liked the fire breath in this film? You enjoyed that wispy, asthmatic trickle of sickly, blue plasma? That’s what you liked? Because I thought it looked completely flaccid. I want Godzilla’s atomic breath to blast my face off, like it does in the Millenium series. Or I want it to tickle my funny-bone, like it does in the later Showa films. I don’t have any time for this weak tea.
The monster mayhem did nothing for me. There was no tension, no drama, no grand sense of scale. There was never a moment that spoke to the child within my heart like the first time I saw Gipsy Danger in Pacific Rim stride into the ocean, club a monster with a tanker ship, or slice a kaiju in half with that wobbly-noodle segmented sword. It was just a bunch of well-rendered CG constructs rolling around in a cloud of dust. There was no heft, no weight, no sense of gravity when they crashed into buildings. There was no climatic back-and-forth struggle and no triumphant sense of victory. The monsters wrestle for a bit, the director cuts away from the action, and eventually Godzilla wins.
(NOTE: Edwards was clever to frame the bulk of the monster action via live news casts. It created an interesting psychological effect, and I believe Edwards did this to comment on how modern reporting and the impartial gaze of the camera lens distances us emotionally from tragic events, even ones that are occurring in our own backyard. That was cool. I wish more had been done with it.)
The biggest transgression – at least for me as a life-long fan of giant monster movies – is removing Godzilla from the context of nuclear anxiety. Again, this is not a problem in and of itself. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack did exactly this by proposing a Godzilla that was a spiritual incarnation. In director Shusuke Kaneko’s film, Godzilla embodies the rage of all of the people slain in the Pacific theater of World War II, and the result is a terrible and compelling creature. But if you excise Godzilla’s nuclear-irradiated origin, you have to replace it with something. Godzilla must have meaning, even if that meaning is as paltry as “friend of children” or “defender of humanity”. The best Godzilla stories involve Godzilla representing some form of divine retribution: humanity in its arrogance messes with Nature, and Nature bites back. That the original 1954 Godzilla is mutated into an unstoppable killing machine by atomic weapons testing is a symbol that is perfect in its bleakness, its irony, and its existential despair. There are numerous directions you could take a modern Godzilla film. Rather than an anti-nuclear allegory, you could make Godzilla a stand-in for climate change; our reckless technological abandon awakens a primordial beast, and it destroys us. You could create Godzilla via genetic engineering and comment on fears about GMOs, if that’s the boogeyman that haunts your nightmares. But there must be something, and I don’t think this film offers anything. What does this naturally evolved, apex predator from a bygone era Godzilla represent? What does it mean when he “saves” humanity from the other monsters? Isn’t he merely a brute animal defending his turf? Isn’t the human element incidental in that case? From where does the drama spring, then? Godzilla can be many things, but indifferent isn’t one of them.
Finally, invoking the imagery of Fukushima is cheap and exploitative if there isn’t a deeper message undergirding it.
None of these complaints would be a deal-breaker if Godzilla (2014) wasn’t so doggedly committed to maintaining a serious tone. There is no irreverence here: no attempts at humor; no one-liners; no wacky comic relief; no winking at the camera. This is a valid stylistic choice and one that I appreciate in most contexts, but there’s a disconnect here because the subject matter is patently ridiculous. I can’t simply sit back and pretend that this movie wants me to treat it like a fun, mindless popcorn flick. That’s clearly not how I’m supposed to engage with this film, and the movie simply withers beneath the harsh glare of critical scrutiny. The plot is too convenient. The characters are too thin. The writing is too weak. The action is too brief. Sure, there’s some nice composition, a well-framed shot here and there, but the film is dramatically empty and thematically frail.
So, yes, I’m a grumpy Godzilla fanboy who hates fun. I won’t deny that. But I also won’t pretend like this film doesn’t aspire toward serious drama. It tries to be more than giant monsters smashing into things. It tries to be more than spectacle. Edwards deliberately teases the audience by cutting away from the giant monster action scenes before they have a chance to build, as if to say that this film is so much more than debased genre fiction pandering to our collective appetite for destruction.
But it’s not, and what little spectacle that Godzilla (2014) had to offer left me colder than a blast from Mechagodzilla’s Absolute Zero Cannon.
Filed under: Science Fiction | 14 Comments
Tags: Gareth Edwards, Godzilla