Don’t Cry for Me, Janjira

17May14

fatty

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.

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14 Responses to “Don’t Cry for Me, Janjira”

  1. Sadly I agree with most of this.

  2. I concur on all accounts. People cheered in the theater at the three key scenes that were entertaining. I, a lifelong Godzilla fan, never once felt involved with the film.

    The characters provided no cause to cheer. The thousand coincidences that brought Ford Brody within feet of the monsters got me flustered. And then the Transformers magic used on Ford allowing him never to be squashed despite being within the carnage left me feeling like I was treated like an idiot. Anyone else notice the magically disappearing cable on the Golden Gate allowing only the one bus to escape?

    Worst of all, Godzilla was a tool. His minor screen time (I wish someone would track the amount precisely) was minute and nonsensical. He had no sense of scale or destruction. Watch Godzilla 1985 to get a feel for how Big G would fare in a city. And M.U.T.O. looked like an old Gamera foe.

    I walked out of Pacific Rim cheering and excited, wanting to see it again. When I trudged out of Godzilla, I wanted to go watch Pacific Rim.

    So Godzilla ’14 will make a ton of money because all the movies that disappoint me are great successes. How else can I explain the horrible Spider-Man movies of recent times?

    Thanks for the review, Paul. As always, well defended!

  3. So, Paul, does the 1998 Godzilla somehow come across as more palatable in comparison to the 2014 version? Seems like the 98 Godzilla had a least one or two decent traits, based on your recent podcast of it.

    • The 1998 one has had over a decade for the sting to wear off. It’s like an old scar. You get used to it. The wounds from the 2014 one, on the other hand, are still too fresh.

  4. A very thorough review. I have not seen the film yet and I may still but you are one of the factors in postponing a viewing (Orlando is having a big Fringe Theater Festival for the next 2 weekends).

    Don’t listen to anyone giving you a hard time. A reviewer give one their take on the film. Everyone reacts differently to a book, play, television show, or film. If a critic or reviewer hates something you like, there is nothing wrong with you. If you get something this other person does not get that is OK. They do not have the ability to steal your enjoyment of the work.

    Paul, sorry for the mini-rant.

  5. 6 Chris Mosher

    Hey Paul, too bad you didn’t like the movie. Did you see Monsters? I enjoyed the human element of Edwards first film even though many people I know did not connect with Monster. I am scheduled to see the movie tomorrow so I will have to see what I think then. Either way, this was a well thought out and written review that I enjoyed reading.

    • I have not seen Monsters, Chris. Nearly everyone I know that has didn’t like it, but some day I’ll have to give it a try and see for myself.

  6. 8 John Bayard

    Paul, I just came back from seeing the film and have to agree somewhat. I don’t think it was horrible, but also wasn’t great. Two questions. 1) Do you think a problem with this film is it tries to be too serious when you are essentially dealing with a fantastical concept (giant monsters fighting) where Pacific Rim knew not to go to far? and 2) One thing I hated with the film was how plot kept jumping from place to place (Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, SF). If the film really wanted to follow the original, would it have been better just to have the majority of the film set in one, maybe two places.

    • John, 1.) I do think the film’s serious tone is a detraction, because it isn’t nearly as serious or as thematically deep as it appears at first blush. If they were going to go for a serious tone, I almost wish that the film was as dark and grim as the trailers made it appear. 2.) I do think that like the 1998 version, this movie jumped around to too many locations. I generally prefer for them to pick a single geographical area and stick with it, although this is only a personal preference. There’s nothing to say that they can’t globe-trot, but if they do choose to do so, I want them to do it in a manner that isn’t distracting. I find interstitial cards explaining the location annoying.

  7. 10 NickoftheNorth

    I’m disappointed to read that Cranston just plays a side character. In the trailers I’ve seen, it’s his desperation and horror that makes me want to see the movie. The scenes of destruction are just so much disaster porn without the context of a properly human character reacting to them with identifiable (and engaging) human reactions.

  8. 11 Chrismosher

    So, I just got back from the theatre and I guess I have to say thanks because of the lowered expectations. I enjoyed the movie up until Cranston leaves the film. then we are are forced to spend time with a lead character who is hindered by a script that leaves the character with no substantial impact on the story except to have a single human to follow and then I felt the disconnect you described. I actually liked the Godzilla design and did not mind Muto.
    The biggest problem with the film is that one of the most emotionally engaging scenes was when the two Mutos met. It was one of better shoot scenes in my opinion and over shadowed the story of the Brody family. It also called back to Edwards first film when we finally see the monsters in full view; once again the scene takes too long to happen.
    I do have to disagree with you about how nuclear fears affected this film. It did away with fears of bomb and enbraced the fears of nuclear power and waste disposal and I felt the prescence of fukashima.

  9. Yeah, I’m pretty much in agreement, too. And alas, I liked Edwards’ previous film Monsters a lot. Watching it might throw some light on what Edwards might think he’s doing, but I can’t really say he succeeds. I compare the two, films here – http://alienatedinvancouver.blogspot.ca/2014/05/godzilla-vs-monsters-review.html

  10. 14 GVman

    I just want to say that I think Godzilla acting indifferent to humanity says a lot. It makes us seem insignificant.

    I don’t know where you’re getting the idea that the film was removed from “nuclear anxiety,” either. Does all the stuff with the reactor not count somehow? Do you mean only in the context of nuclear weapons? Or am I just confusing your usage of “Godzilla” as the title of the film when you mean the monster himself?

    I agree with your issues with the human elements, but, for me, they were so minor that I didn’t care. The only major issue I had was that Godzilla never picked up the pregnant M.U.T.O.s and started eating her baby bump. Maybe that would’ve been too much, but I like it when things are taken too far. It would’ve helped make Godzilla feel more monstrous, too; I like the thought of him having this hero/brutal animal thing going on where you slowly begin to realize that you’re only alive because this monstrosity happens to not care about you in the slightest. In that sense, I do felt like the movie was trying to adjust itself to the “hero” tone more than the “monster” tone when I felt it needed to go in the other direction. Or I could’ve just been projecting that idea onto the film. I tend to do that.

    In terms of Godzilla films, I’d probably rank this just after Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which is somewhere in my top five. I went into it with expectations mostly low, and I had a blast. After a particular scene just before the film ended, my friends had to stop me from clapping continuously during the remaining 15 minutes. Plus, I didn’t have to deal with my idiot friends going: “It’s ripping off Transformers and Power Rangers and looks dumb!” like I did with Pacific Rim, and then I had to listen to some of them complain about how they didn’t start out using the sword.


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