I saw the new Godzilla reboot over Memorial Day weekend, but we’ve had so much going on here at Midlife Crisis Crossover over the past few weeks, from my birthday road trip to the Indy 500 Festival Parade to Indy PopCon 2014, that its writeup remained relegated to the MCC reserve-topic list until those events were past. (Mostly, anyway. Officially I’m not done with one of them.) Four weeks into its American theatrical run, I figure why not get on with it.
So, monsters, then. Eventually.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Historically speaking: Godzilla is a monster that smashes buildings and has his own trademarked roar and spars with other monsters while panicky humans wait impatiently for him to go away so they can begin rebuilding in time for his next rampage. The Criterion Collection edition of the original film is a must-buy for any serious monster fan (the cover’s painted by comics star Bill Sienkiewicz!), but I’ve seen very few of his authentic Japanese sequels. I remember fragments of them from Saturday afternoon childhood reruns, but have forgotten most of them. I sat through Godzilla 1985, Godzilla 2000, and Roland Emmerich’s quote-unquote “Godzilla” in their respective U.S. theatrical releases, but I wouldn’t call myself a dedicated Godzilla fan. (Godzillist? Godziller? Godzillian? Godzillista? Zillahead? I wouldn’t know. I’ve heard “kaijuologist” but that sounds too medical.)
The new version begins in Asia but moves quickly to America for a change of scenery and fairer distribution of damages. An opening flashback sees an entire nuclear facility sunk by a mysterious catastrophe accompanied by suspicious noises but no visible cause. Persons of interest include an American scientist (multiple-Emmy Winner Bryan Cranston), his scientist wife (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche from The English Patient), and another pair of scientists (Oscar nominees Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai and Sally Hawkins from Blue Jasmine) who are expositionologists in charge of describing all geological events, telling us which things that just happened are impossible, reading numbers from gauges, providing insights into monster psychology, and dispensing wisdom about the sovereignty of Nature.
Flash-forward to the present day, where the two expositionologists remain our Greek chorus, but two new main characters take over where their elders left off: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (the title guy from Kick-Ass) is a bomb-disposal expert who keeps Forrest-Gumping his way through a series of monster disasters that happen near, around, or just ahead of him, even though most of the time he’s not actively looking for them. Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his sister in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, is his Concerned Wife who is very concerned. The cameramen are quite interested in focusing on the travails of the separated happy couple while trillions of dollars in super-sized summer blockbuster structural damage happens mostly off-camera.
Eventually Mother Nature sends Godzilla in to dispense monster justice and, even though small children in the audience are bored and revolting by this point late in the film, the movie’s finally all like MONSTERS FIGHT! And there’s an onscreen Final Boss Battle that finds some nifty finishing moves that Pacific Rim didn’t already use up.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: There’s also the ubiquitous David Strathairn as a top military guy; Richard T. Jones from Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles as another military guy; longtime character actor Garry Chalk as — you guessed it! — yet another military guy; and the kid from the mostly unseen The Odd Life of Timothy Green as Young Kick-Ass, who grows up to be a military guy. The cast beyond them is a combination of extras and CG cannon fodder.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In keeping with some of the later Godzilla films (according to my son, who binge-watched all of them in high school), Godzilla here isn’t the instigator. He’s the hero, a sort of samurai colossus duty-bound to bring balance to Nature. That fragile balance has been upset by the real monsters responsible for all this decimation, the MUTOs, who feed on nuclear radiation and therefore can’t resist foraging for man’s power plants, which I imagine are tastier to them than some skimpy uranium deposits. Curious implications from this reworked premise: Nature is the ruling authority, Godzilla is the white knight, and Man is the damsel in distress. For once, it’s not Man versus Nature. If anything, it’s a rare moment in a film where Nature sees Man as part of itself instead of as the Enemy. So that’s a nice change of pace.
There’re also several time-honored morals for kids and adults alike to catch. Family is Important. Sacrifice is Noble. Never Give Up, Never Surrender. Don’t Believe Everything The MAN Tells You. All these give the human characters something to do while they’re passing the time and wishing Godzilla would turn off his MP3 player and emerge from his trailer.
Nitpicking? I Netflix’d director Gareth Edwards’ indie film Monsters before walking into this, which was likewise 90% ruined scenery and 10% visible monsters. It felt more like a gutsy move than low-budget corner-cutting, especially when the monstery climax veered in an unexpected direction. I already knew he had more on his mind than Michael Bay mayhem. And I’m generally fine with delayed gratification (cf. the second and third Bourne films, which I enjoyed even though they each contain precisely one thrilling martial-arts sequence and one death-defying car chase).
But if you’re gonna hold out on the audience for that long and keep your star attraction hidden behind the curtains for 80% of your running time, then that 80% needs to give us something worth watching.
Between the time Cranston exits the film and takes his charisma with him, and the moment Godzilla claims his rightful place as official protagonist, there’s a 100-minute gap that’s largely Taylor-Johnson going through the motions of walking through a Roland Emmerich theme park whose rides have terrible names like “Gormless Tentacle Attack” and “Tugboat Capsizing Simulator” and “The Morning After a Whole Bunch of EXPLOSIONS You Didn’t Get to See” and “Shell-Shocked Survivors Main Street Parade” and “Watch the Movie You’re In on TV”. (Don’t even get me started on that last one.) Yeah, his character has a rough life and keeps in touch with his family and commits a few heroic deeds and even saves a small Japanese child just like Gamera would’ve wanted, but he’s a one-note military guy with obvious lines, lacking in screen presence and not even gifted with the kind of gonzo personality that’s required to survive one of Emmerich’s doomsdays. The panoramas of broken cityscapes scrolling behind him were a visual stimulant of sorts, but after a while they felt like a collage taken from the world’s most depressing Instagram account.
I’m reminded of watching Robert Altman’s Popeye at the drive-in as a eight-year-old fan of the old Fleischer cartoons, sitting through the first 110 minutes of this quirky, brow-furrowing, alienating, live-action musical with exactly one thought on my mind: when’s Popeye gonna eat his spinach? Popeye eating spinach and cleaning someone’s clock was the best part of every Popeye cartoon. I didn’t know yet that Popeye was a comic strip first and the filmmakers were preoccupied with bringing that environment to life, but it wouldn’t have made a difference to me if I had. I resented sitting through a Popeye movie where Popeye hates spinach, refuses to touch it, and begrudgingly saves the day only because Ray Walston realizes how much the film sucks and force-feeds him some spinach. Thanks to Mr. Walston I got three glorious minutes of the Popeye movie of my dreams before the end credits rolled.
Obvious rule: anything that reminds me of Altman’s Popeye has failed on a level or two.
So did I like it or not? Cranston gives 100% to his performance as the shattered, jittery, solitary voice of truth who jeopardizes career and life to take the bold steps necessary to wake up the world. And don’t get me wrong: the monster fights, what few are held in plain sight, are absolutely All That. Strictly speaking, it’s still the best Godzilla film I’ve ever seen in theaters, though I’d have to revisit Godzilla 2000 to solidify that superlative claim. But I wish the middle of the movie had a reason to exist as anything other than a perfunctory connector between its vastly more entertaining bookends.
Maybe it was presumptuous to expect Godzilla Presents Godzilla in Godzilla Starring Godzilla. I’d be more understanding if this were Monsters 2: the Monsters Supremacy, but that’s not what I was sold.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Godzilla end credits, but I thought it was cool that one of the visual effects studios granted a “Performance Capture Consultant” credit to Andy Serkis. I had this fun mental image of a bunch of animators sitting around a warehouse covered in sticky MoCap dots while Serkis lumbers and swaggers around, roaring and demonstrating some mean Godzilla body language for his young pupils.