This review is actually two reviews for the price of one. The first is a glowing review of the stuff the film gets right. The second is an unhappy, spoiler-heavy discussion of the stuff the film gets wrong. Godzilla does, legitimately, get things right. Lots of things. But it gets stuff terribly wrong, too.
Let’s get to it.
Godzilla: The Good Stuff
Gareth Edwards got his big start by winning the Sci-Fi-London film festival competition in 2010 and then going on to make the film Monsters. Edwards made Monsters on a minuscule budget – less than $500,000, – with a minimum of special effects, all created on his laptop. But Monsters was good – good enough to have landed him a pretty nice sophomore feature: Godzilla.
And what a sophomore effort it is. Indeed, it is remarkable that it’s only Edward’s second feature, so assured is the direction. The flourishes he uses – for example, opening a scene by focusing first on an animal, then on a human, and finally on whatever’s going on behind that human – are lovely and add scale and depth to the film without overdoing it (cough lens flares cough). Depth in that this is a fully-fleshed world, a recognizable world. A human world. Scale in that this world is full of things: there are small things, and people-sized things, and the big things that people make. Things that interact in quiet, ordinary ways: a lizard crawls along a branch; a child gets on the bus to go to school; an office fills with people.
And when we do finally see Godzilla: he is big. Not just big in that he’s 338 towering feet of pissed-off dinodragoatomobeast, but big in how he fills the screen, big in how he brushes aside boats and planes and buildings. How his roar begins in his tail, rumbles through his body and out into the cinema. This monster is massive. He’s overwhelming. He’s too big to take in all at once, on our petty human scale.
We don’t set eyes on Godzilla – the full monster in all his glory – until very late in the game. And even before then our view of him is teased and delayed: we begin by glimpsing him in parts and pieces. We watch him through clouded windows and catch flashes of him through closing doors. We peer at him, refracting through water. We glimpse his shadow cast across the havoc he wreaks. We know him by his effects, by his monstrous power, long before we ever actually see him, glorious terrible beast, crashing into buildings, smashing through the thin veneer of our tiny human-sized stuff. He is the ultimate outsider, the perfect inhuman; he literally doesn’t fit.
And yet, toward the end of the film, Godzilla’s enormity is inverted, and humanized: there in that massive head are two small, sad eyes. The most meaningful moment in the whole film come when a single human character locks gazes with Godzilla. Through him we look into the monster’s soul. And the monster looks back, through the digital effects and even the physical screen, to see us, the rapt, tiny, delicate, enthralled audience. The connection the human and the inhuman sparks. And it is divine.
Godzilla’s stand-out sequence comes toward the end, when a group of paratroopers dive into a smoke-wreathed San Francisco from 30,000 feet, trailing red smoke trackers. It’s a long, still, breathtaking sequence; a reminder again of the scope of the disaster unfolding on the screen before us, and our own piddling size within it.
It is an achievement of the highest calibre.
If only the rest of the film could match those poetic visuals, that divine beast. That doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t immensely enjoyable. It is! …as long as you keep your disbelief suspended.
Godzilla: The Bad Stuff.
Seriously, do not read anything written in purple below if you do not want to be spoiled. This spoils THE ENTIRE FILM.
The best way to dig into what makes Godzilla so ludicrous is to try to outline the plot. It’s not that the plot is so stupid or so over the top – it’s no more so than any other action film, honestly. But this film deserves more.
The year is 1999. Following a mine collapse in the Philippines, a group of scientists find a giant skeleton in a cave deep underground. And there’s some sort of egg-thing there, too! Elsewhere, Walter White is living in Japan with his wife and son and working at a nuclear plant. Something kersplodes the nuclear plant and Walter’s wife dies while he and his son escape.
Fast forward to today: the son (Ford) has just gotten home to San Francisco to his wife and son, following a tour of duty with the Navy, disarming bombs. The very night he gets home after 14 months away is the night Walter White, who now lives in a tiny room in Japan and is a 100% conspiracy-obsessed nutjob, gets arrested for trespassing in the abandoned city where his former nuclear plant once stood. For some reason, Ford has to fly immediately to Japan to get him out of prison. (A flight of 10-11 hours, not taking customs, etc., into consideration.)
Ford springs Walter, who somehow convinces him to go back into the abandoned, quarantined, military-patrolled city and rescue some floppy discs from their former house. They discover that there’s no radiation, despite the fact that they personally can attest to the fact that the nuclear plant did, indeed, kersplode. And then get caught. Without so much as a moment’s discussion, they’re taken to the abandoned nuclear plant instead of, oh, say, the nearest civilian police station. There we learn that a giant glowing eggy thing (like the one in the skeleton from 1999) is… there, and has been sucking up the radiation from the kersploded nuclear plant since the kersplosion (hence no radiation). The egg starts sending out really big electromagnetic pulses. Ken Watanabe, who is Head Scientist of the Secret Pro-Monster Illuminati in charge of keeping an eye on the egg-thingy, orders the eggy-thing to be destroyed. Instead it hatches, and a giant bony moth-like monster breaks out, kills nearly everyone and flies away.
No, really; there’s a Secret Pro-Monster Illuminati.
Meanwhile, Ford just wants to get home to his family in San Francisco. So he catches a military helicopter to Hawaii, to grab a commercial flight back to SF. Unfortunately, the monster is also San Francisco-bound, and hits the Honolulu airport (uh, literally) at almost exactly the same time Ford does. Turns out, there’s a second monster – a girl version of the moth, apparently, though how their genders are established is never made clear – in Nevada. I mean, she’s supposed to be dead – but apparently they weren’t very good at ‘vivisecting’ (yep, that’s the actual word they use) their giant antediluvian monster egg, because the thing has hatched and is both very much alive and very angry. And somehow in possession of a womb full of viable eggs. Also, she can’t fly but is massively radioactive. She EMP’s back at the other monster and then starts stomping toward San Francisco, to meet up with her boyfriend.
MEANWHILE. The fact that these two monsters are alive and talking (in EMPs!) alerts a third monster – you guessed it, our Godzilla! - who is the 'apex predator' of whatever messed-up ecosystem produced GIGANTIC NUCLEAR MONSTERS but left no fossil record. He rumbles into wakefulness somewhere in the South Pacific and then starts swimming toward San Francisco. Let’s not get into the logistics involved in getting all three monsters, all coming from different places via different modes of transportation, to meet up in SF at the same time. They do; the end.
Though I can’t help but point out that Godzilla has no flippers. He is not in the least bit hydrodynamic. But apparently he can swim super fast (33 knots, which is a little less than 40 mph) so he makes it from, like, Bikini Island to San Francisco in about twelve hours. Maybe less. Seriously, time has no meaning in this movie.
Oh, the moth monsters feed off of radiation and eat nuclear warheads. Literally. Despite knowing this, the military decides that a really really big nuclear bomb is the best way to dispose of them. Ken Watanabe is all ‘c’mon, guys. Godzilla hates the moth things. Just let him kill them.’ Everyone ignores him.
Then there’s some foolishness with a train full of nuclear warheads that’s actually too preposterous to get into. The important thing is that all three monsters – and Ford, remember him? – wind up in San Francisco at the same time. As does an armed nuclear warhead counting down to apocalypse o’clock via an analogue timer. Male moth monster passes nuclear warhead to female moth monster, in what I suppose is meant to symbolize (or be?) an act of fertilization, and then lady monster digs a big hole in Chinatown and lays her eggs. Godzilla shows up and starts fighting the moth monsters. Ford’s team saves the warhead and Ford blows up the eggs, which really pisses off lady monster. Godzilla takes out the dude monster and then collapses into a building. Ford and the army dudes get the warhead onto a boat and try to take it out to sea, but that attracts angry lady monster, who takes out everyone except Ford. Then Godzilla revives himself and tears lady monster’s head off. Then he collapses again, apparently dead. Ford stops the timer on the warhead and gets his own collapse on.
Epilogue: San Francisco is ruined. Ruined! Like, honestly; we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars of damage here, not to mention ALL THE GIANT DEAD MONSTERS LITTERING THE LANDSCAPE. But wait! Godzilla isn’t dead! He rouses, lumbers to his feet, wades into the bay, and swims away. Everyone (including the audience) cheers. Ford is reunited with his family. Stupid human storylines get wrapped up, the end.
See what I mean? The story is beyond ridiculous. How did they know the one monster was female and the other male? What exactly do they think ‘vivisection’ is and how are they doing it if the lady monster emerged from it huge, radioactive, whole and angry? How does Godzilla swim? What does he eat? What about the ecology of a world that could support an entire ecosystem of gigantic moth monsters and Godzillas? Not just how, but when? Why did Ford get a helicopter ride from Japan to Hawaii (a journey of 8 and a half hours on a commercial jet) but not from Hawaii to San Francisco (a journey of about five hours on a commercial jet). Why was the military transporting nuclear warheads on a train? Why were they fighting a couple of radiation-eating monsters with radiation, anyway? Why is there a Pro-Monster Illuminati?
And the women. Do I really, really, really have to keep harping on about this? FINE I WILL. Look. There are two major female characters in the film. One, Sally Hawkins’ scientist, mostly serves to goggle at the monsters and get angry when the (male) military characters make dumb decisions. I don’t even remember her name. She’s that important. The other, Elizabeth Olsen’s Al, doesn’t serve any purpose except to be one half of the thing that our POV hero wants to get home to. She’s a nurse, but we don’t see her saving people. She’s a mother, but we mostly see her crying. She exists for no reason other than to give our hero’s journey back to San Francisco that extra poignancy. (There’s also Juliet Binoche, who gets fridged almost immediately.) None of the major military characters are female. Hell, only a very few minor soldier characters are women!
I mean, come on. Surely we can do better than this?
That’s it for the spoilers. I promise.
I’m not going to go so far as to say these are minor issues: they’re not. A silly storyline is nothing new in a Hollywood summer blockbuster, but it is deeply annoying. And it opens the film up to criticism, and detracts from the stuff the movie does well.
The fact that female characters are, once again, given short shrift is beyond depressing. It’s insulting. And I am so tired of being insulted by these films.
Godzilla: the wrap-up
Should you see Godzilla: yes. It is beautiful. It is incredibly well filmed and directed. You should see it in the cinema, if only for the pleasure of hearing the growls and screams and roars and, yes, purrs in surround-sound, and for the pure adrenaline rush of those two perfect, gorgeous moments I mentioned above. Should you see it in 3D? I dunno; if you like things small and dark and outward-flinging. I was more than happy with it in 2D.
The film never slows down, but it never really makes sense, either. And, as usual, the female characters are few in number, insignificant in character, and ultimately irrelevant.
But Godzilla is also a love song to a giant monster, and when it is only a love song to a giant monster, it is wonderful.