Well, I finally got to see the Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures version of Godzilla last night, seeing on sale at Target earlier in the week. I’ll keep all of the spoilers until after the jump (for anyone on the home page) but I can tell you that despite some flaws, I rather enjoyed it, and that was the point.
While I still have some problems with Gareth Edwards’ approach it’s hard for me to call the results bad, but being a Godzilla movie calls for certain things that were lacking. However, I was entertained for two hours and that’s the important part. Then again I was entertained by Tri-Star’s attempt for different reasons so just my review as you will.
Godzilla is told from the vantage point of a soldier whose dad used to work at a Japanese power plant when our main character was a boy. Something happened at the plant that led to his mother’s death and his father has been obsessed with learning the truth. It turns out he might have been right, and it will lead to a war of monsters, with our hero forefront in the struggle to protect the world from the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and the other thing stalking them, a monster right out of the Japanese legend of Gojira, codenamed Godzilla!
I’m not completely agreeable with Edwards’ approach, which I’ve mentioned in the past when the movie was still being promoted for theatrical release. There’s too much of an obsession with the original movie, forgetting that the franchise was built on monster-on-monster battles that were fun. I think most of the “Millennium” movies did the same thing, actually. The DVD special features disk devotes a whole segment to the plane jump that I thought went a bit too long. Yeah, it started out cool and there were some decent visuals but I found myself agreeing with the scientist, let them fight already. Edwards chose to film the whole thing from human-level as if we were there, which meant not having the best angles to view the fight between Godzilla and the male and female MUTOs. I want to see the monsters fighting, not the monsters fighting through a window. He also insisted that humans be in the shot for scale. At points that was a good idea, but when you have people working in an office when they should have long since evacuated, it doesn’t work. Not EVERY shot has to be from human perspective.
What about the monster designs? I thing the MUTO designs are great and the idea that they were looking to mate. I’ll get into my issues with the CG soon enough but the designs for the monsters were cool-looking. Godzilla…is hit or miss. The head, as many reviewers noted, is too small and to Godzilla fans it’s very noticeable to the point of distraction. (I’m hoping IDW doesn’t try to match that design.) His coloring also made him look too close to the buildings. It looks like grey (the actual Godzilla color) mixed with brown. Green would have been a better mix with the grey and would have made Godzilla stand out a bit more. My favorite part of the fight had to be when Godzilla actually shot his nuclear breath right down the mouth of one of the MUTOs. On the one hand it’s very dark and violent and everything, but something about it looked cool and it wasn’t gory (you know, until Godzilla is holding the thing’s head in his hands).
The CG itself is also hit or miss. For some reason Western directors have a huge issue with “man in a suit”. I get that. However, my problem with the Toho costumes is that they aren’t as advanced as they could be. Imagine a combined effort by Toho’s department, or even Tsuburaya…with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop! Mix in improved choreography with great-looking costumes and the Creature Shop’s blend of animatronic puppetry. A lot of what we saw could have been done with this and miniatures, making them feel more real since they have a physical mass to work with. I’m not sure either is less expensive anymore and there is a push for more practical effects (and Edwards did everything practical that he could). They look better than I expected but I still think the practical side, with proper suit design and choreography, would have been much better. I also had to lighten that picture to the left and turn up the brightness of my monitor to see the final battle better. Maybe it’s my settings, who knows?
So what about the writing? There are enough clichés in this movie that I could do an article just about them, the biggest being the soldier trying to get through the
alien robot monster attack trying to reach his family. Edwards tries to push the human element. The original movie did this and when Edwards goes with that it works. Other times, like the insistence on people-eye views of the fights, the usual tropes, Ford (our hero) being the only surviving soldier numerous times, and clichés out of something Roland Emmerich would use, although thankfully more toned down than his US GINOzilla predecessor yet lacking his charm in the name of “realism”, seems to lack some of the fun we want in a giant monster movie in general and a Godzilla movie specifically. I can see why people would like it and I didn’t hate it, but I have expectations when the name “Godzilla” appears in a movie title and it didn’t hit all of the marks.
Finally we have the acting. The acting was decent in some areas and saved at least one character: General Stenz, the poster child for how generals in these kinds of movies should be written and acted. When he decides to use the nuke to lure MUTO away and then try to kill it with the bomb’s blast safely away from the city, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa tries to talk him out of it. Stenz is willing to take alternatives, and he comes off as actually willing to listen to alternatives. Serizawa suggests letting Godzilla do the work but Stenz isn’t sure he can trust it to work out. He doesn’t come off as being a jerk who wants to blow things up and save the day. He isn’t a “my way or the highway” jerk about his decision and still trusts Serizawa’s opinions. When the MUTO arrives on shore he realizes the secret is soon going to be out and focuses on ways to protect Honolulu and later San Francisco from the monster and save lives. I think he’s my favorite character in the movie just because he’s written so much better than his “peers” in this story. It’s partly due to David Strathairn’s acting, but he’s also well-written. Still, Stratham could have read the lines like the typical “blow them up and let God(zilla) sort them out” movie sci-fi genreal and doesn’t.
Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is…okay. Not really good, not really bad, just okay. Young Ford is better than the kid who plays Ford’s son. CJ Adams seems to know how to emote a little and Edwards knows how to make his actors show actual emotions rather that the “approved” set of emotions that have no life to them. Carson Boide, who plays young Sam, barely registers any response to anything. Elisabeth Olsen, who plays Ford’s wife Elle, isn’t the overly whiny type or the overly take-charge badass. She’s properly in-between and comes off like a person. Watanabe is also good as the scientist Serizawa (who only shares the last name of the doctor from the original) and shows he respects Stenz as much as the general respects him. Then there’s Bryan Cranston, whose character (Ford’s dad) is sadly killed off early in the movie as I would have liked seeing him and Watanabe working together solving the problem with the kaiju.
(side note: At the power plant we have Japanese people who speak with the more traditional accents, like “r”s for “l”s and ones who speak better English. I appreciate that. Since Godzilla restoring balance is the running message of the movie, seeing this kind of balance makes me happy.)
While there are things I would like to see them improve (not being at human level for every fight being my big one, and maybe adding some more color to either Godzilla or the buildings) and things I wish they had done (Toho/Creature Shop team-up), and things I hope they do in the next movie (lightening up a bit, a little more monster fighting now that this Godzilla universe is established, something Bay really dropped the ball on with the Transformers sequel) it’s a movie that has it’s flaws but is still enjoyable for me and I hope the sequel pans out before Toho resumes making Godzilla movies. It was worth finally seeing, and more Godzilla than the last American attempt, but there are things they could do better in the future.