Godzilla (2014): Gareth Edwards
One of 2014’s surprise hits plunked down in mid-May and came away with $200 million, though that was only good enough for 13th on the domestic chart. Still, the success was enough to land Edwards a little movie called Rogue One, or How Princess Leia Stole the Death Star Plans, or If Edward Snowden was of Royal Blood and Could Fly.
Dozens of films after his Japanese debut in 1954, Godzilla arrived on American screens the largest he has yet been. Or at least he seemed that way. Detractors mocked his American fatness, and indeed the King of Monsters has a big gut, despite hibernating for untold decades.
One Sentence Plot Summary: Godzilla awakens to battle MUTOs, humans are killed, San Francisco crumbles.
Like later sequels to the original series, Godzilla stars as the hero. He is cast as a God-like creature, nature’s hammer to restore balance destroyed by the insect-like Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism, or MUTOs. What is Godzilla? He is an ancient predator, from a time when the Earth was ten times more radioactive than today. He eats that radioactivity. How can you eat radioactivity? Nature finds a way. The first nuclear submarines awoke Godzilla, and initial bomb tests were attempts to destroy him. They failed.
Godzilla has a great origin story. Radiation, secret government organizations, our Ultimate Weapons: all these make for the the best espionage movies and the most frightening real-life war fears. That Godzilla is a monster, a god-monster, makes him all the more terrifying. And he’s the good guy. The movie tries to cast him as a hero. One newscast, after he slays the MUTOs, asks if he is San Francisco’s “savior.” But viewers know the truth–Godzilla hunts, and that’s it. Only by default is he the hero, from human perspective. If Galzilla popped up and the two tried to reproduce, humans would probably try killing them as well.
Godzilla forces humans to make interesting moral choices, but he doesn’t do so through villainy or interest in human moral choices, like some actual gods would.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a brick wall, er, Ford Brody, whose father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), died in the nuclear catastrophe that was all too real in Fukishima three years prior to the release of the movie. Boy, I’d much rather Cranston have lasted longer. Ford is fresh off a tour of duty when his father’s antics sweep him back to Japan, where they witness the hatching of the male MUTO.
The Ford family reunites in Japan, specifically the exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear plant that exploded in 1999. Both Fords visit their old home, and lo and behold, what is touted as a fallout zone is actually a clean site. When the Fords are arrested for their trespasses, they get to visit the old plant. Only they find it a secret military site, and where the old reactors were, that’s just the home of a pulsing cocoon. And its pulses mimic exactly those from the first nuclear disaster in 1999.
We first glimpse the male MUTO nearly 30 minutes into the movie, when its cocoon finally hatches in Japan. Joe Ford expected something like this to happen, the same thing that occurred on his watch in 1999. When the MUTO hatches, it emits electromagnetic pulses, crashing the computers at the former plant. Both Brody men escape their captivity, but the elder is injured during the escape and subsequently dies. The MUTO takes flight.
Tucked away in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Disposal Site sits a pod found unhatched in the Philippines. When the flying MUTO hatches, it calls the other pod to hatch, and it does, sending a flightless, but much larger, female MUTO toward San Francisco by way of the Bellagio.
Casting Godzilla as hero is equally as difficult as casting the MUTOs as villains. But it must be done. Because there are two, the MUTOs damage things more than Godzilla. They also seem hungrier, and anyone waking from a long sleep can understand. When they aren’t crunching submarine reactors or ICBMs, they dig holes in the city center for thousands of little MUTO eggs. They just want to live, and they care nothing about humans.
The mother provides the film’s most impactful moment. When Ford kills her offspring, she weeps for them. A monster giving viewers the most heart of all the characters speaks well of the skills of the effects team, but possibly the opposite for the screenwriters and actors.
The first action scene occurs on Oahu. The Navy has tracked the MUTO there, although they first thought they were only looking for a missing Russian nuclear submarine. They found the submarine, and a gooey cocoon, and what’s that? An insect more than 100 feet tall munching on a nuclear reactor? It is, and it’s kind of cute. The jets buzzing it agitate it, so the MUTO illuminates one leg in the same reddish orange from its cocoon and smashes it on the ground, sending out an EMP that kills the jets, helicopters, and all the electricity in Honolulu, including the airport tram on which Ford is riding to catch his flight home. Meanwhile, on the beach, a small girl notices the sea recede, a sign of impending tsunami, as the world recalls from the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. But, unlike that disaster, this wave is not earthquake-made.
Godzilla shows his back fins as he swims beneath the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier. Before he takes a step on shore, he sends a three-story wave through Honolulu. The scene cuts to a bird’s-eye view of the water washing through streets before watching four sailors fire red flares skyward. The flares trace an arc past scaly armor and, after nearly an hour, the title character appears on screen, crushing a building like you would an ant hill.
The city’s lights come back on, just in time for Ford and his child friend to watch the MUTO bite off the railway ahead. Some people die from this. Gunships are flying around shooting the bug, mostly angering it and crashing into its wings. One chopper explodes into a passenger jet. The scene cuts to the view from the terminal, where, on the left, the MUTO screams and a jet explodes, sending burning debris to another fuel-loaded jet and yet another in a chain reaction, and, on the right, Godzilla’s leg thunders to the ground. The MUTO opens his wings and screams. The camera traces Godzilla’s entire height before he bellows a scream that measures on the Richter scale.
The characters in the Hawaii scene act independently. Many things happen at once: the MUTO is eating nuke reactors, Godzilla is coming ashore, the power is out in the city, and a tsunami is sweeping across the land. The Navy, focused on the monsters, ignores the natural disaster at their feet. The sailors and soldiers react in a fog of war, much like real war, where little is known and much is feared. The monsters behave best, as they don’t care about humans, don’t even know what they are. They are the alpha predators of Earth, awakened after a long sleep, and hungry.
Action sequence two starts with an homage to Hitchcock: in which a flock of gulls crashes into a window in San Francisco. These birds are not frightening, because they are fleeing the true monster lurking in the city’s famous fog–Godzilla. Millions are evacuating the city, and thousands of them are stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge, including Ford’s son, who we don’t care about because we have lost interest in what the humans are doing. We just want to see the creatures fight.
Sometimes when I’m in the ocean and I’m wading ashore, I like to pretend the water is deep by bending my knees as the water shallows. When I am inches from the shore, I stand to full height, like a monster sneak attacking. Godzilla does the same thing, but the shore for him is beneath the Bridge, where the water is the bay’s deepest at 430 feet. The Navy starts shooting missiles at Godzilla, and both hit the bridge, where Sam’s bus driver said to himself “Fuck it,” and floored it.
The two MUTOs descend on the city. The male plunges into the bay, which averages about 43 feet in depth, basically it’s the shallow end of the pool, where you are never to dive. The male finds the nuke the Navy wanted to use as bait and takes to the female, who starts digging a nest in Chinatown. If you’ve ever seen Big Trouble in Little China you know much mystical energy lives there. She chose well. The MUTOs sweetly nuzzle each other and the male leaves to find more radiation. F-22s rain from the sky, but this brief scene changes our wants for the animals. Now there’s an armed nuke in the center of the city.
The effects team mastered showing the right amount of these creatures and from the best angles. We first glimpse parts of Godzilla–his fins, his tail, his thigh, and his foot–before we see the whole thing. We’re seeing the human scale first. The camera mostly looks up at the MUTOs. Again, human scale. The creatures spend much of their time in San Francisco fighting behind a veil of smoke and shadow. Humans just can’t grasp the size of these creatures, and the effects people understood that.
I was not prepared for the emotional wallop this movie packs. It starts in Japan, where seismic activity is causing some heartburn for Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is tasked with safety at the local nuclear plant. This guy is no Homer Simpson. He’s nervous, so nervous that he forgets his own birthday. At the plant, things start shaking, and Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) is down in the reactor when it breaks. Joe runs to the containment door. He stares into a long corridor. Racing toward him is Sandra, but racing faster is a cloud of radioactive gas. She begs him to seal the door, because, “You have to live, for our son.” If he does not seal the door, the entire town will die. If he seals the door, Sandra will die. He seals the door with a scream as the gas cloud approaches with the same menace as the Smoke Monster from Lost. Joe turns and weeps, and seconds after the door shuts he hears thudding on glass. It’s Sandra and her team. They made it to the door, but they will die, only inches from Joe and safety.
The cooling towers are falling, the town is evacuating, and young Ford Brody watches, knowing what the sight means. Fifteen years later, Ford has moved on from that day. He’s in the Army, diffusing bombs, and he returns from a tour of duty to San Francisco to get a phone call, coitus interruptus, informing him that his father has been arrested in Tokyo again. He goes back, and the two Brody men uncover the true secret hiding in town, and right near their old house. Can you believe that? The MUTO hatches, and Joe dies.
I could have sued more Cranston and less Taylor-Johnson. The former earns the one point, but he was so quickly killed that he couldn’t earn more.
Since the hero and villains are enormous ancient monsters, they don’t command much help. The humans are, by default, on Godzilla’s side, mostly because they want him to kill the MUTOs. The humans are also the ones sending nuclear missiles to major cities to use as bait. This exact missile ends up in the cocoon of the MUTO eggs, and the paratroopers have to carry it out to sea.
If the MUTOs are villains, and their “goal” is to destroy San Francisco, then the humans, specifically the Navy, are the henchmen. They are unwitting henchmen, which makes them more interesting. The Armed Forces behave exactly as we expect, and if we could believe the MUTOs possessed things like “plans” and “intellect” we would applaud them for such a fiendish use of these talents.
The arrogance of man is in thinking that nature is under our control, and not the other way around. The monsters are animals, and they fight as animals do. Humans, we believe ourselves to be, act above animal instinct. Though we may have plans, the humans in the movie seek exactly what Godzilla seeks: prey. We/they act as nature taught us to act, we just have more technology behind us. Perhaps, then, Nature is the enemy to the mind of Man. Our Instinct helps Nature in Godzilla.
Stunts are hard to utilize when the title character is a city-destroying monster. One scene of stunt work stands out as my favorite in the film. Ford joins the paratroopers set to descend on San Francisco. The fastest way to the armed nuke is from the air, but they have to jump from 30,000 feet so the MUTO doesn’t fly up and kill the plane. The scene starts with the creepiest chanting yet put to film. If anyone ever adapted Inferno, they’d probably use this music. A dozen guys run out the back of a plane. Red smoke trails from their heels. They look like blood tears from heaven weeping onto the city. Lastly
A transport plane opens its cargo doors. Night has descend upon the city, where fires, not lights, illuminate the San Francisco with a dull glow. A cohort of soldiers leap into clouds crackling with lightning. Red smoke trails from their heels. The sky cries blood tears for the ravaged city. Through glimpses, the paratroopers see Godzilla fight the male MUTO. Finally, a parachute opens and Ford lands safely on a street. Was any of this a stunt? I don’t know, but it looked beautiful so I give it credit.
Let Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) explain what happens in the climax of the movie. “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.”
As the troopers land inside the city, the male creatures clash through smoke and shadow. The troops gather and hup hup hup toward the nuke. The female joins the fray, but Godzilla is able and nearly crushes her. The male swoops in to save his mate, jabbing his hooked foot into Godzilla’s mouth. Now the fight is even. The soldiers grab the nuke from the nest of MUTO eggs and schlub it toward the water. Ford has other ideas. He finds a tanker overturned near the eggs. He floods the depression with gasoline, hoping that it will touch a fire. It sure does, and the explosion sends him flying. It also distracts the female MUTO. She runs to see her unborn children barbecued. We hear her scream and rage and keen. No moment packed more power than this one. What was indifference toward Ford turned to rage and recalled Serizawa’s Arrogance of Man. I hope your kid dies, Ford.
She faces Ford but gets distracted by a blue light suddenly electrifying the air. It’s Godzilla’s tail, and his torso, and his mouth, and HOLY SHIT HE BREATHES FIRE. The shot wounds her, but the male takes the charge. Meanwhile, the soldiers get a boat started. Distraught and wounded, the female MUTO won’t engage Godzilla. Instead she seeks the bomb. The male wants a final shot. He flies up, swoops behind Godzilla and speeds toward him. Godzilla is ready, and finishes the male MUTO with a tail thwack into a skyscraper, the only one, perhaps, that doesn’t collapse, until it does, right on a weary Godzilla.
The female is swatting the soldiers like flies. They are brave men to stand and shoot bullets at so massive a creature, but this creature EATS RADIATION. Imagine boxing an opponent one thousand times larger than you that literally eats punches. You don’t box it; you run. Ford starts the nuke boat, only to see it shut down when he faces the female MUTO. She. Knows. Ford draws a gun, but before he stupidly, uselessly shoots, she quivers. Godzilla strikes again, and this time he grabs her mouth, opens it, and breaths fire into her. When she dies, Godzilla belts one final scream, that famous scream audible from space.
The filmmakers obscured the monster clashes throughout the film. They fight in Hawaii, but on a news clip in the background. They fight first in San Francisco, but through the eyes of Elle Brody as a shelter door closes on her line of sight. They fight again in the city, but through the eyes of Ford as he falls from the sky and concealed by smoke and night. Only at the end to the creatures finally fight in the open. Godzilla, knowing he’s reached the climax of his film, zaps the two monsters with his fire breath and tail-thwack. The buildup worked so well that, combined with Godzilla’s great finishing moves, made this film.
Godzilla is a serious movie, but the filmmakers threw in some humor. When the Brodys tour their old home, the camera pans across an old terrarium that says “Mothra” on it, thanks to creative tape. In Hawaii, a search team hunts for signatures of MUTOs. The camera spots a chameleon and follows its track across a log before pulling back to follow the SEAL team.
Most of the characters allow viewers to reflect on the one long joke that is The Folly of Man. The movie begins with nice touches of human intimacy: Ford made a banner for his dad’s birthday, Joe watched his wife die after he sealed her into the nuclear reactor, and Ford helps a Japanese boy reunite with his parents in Honolulu.
The monsters awaken and expose the insignificance of human life. The MUTOs destroy cities and nuclear submarines, to mate. Godzilla floods islands and smashes bridges chasing them, to eat. Mating and eating, eating and mating. No urges are more primal, more biological than those, and that’s what the monsters are there to do. They don’t want or need or care about the petty desires of humans. What, they ask, is a human?
One of the Navy guys, psyched to nuke the monsters, claims that current bombs make the 1954 bombs “look like a firecracker.” Does he consider the consequences? That is not his job. And, of course, the train carrying the nuke is attacked–it’s like carrying a tub of salmon through the Alaskan wild. You’re asking for it. In San Francisco, the male MUTO thwarts the Navy’s brill-i-ant plan to use a nuke as bait by taking the bait and eating it. Fish do this all the time to fishers who don’t know what they’re doing, and, relating to Precambrian reptiles that eat radiation, the Navy have never seen the water.
I guess that makes the movie a joke, but not a ha-ha joke.
If you want to destroy a city, make it San Francisco. The city and its surroundings are beautiful and beckon to all disasters, both natural and man-made. Godzilla and the MUTOs love SF. They must be Giants fans. The cameras in Godzilla beautifully capture the landscapes of Japan, Oahu, and the Bay Area.
“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around.” Those words should echo in your ear, after Godzilla’s screams dissipate. When Godzilla awakens and stumbles from the ruined city like he has a bad hangover, a news station asks if the monster is the savior of the city. Like Godzilla gives the tiniest of shits about the city. He doesn’t even know what a city is. People of KNRD, stop feeling so high and mighty. Godzilla fought the MUTOs because that’s his job, because he is a product of Nature, and nothing escapes Nature’s power.
I didn’t find anything to offend me.
- (2) Cinematography choices were interesting. Consider the hatching of the second MUTO. It bursts from Yucca Mountain and walks toward Las Vegas. (Never mind that Sin City is east of Yucca, and the MUTO wants to reach San Francisco.) The movie doesn’t show the creature tearing through the city, save one moment when it crashes a leg through a casino, instead opting to show the path of destruction as jets fire missiles at it in the far distance. We see the creatures as the characters see them: from airport terminal windows, with UAV footage, on a TV screen in a casino, beside a river flowing with fiery wreckage. These views add verisimilitude.
- Scary shot of the movie: a plane tracking shot of California roads packed solid with cars and the wreckage of passenger plane.
- (3) The sound team excelled. The MUTOs walked around sounding like enormous steel cables snapping. Tubas brayed when they spoke. The sounds had to evoke the size of these creatures, and they nailed it. Each step sounded like world’s end.
- (1) The opening credits use news clippings like some crazy person’s conspiracy board. The names of the actors appear after blacking out other words. Also playing is a mixture of possibly real bomb test footage and fake Godzilla sightings. These images imply nuke tests were to kill Godzilla, which is later confirmed by Dr. Serizawa. Again, more verisimilitude.
- (-2) Ken Wantanabe is an Oscar-nominated actor who appeared in Batman Begins and Inception, among other films. Edwards comically underutilizes him here. Serizawa, at least four times, hopelessly stares, mouth agape, at some terrifying scene. This guy knows more about Godzilla than all other humans combined (save his sidekick), yet he he mouth-breathes his way through the movie.
Summary (41/68): 60%
I thought Michael Bay was the only filmmaker who could make me care less about the humans than the other entities. Edwards achieves this in Godzilla. Godzilla is an animal and the Transformers are robots, with human-like intelligence, but not humans, but practically humans, mentally speaking. Godzilla is an animal. What Edwards did was hard; what Bay did should not be done. We are meant to fear these monsters, instead we long for them succeed. The animals engage in the endless struggle of nature, to live long enough to reproduce. Godzilla stops them…this time.