I have a soft spot for The King of Monsters that goes way back. During my childhood, the NYC stations would run blocks of B-movies, a mix of Sci-Fi, horror flicks, kung-fu, and monster movies. WNEW had Creature Feature and Drive-In Movie, WPIX had Chiller Theatre, WOR had Supernatural Theatre, and WABC had The 4:30 movie.
Godzilla was a recurring star on all of these, and the story goes I would call my mom’s lab about an hour into a film, crying because Godzilla was dying. No one understood he was the good guy and it was the Biggest Tragedy Ever.
I anticipate and watch every re-launch of Godzilla with a certain childish glee I have no intention of ever letting my inner adult squash. However, I am aware that Godzilla is a franchise stretching back 60 years, often made on the cheap, and has been wildly inconsistent in quality. Indeed, the people making Godzilla have obviously had diverse views on what Godzilla is supposed to be about. (In this it resembles another property I’ve been a fan of since childhood, Doctor Who.)
There have been three major themes in Godzilla over the years:
- Metaphor for the atomic bomb, nuclear power, science or progress in general.
- Big Monster Fights.
- Camp silliness
Every Godzilla movie hits at least one of these, and you’ve probably got to hit at least two in order to be a really good Godzilla movie.
Last weekend, Godzilla returned in a beautiful, big-budget spectacle that rings hollow, too afraid to embrace the parts that truly make Godzilla great.
The new film does an amazing job with the monsters. Both Godzilla and his enemies look beautiful, while still somehow evoking the odd aesthetic of guys in rubber suits and puppets in both how they look and move. There are even scenes shot with the trailing smoke so often used in the old films to give a sense of motion to the flight scenes. The first debut of Godzilla’s atomic breath is simply spectacular, building slowly through his dorsal spines in a combination of nostalgia and growing anticipation. For most of the film, the monsters are shot from eye level, lending them weight and power. When they are revealed in full shots for fighting, they own the screen for the few moments they are allowed to shine.
And there’s the problem, for the few moments. The film isn’t willing to go camp, and is absolutely terrified of using any of Godzilla’s more serious history as a metaphor for the age of nuclear weapons, all they have is the monster fights.
And if that’s all you have, you better go all out with it. In the end, there isn’t enough Godzilla in Godzilla.
Many have defended this, pointing out that holding off on the monster reveal builds tension, and is a classic approach to suspense. All true, but to do that you need the rest of the film to hold up, and that’s where this film is a disaster.
In place of camp or metaphor, the emotional center the audience is supposed to relate to is “Generic White Guy Protagonist #5” – military edition. Brody is a cookie cutter leading man with a cookie cutter pretty wife and adorable kid who the script writers seem to think we should care about for the simple reason that he’s on screen. I understand the desire to give narrative focus through a character, but you either have to write that character to be compelling or have an actor who is compelling by sheer force of screen presence. This fails both. (And considering the film has Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston floating around the fringes, it just highlights how uninteresting the lead role is.)
If the film needed a human scale perspective, there were options to give small, meaningful roles to any number of people who cross paths with the monsters. It is possible to make a single character facing an impossible situation sympathetic in a short scene, and a series of these moments would have been more powerful than some guy who is just too boring to care about.
While Brody is boring, and renders more than half the movie a chore to watch, the other problem is more subtle and more tragic. The film runs away from anything that matters about the origin and presence of Godzilla himself. I am fine without long explanations on the origins of monsters (the film rather admirably just sort of throws up its hands and says “monsters exist, let’s move on”), but there is no escaping that Godzilla is intimately tied to the atomic bomb.
While long stretches of the Godzilla franchise thrived on camp and spectacle, it never hid from the fact the original film is a dark metaphor of nuclear power. Here that background is swept under the rug. Godzilla just sort of woke up with the first nuclear submarine. The Bikini Atoll tests are explained away as just an attempt to kill Godzilla. Hiroshima completely vanishes from the Godzilla narrative, appearing only as an oblique reference for Ken Watanabe’s character’s motivation. It’s a cowardly decision, and robs Godzilla of some of his mythic power and given the pro-military choice of Brody, it smacks a bit of not wanting to remind anyone of the anti-military origins of the story. When the other monsters arrive, Godzilla comes to fight them, and the Watanabe’s scientist (who has apparantly been studying Godzilla by never finding him) claims Godzilla is a force of balance and a predator. How he knows this isn’t explained. It’s a reference to the role he often played in the Toho films, but with no background to earn it. Even the sense that he is a force that can’t be controlled, a last-ditch attempt to drive out other monsters – one that will result in more destruction in your city, but maybe save the world – is lost here. There’s no sense unleashing Godzilla is a risk unto itself, here.
In the end, none of that has to matter. Godzilla has existed as an excuse for a popcorn film for much of his run. But if all you have going for you is “Let them Fight”, then you should really let them fight more.