So originally I wanted to post my retrospective on the 1954 classic Gojira before the new movie came out, but these take longer to write than I think, so that uh, didn’t happen. However, I have seen the brand new Godzilla in theaters twice now, and because I have the brain disease that makes me think about giant monsters all the time, I gotta rap about it. Straight up, it is not a perfect movie. That said, it just nails so much of what I’ve always wanted out of a modern giant monster movie. Not only that, but despite being a Godzilla fan since childhood, this movie managed to surprise me… a few times. Part of the credit has to go to the fantastic and minimalist marketing campaign, but the bulk of it has to go to the filmmakers, who knew just how to craft an incredibly solid and satisfying monster film. Plus, it may or may not be a rip-off of an abandoned Godzilla movie concept from the 70s! I’m going to drop spoilers left and right from here on, but if you’ve already seen the movie or are just a bad-ass that is out of fucks to give, read on!
Here’s a little music to get you into the mood. That’s “Last Shot,” my favorite piece of music from the film’s score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s short, so here’s the whole soundtrack if you want more awesome monster music. I had never heard of Desplat prior to finding out he’d be scoring Godzilla, so I was a little nervous. A dude that had found success doing mostly character dramas like The King’s Speech and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was going to score a Godzilla movie? But the proof is in the lethally irradiated pudding, it’s a great, rousing creature feature score, and one that matches the tone of the movie fantastically.
Speaking of the tone of this movie, it completely took me by surprise. In an awesome way. The trailers paint a picture of nuclear dread that we haven’t seen in a monster movie since the bleak 1954 original. The first few trailers only give a brief glimpse of the title monster and focus on how profoundly screwed we squishy little monkeys would be if confronted by a 300 ft. tall atomic dinosaur. Here’s the original trailer for a refresher.
Eventually it was revealed that Godzilla would fight not just one monster, but multiple monsters! Monsters with an S! That announcement was like Christmas morning for Godzilla fans. At the same time though, when you think of Godzilla fighting other monsters, it’s hard not to think about the silliest entries in the series, and how much they clash with the stark doom of Gojira and the nuclear terror presented in the new trailers. How can you reconcile an H-Bomb parable with monsters body slamming each other?
This new Godzilla ultimately manages to do both, which is incredibly satisfying. And it’s not the first time it’s ever happened in the series. Movies like Mothra vs Godzilla and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack star Godzilla as a deadly radioactive villain who just happens to battle other gigantic creatures. Godzilla movies from the 80s and 90s posit him as sort of an out-of-control force of a nature, an anti-hero that is as dangerous to us as he is to the other giant monsters that threaten the world. That always seemed like the best way to keep Godzilla scary, but also give him good reason to clothesline giant robots.
So naturally I went into this movie expecting what we got in those 90s movies: a neutral Godzilla that is incredibly deadly to man and monster alike. A creature that is no more good or evil than a hurricane or volcano can be. And for the first two acts, we’re led in that direction. So wait, what does that mean for the all-important third act?
It means that as far as I’m concerned, Gareth Edwards and co. had the crazy balls and skill to make a scary, gritty Godzilla movie with a full-on heroic Godzilla. Granted, this Godzilla isn’t the puppy-faced superhero from the 70s that does a happy dance when he wins a fight, but he very clearly passed up many opportunities to knock over buildings, swat jets from the sky, and nuke busloads of children. However, in one of my favorite scenes, he at least got the chance to whip those bus-kids into a frenzy of screaming faces and be-shatten pants.
At first I was a little bummed we were getting a heroic Godzilla, because one of my favorite things about the character is that sure he’ll save us from marauding space monsters, but he never forgets to keep our poopy asses in check by melting a few tanks and pushing over a priceless landmark or two. That said, his actions make sense in this movie. His beef just isn’t with us, it’s with the MUTOs. We register on his radar as much as bugs register on ours.
Ultimately, the movie ends with a Godzilla you will flat out cheer for. You want him to win, ostensibly because it will save humanity from an onslaught of horrible bug-monsters, but also because he’s bad-ass and even a bit of a big lovable lug. That last bit might seem ridiculous, but look at him! Some jokesters (myself included) have goofed on this Godzilla’s somewhat… husky looks. When I first saw a leaked image of the new design I couldn’t get around the fact that he seemed to have lost his neck. Here’s the picture in question:
So yeah, definitely not as necky as previous incarnations. Notice anything else? No, not the much-ballyhooed gills (which I think are a pretty genius touch). His big fucking goofball grin! Look at how happy this big bastard is! I was super put off by this for a hot second, but I warmed up to it almost immediately. I should note that I’m pretty certain we don’t actually see him smiling like a giant goober in the movie, though I could swear he was when he was making those school kids fill their trousers with foamy diarrscreama.
Smiles or no, this Godzilla is a big galoot, and I find that super endearing. With his lumbering, bear-like frame and body language you have a creature that not only conveys incredible mass and ancient power, but a ton of personality as well. He’s like a boxer that’s past his prime but still knocking fools out, or an old bear brawling for control of his turf.
That bear thing is no accident either. Gareth Edwards and co. have said in interviews that our ursine friends were a big inspiration for their Godzilla (they also looked at komodo dragons and eagles to give him a “noble” look). I really get a kick out of this because Godzilla’s original suit actor Haruo Nakajima studied bears when coming up with the monster’s body language. Giving Godzilla mammalian looks is nothing new: the Japanese designs have varying degrees of feline and canine features, particularly in the nose and snout. Some even have nubby little “ears:”
It makes sense from a psychological and story-telling perspective. Being mammals, humans are just more prone to sympathize with mammals, or at least mammal-like creatures. It’s why King Kong the super-ape fought dastardly dinosaurs, and why this bear-like Godzilla fights freaky bug-bat-lizards. Speaking of which, how ’bout those MUTOs?
They definitely share some design DNA with the Cloverfield monster from a few years ago, but I think it’s more accurate to say they look like Cloverfield and one of Starship Troopers‘ arachnids had a grotesque murder-baby:
It’s easy to write them off as generic, bug-like monsters, but that’s where Edwards’ love and understanding of giant monster movies sets them apart. The male and female MUTOs have unique traits that we learn about over the course of the movie: the male is (relatively) small, fast, and can fly, but the female is a huge lumbering beast with a fucking gross, jiggly gooch full of horrible, squirming, glowing eggs. Seriously, I couldn’t help but go “Ew,” every time they showed it. And Edwards knows to spread these revelations across the film’s runtime. Guillermo Del Toro’s awesome commentary for Pacific Rim touches on the importance of ever-changing monsters. It’s the best way to satisfy the audience’s desire to see the monster, but also keep surprising them, so they never get monster fatigue.
More importantly, and more surprisingly, is that the MUTO’s aren’t just mustache-twirling villainous douche-asauruses. Yeah, they’re Godzilla-eating parasites, and they’re gross as FUCK, but they’re not evil. They’re trying to build a nest and raise up their disgusting snot-babies. It just so happens that giant monsters love to build their nests in major metropolitan centers, a plot point this movie shares with the 1998 Godzilla.
After all that, the MUTOs share a legitimately tender moment. Yes, the gritty, scary Godzilla movie with a heroic, possibly smiley Godzilla also has the villain monsters sharing a heartwarming head-bump like they’re fucking Simba and Nala. You can watch the clip here. Now I feel like a bit of a dick for calling them gross all the time. Just a bit.
So this is huge for me. In my mind, other than Suitmation (that’s Toho’s actual term for man-in-a-suit/miniature city monster action), what sets Japanese monster films apart from the rest of the world is that the Japanese movies generally treat the monsters like characters, rather than just problems to be resolved. The classic Japanese movie monsters have their own motivations and to some extent even personalities. It’s these character traits that drive the action in those movies, and the same is true for this Godzilla movie. While Edwards only has one other film under his belt, 2010’s Monsters, that movie is a rock-solid indicator that this guy knows how to make a smart, effective creature feature. Monsters focuses mostly on two protagonists making their way through a monster-infested quarantine zone, but by the end of the movie we learn that while dangerous and strange, the titular creatures aren’t necessarily malevolent, and the climax of the movie is shockingly peaceful, and maybe even beautiful. When those nasty-ass MUTOs smooched, I knew this was Edwards’ movie through and through. It was recently announced he’ll be doing the first “one-off” Star Wars movie after Episode VII comes out. Given Edwards’ track record, I can only hope it’s a touching character drama about Bossk trying to redeem himself from his past as a cold-blooded mercenary while starting a young family in an asteroid mining colony.
So Edwards nailed the monster characters. How about the humans? Well, Bryan Cranston acts his ass off as Joe Brody. His character starts as a befuddled, busy dad, then he’s a cool-headed pro trying to minimize the lethality of a catastrophic radiation leak, then he falls apart as he loses his wife, and finally he’s a frazzled, manic conspiracy theorist, desperately piecing together what happened that fateful day at the nuclear power plant. This all happens in the space of the first act, because he’s killed off shortly after he’s proven right and the male MUTO begins it’s horndog rampage to San Francisco. It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed that Cranston’s character got killed off so early. Especially since the human characters that take his place just can’t pull it off.
I’ve read some interviews, and it sounds like Edwards and co. really tried to write a script where Joe Brody makes it to the end, but it just didn’t feel true to the rest of the story. It either came across as a wacky romp like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Joe as the scholarly Henry Jones and his son Ford as the adventurous Indy, or it just didn’t make sense for Joe to be following the Navy into certain, monster-fueled danger after solving the mystery of his wife’s death. They made a tough call and ultimately I think they made the right one, I just wish the other characters were compelling enough to take that ball and run with it.
I think there’s a lot of potential with Ken Watanabe’s character Dr. Serizawa and his cohort Dr. Graham, the intrepid scientists that work with the mysterious monster-research organization MONARCH. Watanabe in particular brought some gravitas to his role, and I think he and Dr. Graham could serve as the recurring characters that help tie the next two movies together. Oh you didn’t hear? We’re getting two sequels! Eventually. If other franchises are any indication, the second installment will be awesome, and the third will kinda fizzle. Here’s hoping Godzilla falls in with the series that bucked that trend.
Going back to Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa for a second (slyly named after Gojira’s tortured physicist), he has a somewhat divisive scene midway through the movie. It’s a quiet moment between Serizawa and some Navy brass, after they’ve announced their insane, desperate plan to use a nuclear warhead to lure all three monsters out to sea and away from San Francisco. Serizawa is understandably not very cool with using nukes for pretty much anything, let alone destroying monsters who eat radiation like it’s fucking pizza rolls. But we find out why he’s doubly not cool with the plan when he pulls out an old pocket watch. It belonged to his father. It’s frozen at 8:15. They found it in Hiroshima after the bomb dropped.
I understand why people feel the scene is over-the-top or heavy-handed or preachy, but I don’t agree. I think it’s exactly the kind of fuck-you gut-punch this movie has to have, even if it’s just for a moment. Even if he’s heroically wrasslin’ giant critters, you can’t really escape the fact that Godzilla started life on the silver screen as a terrifying atomic allegory. In Gojira, he’s a living, slow-motion H-bomb. This new Godzilla doesn’t lean much in that direction, but the MUTOs’ hunger for nukes has some fun implications. Mainly that in a pre-MUTO world we have countries dictating who can and can’t have nuclear power and weapons, while others fight to develop them, with or without that consent. In a post-MUTO world everybody would be scrambling to dismantle that shit as fast as possible. Sadly they don’t explore the idea much in this movie, but maybe the sequels will play around with that.
It’s a little thing, but I really loved that early on, we got a scene of scientists in haz-mat suits exploring weird, fantastical terrain, searching for clues about the seemingly camera-shy skyscraper-sized monsters. It’s one of my favorite genre tropes, and this Godzilla movie does it up solid. Godzilla gives us Dr. Serizawa and friends trundling through the subterranean skeleton of a gigantic monster –possibly the best use of this trope since the original Mothra had our leads wandering through a radioactive jungle populated by killer plants and tiny ladies.
While some complain about there not being enough Godzilla in the Godzilla movie, I say they just knew when and how to tease us with monsters. Instead of blowing our nuts off by jamming monster taints in our face non-stop from frame one and making us numb to it by the 20 minute mark, they dish out increasing amounts of monstery flavor over the course of the movie. It gives the rest of the movie space to build up how huge and awesome and mysterious and dangerous and bad-ass these creatures are. By the time we do get good looks at these beasts, we are SUPER psyched to see them, and they manage to seem even more impressive. Steven Spielberg practically owes his career to this technique: We don’t really see Bruce the shark until the final act of Jaws. We get a couple cool flybys of the UFOs early on in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but we don’t get the big grand finale orgy of spaceships until the very end. Similarly, we catch glimpses of Godzilla and the MUTOs throughout the movie, but we don’t see Godzilla tail-whip the male into a skyscraper, THEN FUCKING MAMA-BIRD THE FEMALE TO FUCKING DEATH until the end.
Yeah, I’m saying this movie feels like a Godzilla film as filtered through the Spielberg school of blockbusters. That’s great news in my book.
So what probably feels like trillions of years ago, I mentioned that this movie’s story of star-crossed monsters getting violently cockblocked by Godzilla may or may not have been copy-catted from an unused Godzilla script. Godzilla vs Redmoon was to be a joint-production between Toho and Tsuburaya Productions–Tsuburaya Productions being the studio of Eiji Tsuburaya, aka the inventor of Suitmation. Being the inventor of Suitmation means that before he left Toho to found his own studio and create Ultraman, Tsuburaya brought Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah and many more classic creatures to life. You’d be hard pressed to name somebody who had a bigger (heh) hand in building the world of Japanese giant monsters.
But yeah, Godzilla vs Redmoon was to revolve around the space monster Redmoon coming to Earth and meeting up with another monster called Erabus. Not to level cities or beat the shit out of each other or be mind-controlled by aliens like so many other monsters, but to get together and pork. Erabus poops out one kid-monster called Hafun. Humans kidnap and eventually kill Hafun (like how Ford fries the putrid, squirming MUTO eggs), Redmoon and Erabus flip a shit and rampage through the city (like the MUTOs do), until Godzilla rolls in and kicks everybody’s ass. Sounds like a solid Godzilla movie (though baby-monster murder would be… a downer to say the least), but it never made it past the development stages. Tsuburaya Productions eventually reworked it into Daigoro vs Goliath.
Daigoro vs. Goliath has never seen a real release stateside, so the full movie is pretty easy to find online… this will be the subject of a future post. Godzilla vs Redmoon has a surprising amount of story-beats in common with Godzilla, but I’d chalk it up to Edwards and co. wanting to have sympathetic antagonists rather than them possessing arcane knowledge of unused Godzilla scripts. Though if they do possess such knowledge, here’s hoping their sequel is inspired by Batman vs. Godzilla.
One last thing (I swear)! That joke about Gamera in the title? I came up with that before I found out that the success of Godzilla and/or Gamera’s upcoming 50th anniversary has inspired a new Gamera movie, set to release next year! While I’m crossing my fingers for a campy monster-mash featuring all of Gamera’s past foes in the same vein as Destroy All Monsters or Godzilla Final Wars, I bet we’ll get something that attempts to match the more serious tone of Godzilla’s recent hit. After all, Gamera was originally created to cash-in on Godzilla’s success back in the 60s, no reason to stop now. Either way, I’m-a be pissed if Guiron isn’t in it.