Viewing: Second, I think
Director: Gareth Edwards
In a couple of weeks, Apple+ is dropping their decade-spanning, genre-mixing show about the Monarch organization, which is the group that.... something something.... in a world of giant beasties, based on Godzilla (2014) and the series of attached movies. I've heard where/ when in the movie timeline the show takes place - just after this movie, and it had been a while, so I finally rewatched the first of the Monsterverse films to remind myself what the hell happens in the flick.
I remember going into Godzilla (2014) with some trepidation. The last American-made Godzilla movie I'd seen was the 1998 trainwreck that just piled on all the worst habits of 1990's-era blockbuster entertainment, and then curb-stomped you with them.*
The trailers for the 2014 edition certainly looked cool, but the fact is that at the time of the film's release, Hollywood was doing this thing where they would come up with cool stuff for trailers and then maybe make a movie that tied those scenes and lines together.
It was promising a movie for all-ages, including adults - casting thinking-person's stars like Bryan Cranston, Juliet Binoche, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins (a curious trend that has continued through Godzilla v. Kong with Rebecca Hall as our lead). So it was literally *buying* gravitas with the casting choices. Which was maybe needed after the 1998 debacle.
Leaving the movie, I remember a vague sense of disappointment, but wasn't blogging at the time, so there's no record of what I was thinking. In the 9 years since I've re-watched the movie, I'd kind of forgotten what the deal was. Certainly I remembered them bumping off Binoche in the film's first five minutes, and that Cranston similarly exits the film in the first act, when I thought he was going to be our lead.
Instead, we are handed Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a thankless, vague and personality-free role of "Ford Brody" - a US soldier of some sort (I'm pretty sure I heard him say "navy" at some point, but that seemed weird) who specializes in defusing bombs. He's supposedly partnered with Elizabeth Olsen as his wife, Elle, but the two get maybe three minutes together in the whole film - a film that depends entirely on you caring about Ford's return to his family (why he leaves actually makes zero sense, but whatever). At no point will the audience care about this other than "oh, I guess that's why he's there/ doing that".
The problem with all that all-star casting is that in 2014, neither Olsen nor Taylor-Johnson were the people many of us showed up to see. So when those stars you came to see start getting bumped off, or get relegated to exposition-spouting background characters (sorry, Sally Hawkins), you aren't really sure why you're supposed to be following the blank-space-of a character in a motorcycle jacket that is Taylor-Johnson's character. You'll want to spend time with literally everyone else on screen.
However, the entire movie is set up - much to my surprise the first time - to be Ford's story. We're intended to find out *why* he's invested in the events, and - because this is an American movie - has a deeply personal stake in what is happening. Which means the first twenty minutes could possibly be lopped off the film and conveyed via two or three lines of dialog. But, instead, we're shown everything, which sets up the audience to care about and to wish to follow entirely the wrong characters.
Once we're in 2014, fortunately, the movie fates place Ford just right in the world, in a series of increasingly unlikely events, to be exactly where he needs to be at any given time to be a part of the movie's globetrotting events. Also, not because he did any work, but happened to overhear something, he's the person with the required knowledge at least once. And we're told he apparently set up a nuclear weapon, but that happened off-screen?
This is as good a segue as any to talk about how you can cast the best actors, get cool-as-hell FX departments, etc... but this is, in fact, a very, very badly written movie.
The scenes that do work are very much written to be teaser trailers and worked backward into the movie. The halo jumping sequence is absolute, illogical nonsense, but looks cool as hell, and may have been what was pitched to execs. Godzilla coming onto the beach in Honolulu, same. But they aren't cohesive as a story, and there's no real characters to get invested in to make you care if the monsters destroy the world or not.
Retro-engineering the movie, given what we know now about Legendary's plans, this is really just all set-up for getting an audience invested in the world that we now refer to as The Monsterverse. The movie cares more about sequels than itself - a problem with a lot of media in a post-Lost world, and misunderstanding how Marvel was working. It wants us to understand that there's an expert agency that looks into Godzilla-type happenings, and - working with the military? sometimes? - takes care of the issues, but is really mostly standing around being very concerned, while also hiding the fact that Godzillas exist. Which seems like a very tall order, indeed.
I'll be honest, I had no memory of Monarch by the the time I saw the sequel, so excellent job, my dudes.
From a story perspective, it's the kind of movie where we find out that the people who have spent 15 years, every day, studying the monster who has taken over a nuclear power plant have somehow learned nothing, pondered nothing, done no basic science, and so it is that Ford Brody has all the info they could ever need as person who showed up on the scene 4 hours ago (and you will also wonder why they didn't just hire Cranston). It's the kind of movie that says "we evacuated a whole small city by pretending there was a nuclear disaster, but we didn't kill the monster in the middle of the evacuated area because we thought that would actually radiate the area everyone already was not living in." Which... amazing logic.
The most baffling decision by the movie is that it's absolutely, deeply against actually caring about why you bought your ticket (to see Godzilla). There are multiple battles between Godzilla and the stupid stink-bug looking MUTOs, and fuck you if you would have liked to have seen those, because this movie is convinced that's like putting the camera on the clouds for several minutes in a movie about people surviving a storm.
But it is not. Our monsters are the main event. I don't care if it's the Rockettes performing while firing muskets into the air while the ghost of George Washington tap dances around - my eyes is going to be drawn to the behemoths destroying city blocks by turning around.
What happened in Hawaii? We had minutes of build up featuring huge set-pieces and POV characters. We get our first glimpses of G himself and his incredibly fat ankles. But when the fight kicks in, it's shown as maybe three shots on a 13" TV in other scenes in Elizabeth Olsen's apartment.
You want to see the rampage through Vegas? Eat my butt. We're showing the aftermath.
You want to see the monsters actually engaging in San Francisco? You're just a fool for thinking that will happen. We will show the humans doing their shit, and cut away just as the monsters engage time and time again. And when we DO finally show it, it will be so dark, you'll be wondering if something went wrong with how you're viewing the movie.
Like, I don't understand how one decides that they're making a movie about gigantic monsters fighting and thinks what we want to see is soldiers planning a parachute jump, not "in addition to" but "instead of" monster fights.
Consequently, the movie is weirdly boring. We're just going from place to place, being denied better characters and dialog while gesturing at who they cast.
I've seen, I believe, all but two Godzilla films (three if you count the one that hasn't been released yet), and I can tell you, no matter how goofy or dumb most of these movies are, they know why you paid your dollars for a seat. So they may be a confusing mess of sub-plots, but they WILL show you Godzilla and an enemy or three mixing it up for long stretches. And they do not think you only need to see glimpses of the monster fights in the background as someone ties their shoes in the foreground.
I may think Skull Island is an affront to the legacy of King Kong, but no one is going to call that movie boring or suggest it under delivers on crazy monster stuff. So someone figured this out.
What I don't get is why they went with *this* design for Godzilla. Why the stumpy avocado look? Look, nothing was going to look worse than the 1998 trainwreck, so by that measure, it's an improvement. My assumption is that Toho doesn't want for US-made Godzilla to look like their Godzilla, but I have no evidence that's true. What I generally believe is that there is science that talks about how animals would be shaped if they scaled up, and the larger an animal gets, the more it has to be shaped wider rather than taller - ie: you get a pyramid at some point. And this is that. But, my guys, this is about an amphibious monster king who shoots atomic rays from his tummy out his mouth, so maybe we go for "cool" instead of "will please my Bio 301 TA".
I guess kids like it, because those toys do move, but I gotta say, I think the Final Wars Godzilla looked rad as hell and would have been nice to see as a CGI adaptation. It's not really til they made adjustments to Avocadozilla in Gozilla v Kong that I was onboard with this design.
But, maybe the greatest bit to make you wonder what the hell was going on at Legendary when making this movie occurs in the he final moments.
After Godzilla has managed to help level Honolulu and most of San Francisco, he needs a nap, and takes one in the middle of the city, waiting a couple of days before he wakes up again, fresh as a daisy. As he's leaving, the TV screens have "Godzilla, King of the Monsters: Our Savior?" on the chyron.
That's like.... one day you're at home and two mountain lions and a bear enter your home, destroying pretty much everything you own and killing your family dog. The bear manages to finish off the mountain lions and then naps for a bit on your couch. I really don't think you're looking at that bear and thinking "wow, he really did it. He really helped me out."
I haven't even got into how the 25-story-tall monsters keep sneaking around silently and keep surprising our heroes. Nor why the answer of the military to 25 story monsters is "send in foot soldiers with machine guns" instead of "pound these things with our gigantic cannons mounted on battleships that can hit a target miles away".
The movie finally, finally remembers in the last ten minutes that you can do more with a character in a movie than have them either deliver information or look bewildered when we see Ford decide "if Godzilla can go above and beyond, so, too, can I!" using, like, legit film language. The moment is the only one to convey that anyone would see Godzilla as anything other than a pants-dumping terror instigator, so it does help the point of "our hero?" but it's also entirely singular to the experience of Ford and like 2 other people.
When given an opportunity for real, human moments - like Ford being reunited with his child - we just don't show it. It happens off screen, and that may be the most telling moment for how this movie sees character, story, emotional beats, etc... We don't care. All we care about is making sure the audience has seen Godzilla, knows he's there to fight monsters, monsters don't give a shit about humans, and that Monarch is there to look concerned and wear their IDs on lanyards when the monsters show up.
It's just such a weird movie.
One could easily say "you dismiss all of the nonsense in the Japanese films" - but, two things. (1) It's largely arguable that the movies after 1954 are for pre-teens, and not pulling in big-name stars to sell us on the idea that this is a movie is something not dumb. And (2) Their storylines may be nonsense, but the plots, no matter how insane, have an internal logic that holds. This movie can't even do that. Nothing really makes any sense, it all just keeps unfolding and hoping you don't notice "hey, this is dumb as hell". Unfortunately, that requires actually seeing the monsters, to which this movie stands in violent opposition.
What do I like?
Well, it's nice to see the talent assembled in front of the camera, I guess. I wish they'd been given literally anything to do but exposit. The effects are ok, and the final monster fight - what you can see of it - is nicely framed in bits like a classic Godzilla film, pulling back to let you see how tiny the city is against the creatures. I don't mind the insertion of Monarch into the movie as a concept - I wish they'd explained in the slightest what they were, why and what they hoped to do. It's a nice hardware porn movie, with jets, helicopters, battleships, etc... It's nice to see a pre-super-famous Elizabeth Olsen. She's as good as one could hope for given her five lines in the movie.
But for the most part, the movie was pretty much how I remembered.
Kids seemed to like it, and everyone has done well selling the toys (which may also be why the Godzilla in this movie looks how it does, so Bandai doesn't get a cut). But kids don't give a shit who Juliet Binoche and Ken Watanabe are, so. For the teen to 20-somethings, it did fine, but I was surprised it launched a franchise. There's a lot about movies and budgets and who gets paid that I don't understand. But I don't know anyone who *loves* this movie. It just kind of exists.
To their credit, these movies do seem to be getting better with each movie, but what a weird way to workshop concepts already sorted out by our friends in Japan.
*I saw the movie twice in theaters at the time - once to see it, and a second time to take my brother so he could see the awfulness with his own eyes