Driving home at midnight in the rain. We’ve just left the theatre, and my travel companion tells me that indeed, the main character’s name was “Ford Brody.” Mistake — I nearly drive us off the road.
Ford Brody is just one issue, but he’s a big one. He represents the human element that must always be addressed in a film otherwise about giant monsters smashing each other. In that regard, the new Godzilla is, amazingly, structured almost exactly like any Godzilla or Gamera vs. movie — people talking and going on some spectacularly unexciting adventure for the first three quarters. And there’s always the military’s attempts to stop the monsters. Here, it’s interesting because the human story eventually becomes that, a mission to extract a nuclear bomb, part of a prior anti-G operation. The military deconstruction of the city as seen in Godzilla (1998) takes shape here in a much more thematically relevant way.
It all makes for pretty visuals, grim atmosphere, and an overall tense feel. Planes fly into buildings as jump-scares, not free of 9/11 parallels, and news footage of disaster sites made arenas by monsters are shaky and realistic. Yet there’s something so grey and so tiring about the film, beyond the generic human characters and their nothing story about… family. It’s unbelievable that this film expects us to care about a family by characterizing it with another family — and that family is barely characterized.
There’s so much interesting context to this movie, which itself proves to be mostly uninteresting. Watching the movie at a sold out IMAX screening its first day proper, it was strange to try to gauge audience reaction. It seemed that they were laughing somewhat at the appearances of the monsters, and so I began to assume that this was the Transformers audience. There’s no built-up culture for MUTOs (Godzilla’s enemy), they are what Transformers really are — silly. I think that this Godzilla movie is being screened to people who don’t care about Godzilla so much as they might care about the nerd culture that Godzilla seems to fraternize with on occasion.
The movie itself is a bit weary of its monsters, in Cloverfield mantis and chubby Godzilla. They are background ornamentation for much of its runtime, which for the most part was okay — but it was okay because I was sitting in that packed IMAX theatre, not watching Godzilla Raids Again on my Kindle in private. Godzilla might be a world-renowned icon, but it’s incredibly niche.
Pacific Rim happened — that’s a fact. The standard for live-action giant monster action scenes has raised significantly. Classic Godzilla is still great, but Hollywood isn’t going for that. They need to look at Pacific Rim for what it is, one man’s vision of monsters fighting, and not for what it should’ve been — a moneymaker. But now we come upon the big paradox with an American Godzilla, the real one.
My buddy that night remarked that Pacific Rim was good because power was given to the director, who also co-wrote. Here, with Godzilla, they did what they’re doing for Jurassic World, and what they do for every shitty license they don’t care about — they pluck some festival circuit, independent filmmaker and give them a big studio tentpole like this because they can control them. It’s the complete opposite approach Disney and Marvel have been taking with their Cinematic Universe. Handing control of major franchises over to Joss Whedom, Shane Black, and especially James Gunn is crazy, but they put trust in creative. With Whedon, it paid off. The Avengers was successful because it was good.
As we saw with Pacific Rim, that’s not always how it works. But it’s a surer bet than making a big hit by committee. What works on network TV doesn’t work here — appealing to the widest audience. The farther you go, the wider you go, the more you reduce word-of-mouth. Trust in quality, and trust in quality filmmakers. Edwards had critical success with Monsters, and so he seemed like a good fit for another movie about thoughtful monsters, but he’s out of his element in the Hollywood of the real. And when he’s got a hundred million dollars (the real kaiju) breathing down his neck, he’s a tunnel-visionary by necessity.
The best thing this Godzilla could’ve been, after the 1998 incident, was safe. Boring — inoffensive, generic. It’s crowd-pleasing enough, with the big hit at the end garnering earnest applause from my audience, but this crowd didn’t go home and put on Godzilla vs. Megalon to fall asleep to, in hopes to dream about Jet Jaguar. That crowd will be highly disappointed in this movie’s inclination to cut away from the fighting — at least twice.
Additionally, that’s the crowd that counts. Cater to no audience, but if you must, cater to the diehards, because you ensure that someone will love your product, and you may unlock the hidden geek in others. With this, all you have is a bunch of modern nerds — holdovers from IMAX’s last show, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
One last fuck-you to 1998 Godzilla was Brody’s blowing up the MUTO eggs. No soldier vs. tiny monster action here.