I have a lot of feelings about this movie. A lot of feelings. Spoiler: Many of them are not terribly positive. Just so I can mentally organize this, I’m going to split it into parts.
NOTE: for the purposes of this long, long rant, I will be using Gojira to mean the original 1954 Japanese movie as released in Japan. And I will be referring to the monster as Godzilla when not specifically in that movie because it’s the generally agreed-upon romanization.
Also, there are spoilers throughout. But get real. If you go to this movie, you’re not watching it for the plot.
GODZILLA 2014 AS A MOVIE
Okay. So if I can manage to separate this out from the entire Godzilla franchise in my brain and just address it on its own, I can tell you one thing: this movie is gorgeous. The monster fights are excellent. And that’s probably what most people are there for, right? The CGI is really good. Godzilla looks, a super-sized (as in three times the size) version of the original monster. The other monsters it fights are stylish, the fights themselves have excellent choreography (so to speak), buildings are knocked down, yes and yes. Godzilla uses his radioactive breath and his spines glow and IT IS FRICKING AWESOME. There’s this amazing scene of Godzilla swimming under water and the US Navy carrier group following him and it is SO COOL. The opening credits are actually really clever, the way the were done. The start of the Hawaiian tsunami is spooky as hell. There is a scene in the movie–you see a bit of it in the trailer–that’s a HALO jump. And yes, the score is doing at that moment just what it’s doing in the trailer. It gave me chills.
And speaking of the score, that’s really lovely too. (It’s got some good call backs to the scores for the previous movies, I think.) The sound design is fantastic. Particularly the sounds the monsters made. My gosh. There is a lot of the original iconic Godzilla roar in there.
It’s a stylish well-shot movie. There is absolutely no argument about that.
That said, from where I’m sitting, the movie is pretty thin on plot and character. From the article about Godzilla (2014) in April’s Empire:
“I loved Godzilla more than King Kong because Godzilla didn’t apologize, he just crushed things. But what really excited me about this specific script is that it’s character-driven in large part, and I find that fascinating. It’s a fun, big monster movie and yet there are character developments on many different levels that allow the audience in. It makes the suspense and the drama and the action sequences more gratifying.” (Bryan Cranston)
“My goal is to make a more grounded, character-driven journey through a world with Godzilla,” says [director] Edwards. “But because there’s such an important brand and there’s so much money invested in it, you have to appeal to everybody.”
Here, let me attempt a brief summary of the plot:
People in a strip mining company unearth some “spores” that are obviously eggs, but they keep getting called spores anyway for no obvious reason. One of the spores has hatched into something, which then burrows under the nearest nuclear reactor, which is in Jinjira in Japan, and makes itself cozy. Jinjira is home to the Brody family; Joe Brody is the engineer for the nuclear power plant and his wife works there as well. They are apparently the only important family in Japan and are white. The monster causes the power plant to collapse, which kills Brody’s wife. Fifteen years later, Brody is effectively a conspiracy nut still trying to get to the old site to prove it wasn’t just a malfunction. He gets arrested, which forces his son to come out to Japan to get him, and then they go to Jinjira together.
And look! Brody was right! It’s a monster, called MUTO, one that emits EMPs and basically kills a ton of Japanese workers before fucking off to America. Because apparently someone had this brilliant idea of storing the other spore from the strip mine in Nevada and we’ll get to that later. During the MUTOs emergence, Brody gets mortally wounded. When Serizawa’s group, Monarch, comes to pick him up, he says he totally needs Brody along because…reasons. And then Brody dies on the way out so whatever on that. Ford gets dropped off in Hawaii because…reasons. So he’s there to save a random little Japanese boy on a train while Godzilla makes his first appearance and attacks the MUTO.
Then off to the mainland US so the MUTO can meet up with the MUTO from Nevada. Godzilla gives chase, because as Serizawa helpfully explains, Godzilla is an apex predator from the deep past and eating MUTOs is what he does. The Americans decide that they need to nuke the monsters despite the fact that they are repeatedly told that the monsters “eat” radiation. This works out about as well as you can expect, with the MUTOs stealing warheads and eating them. No, really. Then the Americans decide to use another nuke, in San Francisco, which the MUTOs steal again and lay eggs on. But this one is set to explode, so Brody has to, in the most awesome scene in the entire movie, do a HALO jump to the city to get the warhead out while Godzilla fights the MUTOs.
Godzilla kills both the bad monsters and seems to die, then gets up about twelve hours later and walks back out to sea while everyone cheers for him saving the city. The end.
The plot is… an excuse, honestly. And I didn’t really see this movie as anything approaching character driven. Which I suppose is okay–it’s a freaking giant monster movie. The main show is Godzilla himself, right? I didn’t see a whole lot of character development, except maybe, just maybe, a little between Joe Brody (Cranston) and his son Ford. The characters spend the bulk of their time staring at Godzilla and looking scared shitless, which seems about the right speed to me when we’re talking kaiju movie. But they really were not driving the plot except with some really, really poor decision making. And this is now going to lead into my first major complaint.
OH LOOK, ANOTHER MOVIE ABOUT WHITE MEN
It’s not like it’s a surprise that that an action-y movie is going to come out of Hollywood where the bulk of the speaking characters are white men. But what makes this particularly disappointing is that this is Godzilla. And apparently (also from the Empire article):
The writers were mindful of two stipulations from Toho: that Godzilla should be born of a nuclear accident, as in Ishiro Honda’s original, and that it be mainly set in Japan.
Well, about a third of the movie is set in Japan. And there is a Japanese character, Serizawa, played by Watanabe Ken. (Serizawa is named after the heroic scientist of 1954’s Gojira.) Let me just repeat that for you: a third of the movie is set in Japan and there is a Japanese character. Even Serizawa’s assistant in Monarch is a white woman. One third of the fucking movie is set in Japan, and it’s basically just background for a family of white people. Joe Brody is inexplicably the engineer for the power plant (Japan apparently doesn’t have its own nuclear engineers in 1999?) and the only white man there; all of the Japanese employees at the power plant helpfully speak English for him because I guess he’s that important and subtitles are hard and scary. Throughout the first third of the movie, which also has a scene in the Philippines, where the “spores” are discovered, Asians act pretty much only as living background with the sole exception of Serizawa.
Serizawa as a character basically exists to explain what Godzilla is and to deliver the money phrase for the movie that’s supposed to tell use the theme: The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in their control and not the other way around. (More on that later.) He acts as the voice of “reason” whom no one bothers listening to, though his best advice is really to just let Godzilla and the MUTOs fight it out through San Francisco, which is kind of questionable. And how does he know all of this? I have no idea, considering the MUTOs in particular are supposed to be a completely unknown.
Yet he is some sort of expert, which really calls to question why he’s so impressed by Joe Brody when he’s captured and brought to the power plant. Or why he would think he needs Joe Brody so badly that he drags a mortally wounded man along on a helicopter ride and does not actually speak to him before he expires. You know, maybe he’s a really nice guy who knows Joe is dying and wants to give him time to reconcile with his son. Priorities, people. (By the way, why is Ford Brody so important he needs to be on the last chopper out of Jinjira?) This just makes me want to chew on things. Serizawa, aside from a single scene he shares with the US Admiral while they are chasing Godzilla, exists only to remind us–sometimes by literally just mutely pointing at them!–the (white male) main characters are special and important, or dispense information about the plot to explain what the kaiju are going to eat next.
In his one decent character scene, Serizawa delivers the only real thematic link for this Godzilla back to the original 1954 movie. He shows off his father’s pocket watch, which stopped at the moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Unfortunately, that’s about where the callback ends.
And just as a delightful little encapsulation of this entire feeling, when Serizawa tells the Americans about Godzilla, he very explicitly calls the monster Gojira. The Americans immediately go about calling him Godzilla without even making an attempt at pronouncing it the Japanese way.
With all of that, I almost think of the complete lack of women as the cherry of omg on the wtf sundae. There are, to my count, three female characters in the movie of note: Sandra Brody (Joe Brody’s wife), Elle Brody (Ford’s wife), and Vivienne Graham (Serizawa’s assistant).
- Sandra Brody effectively gets fridged during the nuclear “accident” that nourishes the MUTO monster, thus supplying Brody and Ford with an endless wellspring of underplayed manpain for the rest of the movie. (Well, Brody gets out early by dying, but you get what I mean.)
- Elle’s function in the movie is to convince Ford to give his dad a chance and heal the rift between father and son, then stand around looking worried and waiting for Ford to come home to her. As Talya has pointed out in comments, she does not come even close to passing the sexy lamp test.
- Vivienne pretty much follows Serizawa around and helpfully points out that Joe Brody sure seems to know something despite the fact that the only thing he seems to know that Serizawa doesn’t is about the MUTOs communicating, which is basically meaningless in terms of the plot.
While the Bechdel test is no be-all and end-all in terms of plot, I feel compelled to note that the only time I recall seeing two women on screen talk, it was Elle speaking to one of the other nurses, asking her to take care of her son (she was sending him to be evacuated) and reiterating yet again that she was waiting for her husband to come to her.
(Fun fact: There is only one female character in Gojira, Yamane Emiko. But she manages to pass the sexy lamp test. We’ve come a long way, baby.)
Initially I thought there were zero women in the copious military presence for the movie. Wendy Wagner (@wnwagner on Twitter) pointed out that she managed to spot two. Considering the number of sailors and soldiers we see, that’s…less than impressive.
The lack of female characters who have any bearing on the plot is an old tune that I will keep singing until my tongue falls out. The fact that a third of the freaking movie is set in Japan and there is literally only one Japanese character just makes it a zillion times worse, even if we’re still pretending there is no context at all to Godzilla as a franchise.
But then at the end of the movie, there is an explicit visual equation of Lieutenant Whitebread, aka Ford Brody, and the monster. Brody stumbles, Godzilla stumbles. Brody falls, Godzilla falls. COME THE FUCK ON.
BECAUSE THIS IS A GODZILLA MOVIE
So let’s stop pretending, okay? This is a Godzilla movie where Godzilla, quite literally, never sets foot on Japanese soil.
I believe the word I want here is “egregious.”
There is a context that goes with Godzilla that I’ve already mentioned above. The Godzilla movies have a long history that goes all the way back to 1954–this film has come out in the 60th anniversary year of the original Gojira. From its inception, Gojira has been very much about the social and political–and specifically about the social and political situation of Japan. Rather than go into a long rant about the history of the movies here, here’s a rough primer, and a couple more intensive pieces. (And these are just examples–entire books have been written on this topic.) These movies have always been very Japanese, starting as an attempt to deal with the trauma of nuclear war and continuing on from there even as they became significantly more campy.
To be honest, when I first heard about this movie, there were a lot of mentions of the 1954 Gojira. I got pretty excited, because I thought maybe this would be a retread of the original, single-monster story with modern effects. Which could be immensely powerful and terrifying. Then I found out that it would be a two monster movie, which meant more like the later ones, I figured. Where Godzilla is a sort of unknowable and inhuman savior figure. All right, fine. A little disappointing, but it is what it is. I was very confused that apparently Serizawa already knew Godzilla was supposed to be some kind of savior, despite the fact that the one time humanity had really encountered him, they’d tried to blow him up with a nuclear warhead. Well all right then.
So anyway, to take something so fundamentally Japanese and make it so explicitly about America–because hey, we’re Americans, it’s all about us!–leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I could have even gone with something like Pacific Rim, where it was about a global threat rather than one localized to one country. And technically, this could have been played as a global threat.
Because supposedly, it’s not really about America, you see.
IT’S ACTUALLY ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING? OR SOMETHING?
According to the director, at least.
And that makes no fucking sense at all. There’s a lot I’ve seen in this and other articles about Godzilla being a representative of nature, the wrath of nature, the punishment mankind deserves for messing with nature. Well, you could argue that for the MUTOs, considering they’re unearthed by a stripmine. But considering Godzilla quite literally saves the world by killing the bad monsters, then quietly fucks back off into the Pacific Ocean without bothering anyone else, I have a hard time buying this wrath of nature/global climate change narrative.
Or rather, if that was supposed to be the narrative, you did a really bad job of it.
Godzilla only works as a punishment from nature if he, you know, punishes us instead of saves us. This was why the 1954 Gojira worked so well as an allegory about the horrors of nuclear war and as divine or natural retribution. But Godzilla 2014 ends up seeming to say–with Serizawa constantly talking about nature, and nature should take its course, and we can’t control nature–is that humanity should just sit down and let nature deal with itself. I guess.
And then one other thing to consider on that vein is science versus the military as seen in both movies. In Gojira, the military was ultimately completely ineffective. What stopped Gojira was the ingenuity of science–of Serizawa’s oxygen destroyer. And not only that, but Serizawa became increasingly aware throughout the movie that his invention could be used as a terrible weapon of war. So before using it to kill the monster, he burned all of his notes, then dove into the ocean with the machine and basically committed suicide down there to destroy all knowledge of how the machine was made. The message of Gojira is explicitly anti-war and anti-weapon, if not exactly pro-science.
On the other hand, in Godzilla (2014), the focus is almost exclusively on the American military. Because America, fuck yeah I guess. The main viewpoint character for the movie is Ford Brody, who is a Lieutenant in the US Navy. The military does some repeatedly stupid things (nuclear weapons, really?) but then through Brody saves the day in its own small way by saving San Francisco from the nuclear bomb, and also destroying all of the MUTO eggs.
If you want to see a kaiju movie about climate change, go watch Pacific Rim. On that front, it’s a million times better. And there is a sword button.
SO WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY ABOUT THEN?
Kaiju fighting, fuck yeah? I honestly don’t know. The only kind of deeper statement I could really tease out while watching it was anti-nuclear, which don’t get me wrong, I’m totally with. But even that isn’t so clearly stated. Stick with me for a moment, though.
Consider that our dispenser of all plot, Serizawa, tells us that Godzilla and the MUTOs come from an ancient, much more radioactive Earth and they somehow “eat” radiation. Which immediately makes one wonder why the fuck would you want to use nuclear weapons against those things. By kaiju movie science standards, that seems like a really, really dumb idea. (This also really seems to knock out the idea of a nuclear origin for the monsters, since they were not created by nuclear testing.)
And it plays out throughout the movie! The military keeps trying to put nuclear warheads in various places so they can kill the kaiju, and the MUTOs keep stealing them and eating them. No, really. These are monsters that eat nuclear submarines. What the hell are the military commanders thinking?
And from that, I could see a critique of nuclear proliferation. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess. And just the idea that nuclear weapons attract monsters and perpetuate violence.
So that’s the best I’ve got, theme-wise.
It’s a beautiful movie. If there’s ever a supercut of just the footage with Godzilla in it, I would watch the shit out of that. I suppose if it’s profitable enough, this might even launch a new series of Godzilla movies, ones that are more on the serious side–though will they all be about (white) America? Will the political and social roots stay so completely muddled? The record’s not really great on either of those counts.
If you want something with more plot and meat, watch the 1954 Gojira. Even with 60 year old special effects, it still holds up as a grim and creepy movie.
IN FACT, YOU CAN WATCH GOJIRA (1954) ON HULU RIGHT NOW.