2014 was a huge year for movies based on properties I enjoyed as a child (and still do). My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...with all this, I suppose it will only be absolutely necessary for me to review Dragonball Z: Battle of Gods, something related to Sailor Moon Crystal and maybe even try my hand at reviewing the latest Pokemon movie, even if that's independent in that it's a franchise that has yet to take a break since my childhood. Adding to this crowd, of course, is Godzilla.
Like many of my friends and colleagues, I was cautiously optimistic about a new American Godzilla movie. I don't hold as much of a grudge against the 1998 film as many others, but that doesn't mean I wish to see it replicated. No, a Godzilla film produced independent of what country it's from is certainly better, although being the third film in the meta-series with the same name certainly doesn't help matters.
Godzilla begins with an investigation into a collapsed mine in the Philippines, which reveals the body of a long deceased daikaiju. The world of the film is ambiguous as to whether or not kaiju are known to exist, save for the fact that most people have little knowledge of them and Americans are clueless about them. This is fitting for established continuity – almost all of the previous Godzilla films were centered around attacks in or around Japan – and works equally well for a standalone film. We cut to Japan, where Joe and Sandra Brody, an American couple who work for a nuclear plant, are concerned about events that may be related to this incident. This causes an explosion at the plant, during which Sandra loses her life.
It's important to note how this is played out. Predictable (particularly in film), the American acts on his emotions, demanding that he be allowed to override the security protocols in an attempt to save his wife, much to the protest of his Japanese colleagues. More importantly, they trust him – they input the manual override to give him this chance. Equally important, while he waits until the last possible minute to trap his wife and her team with the explosion, Joe does it, rather than risking the city to give her more time. Both groups are allowed to portray their expected cultural traits, but neither to the point of being irrational. This scene is symbolic (whether intentional or not) of the trust between Toho and Warner Bros in establishing this film. Toho trusted Warner Bros and Legendary to make a film that lived up to their standards for the Godzilla franchise, and this is their honest attempt to live up to that.
The explosion causes the destruction of the nuclear power plant and causes the evacuation of Janjira. Years later, when Joe – who remained in Japan when his son Ford (because apparently the Brodies were huge fans of Douglas Adams) returned to the United States – is caught attempting to breach the quarantined zone around Janjira to obtain records from his former home, his military son is called to collect him from the authorities. Joe convinces Ford to help him in his illegal investigation. They are captured by the local authorities – a sort of military-industrial complex who is investigating the area and what happened here and is run by a man involved in the Philippine situation from earlier – but only shortly before an egg that has been draining radiation from the area and the rubble hatches into a flying daikaiju and the widower is killed by injuries sustained during the collapse.
From here, the exposition dump begins. It's at this point, forty minutes into the film, that Godzilla is first mentioned as having been awakened by a nuclear submarine in 1954, adding Godzilla to the list of films that claims a direct relationship with the original Gojira without acknowledging any of its multitude of sequels. The creatures – named Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO) despite being identified – are a parasite that were found in a corpse of a Godzillasaurus – the one from the movies, not the real one – in the Philippines, and a surviving one awakened at that time tunneled through the ocean floor to the power plant from the start of the movie, implying that the egg is more of a pupal stage than an actual egg.
After about fifteen minutes of exposition and MUTO-hunting, Godzilla appears. This is a scene that's given all of the time and grandiosity it deserves. First is the suspenseful music, then a shot of fins, then a massive tsunami that wipes out a city. The first shot of his body – rather,10% or so of his body - is illuminated only by emergency flares, and he disappears once again into the background. The entire sequence takes about two minutes, and then we cut back to the monster the movie is actually about.
This film gets a lot of criticism for its use (or lack thereof) of Godzilla. Some of this seems to be tied into the title – for a film title Godzilla, Godzilla appears about as much as Batman does in Batman – which I consider more the fault of the title than the script. We've seen plenty of Godzilla over 60 years; he can put in a little bit less labor than the up-and-comers. Why the film wasn't named something like Godzilla: Invasion of MUTO (I tend to prefer a more traditional Japanese title, such as Godzilla: Radiaton-Eating Flying Monster MUTO but I'm not holding my breath) I don't know. I think the fact that the first full-body shot we get of Godzilla being during a monster brawl is brilliant, and I love the fact that Godzilla is treated more as a force of nature than as a character.
Godzilla and MUTO inconclusively clash on Honolulu. There is no reason to think that he is going to be the “Rocky” he was in many previous versus films; Godzilla is easily holding his ground and then some, although the battle is very short and he is more of a distraction to MUTO than anything else at this point. Both kaiju, the military and the evacuees of Honolulu are all headed East, and it is then revealed that what maybe a second MUTO that had been determined to be dormant is now buried in a nuclear waste site in Nevada. Not long after this revelation, the creature destroys Las Vegas, because apparently we're taking a little bit more inspiration from Roland Emmerich here than we probably should, and destroying well-known American cities is how we portray drama, which means that the three monsters are probably going to meet somewhere near...
Actually, the film wastes absolutely no time in telling us the climax is going to take place in San Francisco. At least they're transparent in their city-porn. It hasn't been relevant to the plot (and never actually becomes so, as she is never more than an evacuee/observer) but Ford's wife Elle and their son Sam live in San Francisco. This adds extra motivation for Ford to stop the kaiju, but since motivation does not automatically equal drama, does not actually add anything to the film.
Speaking of Ford, it's very lucky that he just happens to be in Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Considering that the plan is to use his expertise to dispose of the MUTOs (given the acronym, the plural should probably still be MUTO, but acronyms are rarely adapted as such) with a bomb with enough analogue components to survive the EMP powers that are characteristic of the MUTO. It would have been terrible that Ford been a plumber, or an MP.
The rest of the film is a combination of set pieces, segue-ways, and of course the battles between the MUTO and Godzilla. While the first two are average but live up to what they need to, the latter is the one that is going to decide whether or not most people want to watch the movie at this point. In this case, I'm forced to say that while the “force of nature” angle is one of the most amazing things to feature in a Godzilla film, they may have made Godzilla too powerful. There are exactly two types of battle in this film, save the first few seconds that Sam Brody watches on the news: one-sided battles that feature the King of Monsters literally curb-stomping a MUTO, and one-sided battles featuring two MUTOS overpowering Godzilla with numbers. This may seem to add more drama to the moments when Godzilla is outnumbered, but it's clear to all watching that the impervious dragon will eventually catch up with one of them alone long enough to destroy them, and then it will be all over. Not that this prevents great moments – Godzilla's finishing move at the end is one of my favorite visuals in Godzilla's 60-year history.
Godzilla is not one of my all-time favorite Godzilla films, and I probably wouldn't place it any higher than its predecessor (by which I mean Final Wars, not the American-biased scale which sometimes counts Millennium and sometimes jumps back to 1998). It's not truly iconic enough of a film to hold the title (one that should not have been allowed, anyway), but if you think of it as Godzilla vs MUTO, it's perfectly passable in the sense of not being one of the worst films in its 60-year history. On a scale of 1 to 10 in which Godzilla Raids Again is a 1 and Gojira (1954) is a 10, I'd probably place Godzilla in the realm of a 5, visual improvements notwithstanding.