Godzilla is the movie I wanted Pacific Rim to be

godzilla posterLast summer, Pacific Rim disappointed me. I wanted to love it, but it was so predictable I couldn’t get with it. Godzilla, on the other hand, turned out to be everything I wanted Pacific Rim to be: An awesome spectacle made up of giant monsters punching each other in the face, and a plot that holds together just well enough to not distract from all the monster face-punching. It was also fun and well-made and clever in spots and delightfully cheesy in others, and it had a STELLAR sense of pacing. By the climactic battle between Godzilla and the Mutos in San Francisco, I was literally on the edge of my seat, white-knuckling it.

Screenwriter Max Borenstein (who also wrote the forthcoming Seventh Son) and director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) put a lot of thought into how Godzilla would work for real. They came up with an origin juuuuust logical enough to pass muster: Godzilla and the other monsters are the last survivors of the prehistoric age who escaped decimation by burrowing deep into the earth’s crust because they depend on radiation for nutrients, since way back long ago there used to be more radiation in the atmosphere and that’s what they’re used to. The onset of the nuclear age at the end of World War II “woke” Godzilla, and in turn the other radioactive monsters such as the Mutos, sort of spider-like bat-things. It’s squinty science for sure, but it’s just plausible enough to work.

Dustzilla

What’s great about Godzilla is that we don’t see Godzilla until about halfway through the movie. I know this frustrated people, but honestly, it’s one of the best elements of the movie. The whole first act builds you up to thinking you’re about to see Godzilla, but then it turns out to be the Muto, who wreaks havoc and you’re like, “This fucking thing.” By the time Godzilla actually shows up, the reveal is totally earned and enormously cathartic—you are so ready to watch him spank some Muto ass. The reveal of Godzilla would not have been nearly so impactful had it come any sooner. And that’s the secret of Godzilla: The monsters are the main characters, and Godzilla is the hero.

These guys, not so much.

These guys, not so much.

People aren’t exactly afterthoughts, but not a lot of time is wasted investing in character. In most cases, the actors hired are talented enough to hook us on the little they’re given to work with. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston and David Strathairn all manage to create engaging characters, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen seem confused by how little they have to do. Perhaps that’s an experience thing—the more experienced actors have enough tricks in the bag to utilize a visual/emotional shorthand for the audience, while ATJ and Olsen haven’t mastered “shorthand” acting yet.

Please be better in The Avengers.

Please be better in The Avengers.

Edwards would’ve been better off simply jettisoning the entire ATJ/Olsen family plot in favor of vignette-style character moments that follow the monsters on their trek across the Pacific. Seriously, Watanabe, Cranston and Strathairn did a good job holding down the human-fort—everything else was chaff. That was the weakest link in Godzilla, but it’s a relatively minor complaint. ATJ and Olsen didn’t bring down Godzilla, they just didn’t particularly add to it. Although, since they did keep them around, it would’ve been interesting if the movie had the balls to subvert the trope and kill off the entire family over the course of the movie.

Godzilla is an enjoyable kaiju flick that neatly disposes of the bad memory of that awful 1998 version that we all pretend didn’t happen anyway. Edwards combines found footage elements with frenetic on-the-ground framing for a visually interesting movie that saves the full-on monster shots for maximum impact. The story and (most of) the characters hang together well enough that you don’t get bogged down in the details, and the action is truly awe-inspiring. When Godzilla roars, it’s legitimately chilling.

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9 Responses to “Godzilla is the movie I wanted Pacific Rim to be”

  1. Agent K Says:

    I’m torn on this one. Everything with the monsters was perfection, but if the humans had at least been entertaining this could have been a masterpiece. In Jaws it takes forever to get a look at the shark but the three leads were so fun to watch it didn’t matter. In this case you had great actors without even OK dialogue. This was not a star-maker for Taylor-Johnson (better luck in Avengers I guess). He can be really good, we have all seen it in smaller films, but he was a block of wood in this movie.

    Any man, woman or vegetable could have played that lead role…which is why I was so disappointed to read that at one point there was a female lead. Stupid Hollywood. (Olsen doesn’t count, she was pointless here).

    • I agree–with better humans, it could have been really special. Or, with no humans at all. Imagine the same movie but the people are entirely incidental. I would’ve LOVED it if they had the balls to kill off ATJ/Olsen and their kid. You could feel them clinging to the formula, though, and it was the weak spot of the movie.

      This is why I increasingly think Iron Man 3 is the best and most important blockbuster in the last 10 years. It completely subverted EVERYTHING about this kind of movie, and every subversion WORKED.

  2. I wanted you to hate this so bad Sarah, so I wouldn’t be the only one who hated it. The movies military consultants deserve to lose their job as much as the visual effect people deserve a raise. The acting was rubbish but god damn it, it was so visually stunning.

    • Well I wouldn’t say I hated it, since I was entertained by the visuals and Godzilla when he (she?) finally showed up, but I thought it was a pretty terrible movie. Bryan Cranston was quite good, but I disagree with Sarah about Ken Watanabe, who seemed completely out of it. The cast on paper seemed awesome but they were given nothing to do, and all the decisions the characters made were so incredibly stupid (except for the bus driver).

      Theoretically I like the strategy of teasing the monster before the final reveal, but that only works if the humans we have to spend time with are compelling.

      So great visuals, but terrible plot and characters, which is also how I felt about the director’s first movie Monsters.

      • I agree with what you said about the humans needing to be more compelling in order to carry the movie when the monsters are not on screen. The weak characterization is my chief complaint–pretty much my only complaint. But it didn’t kill the movie for me, because there was enough interesting stuff happening visually (I liked how we “followed” the monsters on the news in the background throughout the movie, for instance) to keep me hooked between monster fights. I couldn’t get past how stupid Pacific Rim was, so I appreciated that there was actual thought put into Godzilla. I just needed more from the characters. As is, it’s on the border of B/B+ territory for me.

  3. I thought Godzilla was a very solid B. And I know I’m not supposed to think too much about the plot, but Godzilla certainly tried to be more than Transformers-thin in terms of plot so I was wondering what Godzilla eats? If its radiation then wouldn’t he be after what those mutos were after too? And he didn’t eat the mutos… or people… so… what does he eat to survive for all these millenia?

    I wish at least ATJ had died but… oh well. Or Bryan Cranston had survived. Because he’s an excellent actor who could have kept the human element engaging even if there was nothing going on.

  4. Not a “lot of time was wasted on character?” Holy crap! That’s where we stand now as a audience; we don’t want compelling characters, we just want special effects. Trust me: this new film will be as quickly forgotten as that other American attempt, and Ishiro Honda’s original masterpiece will continue to stand the test of time.
    -Peter H. Brothers, author of “Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: the Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda.”

    • That’s not what I was saying at all. The single complaint in my entire review is that weak characters bring down what is otherwise and exciting and interesting movie.

      Godzilla movies are not about individual characters, they’re about how we process the horror of nuclear war. I thought act I of this movie did a good job establishing quickly a couple people for us to follow along with, but then they killed off Cranston and left us with his boring son, to the movie’s detriment. I would’ve much preferred there wasn’t any family subplot at all, beyond Cranston’s character trying to find out the truth about what happened to his wife. Mike Stoklasa at Red Letter Media put it best–the ideal Godzilla movie would just have nameless scientists running around panicking about Godzilla intercut with scenes of monster fights. This came kind of close to that, but they insisted on shoving that hackneyed “family in danger” plot at us. But the rest of the movie–the monster fights, the unveiling of the Mutos and Godzilla himself, was good enough that worked despite that weakness.

  5. I’ve seen several reviews compare this to Pacific Rim and prefer it to Del Toro’s movie. For me, it’s the exact opposite: I find that I like Pacific Rim more after Godzilla. For one, there were actual complete fights in that movie. Not the truncated short outings. And as for the humans, yes, the ones in Pacific Rim are caricatures. I can’t argue that. But at least they had agency. It was their story. The humans in Godzilla felt extraneous to the story at best.

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