[14 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, my fellow film critics infuriate me. One of the most highly anticipated movies of 2014 has to be Gareth Edwards reboot of the beloved giant lizard Godzilla. Back in 1998, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, hot off their success with Independence Day, were hired by Tri-Star Pictures to fulfill their rights agreement with Japanese producer Toho Studios for a trilogy of American Godzilla movies with the only prerequisite being they stay “true” to the original films and warn against nuclear proliferation and runaway technology. Naturally, the duo ignore most of said prerequisites. While there was promise in their approach, the final result was a ridiculous combination of showboating set-pieces and lax character development. Audiences agreed.
NOW FOR THE MANDATORY SPOILER WARNING
Now we have Edwards and his far more faithful approach. When it opens on 16 May, this new Godzilla will feature a familiar origin story, a pair of competing creatures, and one of the most amazing final monster battles ever conceived. It will have all the familiar beats the fans have come to love, it will offer up jaw-dropping special effects, and, while limited in demographic, may set the stage for a series of movies featuring the beast. We will discuss the actual film in more detail in a moment, but let me get to the gist of my previously mentioned problem with those in the cinematic Fourth Estate.
Naturally, some got to see this film days before I did, and when they were allowed to post their reviews, a weird kind of consensus started. For many, Edwards did a lot of things right. But the one thing he got wrong, in their opinion, was the main attraction itself. To be more specific, there was a near universal dismal of the fact that the director decided to hold off on a major reveal of Godzilla until almost an hour into the plot. They bellyache that this is “antithetical” to the approach taken by today’s blockbuster filmmakers and, as a result, undermines the narrative and the material’s intentions.
Sure, some cited the slow burn style as “reminiscent” of the old school popcorn title, many pointing to Steven Spielberg and films such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as examples of this holding back intention, but that didn’t make the decision any more palatable, at least in their eyes. They mention Michael Bay and his slam bang, over the top Transformers franchise, the various Avengers and other superhero films, and conclude that, in 2014, we can’t have a movie where “nothing happens” until an hour in, and especially when that 60 minutes contains limited Godzilla sightings and not very much else.
My first reaction to this is “HUH?”. Are we talking about the same film? The storyline stretches out for several decades. We learn that the A-bomb tests in the Pacific during the Cold War were actually designed to keep a rogue “alpha hunter” creature at bay. We also learn about the discovery of a dormant parasite (nicknamed M.U.T.O.) that eats radiation. Before you know it, our hero Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) a nuclear engineer working at a Japanese power plant loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in an accident which may have something to do with these creatures. Then the M.U.T.O. “hatches” and starts looking for a ‘mate.’ With the help of scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), as well as input from Joe’s adult son, Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the US military tries to stop the fiends. Our only hope, however, is a more dominant force of nature - the aforementioned “alpha hunter” Godzilla.
There’s a lot more to it. A lot more. But let’s get to those previously discussed complaints, shall we? First off, there’s a whole lot more than “nothing” happening here before Godzilla finally gets a hero moment. We have the opening credits which hint at the Pacific nuclear tests connection. Then get the nuclear power plant accident. Doctors Serizawa and Graham also uncover the M.U.T.O., said beast comes back to life and decimates what remains of the former power station, and then heads across the ocean to meet up with a potential mate. There’s a big league beat down in Hawaii, complete with a horrifying tsunami and a battle at the airport, and it’s here, at this moment, when Godzilla makes his first major appearance. It may indeed be about 58 minutes in, but the impact is incredible.
By the time our scaly savior and his pair of competing creatures meet up in San Francisco for one final confrontation, we are prepped for something pretty amazing and Edwards delivers in spades. The fight is a stunner, and showcases exactly where this franchise could go should the movie be profitable enough to mandate some sequels. More importantly, it’s not just another in a series of similar spectacles. Each set-piece in Edwards’ film is handled differently. The opening montage is suggestion. The first nuclear plant attack is sudden and shocking. The birth of the first M.U.T.O. sets up specific character concerns with the Hawaii material extending that subtext while creating new ones. Indeed, everything that came before—or the “nothing” as some critics are calling it—serves to make the moment Godzilla faces off against these beasts even more profound.
Apparently, the last few years of wall to wall CG magic have turned an already ADD addled press corps into an even more hungry for instant gratification gang. Because he’s only hinted at in the first 45 minutes or so, they complain about the movie being mediocre. What did they want? No character development? A M.U.T.O. rising up from the first five minutes and Godzilla arriving a minute later for the first of several very similar fights? Go back to the original and tell me when the creature shows up there?
And by the way, what’s wrong with following Spielberg’s example? I get sick and tired of the contemporary critic badmouthing one of the greatest filmmakers of all time simply because he was unbelievably popular. Jaws and Close Encounters are classics, and while the King of the Blockbusters may have offered up quick glimpses of the dinosaurs in something like Jurassic Park, the approach everyone seems to be clamoring for didn’t do so well in the Lost World sequel now, did it?
Granted, everyone is entitled to their opinion and those who were bored or “tuned out” until the big lizard showed up can clearly claim the same. But to say “nothing” happens is beyond ridiculous. In fact, as one of my fellow critics accurately said, if they want to say Godzilla didn’t show up until an hour in, that 200% true. But a lot happened before then. To argue differently is insincere, and infuriating.