Dissecting Godzilla (2014): Kaiju & Awe

Godzilla 2014 Header
Godzilla returns from director Gareth Edwards, and he finds a sense of awe and scale that is rarely found in the theater today.

Godzilla follows the story of a family over fifteen years that get caught up in the middle of the return of radioactive creatures from long before our time on this world. Stretching from Japan, all the way across the Pacific to San Francisco, the scale of the film is huge. Edwards tries and keeps a human story running throughout the picture, and mostly succeeds, but by the end of the film you will just be waiting for the Kaiju to go at it.

*****SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT*****

Zac: My mouth was agape throughout many sequences of Godzilla, and as someone who grew up on the Godzilla series of films I couldn’t have been happier. “But Zac, Godzilla is a big guy, why is that so mind-blowing?” Well, he has never been this big; and it’s not just him, the MUTO are incredible visual presences throughout the film, and actually get more screen time than the big guy himself. The sequences with the MUTO are also very unsettling the way they are shot by Edwards as every scene with the duo not only builds our relationship with them, but the threat that they pose. The film builds so well, sprinkling setpieces throughout as the action moves towards its conclusion, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit, just a bit, let down out the weird pacing of the final San Francisco sequence.

Lauren: In case you couldn’t discern for yourself what Zac revealed above, turns out that the trailers for Godzilla were some of the best yet at building anticipation without really giving anything away. This isn’t Godzilla vs. Man after all. This is Godzilla fighting for man, answering Uncle Sam’s call in a very glorious and large scale fashion.

Zac: Uncle Sam? Godzilla serves no one.

Lauren: Shh… you’re interrupting this beautifully patriotic image I have of Godzilla with an American Flag waving behind him and US troops cheering at his feet.

Post screening I heard a fellow press member saying that the trailers did a complete disservice to the film because they don’t let viewers in on what movie they are actually about to see, but I say boo hoo to that. I’m glad I didn’t know there were going to be multiple monsters duking it out! This could be because I fall into the camp of not understanding all the love towards Pacific Rim because I was disappointed by their attempts to throw in character building moments without concluding those thoughts, but now I think I finally get it. Godzilla has monster fighting monster, and it is awesome, warranting numerous jolts of applause from the audience I was with. Plus it is not bogged down by the characters. They are there and it is a bummer to see how little is asked of the actors, but that’s only because I know what they can do. However, the amount of character given is the right amount for what this story needs.

Best of all, not knowing that there would be numerous monsters, the slow build of the backstory and eventual reveal of the two MUTO (decoy monsters!!!) made Godzilla’s entrance into the film bigger and better than anything they could have done if this was him vs. humans. Godzilla had arrived.

Zac: I agree on the character front, they are what they need to be and little else. That’s OK, for the most part, but mostly they are there to move the story along and give us a little bit of stakes for the featured family. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is fine in the lead, but he and everyone else are given little to do besides pump out exposition. Poor Elizabeth Olsen gets nothing to do but cower in a BART station (why not get all the way under ground?). And sure, what is she really supposed to do against Godzilla? But it’s that sentiment that makes the scenes they give Johnson in the finale not really gel with the monster fighting going on around him. I understand the desire to tell a human story too, but our survival is at stake in this Kaiju fight and I wish they would have just let the humans get out of the way. I don’t really have any other complaints.

Lauren: I dunno. I understand what you’re saying, but I am glad that the characters stuck around even after Godzilla became the main character of the film stealing focus from the rest because I needed that family reunion. And then Godzilla came back from the dead and I made with all the feels! One question though: what does Godzilla do in his downtime? Just chills at the bottom of the ocean eating whales I guess…

Another reason to keep the humans around was because they were used in a visual fashion that helped keep the pace of the story at a steady rhythm forward. Frequently, scenes would transition through the visual relationship between the characters in the foreground and the monsters in the background, creating some pretty great compositions. Those who have played the God of War video game series will understand what I am talking about. As you fight in the foreground of those game worlds, the destination, such as the impending big boss fight with a God, can be seen in the background because of the depth and scale of the scene, and Godzilla handled this very well. Seriously, it was a perfectly thought out movie in terms of these visual moments.

Zac: I agree 100% with the visuals and, actually, I just read today that Edwards wanted almost every shot of the battle from a human vantage point, so he nailed it. My complaints about the humans are minor though, and I really don’t have much else to complain about.

I did know there were other Kaiju in the film, but that didn’t lessen the impact of the MUTOs in the slightest. From the ancient fossils they parasitically destroyed to every major setpiece with them in the present day, I was riveted. I enjoyed them just as much as Godzilla in this movie. The unhatching of the male quickly set the scale (and he is the little guy) of the film, and I loved the intuition it showed to break out of its cage. The Hawaii scenes with the sub, the tsunami and eventual reveal of Godzilla were incredible, and had the best laugh of the film with Ford’s son watching the footage on TV. The Vegas stuff, though minor, was also beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed, but I think my favorite setpiece might have been the sequence centered around the bridge the train carrying the nuke attempted to cross. That scene was so terrifying, I wanted to jump right off that bridge with Ford; if I could have looked away from the carnage.

Though now that I think about it, some of the most effective and memorable stuff barely had to do with Kaiju physical destruction, but some of the fall out due to the EMP nature of the MUTO. The creature design and thought process behind their powers were really well realized and done mostly visually, but there were a couple of shots and sequences set around flying objects that couldn’t fly anymore that really resonated.

Lauren: My one qualm with the creature design is more in concept than in appearance: I just can’t wrap my head around something gaining nutrition from radiation. In my mind I just can’t grasp this blending of photosynthesis/absorption like tactics (photosynthesis is not the correct thing to mention here, I understand, but it’s the same concept so works well enough) and actual consumption through eating nuclear material. That and then Godzilla was out “hunting”… So he doesn’t eat radiation like the MUTO, I don’t think, but he also doesn’t consume his kills. Seriously, I am not jokingly asking what the heck Godzilla does in his down time and what he eats.  I need to know more about the biology for my mind to make sense of some stuff!

All I know is he has to eat something to be as fat as he is… Oh Japan, this complaint about Godzilla becoming fat like Americans just makes me laugh so much. I can understand where they’re coming from because he does come off as a little stocky, but I want my giant monsters to have weight to them; I want them to be imposing. I don’t want a Godzilla that looks like he is enthusiastically waving in potential customers to used car lots on breezy days. He doesn’t need to watch his figure so that he can move comfortably and gracefully through the city streets.

Like his weight, the size of the battles were impressive in their own right, but I will agree that some of my favorite moments weren’t just brute force battles, but moments that reminded me of how I felt watching Jurassic Park as a kid. I didn’t grow up watching the Godzilla films; I had an island full of genetically engineered dinosaurs. So moments like the bridge you mention above also resonated with me: how the MUTO slowly moved around the bridge, eying the characters who were just hoping that if they remained quiet and still no harm would come to them. It was just like that encounter with the T-Rex and the kids in the car, and I love this movie all the more for bringing back those memories to me.

With that said, I fiery scream down the throat to burn away the connective tissue in the neck of the MUTO is also an affective visual.

Zac: That might be the greatest finishing move ever.

I thought Spielberg was smartly channeled by Edwards here, and while he doesn’t quite nail the human element like the Bearded One would, Godzilla would fit right in with a film festival of Spielberg’s blockbusters.

Where Edwards does nail Spielberg is giving his creatures a ton of personality. I loved not just the fire breathing bit by Godzilla (the reveal of his tail lighting up in the mist behind the grieving MUTOs was gorgeous), but how Godzilla baited the male MUTO into that tail whip of death was awesome. Godzilla seemed so worn out in that final battle as well, and when he plopped over and “died” after the neck melting I totally bought the physical exhaustion, it was wonderfully animated. I even felt sad for the MUTOs when their babies got fried. I know that was the end of humanity in that nest, but poor mom and dad.

The film also really surprised me in more ways than I would have imagined. Speaking again to that fire breath kill, I was disappointed for a half second before that, as I thought they were going to do the King Kong jaw pry thing. I was thinking to myself, “Oh that’s lame, King Kong did this…..HOLY SHIT!!!!!” The film’s patience in its setpieces and music cues was also surprising in today’s blockbuster landscape, as some of the coolest shots were silence, a beautiful movement by Godzilla, and finally punctuated by his roar. The first full body reveal on the Honolulu tarmac and Godzilla showing up at the nest outside Chinatown left me breathless. They also patiently and expertly built up the reveals of the creatures. I could have been heard uttering “Holy shit,” multiple times per MUTO and Godzilla reveal if you were within earshot. They just kept getting bigger!

Basically, my review of this film could be, “Godzilla, Holy Shit.”

Lauren: Exactly. I had the exact same disappointed reaction to the King Kong knock out move before the severe escalation of that finisher. Ripping the jaw apart is gruesome enough, I still shiver at the mere thought of American History X (granted I think that is actually more because of the idea of teeth grating against cement), but seeing the skin lose connectivity as it melts and the body crumble to the ground below… Oh man. If Godzilla hadn’t been too worn out himself he probably would have punted that head. Goodness knows he deserved to.

So to quote Zac, “Godzilla, Holy Shit.”

Zac’s Final Grade: A-      Follow @ZacOldenburg
Lauren’s Final Grade: A-/A      Follow @BewareOfTrees

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