I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a huge fan of the ’98 Godzilla. It’s the first movie I saw in cinemas more than once, and I still enjoy watching it well over a decade later. It’s a big dumb blockbuster from the king of big dumb blockbusters, Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012). The result is, in my view, a vastly entertaining monster flick – but not the Godzilla that fans know and love. Instead, it’s Godzilla as filtered through the lens of Jurassic Park, and a B movie through and through.
Gareth Edwards (Monsters) aims to answer the disappointment of atomic breath aficionados worldwide with Godzilla (2014), a reboot which aims to be more faithful to the original King of the Monsters. For the most part, that’s absolutely what he’s achieved – but I still find the 98’ movie to be a more enjoyable experience.
Some have said that the 98’ film and Edwards’ reboot are akin to the awful Batman & Robin and masterful Batman Begins. I understand the comparison but the fact remains that Godzilla (1998) is a far superior flick to Batman & Robin and that Godzilla (2014) is not the revelation that Batman Begins was. The film had the potential to transcend its B-movie roots in the same way that Begins transcended the superhero movie genre, but it doesn’t live up to that promise.
Edwards’ Godzilla has a dark atmosphere and impressive visuals, but the story is nothing special. The most interesting characters, Dr Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), are severely underutilised. Watanabe is given little more to do than have a concerned look on his face and spout portentous dialogue on the power of nature. The main character of the movie is actually Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford Brody, a completely forgettable and stock-standard heroic lead who’s mostly caught up in events rather than directing them.
Say what you will about Emmerich’s Godzilla, but at least its characters were fun and memorable. Whether it was Broderick’s ‘worm guy’ Dr Niko Tatopoulos, Hank Azaria’s oh-so-lucky cameraman ‘Animal’ or Jean Reno’s badass Frenchman – the characters were suitably larger-than-life to fit with the story’s B-movie trappings.
Just about all the characters in Edwards’ Godzilla by comparison are incredibly dull. Cranston has the most interesting material but he’s hardly in the movie. Everyone else is more or less a run-of-the-mill face that we’ve seen dozens of times before, and with few developed character arcs or subplots of note.
Even Godzilla himself barely features in his own movie. Edwards takes the Spielbergian approach used in Jaws of holding the big guy back for much of the film. This is a brave move and helps to build suspense, but some will no doubt be disappointed at how little monster action there is and at how little we actually learn about the King of the Monsters – especially so considering how bland the human element is.
Godzilla is just kind of there. I’m still struggling to recall anything of significance that the movie tells us about him, whether about his origins or purpose. He’s basically just a force of nature that exists to fight a couple of monsters called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). As Watanabe’s Serizawa proclaims at one point, “Let them fight!”
Indeed, the film opens much the same way as the 98’ movie does – with a montage of footage of the nuclear bomb detonation at Bikini Atoll. In the previous film we learn that such nuclear tests gave birth to Godzilla but in the latest story we learn that the detonation was actually an attempt to destroy Godzilla, who had always been on Earth. Godzilla is no longer used as a cautionary tale about the use of nuclear weapons but rather as a metaphor for nature being outside of man’s control. It’s a key change and it robs the big guy of some flavour, especially since we learn essentially nothing else about him.
For all its hype Godzilla (2014) is hence merely a monster mash, proficient as it is, that lacks action and has undercooked ideas with characters who barely register. Edwards wants us to treat his movie seriously but it fails to transcend the genre in the way it’s so desperately trying to. While it might be more faithful to the Godzilla that fans revere and although it has some striking artistry, I can’t help but look back fondly at the over-the-top nonsense and guilty-pleasure fun of Emmerich’s version.