Godzilla is not the movie that trailers and commercials lead you to think it is. Sometimes, that sort of deception can be a bad thing. Studio marketing departments and distributors try to cover up a stinker or attempt to pull in a wider audience. But in this case, such trickery is a good thing.
Director Gareth Edwards is messing with our expectations, playing with what we’ve typically seen in recent summer blockbusters. Surely, Godzilla gives us our favorite giant lizard tearing through big cities, kicking through skyscrapers as if they were cardboard and breathing atomic fire on the tanks and jets firing bullets and missiles at him. Widescreen carnage in 3D and booming surround sound, right?
But is that what we really want to watch or is it what we’ve become conditioned to seeing in these huge franchise movies now?
A year ago, Superman and General Zod relentlessly pounded each other and destroyed most of Metropolis in Man of Steel. Virtually every other year, a Transformers movie assaults our senses with frantic, incoherent slugfests between Autobots and Decepticons. Just last summer, giant monsters and robots duked it out in Pacific Rim.
Yet as impressive as those spectacles may have been, those movies focused little on the consequences of these titanic battles. In Godzilla, the beast simply rising out of the water causes a tidal wave that kills hundreds — maybe thousands — of people and wipes out most of Honolulu. The best solution the military ultimately comes up with involves dropping an atomic bomb on these monsters just off the coast of San Francisco, sacrificing one city to presumably save a continent.
Wait — did I say “monsters” in that last sentence? Yes, I did. By the time you read this, you may already know the little secret of Godzilla. Writing about this feels like giving away a spoiler, but I think it’s impossible to critique the movie without mentioning it.
The trailers and TV spots focus the destruction caused by a force of nature. Buildings and landmarks are significantly damaged. Jets are knocked out of the sky, plummeting back down to earth like dead flies. Waves of people stampede down the street, away from the disaster, except for those who dare to look back with eyes wide open in awe and terror.
But here’s the thing: Godzilla isn’t the monster responsible for most of that carnage. There’s another threat that preoccupies the military (and the scientists played by Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe) for most of the movie’s first half, one that doesn’t just mind its own business like Godzilla has been doing since the 1950s. The real villain of this film is an insect-like creature called M.U.T.O. (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that feeds on nuclear radiation.
The advertising for the movie doesn’t mention that at all, though there are quick glimpses of M.U.T.O. that you may have missed among the quick cuts or didn’t realize what you were being shown.
Here’s something else the trailers and ads for the film don’t mention: there are actually two M.U.T.O.s to contend with. For anyone who may have thought it would be more fun to see Godzilla fight other creatures like Rodan and Mothra, as he did in the movies we grew up with, you get your monster fights!
Godzilla isn’t the bad guy here, stomping us out like we’re anthills invading his playground. He’s actually the hero, the alpha predator meant to destroy the natural balance by getting rid of the M.U.T.O.s, as Watanabe’s character says several times.
How often are we surprised by these sorts of movies anymore, when the trailers give everything away and every story detail can be found online beforehand? (I realize the irony of praising surprises while potentially ruining them for you. I apologize for that.) This is the true delight of Godzilla.
The other way that Edwards (and, I presume, writer Max Borenstein) toys with our expectations is by not showing us virtually every second of the clashes between Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s. There are some bold cuts and directorial choices here that run counter to what we see in movies like this nowadays. Just as the monsters engage, the movie cuts to another scene. We may see some of the battle on a TV in the background, but Edwards seems more concerned with how these occurrences affect the civilizations where they take place.
I suspect many people won’t like this about Godzilla. There’s not enough of the title character! Why aren’t we seeing more of the monster fights? Isn’t that why we bought a ticket (even if you didn’t know there would be more than one beast)? In past years, showing two CGI creations on screen would be ridiculously expensive. That was surely a reason for not seeing very much of the creatures in Edwards’ first indie feature film, Monsters. But that’s not a concern in 2014.
However, by withholding extended looks of Godzilla from us — by constantly hiding him underwater or behind buildings, or shrouding him by clouds of smoke — Edwards makes it that much more special when we finally do get a full reveal of the monster. And when that happens, it’s a meaningful spectacle because we had to wait for it. This is the same approach from Monsters, but on a much larger scale and with far greater stakes. Ultimately, Edwards gives us everything we could ask for, but maybe not in the portions we desire.
If I was to agree that we don’t see enough of Godzilla in a movie titled Godzilla, it’s because the human characters that Edwards and Borenstein use to ground the film and frame the movie from our perspective just aren’t terribly interesting.
Cranston is really the only actor that gets a showcase to utilize his skills on screen, and he does the most with what he has to work with. He’s entirely believable and compelling as someone who’s lost everything and wants to know why. I’m a big fan of Watanabe, but he’s mostly asked to wear a look of disbelief and mutter vague statements about forces of nature. Aaron Taylor-Johnson may have worked out a lot for this movie, but only shows one emotion.
The real waste is Elizabeth Olsen, who’s shown how talented an actress she can be in movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene, but spends too much of the movie running towards shelter and looking up toward the big monster coming toward her. This might have been a more interesting movie had Olsen’s character been Cranston’s child, worried about her father’s welfare and the safety of her family, rather than Taylor-Johnson constantly looking perturbed while flexing his neck.
If Edwards directs a Godzilla sequel, it will be interesting to see if he exercises less restraint and includes the monster in more of the movie, now that we know what he looks like and what he’s capable of doing. What more does he have to show us as a director? Or is this what he likes to do and he’ll pass off the opportunity to a different filmmaker more interested in constant widescreen spectacle?
If so, that might be another example of Edwards going against what’s expected.