Like most monster kids growing up in the 80s and 90s, my first exposure to the King of Monsters began with the Crestwood House Monster Series books. They were written at a pre-teen level and each book featured a movie monster, describing their film history, significance, and impact, along with incredible pictures from the films. Godzilla was one of my favorites, I loved seeing those black-and-white stills of Godzilla fighting Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and even King Kong. I knew they were guys in rubber suits, but that just made it all the more interesting. After that, I became a Godzilla fanatic, watching Godzilla films on local TV (usually on a local Chicago horror program called Svengoolie) to buying countless Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines just to see what was in store for our beloved Gojira (as the US stopped releasing Japanese kaiju flicks to Western audiences).
However, this Godzilla was created by Americans, for Americans, while simultaneously paying tribute to its Japanese roots. Whereas the US-edited version of the original 1954 Godzilla spliced in scenes of Raymond Burr in Tokyo, we now have the great Ken Watanabe in San Francisco. This Godzilla returns to its 1954 roots, a bleak cautionary tale against nuclear weapons and man’s self-destructive nature, and a grim warning to the world. As the first Gojira came in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this film is clearly a representation of a post-9/11 world. No longer is he a WWII-mutated Godzillasaurus, this film carefully explains his radiated origins, a prehistoric remnant of the Stone Age.
This is a terrifying Godzilla. He’s bigger, he’s badder, and he’s more real. That’s what sets this film apart from previous Toho-funded kaiju flicks. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures has the budget to do a huge CGI spectacle that dwarfs everything else in terms of scope and range. We see the world from the point-of-view of the humans and everything looks so small. From wide establishing shots to low-angles, the creatures in this film tower over humanity (imagine watching this in IMAX) like giants. That’s where the visual effects really stood out. It’s a huge epic that spans different countries, different nations, until we finally converge in the San Francisco Bay. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been the inclusion of the classic Gojira theme (ah, maybe next time).
Director Gareth Edwards does an excellent job of bringing back the terror of Godzilla, especially considering the reception of the 1998 remake. This Matthew Broderick-less film boasts several of the best actors of recent years, most notably Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, whose character continually delivers powerful lines. The story itself was clunky, of which I dare not spoil, but the acting really sells the film. Like The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel (we are talking about Legendary Pictures), we have large crowds running away from destruction (reminding me more of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), buildings collapsing, and military intervention. Like any sci-fi monster film, we also have a bit too many scenes featuring the government, the military, and scientists…. I wonder how long it’ll be until Hollywood realizes what we want to see in these films are big monsters brawling, not scientists debating the size of King Kong’s brain vs. Godzilla’s (Kong’s is bigger, by the way).
And that really is my main problem with the film, there’s too much Godzilla tease, not enough Godzilla. Gareth Edwards seems to have been majorly inspired by Jurassic Park and Jaws, and decided not to show too much of Godzilla. Like Jaws, Godzilla only emerges halfway through the film, and we only ever get fleeting glimpses of him. After that, we mostly see him from the perspective of humans on the ground, or television footage. And let’s not forget the 1998 TriStar Godzilla was more of a spiritual successor to Jurassic Park than its actual namesake. Despite the clear destructive habits of Godzilla and the ruins that lie in his wake, I still wasn’t sure if the filmmakers wanted us to see him as a hero or antagonist.
Godzilla is a strong glorious film about our favorite behemoth. It drew on the best of the classic Toho character and returned him to his roots, while also modernizing him. This film grounded the character more, adding a level of realism and reality to the fable, emphasizing the consequences of man, which is a good way to reintroduce him to a wider audience. However, I hope that subsequent sequels will come to embrace the more fun, sci-fi, fantastical elements of the Toho series, from time travel to Mechas to Dorats and eventually, Monster Island. Check it out!
P.S. Am I the only one disappointed Godzooky wasn’t in it?