By Preston Wilder
One of the most famous sentences in film criticism (written by Robert Warshow in 1955) goes as follows: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man”. Let me then acknowledge that I’m the man who tuned out during the last third of Godzilla – an embarrassing fact that may be my fault more than the movie’s. By ‘tuned out’ I mean I stopped caring. Events were unfolding onscreen (mostly involving giant monsters) but I wasn’t invested in those events, and was basically waiting for the thing to be over.
I’m also a man, let me acknowledge, who’s no expert in the giant-monster genre, a sizeable gap in my film education. I’ve seen a few, but not the original 1954 Godzilla (I did see the much-reviled 1997 version) – an omission that may be significant, judging by the positive notices this new film is getting. The plot casts Godzilla as the good monster, coming to humanity’s aid against a duo of bad monsters known as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) – and he may be a god or a force of Nature (or just a monster), but he clearly needs no help from us mere mortals to complete his mission.
In fact, the human element is increasingly absent from Godzilla – which may be a clever comment on the increasingly machine-made feel of Hollywood blockbusters, but probably isn’t. The director, after all, is Gareth Edwards, a former special-effects man who made his name with a low-budget 2010 sci-fi drama called, simply, Monsters. A title like that is rife with hidden ironies – notably the likelihood that the real monsters are the human beings in your movie, not the gigantic beasties – but Edwards didn’t really explore that aspect, making a film about, simply, monsters. For all his skills, he appears to be a classic techie, unable to bring the same excitement to characters as he does to bits and bytes.
Edwards is getting lots of credit for building Godzilla slowly, and it’s true the climax gets deferred a couple of times – but that doesn’t really mean much, both because you know it’s just a matter of time after the first glimpse of MUTO and (more importantly) because there’s not much to do while you’re waiting. Oddly, Bryan Cranston as our hero’s dad is encouraged to emote almost to the brink of melodrama while Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the hero – a good actor, given half a chance – is stuck in a blank, thankless role as a generic soldier type. (The model seems to be Hulk, the 2003 version with Nick Nolte going way over-the-top as another deranged dad.) Maybe the point is for Cranston’s emotion to get transferred to Godzilla – but in fact the virtuous monster seems dull, and having three monsters saps the tension in general. After Cranston departs, the film sags badly; the last part (when I tuned out) is just devastation, plus human ciphers.
There are eye-catching moments throughout: a retro computer room with screens on the walls, a beautiful image of parachutists leaving a reddish glow as they float down among the skyscrapers. But Edwards uses tired devices like following random kids to make scenes more ‘wondrous’, and the creature design (allegedly one of his strengths) is hackneyed: the MUTOs have spindly insect legs, flat-topped heads like the alien in Alien, glowing orange eyes and big teeth – they barely merit a second look, not to mention that you can’t always see them through the murky visuals. Then again, it’s a matter of taste. I’m the man (I must acknowledge) whose favourite recent sci-fi, visually speaking, was the bright pop of primary colours summoned up by DP Dion Beebe for the widely-dismissed Green Lantern.
The critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote a long article at rogerebert.com called ‘Things Crashing Into Other Things’, talking about the precise problem I had with Godzilla. “As long as people are talking, there’s a chance the movies will be good,” writes Zoller Seitz (talking of superhero films, but the point is still valid). “When the action starts, the films become less special”. Godzilla actually goes a step further, positing a total disconnect between people and action – because the people don’t even initiate the action here, the monsters do (Taylor-Johnson and his fellow soldiers are a red herring). “Let them fight!” counsels a Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe), meaning stand back and let the behemoths take over – and maybe it’s because I have no special love for the genre, but I couldn’t muster any interest in watching three CGI lizards rumbling and lumbering.
The lack of momentum is even more terrifying than the MUTOs here. There’s a scene on a bridge, a tsunami, a fire on the mountain. The great David Strathairn is wasted as a military man, spouting lines like “I’m sorry, doctor. I can’t take that risk”. We keep cutting to Aaron’s wife and child, whimpering with fear, but I can’t recall one interesting thing they do, or one reason to care what happens to them. Almost perversely, Godzilla starts with emotion and tamps it down, going from human desires to monster on monster. Another man might find that thrilling. I’m the man who tuned out.
DIRECTED BY Gareth Edwards
STARRING Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen
US 2014 123 mins