The big failing of the latest Godzilla reboot is too much theory, not enough implementation. On a conceptual level, the film is sound. Monster battles are experienced almost entirely from ground level, worms eye view as gargantuan beasts stomp and battle for supremacy. Humans struggle not only to survive these encounters, but to process them. One’s understanding of our place on this planet, in this universe, experiences a tectonic shift when a pair of ICBM-chewing praying mantises start grappling with a trunk-legged leviathan right outside an airport in Honolulu or in the streets of San Francisco. Godzilla threatens to soar on moments like these, were it not for the movie’s inability to engage with its own ideas.
At various points, director Gareth Edwards stages scenes which crackle with possibility. Grieving scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sneaks into the quarantine zone surrounding a nuclear plant which went into meltdown 15 years prior (an accident which killed his wife), dragging along his military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They discover packs of wild dogs and a city being reclaimed by nature, but zero traces of radiation. Soon, it’s revealed there’s a secret facility studying a mysterious egg giving off echolocation signals. These early scenes suggest a movie about finding meaning in a meaningless tragedy, entirely in line with the view of Godzilla and the MUTOs as Old Gods waging ancient war. Joe and Ford’s interactions evoke Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s estranged, standoffish father-son relationship (much of this Godzilla plucks visual and thematic devices from the Spielberg playbook): Cranston hams it up as a crank, babbling about his notes and the need to get his disks, while Taylor-Johnson stares in disbelief as he humors the old man’s obsession (with a happy wife and son back home, he just wants this business over with). The two balance each other out as the plot hints at mending their relationship, and Joe perhaps accepting his wife’s death.
However, this emotional core is yanked out early on. One of the MUTO hatch, and Joe dies in the resulting chaos. Godzilla then leans on Ford’s attempt to go home while the world awakens to the knowledge of these ancient “alpha predators.” Taylor-Johnson, however, is a bit too plastic and everyman. He plays Ford as competent and earnest, yet disengaged from the pyrotechnics surrounding him. These monster gods are mere obstacles to be avoided. So, the film becomes uprooted, flitting from one nugget of a conceit to the next. A secret, international kaiju watcher organization (led by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) and military response strategies are present, but never treated as anything more than stock disaster movie trappings. Consequently, this shedding of ideas leads the film down a path of becoming louder and more stupid: a larger, female MUTO bursts forth from Nevada’s Yucca Mountain with (apparently) no one noticing, while the script contrives to have its three monsters converge on San Francisco to endanger the remaining Brody clan (and give some motivation for Ford to be in the movie).
Even the magnificently redesigned Godzilla is a waste. Slotted somewhere between the snub-nosed brawler of 60s/70s efforts like Terror of Mechagodzilla and the snarling tsunami of Godzilla vs. Biollante, the creature manages to believably inspire both awe from children and terror in adults. He uses his massive frame and jaws to wrestle his prey to death (saving his fire breath only for when opponents get pesky), and either ignores or swats away the military which shoots at him. It would seem unfathomable to be able to sabotage a creature this grandiose, but Edwards does in two ways. First, after easily establishing his destructive potential (causing a tidal wave which wipes out much of Honolulu), Edwards nonetheless finds it appropriate to have survivors huddled in FEMA camps cheer on the beast. Rather than build off an ambivalent understanding, as in Ishiro Honda’s later entries in the franchise, where Godzilla is a useful, if deadly, tool for the good of humanity, audiences are treated to swelling superhero music and cute nicknames after 2 hours of horror.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the decision to make Godzilla not a mutant born of H-bomb testing, but a dinosaur simply drawn back to the surface by atomic energy. The difference may seem trivial–it ‘preserves’ the original message–but it robs the monster of his most fascinating, tragic aspect: that Godzilla is as much a victim as a destroyer. In the original film, Honda posits a creature simply reacting to encroachment on his territory. Burned by nuclear energy and reacting in-kind. One-eyed war veteran-turned-physicist Serizawa even sees something of a kinship, both having been traumatized by World War II and the new world order it established (perhaps informing that character’s decision to die with Godzilla in the end). Edwards’ Godzilla has Watanabe play a Serizawa, too, who understands the beast. Without that connection to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though, the relationship rings hollow. Just another idea cribbed from freshman notes, learned but not understood, then thrown in amongst the rest. Edwards has simply meddled with powers he has no control of.