Story by David Callaham
Screenplay by Max Borenstein
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Ken Watanabe: Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
Bryan Cranston: Joe Brody
Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Ford Brody
Elizabeth Olson: Elle Brody
David Straithairn: Admiral William Stenz
Sometimes a pop culture design just works the first time someone makes it. Superman is the first tights-and-cape superhero and for almost eighty years every other character in the field has had a costume that was influenced by that design--either trying to look like it, or designed in reaction to the classic "underwear outside tights" depiction from 1938. James Bond set the tone for a half century of debonair secret agents. And a certain radioactive gigantic dinosaur (who has been in more movies than Harry Potter, Superman and King Kong put together) has an instantly iconic character design that's been modified and altered two dozen times since his debut in 1954 but you can tell in a tenth of a second what that silhouette means.
Other than in the 1998 American movie, where the monster is a gigantic iguana being pursued by Matthew Broderick. But since that movie has a giant reptile that does not breathe fire and can be killed by conventional weapons, I feel safe--as does Toho Studios--in saying that it wasn't really Godzilla in that film. By the way, I don't blame Broderick for taking the role. If I had the chance to be in a Godzilla movie, I'd take it. Even if it turned out to be some kind of not-even-half-baked "we split up but really belong back together" romantic comedy with occasional and increasingly poorly realized kaiju interludes.
2014 is a milestone for the character as well; it's Godzilla's 60th birthday. Toho and Legendary Studios teamed up for a colossal, big-budget monster film to celebrate. And it's clear from the first frames that both the American and the Japanese filmmakers are going to try as hard as they can to avoid fucking things up like Devlin and Emmerich did in 1998.
Here's how they start off strong and get things right: the movie doesn't try to pretend that Godzilla is a monster with no history, showing up for the first time in 2014. The filmmakers have it first showing up in 1954 in the dawn of the Cold War, swimming around various islands near Japan. A skillfully made credits sequence on the level of Watchmen or Flash Gordon (with, among other things, the cast and filmmakers' names appearing in heavily redacted excerpts of official documents) shows the American military preparing the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests; in the film's history, those nuclear detonations were attempts to kill a gigantic monster. Ironically enough, those nuclear tests and the subsequent radioactive contamination of a Japanese fishing boat were one of the main inspirations for the original Japanese film Gojira. Time and fiction are forming a gigantic serpent devouring its own tail. And probably fighting an equally large moth or something. At any rate, it's a very smart move to lead with the history of the character. Even people who don't particularly care for kaiju movies know that there have been lots of movies with Godzilla in them. It's also a quick way to build up a legacy in the filmic universe itself.
After the credits, we go to a mine in the Philippines in 1999, where a helicopter bearing the logo of Monarch (a giant-monster investigation group referred to repeatedly in the credits) lands. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa disembarks and gets the lowdown on what happened: The mining corporation thought there was a uranium deposit and moved several hundred tons of equipment into position to try and extract it. Instead of finding radioactive ore, they accidentally discovered a huge cavern underground (which first became apparent when the heavy machines broke through its ceiling and plummeted to the ground). This is the first time in the film we see the aftermath of a kaiju incident, but it will not be the last. I think it's an extremely smart choice on the part of the filmmakers to keep showing what happens in the wake of a monster incident rather than putting the beasts on screen all the time. When you see a bunch of wrecked machinery and huge scars in the landscape you get a horrified and shocked reaction, which is appropriate when considering all the chaos and death that had to have happened. Watching a titanic reptile wade through buildings to the center of town is an action sequence, and looks thrilling. If you want your movie to be somber and reflective that's an easier mood to sustain than balls-out action for the entire running time. And frankly, even though it's been thirteen years since the September 11 attacks, I still don't find collapsing skyscrapers to be thrilling action setpieces and I don't like watching movies that expect me to be entertained by them.
In the cavern, Serizawa and some other Monarch investigators poke around in hazmat suits and find the fossilized skeleton of a several-hundred-foot-long reptilian beast. A whispered conference between Serizawa and his second-in-command Vivienne Graham delivers a couple pieces of information. First, this isn't completely unexpected to them (which means that although they're too young to have been part of the Monarch efforts to destroy Godzilla in the Fifties, they know about them). Second, Godzilla is still alive. Also in the cave are a pair of gigantic egg cases or spores; nobody from Monarch has any idea they are. Both set off the Geiger counter that Graham is carrying, so it looks like the protective suits were a good idea. One of the egg sacs is still intact and one is ruptured from the inside. Whatever was inside it stomped off through the Philippine jungle and left a damage track all the way to the ocean--it appears that whatever the creature is, it is as indifferent to nature as it is to the works of Man.
What's it going to do next? Well, every proper Godzilla movie features something horrible happening to Japan. This one has Joe Brody, a nuclear engineer, talking with his subordinates at the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant about some strange readings on the plant's seismographs. There's some kind of unprecdented tremors that showed up in the Philippines that he's tracking as a possible threat to the safe operation of the power plant. Like all dads in Hollywood movies, he's too glued to his job to notice his son (who is introduced walking past toy tanks and action figures; a subtle cinematic joke about the scale of kaiju relative to the human characters). At the plant, everyone tries to give Brody the runaround and tell him that things aren't so bad that he has to take the reactor offline as a safety precaution.
When is the last time someone actually listened to an expert in the first act, either in real life or in a monster movie? Well, it turns out that the weirdly repetitive earthquakes are getting stronger, and that they don't appear to have an epicenter that the plant's seismologists can find. Which is impossible, of course. But impossible things happen all the time in monster movies. What the audience figures out instantly is that the reason the tremors are getting stronger and there's no epicenter is that the monster burrowing through the earth to get to the reactor is moving closer. I'm sure that Brody was taught about every possible contingency when he was working on his doctorate in nuclear physics, but nobody except for the Monarch group knows anything about the existence of giant monsters at this point in the film's history. One expects that in the aftermath of the film's events, OSHA has some regulations to revise.
This particular incursion results in a reactor breach deep in the bowels of the plant. Joe Brody winds up having to shut the safety doors less than a minute before his wife--also an engineer at the plant--is able to escape the cloud of radioactive steam. Her and the rest of the repair crew are sacrificed so that the entire city of Janjira isn't contaminated for centuries. And it's on Joe's birthday, too, the poor dope. The city is evacuated (we get a glimpse of this through his son Ford's elementary school class; the cycle-of-life poster on the blackboard has a moth with very familiar markings on its wings) as the cooling towers crumble. And again, this scene is treated as something horrifying and wrenching rather than way radical to the max.
Fifteen years later, little Ford Brody has put the trauma from 1999 behind him; he's a bomb disposal technician for the Army and coming back to his home in San Francisco from a fourteen month long tour of duty in Afghanistan. His reunion with his wife Elle and son Sam goes well, until he gets a call saying that he has to bail his dad out of jail. In Japan. The elder Brody was caught sneaking around the Janjira quarantine zone and the American consulate gets in touch with his son in order to get him out of jail. Ford is less than pleased at having to go off to another continent the same day he got home from the Middle East (and I don't even want to think about the jet lag situation). A strained greeting between father and son deteriorates into an argument (so the Brody family is a lot like mine, as it turns out)--and in the last fifteen years he's turned into a conspiracy researcher devoted to the Janjira incident. His dingy apartment is crammed with scientific books and news clippings, and he's been working for years with the scraps of information that he'd salvaged while running for his life from the collapsing power plant. He's apparently not the only person trying to poke around the disaster site; a boat captain he knows planted microphone buoys in the waters around the quarantine zone and recently those mics have transmitted a distinctive pulse pattern that he remembers very well from the day his entire life fell apart.
Joe talks his son into accompanying him into the quarantine area; they kitbash together a pair of radiation suits and sneak around. Joe might be a ranting paranoiac with a grudge against everyone he thinks is withholding information from him, but he's still got a first-rate mind and he figures out that the zone isn't nearly as radioactive as it should be (the stray dogs running around without any ill effects are one clue, but he's also got a Geiger counter with him). Moments after he grabs a stack of printouts and Zip disks (remember those?) from his home, the pair of Brody men are captured by Monarch and brought to the center of the disaster area, where dozens of people are working in a lab full of high-tech monitoring equipment. And what are they monitoring? Well, it looks more than a little like one of those egg sacs from the Philippines. But much, much larger. And it's not just an inert lump of secreted resin; it's making a hollow popping noise and displaying lights from within that grow in intensity before the egg sac sets off an electromagnetic pulse. As ominous as that is, it's small potatoes compared to what happens when the chrysalis splits open and a two hundred foot tall insect monster makes its way out.
The monster isn't attacking anyone at the Janjira plant, but that doesn't mean it is anything but extraordinarily lethal to be near. Its sheer size and strength mean that it destroys the catwalks that people are using to try and get away from it, and more than one Monarch researcher gets crushed by its limbs while it climbs out of the pit that the chrysalis was in. Ford is lucky enough to escape completely uninjured, as is Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham. Joe Brody isn't nearly as fortunate. He winds up mortally injured and expires shortly after Serizawa presses him and Ford into service as the closest things to experts on this new species of monster. Ford thought his father was wasting his life as a crank prying into the Janjira disaster, but it turns out that the authorities were doing everyone on the planet a grave disservice by not bringing him into the fold as soon as Monarch got involved in the containment process. And even though it ended with death and destruction, the chrysalis was absorbing radiation from the Janjira reactor--and effectively enough to clean up the disaster zone. It's hard to say that they weren't trying to do the right thing. And when it becomes obvious that the EMP blasts from the creature are a serious danger they try to destroy its chrysalis; it's just that they do far too little, much too late and it has no effect. The creature flies off moments after escaping, and Monarch apparently feeds the world news media a story about an earthquake in lieu of admitting that they accidentally grew a seventeen-story cicada and it got away.
(A brief parenthetical note about EMPs: From my admittedly limited understanding of them, they destroy unshielded electronic devices within a certain radius; they don't make lights and computers flicker and come back up. When your car's ignition or your iPod gets hit with an EMP you just have to get another one; whatever it was before, it's a paperweight now. The film needs the monster-generated pulses to act differently and I'm not going to quibble about it because it serves the story logic and because these particular EMP discharges might be different from the nuclear-weapon ones I know a very little bit about. My own theory is that the radioactive monsters used bursts of hard radiation the way a firefly uses light--to communicate and signal others of its kind. And yes, that's going to come up eventually in the film...)
The military shows up to politely notify Serizawa that the U.S. Navy is now in charge of giant monster containment and destruction. He and his surviving staff, as well as Ford Brody, wind up on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga under the command of Admiral Stenz, who names the new creature. It would appear that the American military figured that the presence of one giant monster implied that they'd eventually come across another one and they had a designation ready to go for just such an occasion. Take it away, Adm. Stenz: "MUTO: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. It is, however, no longer terrestrial," because whatever CIA paper shuffler came up with the acronym back in the age of Sputnik never imagined that a 300 foot tall monster would be able to fly. At this point Admiral Stenz hopes that they'll be able to track the monster down and kill it before the news media gets wind of its existence.
Fat chance, Admiral. Among other complications, the MUTO's electromagnetic pulses have ruined any chance of tracking it via satellite or radar. The navy's open to suggestions from Dr. Serizawa, who is a lifelong expert on a different monster. Serizawa is open to suggestions from Ford Brody, who is probably wishing he paid more attention to his father's rants about shadowy doings in the Janjira quarantine zone. The Monarch experts bring Brody (and the audience) up to speed with a lecture and film that show the Bikini Atoll testing footage from the movie's credits and explain that Godzilla is a still-living example of an unimaginably large apex predator from hundreds of millions of years ago. When the planet was orders of magnitude more radioactive than it is in the present day, Godzillas fought and fed on other gigantic radioactive animals, as well as metabolizing radiation as another food source. When the surface of the earth wasn't hot enough to sustain the monsters' lives they burrowed deep and got closer to the planet's core, which is more radioactive according to the film. I don't know nearly enough about geology to tell if that's jive or not. This is also the moment where Brody learns that the enormous reptile has a name, and the monster movie fan in me clapped his hands and bounced in his theater seat with glee when Ken Watanabe pronounced it "Gojira".
Ford digs through his memories as best he can, and tells Serizawa that the last thing his father figured out was the MUTO using sound and radiation to communicate--that in addition to being a gigantic armored flying insect with glowing red eyes and the ability to create electromagnetic pulses at will, it's also capable of using echolocation like a bat. Serizawa thanks Brody for the information and pulls strings to get him sent back to San Francisco.
In order to get from Japan to California, there's a layover in Honolulu and that's where the MUTO makes its presence known to the world in unquestionable terms. It hauls a Russian nuclear submarine out of the ocean and snacks on the missiles it was carrying, and goes on a rampage at the airport (like all kaiju who get the opportunity, the MUTO destroys the tracks that the airport tram runs on). To his credit, Admiral Stenz immediately changes mission priority from "don't let anyone know about the monster bug" to "protect the civilian population". There's exceptionally limited success at that goal, though, because the MUTO is immune to everything the military throws at it. But it turns out that Godzilla is aware of the newly hatched kaiju and he's shown up for a rumble in Honolulu. Godzilla's status as not actively hostile to humanity is shown here, when he swims underneath the Saratoga rather than through it. Unfortunately, both Godzilla and the MUTO are so large that their fight is a horrific threat to everyone on the island (although neither monster seems to be actively attacking any of the helicopters or soldiers once they lay eyes on each other). One of the standout shots in the film occurs here--the MUTO on one side of the frame, with a crashing helicopter that smacked into it landing on a 747 and destroying it in a massive fireball. The burning jet fuel splashes on another jet and it goes up in flames, and then a third. And then Godzilla's foot moves into frame and dwarfs the devastation behind it. One of the many, many things that Gareth Edwards does right in this movie is showing the scale of the monsters, over and over.
The confrontation between the kaiju is shown on TV as Sam Brody is watching a dinosaur show that he isn't quite old enough to understand is a news bulletin. The next morning in Honolulu there' devastation out to the horizon (including a crashed news helicopter; the crew presumably died getting footage of the monster rumble) and thousands of tourists getting processed by FEMA. One piece of good news during the aftermath--the boy that Ford protected during the MUTO attack is reunited with his parents. Brody attaches himself to an Army brigade that's being sent to California, which is where the MUTO and Godzilla are heading (and in what has to be a reference to the Toho movies, the computer simulations of the monsters' travel paths look exactly like King Ghidorah's breath weapon). There's a strangely beautiful shot of Godzilla swimming to the Big Monster Ruckus, flanked by aircraft carriers and showing his incredible size, in this scene.
Serizawa and Graham quickly realize that the MUTO wasn't calling Godzilla with its radioactive sonar vocalizations; there's no reason for it to call up something that would want to kill it. Instead, it was talking to the other egg sac from the cave in the Philippines in 1999. The egg sac that got studied by Monarch and eventually stuck in a vault in Yucca Mountain with all the other nuclear waste that America needed to keep in a safe location. And the first egg had a gestation period of about fifteen years after it got to Janjira, so it's pretty safe to assume the second one will be hatching right...about...oh dear. There goes Las Vegas (along with the half-scale Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, because the director wanted to make sure lots of monuments got destroyed in his Godzilla movie. There's not a single cineaste in the world that would blame him for taking this chance).
The second MUTO can't fly, and it's considerably larger than the first one. It is just as capable of generating the EMP effect as the winged one, however, and as it makes tracks towards the other monster it causes plenty of devastation on the ground. Admiral Stenz comes up with a rather desperate plan to use a nuclear warhead as bait for the MUTOs--if they can be lured several miles offshore by following the tasty nuclear snack, they'll be on top of it when it detonates (and because they scramble electronic circuits whenever they get their dander up, the bomb will need a clockwork timer rather than a computerized one; once they set the countdown it's going to go off at the prescribed second). Irradiating a huge chunk of the ocean and raining fallout on California isn't a plan anybody would want to lead with, but the alternative is three radioactive giant monsters fighting in San Francisco.
Serizawa thinks it's a terrible idea to try and kill radiation-eating insects with a nuclear bomb and also finds it unconscionable to risk San Francisco's nuclear annihilation. (Serizawa has a pocketwatch that belonged to his father that stopped at a very significant day and time for a Japanese citizen; Ford Brody's not the only one motivated by the loss of a father.)
Ford barely survives the attempt to get the nuke onto the boat (he's got an ability to not get killed while other people get wiped out by the MUTO that rivals the protagonist of The Giant Claw), and the MUTOs--which turn out to be a breeding pair, and the female is carrying hundreds of glowing orange eggs with little tiny nuclear cockroaches inside them--take the missile to the middle of downtown SF. A last-ditch effort is launched where the military will parachute into the city from 30,000 feet up, physically pick up the bomb and haul it to the docks, commandeer a boat and get it away from the mainland before it goes off. This would be tough enough to do on its own, but the physical landscape of the city has been changed by the thousand-ton monsters walking through it and very soon there will be three colossal beasts warring with each other on the same ground the soldiers need to traverse. Of course, this being an action movie (at least when the humans are involved), it's all going to come down to the last seconds and Ford Brody's going to be there for the giant monster set pieces. And when the giant monster all-out attack finally kicks off in the third act, it's everything a die-hard Godzilla fan could ever want, and more. And the more casual viewers should be delighted as well, but none of them are likely to be reading this review...
I didn't know what to expect from this movie, especially since I hadn't seen Monsters, the director's first (and only) movie. That one's a micro-budget affair that had a cast of two, a crew of two, and effects done at home on the director / screenwriter's Mac. And as soon as HubrisWeen is done this year, I'm going to be giving that one a spin because I really want to see what Gareth Edwards did when his only assets were his drive and talent. He's got an amazing eye for establishing the scale of the monsters and he teases the audience with little glimpses of them for the first 80 percent of the movie or so. And then there's the final battle between the mated pair of MUTOs and Godzilla with Brody and the other soldiers as witnesses in the devastated and ash-shrouded city. A great deal of thought went in to the fight choreography; each monster uses its own capabilities uniquely in the fight (one can fly, one is bulky and has multiple arms, and one has its tail spikes and dorsal plates glow blue with a rising dynamo hum that has to be the single most satisfying fifteen seconds I've seen in the theater since the Hulk let Loki know that his speech was officially over).
Since each monster is a CGI effect rather than a suit with a stuntman in it there are combat moves that can be done by them that couldn't be done as physical effects. I'm especially fond of the way the male MUTO uses its power of flight to harass Godzilla and set him up for the female to attack him safely. If not for the intervention of Joe Brody in the MUTO's egg chamber it's entirely possible that Godzilla would have lost that fight and that would have been the end of human civilization. Two giant bug monsters that can destroy electronics in a five-mile radius are bad enough, but two hundred of them would make it impossible for humanity to bounce back from the damage they inflicted, even if they could be destroyed.
It's really too bad that Ford and Elle Brody have so little to do in the third act once the mayhem kicks off. I would have thought that a nurse in a kaiju movie would be helping injured people or at least trying to calm panicked people down, but Elle spends most of her time hiding in a BART station or running away from whatever monster is in her field of vision. There's a bus driver protecting a bunch of children that winds up more conspicuously heroic during the final parts of the film and I'm not certain that's the way to go with the screenplay structure. It's a minor quibble, all things considered; when I think about how badly the characters were written in the 1998 film I just look at this one and consider myself lucky that it got so much more right than it did wrong.
And now, a brief moment to talk about monster design again. Godzilla looks amazing in this film; gill slits on his neck and back plates that look like a snapping turtle shell mean that he looks like an aquatic reptile (and the stumpy feet and near-total lack of a neck mean that the audience realizes he's not just a man in a suit in this movie), while the MUTOs take their influences from famous monsters of filmland made after the first cycle of Godzilla films in the fifties through the seventies. Their carapaces suggest H.R. Giger's Alien and their spindly, backwards-facing limbs recall the creature from Cloverfield. They've also got what I refer to as Action Face, with their jaw mandibles flexing and opening like the Predator. And all of those creatures put together don't stand a chance against Godzilla, which is the way it should be. He's the King of the Monsters. Accept absolutely no substitutes.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Galaxy of Terror
Yes, I Know: The Golem