Hulk smash. The question for this Godzilla movie review is… did Hollywood get the 2014 version right this time?
With all the hype a film company pushes on a new release, it is vitally important to go back to the original Japanese Gojira (1954) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956, featuring Raymond Burr) for comparison, while keeping in mind the 60 years in between. In the original the mood, the pacing, the music, the smashing, as low-fi as it all is, the intangible – that something special that captivates and makes for repeated viewings, is there and stands the test of time.
Raymond Burr in the 1956 American re-release of Godzilla:
As Godzillamania is sweeping the world with this new release, the multitude of sequels have a cheesiness that turns the radioactive beast into Abbot & Costello Meets Frankenstein, though not always as much fun. Godzilla vs Space Godzilla (1994) or Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) are anachronisms. Having Matthew Broderick in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Sony release was as bad as having Tom Cruise play Lestat de Lioncourt in 1994’s Interview with a Vampire. Broderick is so Eugene Morris Jerome from 1988’s Biloxi Blues that it is annoying. But Emmerich’s films are distinctly different from Mike Nichols (director of Biloxi Blues, the Graduate, the Birdcage) – disaster films with emphasis on disaster and not much in the acting department.
Matthew Broderick in 1998 Godzilla:
The poor casting of Broderick, and the lame story, however didn’t stop the 1998 Godzilla debacle from making a small fortune. It sits at #201 biggest box office of all time at the time of the new Godzilla release.
So how does 2014 fare?
Having the virtually unknown (outside of the juvenile fans of Kick Ass and Kick Ass 2) 23 year old Aaron Taylor-Johnson ( uncredited Pietro Maximoff of the X-Men and the Avengers in the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will make him a household name next year when he returns in Avengers: the Age of Ultron… if Godzilla doesn’t) is a smart enough move. The British actor drops his accent, and not only looks better as a soldier, he’s a true Hollywood hunk that acts well enough to make the grade. This isn’t Hayden Christiansen ruining the Star Wars prequels (Christiansen fared much better in 2008’s Jumper,) nor is it Keanu Reeves needing three times venturing into the Matrix to get it right. The casting of Taylor-Johnson seems like a calculated “let’s give Godzilla his facetime” keeping the humans as incidentals to the mayhem that will be conjured up.
The storyline could have been tighter with the main villain here being the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) bringing the screen some messy stomping. Director Gareth Edwards was a digital artist for the 2005 TV documentary on Hiroshima, giving him more insight into Godzilla’s origins than most, though his directing credits are sparse. 2010’s Monsters, the most notable, was saved from disaster by the foreign box office (over 4 million) as it made only a quarter of a million in America on a five hundred thousand dollar budget. To go from half a million in 2010 to $160m in 2014 is certainly a leap of faith by the film industry, yet the result will certainly establish Edwards for future work. For Gareth Edwards took the Kinks admonition seriously when they said “Give the people what they want.” That is what this Godzilla is all about. It’s a sleek, sometimes smart, and very likeable return to Godzilla’s greatness and it is probably the second best Godzilla after the 1954/1956 original.
Now, with such a high compliment why am I not over the moon on this one? Where the Raymond Burr Godzilla, King of the Monsters showed the horror of war – and Edwards does refer back to that with lots and lots of army boots on the ground and on the boats and in the sky – this 2014 Godzilla is still a bit too antiseptic. Oh, you’ll see cities get crushed and people die and, no, we don’t want the “let’s blow a few limbs off to make it grisly” Steve Spielberg effect from 1998’s Saving Ryan’s Privates (where everything gets blown off except the private parts; they left them for Howard Stern.) That overkill in Saving Private Ryan indicates that Spielberg must have watched 1995’s Under Siege: Dark Territory too many times. A film where Steven Segal cuts off Eric Bogosian’s fingers and/or hands as the film comes to a conclusion. That’s not the kind of extreme Nightmare on Elm Street shock that would have served this Godzilla, but just a touch or two of realism to balance the film out would have given this epic some street cred. Give some extras employment and have people crushed by buildings or stomped thoroughly by a MUTO for the realism, not shock, that would make the film less glossy. Of course to get that general audience a director does have to walk the tight wire, and writing a review is less of a risk than a 160m budget so there’s something to be said for artistic license…and accountability to those ponying up the cash. You can see then when Roland Emmerich has the executive in Independence Day get blown away in his office in Los Angeles. It drives the impact to the viewer – that old axiom “one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths statistics” but even the focus on one suit and tie guy getting blasted into oblivion seemed a bit too watered down. No blood was spilled. And isn’t that Hollywood today? A “spaghetti western” gives the viewer one level of violence, Freddy Krueger another, but when big budgets are on the line, don’t push the envelope.
The original Godzilla was a thought-provoking sort of quickie film that showed ingenuity and a good, hard look at bad human behavior. And we got one of the coolest monsters of all time out of the deal to boot. But in the original you still got the sense of dread, the radioactive fire-breathing lizard was truly a smart character and its longevity has shown it to be a beloved character. Look, Emmerich’s Godzilla made a small fortune and it doesn’t draw you back in for repeated viewings. This one will. This one is a great big monster movie where the human dialogue isn’t really necessary. It is filler. For the sequel, if the actors can get a script to sink their teeth into, we may get the Godzilla of all Godzillas. James Cameron spent so much time on the wonderment in Avatar than the storyline (same could be said for the Phantom Menace and other Star Wars prequels) that the script felt like an afterthought. At times Sigourney Weaver looked as bored in Avatar as she did in the too silly comedy/alien flick Paul (2011.)
You won’t have Matthew Broderick annoying you in this Godzilla. No worries about Tom Cruise being miscast as a vampire. The faceless cast doesn’t need a Robert Redford to spice up Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Having an iconic film star in that superhero flick worked. Having the MUTO creatures and Godzilla duking it out is what the audience for this creature with his own star on Hollywood Blvd. wants. Aaron Taylor-Johnson will be the key. When the new Avengers movie hits in 2015 and he becomes a superstar, let’s see if a meatier script can take this wonderful looking new Godzilla into a new arena. There’s already talk of Mothra being considered for the sequel, according to MTV News. Can Anguirus and Rodan be far behind?
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.