The first rule of monster movies is that your monster can’t be the most interesting thing in the movie. The monster is, necessarily, uninteresting. It is simply chaos, unchanging, non-evolving, uninteresting chaos. Frankenstein’s monster says very little, Jason says even less, Jaws cannot talk, nor can Ridley Scott’s aliens. They can kill, but that, after a quick while, is not interesting. The interest comes from the situations in which the pure chaos is applied. The chaos stays the same, but we want to see it in different scenarios and see it happen to different people, people we care about or are interested in. The good news for Godzilla (2014) is that the monster is not interesting. The bad news is that neither are the scenarios or the people.
Here marks the return of everybody’s favorite uranium-borne Japanese lizard monster. The meaning of his name, Gojira in Japanese, is a mixture of the words for whale and gorilla, the former a head tip to the 2014 movie’s budget, the latter a nod to the writer’s sense of subtlety and complex thoughts. This time, the king of the monsters has a more ambiguous relationship with the more squishy species on the planet; he is still a great destroyer, but he has set his sights on two other giant nuclear freaks whose goal is to eat our nukes while smashing us into the ground. These are the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, as opposed to PBBIWQSMUTOs [Pretty Big But I Wouldn’t Quite Say Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), giant winged beasts that are ancient creatures that roamed the planet eons ago when the earth had more radiation. Now, the government has been feeding them juice until they escape from a secret facility to wreak havoc on the Pacific coast. One destroys Honolulu, the other lays Vegas to waste. They meet up in San Francisco to supposedly mate. This is assumed because the female thought that a Vegas wedding was too tacky and besides, she’s from the Bay Area.
Along for the ride is a cavalcade of stock characters including two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins), the scientist whose absolutely correct crazy theory nobody believes (Bryan Cranston), the military cadet (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his nurse wife whose job is to cry on the phone from the hospital worrying about him (Elizabeth Olsen), and the Navy Admiral hell-bent on obstinately blowing things up (David Strathairn). That’s a talented group and I shudder to add that Juliette Binoche, one of my all-time favorites, joins them briefly. Yet, for all the talent, anybody could say the routine directives that pepper the script. There isn’t so much dialogue as there is a series of basic directives necessary to move forward the plot, which are spread out evenly among the actors, seemingly at random. There are no characters here, only professions and relations. I haven’t the foggiest idea of anybody’s motivation, no clue what people are working toward. This extends to the monsters as they also lack a clear purpose outside of bumping into each other and knocking down buildings.
So then the script takes on the characteristics of its title character: It is lumbering and inelegant, stumbling from sequence to sequence. We open with an overlong and overcomplicated flashback sequence, which is ultimately needless filler. During this sequence we are given a heart-wrenching scene of a husband losing his wife, an incredibly emotional toll is taken, in vain, in fact, as nobody involved will be redeemed or even make it to the second half of the movie. What’s the point? I found myself asking that a lot. Godzilla is a loud, clumsy movie that never works smoothly for very long and is so rudderless it never achieves much momentum.
If there are moments that work they are brief. Much of the movie, particularly Godzilla, is obscured. We never get a good look at him and the MUTOs, which are ugly, generic beasts, are often presented in close-ups of their smashing legs and gnashing mandibles, which doesn’t put us in the perspective of the terrified people below, only of the perspective of the frustrated people in the audience, craning and squinting to try to make sense of what’s going on. Furthermore, the monster attacks happen mainly at night, further distancing us from the proceedings. At least when Godzilla fought Mothra it was during the day. Jaws was famously withheld from the audience but the filmmaking here doesn’t suggest the giddy terror the shark provided; it only suggests a film with a monster it’s ashamed of. The biggest problem is that there isn’t giddiness of any kind, terror or otherwise. The fun is being withheld too. How can you have giant monsters crawl out of the sea to eat nukes and not have any fun? How can you take them to Vegas and have it feel like you’ve taken them to an insurance convention in Dayton? There isn’t a single moment of humor, not a speck of visual wit, no single amount of joy and, let me remind you, this is about monsters whose diet consists of nuclear weapons. Even the humans are barred from mirth. I know the audience was.