My full review for Legendary Pictures’ 2014 Godzilla film will appear on my website The Godzilla Saga in the near-future (the site is now in the midst of a major update and overhaul for Godzilla’s 60th anniversary), but in the meantime, here’s a preliminary review to whet your appetite.
After 14 years, Toho’s Atomic Titan is back on the big screen in America. This was the second attempt of an American studio to create a version of Godzilla that would appeal to G-fans on both sides of the Pacific, and this one proved far more successful and respectful than the lackluster, not-exactly-faithful-to-the-classic-image which Tri-Star gave us back in 1998. In fact, Tri-Star’s rendition is now considered an entirely separate kaiju (the Japanese-derived word for “giant monster,” for those non-genre fans out there), who is now unceremoniously referred to as simply “Zilla,” this partial moniker christened by Toho’s Godzilla franchise head Shogo Tomiyama, when he noted in an interview that, “Hollywood took the ‘God’ out of ‘Godzilla.” In other words, Tri-Star’s version dispensed with the Kaiju King’s god-like might and made him into a typical ultra-large animal that could be dispatched by a salvo of missiles, and who relied on his great speed to dodge and evade these WMDs rather than simply shrugging off multiple impacts of such weapons as if they were nothing more than a minor annoyance; not to mention doing things like regenerating from full disintegration.
Legendary Pictures, in contrast, put the “God” back in “Godzilla” (lower case interpretation of the word, that is) in an almost literal fashion by increasing his immense power and size back to the level possessed by the later Heisei Era G-films produced by Tokyo (i.e., the series produced between 1984-1995). Thus, he was increased from his initial traditional height of 50 meters back up to 100 meters, he can withstand almost anything either man or monster throws at him, and can fully regenerate and recover from anything that does take him down, thereby making death a seemingly temporary setback for him (I’m presuming it’s a “him,” just as I’ve always presumed Mothra is a “her,” not that this would actually matter, except maybe to another kaiju of the same morphological phenotype, mind you; I go with the pronouns I’m accustomed to).
This time around, Godzilla is a primordial life form from the harsh nuclear-based environment of the nascent Earth, the truly god-like Alpha Predator. As a result, he is no longer the destructive personification of Nature’s vengeance on humanity for disrupting the biosphere with atomic weapons, toxic waste, and other nasty unnatural intrusions upon the natural order during the 20th century, as originally conceived by Toho. He no longer crushes human civilization underfoot (and under tail) just because he can, nor for the purpose of feasting upon the energies of nuclear-power generating facilities, nuclear-powered submarines, etc. He has now become, to quote one of my esteemed colleagues and friends, something akin to the planet’s chief antibody against other nuclear-energy feeding kaiju from the primeval Earth called MUTOs (that’s an acronym for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism”). Godzilla appears to be a one-off type of creature who was spawned by unknown factors in the young Earth’s nuclear furnace, possibly by some long-vanished means of spontaneous generation. The MUTOs, on the other hand, reproduce sexually, and this can cause a major problem for the much more fragile inhabitants of the post-primordial Earth if they spawn unchecked. Cue Nature’s counter to this problem: Godzilla, the Alpha Predator.
As noted previously by me and others, in many ways this is Godzilla stomping on rival cinematic kaiju Gamera’s territory. Well, specifically, the Gamera of the Heisei Era (i.e., 1990s film series by Daiei, the company that produced Gamera flicks). And this isn’t the first time a major alteration was made to Godzilla to be more like Gamera. In the original Showa Era (i.e., late 1950s-late 1970s cinematic period for Toho and Daiei), specifically beginning with the G-films of the 1970s, Godzilla went from the destructive one-creature apocalypse that he was in the first few G-films, and later the more or less ambiguous relationship he had with humanity by the mid-1960s, to a full-fledged giant super-hero and official protector of humanity.
This was in blatant imitation of the role that rival company Daiei gave to Gamera beginning with the second movie in his multiple-film series that began circa 1965 (in the giant turtle’s inaugural film, he was a destructive but misunderstood kaiju, and already friendly with kids). In fact, as I noted in my detailed review on my website The Godzilla Saga, the first G-film of the ’70s, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, was not only the first G-film where the Atomic Titan officially became a bona fide protector of humanity, but this initial G-film of the ’70s decade included numerous tropes common to Gamera’s Showa series, none of which were typically present in previous (or even subsequent) G-films.
By the time of his Heisei Series, however, Gamera retained his great protector status, along with the psychic bond he often formed with children and young teens, but developed into something a bit more ominous: He would sometimes inadvertently cause a large number of human casualties in a sort of “collateral damage” fashion when unleashing his full power against the various kaiju threats to the planet he faced. This was made particularly clear in the third and final Gamera film of the Heisei Era, Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris. In similar fashion, Godzilla 2014 is even less of a hero, but simply a control force of tremendous power for the planet, instinctively determined to seek out and kill any MUTO which may successfully arise from their amphibian-like egg sacs. If any human beings, or human infrastructure, happen to get in the way, they’re street pizza or crumbled rubble respectively, with no skin off Godzilla’s scaly, near-impenetrable hide. And if human military vehicles target him, he targets them back with all due prejudice.
Nevertheless, as long as humans stay out of his way, his role is ultimately beneficial to humanity by keeping the far less human-friendly MUTOs in check, even if his forays into human civilization are pretty hard on property and home insurance rates. This version of Godzilla doesn’t seek to feed on artificial sources of atomic energy as the MUTOs do (and his Heisei Era and Millennium Era Toho counterparts did), but is able to simply absorb what he requires directly from the natural mega-furnace deep below the planet’s crust. The MUTOs are unable to do this, because if they were, then they wouldn’t be a true menace to human civilization, Godzilla would have no real purpose, and we wouldn’t have the suspense necessary for this iteration of the franchise.
In terms of the Godzilla 2014 design, well, I was a bit dubious on that. He has the brutally mean look of the Heisei Era Godzilla restored to him, but his musculature has been bulked up to the point that some G-fans have justifiably said, “Legendary made Godzilla fat!” I’m sorry, but I have to agree with that. They also modified his very distinctive roar needlessly, so that its resounding echo makes it difficult to recognize if you don’t listen extremely closely (so closely, in fact, that you will likely deem it a waste of effort to put in the effort to do so). Nevertheless, this design doesn’t deviate too far from the classic look, and at least this version retains his patented atomic breath, as well as being a total bad-ass truly worthy of the title King of the Monsters.
That said, the script was decent, with a stellar but too short-lived role for Bryan Cranston, the star of the AMC hit crime series Breaking Bad (and a personal fav of mine). Godzilla was slow to show up in the film (prompting my mother to say aloud, “It’s about time!” when the big scene reveal happened), and the excellent CGI used to realize the brutal kaiju battles were fairly sparse… but quite spectacular on the eyes when they were happening on screen. Many G-fans, I must note, loved the delayed appearance approach, and had few real issues with everything I critiqued above. Many, however, agreed that they hoped for more of Bryan Cranston and were disappointed by his unexpected early exit from the script. The movie garnered big box office sales, with a record April weekend opening gross, both in America and overseas. A sequel has already been given the green light as a result.
In my personal estimation, the movie was good, though not excellent, but certainly very respectful and suspenseful compared to what Tri-Star did back in ’98. This was a real version of Godzilla, not some other monster pretending to be, as was Zilla (a surprising number of kaiju-fans and monsterphiles in general liked Zilla, but agree that he was not Godzilla, and his fatal flaw was in pretending to be). Since sequels to films of this genre have been breaking the previous notorious pattern of diminishing returns that were all-too common prior to the last decade, I greatly look forward to the sequel, and this new series clearly has the potential to go from a very good start to something truly excellent. Good luck with the future of the franchise, Legendary Pictures; the fans are counting on you, and we will be watching.