What’s Wrong with American Godzilla Movies?

Godzilla, as an idea, is not complicated. He is a large, God-like lizard capable of great destruction and power. The Godzilla films of the past pay respect to Godzilla as a mystical being, as something to be feared as a vengeful deity, or revered as a benevolent savior, depending on the particular plot. But, Godzilla as conceived in 1950’s Japan is a symbol of the dangers of atomic weaponry and warfare. He is a sci-fi veiled warning that an unabated nuclear arms race poses a grave threat to all of humanity. This aspect is absent any and all American attempts at portraying the titanic lizard on screen, as the ideas which Godzilla symbolize are replaced by cheap destruction, CGI, and failed attempts at providing a human element to the story. The substance is gone, and no amount of scenery-chewing A-listers can bring it back.

This began, as far as American Godzilla is concerned, with Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich was fresh off the success of Independence Day and ready to blow more iconic buildings up on screen while having a character explain to the audience which building was just destroyed. The plot of the 1998 Godzilla is fairly formulaic – nuclear test footage runs through the opening credits and a gigantic creature bumps into things on its way to New York City. A scientist (Matthew Broderick) is recruited for his knowledge on fallout-assisted animal growth. You see, he has observed earthworms near Chernobyl growing 22% larger, which is basically the same as an iguana transforming into Godzilla. Do not bother calculating the percentage that Godzilla had to grow to reach his size starting from an iguana, or attempt to explain how the creature radically changed shape and gait – that would be more effort than the movie expends. Plus, Godzilla seems to change size throughout the film, so it would be a moot exercise. Anyway, while in New York, Godzilla breaks things as the military attempts to kill him. Then Godzilla lays thousands of eggs in Madison Square Garden so that Emmerich can rip off the raptor sequences from the Jurassic Park franchise. The babies are detonated in an explosion which does not kill either of the main characters, but at least we get to roll the credits . . . just after a single baby Godzilla escapes from the rubble.

Nothing in this movie works. Even with an able lead like Broderick and the supporting cast of Jean Reno, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer, we can’t forget that we are watching a movie where the characters do not matter. As long as the dinosaur roars right and breaks things, we get the feeling that the filmmakers have accomplished their most important goal. To top it off, each performer has at least one embarrassing scene or line read. Destruction is for its own sake and does nothing to move the plot forward. Above all, Godzilla has no mystique. He is large and menacing, but is simply an animal – a result of atomic fallout. We are given no reason to identify him as any kind of complex symbol or associate him with an idea. There is little to no weight to his destruction, and what little human element we have focuses on a few minor character in an attempt to manufacture some pathos. By the end of the film, it is as though nothing mattered at all, but at least some buildings exploded.

Given the faults of Godzilla (1998), one would assume the 2014 remake would learn from its mistakes. Essentially, this film begins when a nuclear engineer named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife in a disaster at a Japanese power plant. Years later, he and his son discover that the accident was due to a gestating monster called a MUTO, which hatches and kills Joe before going on a rampage and contacting its mate which is set to hatch in Nevada. The two MUTO cause destruction throughout the western US coast while attempting to establish a nest. The US military plans to lure the MUTO and Godzilla out to sea and ignite a nuclear bomb (which is a food source for the MUTO – seriously). The finale has Godzilla attacking the MUTO, falling asleep after his victory, and then retiring back into the ocean.

There are two aspects of Gareth Edward’s film which radically improve upon Emmerich’s: Godzilla and the additional monsters are treated with due reverence, and the destruction is stylized and interesting. The monsters are rarely shown destroying buildings, and most of the resulting damage is seen through the eyes of side characters. In fact, this device goes to such extremes that it approaches insult. Sometimes, we are seconds away from watching a MUTO do something interesting, only to receive a quick jump cut for our troubles. This can be very frustrating for the viewer. This technique is employed in classic monster movies to delay the full reveal of the monster, but it feels like it goes too far in this movie. Instead of teasing and drawing our interest, it only angers us, but it is without a doubt a conscious choice. One would be forgiven for evaluating it a stupid and unnecessary, but it is miles beyond anything in Emmerich’s movie, and for that at least Gareth deserves some credit. In addition, the puny human characters in this version pay respect to Godzilla as a savior and a god-like being, which is completely absent the 1998 version. This is a critical aspect to the Godzilla mythos, to the point that Emmerich’s version has actually been ret-conned into a different monster named Zilla. So, at least Gareth manages to make a movie actually about the monster called, “Godzilla”.

Unfortunately, Godzilla (2014) fails to introduce a single human character of any substance to which the audience can relate. Much like the earlier version, despite casting A-list talent (in this case Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen – the best of the Olsen sisters), it is entirely squandered. Cranston is able to emote and instill some real humanity in his character, only to die a scene later and leave the film completely devoid of an empathetic character. Gareth has to jump through plot element hoops to keep us focused on Cranston’s son and his wife (Olsen), and it ends up making the entire movie seem aimless. As with the 1998 version, it feels as if the film is just spinning the wheels until a climactic battle sequence. And, while the battle sequence in this film is far better than the original, it is far from redeeming.

A good Godzilla movie can schlock it up with men in rubber suits (or the CGI equivalent), fighting and knocking things over while helpless civilians scatter in fear. This version of the move wastes as little time as possible with exposition and characterization, and focuses instead on the monster element, and the futility of humans in the face of such a force. Here, Godzilla is the symbolic equivalent of the horrors of atomic, global warfare, as in the original Japanese conception of the monster. He must be respected and revered as a force which, once unleashed, will effect annihilation, regardless of the machinations of the human race. This version can be fun or serious, depending on the tone, but there is always a kernel of meaning behind it. Made well, this looks something like Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim: a solid action flick with monsters towering above the exploits of humanity (this is not a perfect comparison, as Pacific Rim has a clear confrontational tone where the humans matter). A different good version of Godzilla focuses on the humans as the world around them crumbles at the feet of monsters. Here we get to see our world destroyed by an outside force through the lens of a human perspective, and this kind of movie can say things a monster-forward version cannot. Again, respect can be paid to the symbolic nature of Godzilla, but here we are approaching that content from a more personal and human perspective. Done correctly, this version looks like Gareth’s earlier, superior work, Monsters, and was likely what the production team was shooting for when appoint Gareth the director of Godzilla (2014).

Sadly, both recent Americanized versions of Godzilla have tried to create an action blockbuster without focusing on just the monsters or just the people – but both. Each attempt failed to instill a human element in the film, and the 1998 version botched Godzilla to boot. Both plots are loose, to say the least, characterization is flat and actors are wasted, and any higher symbolic nature to Godzilla is almost entirely neglected. And, while Gareth’s version makes some interesting choices and ends with an entertaining battle sequence, neither movie succeeds. These films fail because they lack anything important to say, and let their focus wander between cool monster fights and ineffectual human elements. I would welcome a Godzilla with something important to say, but after this most recent version, I suppose I will be kept waiting.

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