Toho’s famous atomic beast, and easily the most recognisable kaiju in the entire world, Gojira first emerged from the waters of outside of Japan to wreck the city of Tokyo on November 3rd, 1954. To celebrate “Godzilla Day” this month, I’ve been dedicating very Saturday in November to looking back at the undisputed King of the Monsters’ many reboots.
Released: 16 May 2014
Director: Gareth Edwards
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $160 million
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Bryan Cranston
Ever since evidence of a gigantic prehistoric creature known as “Godzilla” (T. J. Storm) was discovered back in 1954, Monarch has been monitoring appearances of the creature and other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO). Believing that the government covered up the death of his wife following a nuclear meltdown, Joe Brody (Cranston) becomes obsessed with discovering the truth; his sceptical son, Ford (Taylor-Johnson), soon finds his father’s fears all-too-real when two MUTOs emerge from their highly radioactive cocoons and go on the rampage, with Godzilla being the only hope for humanity’s survival.
Although Godzilla (Emmerich, 1998) made $379 million at the box office, the film was considered to be a box office failure thanks to poor critical reviews and an overly enthusiastic merchandising campaign. Having distancing themselves from the film, Toho opted to bring the franchise back to life ahead of schedule in order to put the “God” back in “Godzilla”, and eventually put the series on a planned hiatus after the release of what remains the biggest Godzilla film yet, Godzilla: Final Wars (Kitamura, 2004). After canning plans for two more films following the disastrous 1998 production, TriStar Pictures allowed their rights to the franchise to expire in 2003 and Western audiences would have to be content with dubbed and subtitled versions of the Japanese Godzilla movies for some sixteen years. In 2009, rumours began circulating that Legendary Pictures were negotiating with Toho to reboot the legendary kaiju franchise, and Toho confirmed that they were excited to bring Godzilla back to America, and Legendary’s chairman and CEO, Thomas Lull, was determined to do that character justice this time around.
The studio turned to Gareth Edwards to direct the film based on his low-budget giant monster movie Monsters (Edwards, 2014), and Edwards made sure to work closely with the film’s script to ensure that Godzilla would be represented as a ferocious force of nature while still pitting him against formidable foes and tackling contemporary issues regarding nature’s wrath. Tull was determined to ensure that Godzilla was redesigned in a way that made him both recognisable and contemporary, and turned to Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium and the Moving Picture Company to bring the creature to life; drawing from all previous interpretations of the monster, Godzilla’s new design aimed to be one of the biggest and most fearsome ever, while still being believable and somewhat mythological in its appearance and biology. Godzilla’s $529 million box office meant that it was a huge success for all involved, and the film was met with largely positive reviews. While some criticised the characterisations and Godzilla’s lack of screen time, Japanese critics praised the film for honouring the spirit of the franchise. Godzilla was so successful that it not only saw Toho produce a new reboot of their own but also kicked off an all-new, interconnected series of films deaing with rebooted versions of classic monsters like Godzilla and King Kong, eventually leading to a modern-day clash between the two as part of Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”.
Man, I was so hyped for this new version of Godzilla back when it first came out; Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and Pacific Rim (del Toro, 2013) had done a lot to repair the damage of the 1998 Godzilla and anticipation was high, at least for me, to see that modern technology could really do with the Big-G. as a massive fan of the character and the franchise, who’s pretty much seen every single film starring the character (and many of his fellow kaiju), it just felt like the time was right to see Godzilla up on the big screen, literally bigger than ever, and for the character to make a big impact in a medium that was pretty much dominated by superhero films. The approach that the filmmakers took was a bold one, and definitely one geared more towards newcomers of the franchise, that I am aware divided many at the time but I still think the results were worth some of the drawbacks of the film, even if it maybe fell a little short of my lofty expectations.
After a brief tease regarding Godzilla’s origins and its many sightings over the years, the film jumps to the Philippines in 1999, where Doctor Ishirō Serizawa (Watanabe) and Doctor Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) of Monarch are brought in to investigate a collapsed mine and discover the ancient, fossilised remains of a Godzilla-like creature and two giant spores. While one is intact, the other has broken open, unleashing an unknown entity upon the world which has made its way over to a nuclear power plant in Janjira. Here, we meet perhaps the most underutilised character in the film, Joe Brody, the lead engineer at the power plant who is deeply concerned by the tremors that have been spreading towards the facility from the Philippines. Now, I’ve never watched Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013) and have no desire to, but I am a fan of Cranston’s and he definitely brings a certain expectation and respectability to the film, so to see his character suddenly killed off so early in the runtime was a bit of a mistake (and incredibly misleading, since the film’s marketing and trailers naturally focused on him as much as Godzilla). At the start of the film, Joe is desperate to impress upon his Japanese superiors his concerns regarding the tremors, to the point that he unintentionally misses out on seeing the effort his young son, Ford (CJ Adams), has gone to celebrate his birthday, but is nevertheless depicted as a doting father and husband rather than a neglectful workaholic.
Joe’s concerns come to fruition when the seismic activity causes a breach in the reactor; tragically, Joe’s wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), is killed when Joe is forced to seal the blast doors to prevent a complete nuclear meltdown. Devastated by her loss, Joe spends the next fifteen years trying to uncover the truth behind the event, which saw the plant collapse and the entire area be designated a quarantine zone. This drives a wedge between him and Ford, who grows up to become Aaron Taylor-Johnson and a Lieutenant in the United States Navy as an explosive’s technician. Having just returned home to his wife, Elle (Olsen), and son, Sam (Carson Bolde), Ford definitely gains the most characterisation, personality, and humanity from his short scenes with his family, which depict him as a very attentive husband and father. However, his happy reunion is spoiled when Joe is arrested for trespassing into the quarantine zone, and Ford begrudgingly heads out to Japan to bail him out, and is frustrated to find that his father is still obsessed with the past and driven to a maniacal paranoid as a result. Joe’s findings show that recent readings from the site match those from that fateful day and, determined to return to their old family home and retrieve his notes, he convinces Ford to accompany him into the hot zone and to face his own fears around his mother’s death. After sneaking into Janjira, which has become an overgrown, semi-post-apocalyptic wasteland in the intervening years, Joe is both elated and enraged to find that his suspicions are true and that there is not radioactive contamination to worry about. However, after being discovered and detained by Monarch, the two are introduced to Dr. Serizawa and Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), and stunned to find that the power plant has become a nesting ground for a massive creature, codenamed “MUTO”, which has been feeing on the reactor’s nuclear energy and sending out intermittent electromagnetic pulses that only Joe and his research are able to identify as being a signal to another creature.
Sadly, Ford and Joe arrive too late to do much more than watch as the MUTO hatches, blanketing the area in darkness and wrecking the site, destroying the facility and causing Joe to suffer mortal injuries. Framed as a chaotic, frantic attack, the MUTO is seeped in darkness, smoke, and debris but emerges as a gigantic, winged creature of sorts sporting an angular body which causes electronic disruptions in its search for additional nuclear material to feed on. Sympathetic to Ford’s loss, Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham bring him up to speed with the true nature of Monarch, which is to track, catalogue, and discover gigantic, prehistoric alpha predators such as Godzilla. The movie opens somewhat similarly to its 1998 counterpart, with some of Godzilla’s origin being relayed over the title sequence but, this time around, the focus is more on texts regarding evolution, the depiction and discovery of ancient fossils and ruins of giant creatures, and Monarch’s attempts to track down and destroy Godzilla. Told using edited text and in a found-footage style, this sequence recalls the 1954 original and sees Monarch luring the creature (seen only in fleeting glimpses as it swims through the ocean) out to Bikini Atoll so they can attack it with a nuclear bomb, a strategy that it later turns out only fuels and strengthens the creature and its gigantic brethren. So, again, we have a slightly different version of Godzilla’s origin; no longer is the creature directly tied to the tragedies of Japan’s past during the Second World War; instead, far more emphasis is placed on it being just one of a number of giant monsters that once walked the Earth and did battle with each other. The film frames Godzilla as a somewhat benevolent, if massively feared and misunderstood, protector; again, similar to Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (Kaneko, 2001), these kaiju are presented as being forces of nature birthed by the planet and a necessary part of protecting the world from reprisals. Much of this is later fleshed out in far more detail in Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts, 2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Dougherty, 2019), which explicitly paint Godzilla and Kong as being protective forces against threats both terrestrial (like the Skullcrawlers from within the Hollow Earth) and extraterrestrial (specifically King Ghidorah), but the groundwork for this concept is laid out here, especially through Dr. Serizawa’s many speeches regarding Godzilla being a necessary force to defend the Earth from malevolent forces.
Following Joe’s death and the hatching of the MUTO, the military begin a campaign to track down the creature and turn to Ford for help in filling them in with Joe’s research. Although he laments disregarding his father’s ravings, Ford is able to relate that Joe speculated that whatever destroyed the power plant was calling out to another creature, which Dr. Serizawa initially speculate is the legendary Godzilla. Much like the original film, and many of the Godzilla reboots, a great deal of the movie’s runtime is focused on tracking, understanding, and expositing information about the giant creatures which inhabit this fictionalised version of our world. Unlike his 1954 counterpart, Dr. Serizawa sports neither a bad-ass eyepatch or the lack of faith in the government and military; he views Godzilla with reverence and awe as the embodiment of nature and as something to be respected, rather than feared or destroyed. He knows full well how destructive humanity can be to each other, and sees Godzilla as a chance to show people just how insignificant they are compared to what nature is capable of producing, and, after all traditional attempts to stop the MUTOs and Godzilla fail, he stresses that the creatures should be allowed to fight as they would in the old days.
A central theme of Godzilla is of family; Joe was devastated at being unable to protect his wife, and ended up pushing Ford away with his fanatical obsession with Janjira, and Ford not only desperately tries to get home to his wife and son but also finds himself further separated from them to help a lost boy reunite with his parents. The familial themes even extend to the MUTOs, as the Janjira MUTO turns out to be signalling not Godzilla, but a far larger mate in order to propagate their species, something Godzilla is compelled to prevent. While this may very well be one of the most benevolent depictions of Godzilla I’ve ever seen (it never directly attacks humans and seems to go out of its way to avoid their vehicles and buildings wherever possible, most notably when it stops bid-swim and dives to avoid destroying the Navy’s ships and refrains from demolishing the Golden Gate Bridge despite the military attacking it), it’s still an absolutely gigantic, lumbering beast from beyond time that is regularly engaging in violent conflict with equally huge monsters, so there’s a far amount of collateral damage caused as a result. when Godzilla first emerges in Honolulu, much to Dr. Serizawa’s exhilaration and awe, it unintentionally causes a tsunami to flood through the streets, devastating much of the area and killing countless innocent people. Similarly, much of San Francisco is destroyed in the finale but, again, Godzilla exhibits little to no interest in actually harming humans or destroying cities, meaning that this destruction is pretty much all directly attributed to the MUTOs. Consequently, Godzilla is not some malevolent destroyer or wrathful creature out to teach humanity a lesson and is, instead, extremely territorial and protective of the Earth and its inhabitants in a way that goes far beyond other depictions I’m familiar with.
Godzilla was, at the time, indisputably the most impressive and detailed depiction of the famous kaiju ever put to screen that wasn’t a man in a suit. Sadly, however, the film plays things a little too safe too often by relying on thick, suffocating night scenes when depicting its kaiju and showing Godzilla in far too many brief, tantalising shots. I’m all for a slow and dramatic build-up to the creature’s reveal, and Godzilla certainly excels in that regard, but the film frustratingly cuts away from the creature’s first two battles against the MUTOs just as things are about to get interesting, which is extremely disappointing. The result is that the film frames the creatures more as unstoppable acts of nature, or destructive events, and lingers more on the consequences of these creatures existing rather than them brawling amidst city skyscrapers. I can understand this, and even applaud the decision as it’s a great way to reintroduce Godzilla to modern, Western audiences who may be unfamiliar with the character, but for long-term fans such as myself it was just infuriating to have a battle teased and then stolen away from us not once, but twice. We’re also constantly denied a clear shot of the creatures, even in the finale, as they’re normally always swamped in the darkness of night and surrounded by smoke, debris, and buildings, making the action extremely difficult to make out at times, which is also disappointing since Godzilla had never looked bigger or more ferocious than it did here. Going with an original monster design for Godzilla’s enemy was a bold choice; however, the MUTOs recall many of Godzilla’s previous foes, such as Rodan, Orga, Megalon, Gigan, and Battra, while still being suitably savage sand intimidating in their own right. The female, especially, is a formidable threat for its sheer size alone and the fact that Godzilla has to battle two threats in the movie is impressive considering most Godzilla movies have only one monstrous foe to oppose it.
I can also understand the criticisms of dropping Joe so anticlimactically and shifting the film’s focus onto Ford, who continually signs up to the military’s many campaigns against the creatures in order to get back home to, and protect, his family. I like Aaron Taylor-Johnson and had no real problems with his character; he’s a bit bland at times, sure, but he’s a soldier so that’s almost to be expected, and he’s made much more relatable through his desperate attempts to contact and return to Elle. He comes out of the film looking far better than Elle, whose main characterisation is that she’s a devoted and terrifying wife and mother and also a nurse, so she’s frantically trying to save lives when being scared out of her mind for her husband. Dr. Serizawa is the closest link between Godzilla and his original World War Two origins; possessing an heirloom from his father, a pocket watch that stopped on the day the bomb fell on Hiroshima, Dr. Serizawa objects to the use of nuclear weapons to draw away and destroy the creatures but Stenz remains steadfast that it is their only viable option to save lives from the creature’s continued attacks. Crucially, Stenz is not personified as some fanatical, irrational warmonger; he doesn’t make the decision to employ nuclear weapons lightly and is simply trying to safeguard lives by eradicating the source of the threat. When his bold attempt to draw the MUTOs away from civilisation using an old analogue warhead on a train result in the entire regiment being killed except for Ford, Stenz has no choice but to trust in Dr. Serizawa’s faith in Godzilla’s nature and to “let them fight”.
The male MUTO retrieves a nuclear warhead and brings it to its mate in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the two establish a nest, leaving the military no other choice but to mount a high altitude – low opening (HALO) jump into the city to disarm the bomb before it empowers the creatures further and kills millions. Of course, Ford is the point man on this incursion (which formed a significant part of the trailers and remains one of the most memorable and impressive sequences of the film not to feature a kaiju) due to his familiarity with the bomb, which allows him to be right up close to the action when Godzilla arrives for a final showdown with the MUTOs. Although difficult to see because of the poor lighting, this is where the film finally delivers some solid monster-on-monster action as Godzilla, though generally framed from a ground-level perspective as we follow Ford and his team’s efforts to destroy the nest and send the warhead safely out to sea. This, naturally, enrages the MUTOs much like ‘Zilla was enraged in 1998, but while they’re briefly able to overwhelm Big-G with the numbers advantage, they’re summarily executed in glorious fashion when Godzilla unleashes its iconic atomic breath! In the aftermath, after Ford finally reunites with his family, Godzilla recovers from exhaustion and is heroically dubbed the “King of the Monsters” and returns to the ocean victorious, leaving behind a world forever changed and indebted to its actions.
I had such high hopes for Godzilla and, for the most part, it delivered above and beyond what I was expecting. The film is a perfect love-letter to the very best parts of some of Toho’s long-running franchise and features easily the most impressive interpretation of Godzilla I’ve ever seen on film. Huge, ferocious, and intimidating, this Godzilla isn’t to be trifled with and blows his 1998 predecessor completely out of the water. I wish I could say more about how impressive the creature’s CGI is but, unfortunately, there are very few opportunities to really see it. The film is just way too dark and way too eager to cut away from the action, which can be frustrating when viewing this film in a bubble. However, Godzilla did wonders for reinvigorating the Big-G and introducing Toho’s famous kaiju to entirely new audience; framed as a gritty, poignant disaster movie that examines the consequences of such creatures existing in our world, the film excels in legitimising the creature as a force of nature that is here to protect us, and the world, from malevolent threats. As a reintroduction to the character, it worked really well, leaving me anxious and eager to see more of it in sequels and subsequent films, and I was super gratified to see more and more of Godzilla and its world expand into more familiar territory alongside the MonsterVerse. This first film may not be for everyone, and I can fully understand why long-term fans might have been disappointed, but it’s a strong effort in my opinion and easily washes away the bad taste left in the mouth by Roland Emmerich’s previous efforts.
Were you impressed with Godzilla? How did you feel is measured up against the original and the 1998 production? What did you like Godzilla’s look and depiction in the film; do you prefer Godzilla as a destructor or a protector character? Were disappointed that Joe was killed off so early and what did you think to Ford as a character? What did you think to the MUTO creatures and the cinematography of the film? Were you frustrated that it kept cutting away from the action or did you enjoy the slow build towards the dramatic finale? What is your favourite Godzilla movie and why? How did you celebrate Godzilla Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on Godzilla, or the franchise in general, sign up to leave a comment below or drop a comment on my social media and thank you for joining me for Godzilla month!