Godzilla

May 24, 2014
Elizabeth Olsen in 'Godzilla' (2014)
Elizabeth Olsen in 'Godzilla' (2014)

When Godzilla rose out of the ocean in 1954 and proceeded to trash Tokyo, no-one could have foreseen that he would still be wreaking havoc 60 years later. The durability of the “king of the monsters” owes something to the personality he developed in the 1960s, and something to his connections with nuclear energy, which still plays on our anxieties.

Godzilla was the catalyst for a long line of Kaiju (“strange creature”) movies, that have enjoyed huge popularity in Japan and cult followings in the rest of the world. Although the big lizard has starred in more than 30 features, his origins remain ambiguous. We may assume he is a prehistoric beast awakened and mutated by atomic explosions. To the Japanese in 1954 he was the dreadful shadow of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In time he became the defender of humanity, battling other threats that embodied the dangers of nuclear power or pollution.

Godzilla has been seen as a metaphor for nuclear energy in general, or even for the United States – a friend that can become a deadly enemy, or vice versa. He evokes feelings of hubris for the reckless advance of science and the dangers that it poses.

With the progress of GCI technology it was inevitable that Godzilla would continue mutating. The computer-generated behemoth of the later films is a long way from the campy spectacle of a guy in a rubber suit battling stiff-limbed adversaries such as Mothra (a big moth) or Rodan (a big bird). Yet it’s hard not to love Ishiro Honda’s early films for the gags, the pop culture of the 60s, and the zaniness that evaporates in the later movies.

There are unforgettable moments such as Godzilla’s victory dance after he dispenses with King Ghidorah, the three-headed space dragon, in Invasion of the Astro Monster (1964). In other films he shapes up like a prize fighter to King Kong (a big monkey), and taps his nose sagely when he confronts Ebirah (a big lobster). It was easy to believe, as a little boy said in one of those early flicks, that Godzilla wasn’t really bad, just misunderstood.

Undoubtedly the nadir of Godzilla’s fortunes came in 1998, when the talentless Roland Emmerich directed the first of a proposed trilogy for Hollywood. Fortunately, this action-driven piece of junk allowed for no sequel.

The new Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards, has paid closer attention to the earlier movies, while incorporating the obligatory CGI overkill. Edwards’s Godzilla is restored to the position of mankind’s saviour, battling two ugly monsters called Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestial Organisms). He’s as big as ever, and just as dangerous, but without a trace of personality.

The only organism with less personality is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as Lieutenant Ford Brody, the ostensible hero of this tale. Taylor-Johnson is English, and shows none of the skill Damian Lewis displayed in Homeland, in impersonating an American soldier. Is it coincidental that Lewis was also playing a character named Brody?

Taylor-Johnson sounds and acts like a meathead when he should be eliciting our sympathy. He cannot, however, be blamed for the lines he has to utter in a story that often seems like Days of Our Lives with Kaiju. Too much time is spent on characters and story lines that are hopelessly shallow. As one lame plot development segues into another, we begin to wonder when our hero will make his appearance. It happens almost an hour into the film, which is even longer than the 48 minutes he took to appear in Godzilla vs. Ebirah (1966) and not nearly as much fun.

This emphasis on plot may be an attempt to redress the balance of the 1998 film, but the story and script are too feeble to sustain our interest. Good actors such as Bryan Cranston and Juliet Binoche are wasted in these roles.

Edwards begins the film with a melt-down in a Japanese nuclear power plant, which is obviously meant to have echoes of Fukushima. Later, when Godzilla makes his belated appearance in Honolulu, he generates a kind of tsunami. With the events of the great Tohoku earthquake of November 2011 still fresh in everyone’s minds this is treading in sensitive territory.

By the end of the film Godzilla is trading blows with the two Mutos amid the ruins of San Francisco; the action having progressed by stages from Japan, to Hawaii, to the United States. Leaving the Japanese catastrophe behind we find ourselves reunited with that wellworn trope, “The Attack on America!” Shades of 9/11, with a collection of iconic landmarks reduced to rubble.

This kind of massive destruction is exactly what most viewers expect from such a film. One grows accustomed to the monotonous nature of these CGI generated cataclysms, while hoping for a few redeeming features. José Padilha managed this feat in his recent remake of RoboCop, but very few directors demonstrate any humour or orginality in trying to bring new life to an already familiar character.

Over the past 60 years the king of the monsters has proved almost impossible to defeat. His major nemesis was probably the “Oxygen Destroyer”, invented by a Japanese professor in the very first film. The inventor subsequently committed suicide due to feelings of guilt and shame, taking with him the secret of the device. It has taken decades for Hollywood to come up with a new, equally deadly weapon: to surround Godzilla with cardboard characters and sentimental scenarios that send him scurrying back into the depths of the ocean.

Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screenplay by Max Borenstein, story by David Callaham
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olson, Juliet Binoche, David Strathhairn
USA, rated M, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24 May, 2014.