Saturday, May 17, 2014
The marketing for the movie was brilliant. I was excited for this movie, I was pumped. That doesn't happen to often. Godzilla looked terrific, and to headline the human story, they cast Bryan Cranston... one of the best living actors of my generation. The studio swore up and down that the lessons of the Emerich movie from 1998 were learned. The trailers seemed like an apology for that movie. I couldn't wait.
We did not get that movie.
First of all, for a two hour movie, Godzilla is only in ten minutes of it. Let me be clear, those ten minutes are awesome. Every moment Godzilla was on screen, I loved it. I loved the design, he radiated power. They nailed him. That being said, this was not his movie, and not because he had so little screen time, but because you could have removed him entirely from the movie, and it would have been the same movie. Godzilla felt like an afterthought in what should have been his own movie. It was not about him.
Likewise, the marketing around this movie centered around Bryan Cranston's presence in the movie. Even more so than Godzilla. When I first heard they cast him, I thought it was a brilliant move. Nobody goes to a Godzilla movie and ever comes out caring about the humans... with the exception being Dr. Serizawa from the 1954 classic. And it seemed like Cranston's casting was going to pay off. Every moment he was on screen was electric. He is one of the most charismatic actors alive, he could read out of the phone book and it would be mesmerizing. He drew me in, and I cared about his character and story even though this time he was playing something I've seen a million times already. Then they kill him off forty-five minutes into the movie, and the rest of the movie focuses on Aaron Taylor Johnson playing his son, with only slightly more charisma than Hayden Christensen in the "Star Wars" prequels.
Ken Watanabe is in this playing the wise Japanese scientist who acts only as the voice of exposition. His character is named Serizawa after the heroic scientist from the original, which I was fine with as a nod. Watanabe tries, and does the best he can with the material given to him. I would have loved to have watched a movie with Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston teaming up to deal with this menace, that's what the marketing promised us... but we didn't get that movie.
This movie was about the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). They were the menace of the movie. They are the reason Cranston's wife dies at the beginning of the movie. They feed on radiation. They are going to reproduce, and lay thousands of eggs in the heart of San Francisco. They need to be defeated, because Aaron Taylor Johnson's wife and son live in San Francisco and are in danger. While Godzilla kills them both in a battle that is in the background, Aaron Taylor Johnson destroys the eggs in a very standard scene we've seen a million times already, and then reunites with his family.
In the middle of the movie, when Aaron Taylor Johnson knows these three monsters are converging on San Francisco, he speaks to his wife on the phone and doesn't tell her to grab their son and get out... he says "I'm coming to get you and I'll get you out" and I'm wondering "what the hell?" His entire motivation for fighting the MUTOs is to save his wife and son, when he could have gotten them out of danger before word got out that San Francisco was a target. This succeeds in making our protagonist look as intelligent as he is charismatic.
Godzilla is barely explained. Apparently he's millions of years old and existed in the prehistoric age as he is now, as the alpha predator. The MUTOs are his prey, and he's been swimming around the Pacific for millions of years unnoticed until 1954 when Japanese and American forces tried to nuke him, but he survived and continued to swim around for another few decades until the MUTOs awoke and went on a rampage. Then he rises out of the ocean, fights them and kills them... but he doesn't even eat them. You know, his prey. There is no logic to his presence, and I know I shouldn't look for logic in a Godzilla movie, but this was glaring.
So what do I think happened? I think they had a script for a movie about the MUTOs, a standard giant monster movie where a beast you don't care about wrecks havoc and gets defeated. Nothing original, nothing special. Then Warner Bros scored the Godzilla license from Toho and with some very quick re-writes, they forced him in... again, as an afterthought. The result left me unhappy. This was as much a Godzilla movie as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" was (remember, Godzilla pops up for a few minutes there, too)... but Pee-wee was fun and entertaining, this wasn't. What gets me is that this movie wasn't even poorly made. It was beautifully shot, the monsters looked great, the direction was good. The script was bad, and they forced an iconic character into a movie he had no business being in to draw a larger audience.
I believe Aaron Taylor Johnson vs the MUTOs could have been an average, if standard and forgettable, giant monster movie. Calling it Godzilla was what set others and I up for disappointment... that and the "Bryan Cranston is our star" marketing. Likewise, upon getting the license, they should have started from scratch. No MUTOs, none of that. Focus the movie on Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe teaming up to save the city (Tokyo, New York City, San Francisco, whatever) from the Godzilla we saw in this movie, and that could have been pretty great.
Was it better than the 1998 movie? Well, it was more competently made; and while I hate the 1998 movie, at least that was honest about what it was. You could make a case that this movie was false advertising. Avoid it like the plague.