Monster movies are tricky in that the titular star is often a minor character, behind those that it affects. He is a plot point. A puzzle to be solved. A villain to be conquered. They are often the center of the film, but they are unable to carry it. That duty in Godzilla falls on the humans. For as much as I loved the characters in Monsters, I didn’t feel any connection to them here. Bryan Cranston was great as the crazy-but-not-really-crazy engineer, but he didn’t get nearly as much screentime as I hoped he would. I really like Elizabeth Olsen, but her character bio was nothing more than “concerned wife”. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is supposed to be our proxy, but I felt no connection with him. He was constantly in danger – he spent the entire film in the path of Godzilla and other nuclear monsters – and yet I never cared whether he lived or died. If he was a minor character, the lack of connection wouldn’t be a big deal. But it takes a while for Godzilla to show up (and it takes even longer for him to do anything interesting for longer than 5 seconds), leaving Taylor-Johnson’s meathead Ford as the driving force behind the film. It’s a terrible combination of an underdeveloped character and an actor with zero charisma.
I wouldn’t care that it took so long for Godzilla to show up if the characters were more interesting or their stories more compelling. They needed to make me care about the characters and their struggles. Get me invested in them, then bring up Godzilla and make me hope and pray that everyone makes it out okay. They didn’t do that, so the first half of the movie really seemed to drag. The only thing I really loved in the first half was Bryan Cranston’s running face, and that was a short-lived joy.
We got a little action about an hour in, but it wasn’t Godzilla. We had two creatures designated as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that fed off radiation. We saw some decent destruction involving these creatures: they were equipped with EMPs, so they would periodically shut down all electrical devices, which led to some great scenes of planes spinning helplessly to the ground and exploding on impact. We saw one of the MUTOs – which looked like a mix between a Starship Troopers bug and the Cloverfield monster – rampage through Las Vegas. They were good destruction scenes, but they weren’t Godzilla destruction scenes.
Once the Godzilla action showed up, it felt a bit like a tease. Godzilla showed up in the city, a MUTO descended on him, a battle was starting…and a door closed in front of the camera, so we didn’t see any of it. We had a few of those false starts before the real action started. And once that happened, I was all in.
The fight scenes between Godzilla and the MUTOs felt like a clumsy bar brawl in the middle of a city; staggering into buildings, screaming and breathing fire. They were glorious, and they left me walking out of the theater being really excited about the movie.
But that excitement fades after a little while, and I’m left thinking about all the problems. The shallow characters. The fact that EMPs knocked out all electricity, yet the news cameras still worked. The fact that the army decided the best place to attack a monster who travels primarily by sea was a suspension bridge. And so on. And so forth.
It was impossible to watch this and not think about Pacific Rim. There was the obvious (“They should just build some giant robots to fight the monsters.”), but it’s also worth exploring some of the writing. Pacific Rim knew the strength wasn’t in the writing, so they just threw a handful of massive fight scenes at the audience to keep us happy. Godzilla seemed to think its characters were good enough on their own and didn’t feel the need to keep us distracted with fights.
I don’t think the characters were better written in Pacific Rim, but I found that I cared about them more than I cared about the characters in Godzilla, and I think that’s because the characters in Pacific Rim actually spent quite a bit of time together. The characters in Godzilla were often in completely different places. I found it hard to care about the relationship between Ford and Elle because most of their interactions were short conversations over the phone. It was hard to see much love between them, so I had little love for them.
In the end, the main downfall of the movie was the lack of connection with Ford. He was the one who was constantly in harm’s way, yet I didn’t care what happened to him.
Walking out of the theater, I could say that I really enjoyed myself, but its problems are impossible to ignore. The long lead-up to destruction is a necessary evil, but I can’t help but think that it could have been more interesting. The characters could have been much better, but, in the end, we got to see The King of the Monsters beat up on a couple lesser monsters and unleash a number of his trademark screams.
It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s worth seeing for the fight scenes if nothing else.
Before the movie came out, I wrote a Trailer Talk post about it. You can read that here.