Monster Movies. Alien Movies. Creature Features. These were the films that excited me the most as a kid. Whether it was Jaws, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Alien, Predator, The Thing or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these films had something similar in common: The slow building of suspense and patience in revealing “the monster.”
In all of these films, you don’t clearly see the titular monster for nearly an hour into the movie…and even then, you probably only get 20-30 total minutes on-screen with them. However, after so much anticipation for the moment that you will finally see them, you’re in awe of the spectacle they behold.
– Remember that moment near the end when The Predator takes his mask off for the first time?
– How about the moment when King Kong finally appears to snatch Fay Wray, 47 minutes into the movie?
– Or when we finally clearly see the slender, black titular “Alien” for the first time as underwear-clad Ellen Ripley hides during the film’s final 10 minutes.
– Who could forget seeing the shark Jaws for the first time in the last third of the film prompting Chief Martin Brody to whisper, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
These are the kind of creature features that I’ve always preferred the most. This is the style of filmmaking that inspired franchises and reboots decades later.
Another classic film that followed this formula: The original 1954 Japanese film, Gojira (aka Godzilla).
Director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 remake of Godzilla seems to be birthed from the same DNA as these aforementioned creature features. In the opening credits we’re teased to the (redacted) discovery of a giant reptile living in the Pacific Ocean in the 50s which the Japanese military sees as a threat. It turns out that nuclear bomb tests reported to the international community back in the 1950’s were actually the Japanese attempting to eradicate the beast.
From there, we shift our attention to the year 1999 with scientist and father Joseph Brody (played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) who’s working in a Japanese nuclear power plant with his wife. Massive perfectly timed ground tremors at the plant causes a changes his life forever, shifting him into an obsessive 15 year urge to find out exactly what happened that tragic day.
Joe’s son, Ford Brody, now an adult with a wife and boy of his own, has become estranged with his father. They’re both forced to reunite when the elder Brody is arrested for trespassing in the now evacuated Japanese town where the nuclear accident took place years prior.
Very quickly the Brody’s discover that the highly guarded area that the government says is flooded with radiation is actually completely safe. They also learn that there’s a secret research base now in place where the destroyed power plant once stood.
From there the monster mayhem slowly unravels. To go into too much detail would spoil many of the great surprises that unfold over the next hour and a half of the film.
By this point, however, many people already know that in addition to Godzilla reintroducing himself to the world (after the 1998 American remake debacle), a couple other huge creatures populate the screen to do battle with the King of all Monsters. These monsters are also called Kaiju, the Japanese word for “Strange Creature.”
What has disappointed many moviegoers and critics is they seemed to think that a Godzilla movie should just be about monsters fighting monsters. This harkens back to the recent box office flop Pacific Rim, a film with little substance or story for that matter.
Instead, this Godzilla remake has a purpose. The creatures in this film have a clear motivations and reasons for fighting each other and destroying the cities around them. Instead of the humans merely running while looking back over their shoulders, we see them actually (inadequately) attempt to save their world.
This fact alone makes this remake, in many ways, much better than the 1954 original. That Godzilla wreaked havoc for no apparent reason. He was just a plain old asshole crushing, burning and tripping over buildings and innocent people. The “solution” in that film was a non-existent miracle weapon a Japanese scientist just happened to be working on that felts a little too convenient. However, the concept worked to drive home the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bomb allegories of the film.
“Let them fight.”
When Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (the only other character besides Godzilla from the original film) says these simple words, I got very excited in my packed IMAX theater.
The monster brawls between Godzilla and the two other creatures (called MUTOs) are fantastic, but they only fill a little over 20 minutes of screen time. Admittedly I would have loved to see more of them but like a Transformers film, seeing more may have lessened the impact, majesty and awe of the digitally rendered fights.
Regarding his decision to limit the creatures’ on-screen time, Director Gareth Edwards told the Huffington Post, “Once you deliver a certain level of spectacle, it’s hard to go back and still be in awe of something,” he said. “I feel like you just have to be careful in how you progress the movie. You can’t trap yourself. I think you can reach that plateau effect. We’ve all been there. We’ve all sat in the movies and you just zone out, even if what you’re seeing on an individual level is especially stunning, it just doesn’t have an impact on you.”
This is very true. I felt exhausted (then bored) while watching repetitive special effects The Matrix sequels, Pacific Rim, Transformers 2 & 3, Avatar, the list goes on…Many filmmakers feel they need to have random aliens and special effects happening every 5 minutes to keep their audiences awake. Some movie goers for Godzilla have said online that they fell asleep during the first half of of a 2 hour film.
Wait, seriously?! It makes me wonder if these same adults with the attention span of 5-year-olds fall asleep during all non-Godzilla films that they see as well. I’d hate to be in a car with these people on a road trip, they’d clearly fall asleep behind the wheel.
Speaking of the people who were bored, I recently spoke to a friend who saw and hated the film. He told me, “I was a BIG fan of the Godzilla films. I grew up on Godzilla movies. The Godzilla movies were always about the monster fights, not the humans! This new Godzilla sucked!”
So I calmly asked him to name the one (out of 30) Godzilla films that he actually felt was the definitive representation of the character. The one that featured the best story and the greatest monster fight.
His answer was:
He instead tried to change the subject by claiming that wasn’t the point!
The point he refused to admit was, with the exception of the first film, all of the Godzilla films pretty much suck. Seriously, they are not very good at all. As kids we let a lot of campiness slide because what we saw on-screen was exactly how our tiny brains saw it in our heads while playing with our toys.
In leading up to seeing the new movie, I watched 4 of the so-called “greatest” Godzilla films. Not only were they mediocre at best, Godzilla only appears (and fights) in them for about 20-30 minutes. The rest of the films were all people standing around in rooms talking about Godzilla. The same is pretty much true in the remake and 1954 original. There’s a lot of set-up and talking and a little bit of Godzilla. This has always been the case.
Outside of this consistency, if the 2014 Godzilla favored the past 29 films (besides the original) in any way, critics would claim that the film was too cheesy or focused too much on the monsters and destruction, without any humanity.
When I shared this analysis with my angry friend, he disagreed claiming to know what a “good” Godzilla film should have looked like: Kaiju fighting Kaiju…for 2 repetitive hours…Like some video game or Saturday morning cartoon.
He then went off, proceeded to tell me that I didn’t have the answers:
For fans of 70s and 80s monster films (like me), you will be very impressed with the confident pacing, stunning visuals and storytelling that unravels until its all about the Big Man. The kind of choices displayed in what was supposed to be a disposable summer popcorn monster film are admirable. Especially considering the director only had one film under his belt before being tapped for this one, 2010’s Monsters. We need more experimentation like this in Hollywood. It worked when Christopher Nolan took over the Batman franchise and erased the previous campy films from our collective brains. Now Gareth Edwards has done the same with Godzilla.
Godzilla feels real this time around. He looks amazing. His signature roar sounds amazing. The fights (although somewhat brief) are spectacular. The story laid out here is just what I needed to reinvigorate my interest in the huge beast that, up until this point, had become a campy man-in-a-suit joke.
After making nearly 200 million its opening weekend, it’s clear that many moviegoers agree. I’ll let Godzilla himself have the final word:
[Note: As I was writing this review, I re-watched the God-Awful 1998 American version Godzilla. Its so bad that the Japanese merely call it “Zilla” because they feel the iguana like creature in the film in no way resembles the classic character. I have to agree. As I hear the horrible Puff Daddy song playing during the closing credits all I can think is this film makes the new Godzilla look like “Citizen Kane”, ”The Battle of Algiers” and “Days of Heaven” all rolled into one.]