With the release of Kong: Skull Island this month, Legendary Pictures took their second step with their Monsterverse, as they are calling it. This week I decided to go back and re watch their initial effort in not only resurrecting, but recreating this universe with some of the most beloved monsters ever put on film. This is my Sunday with… Godzilla!
Release Date: May 16, 2014
Run Time: 123 minutes
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, and Bryan Cranston
Director: Gareth Edwards
Robs Score: 7/10
“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around. Let them fight.” – Dr. Serizawa
The year is 1954, and there is something gigantic in the ocean. The US government tries to lure the giant beast to a secluded island where they drop a nuke on it, attempting to kill it. Fast forwards to 1999, and project Monarch has unearthed an underground tunnel in the Philippines. What’s inside is shocking, as they find two giant spores, one of which appears to have hatched, and whatever it was leaves a trail of destruction right into the ocean. In Japan, the Janjira Nuclear facility, headed by Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has been experiencing severe seismic activity. Afraid of what could happen Brody attempts to have the reactors shut off, but a severe seismic tremor creates a breach in the reactor that destroys the entire facility, killing Brody’s wife. 15 years later, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Joe’s son, is returning from a tour of duty to his wife and son in San Francisco. Before he can settle he receives word that his father was arrested in Japan, for trespassing into the now destroyed nuclear reactor site. After being released to Ford, Joe explains that it is his belief that the destruction site wasn’t an accident and was instead a cover-up and he has the proof in their old house. Against his wished Ford agrees to go with Joe to recover his lost documents. However they are both arrested and brought to the former site to be interrogated, but once there a tremor as big as the one that initially destroyed the site strikes again, but what is causing all of this, and who or what can stop it?
In 2014, Legendary Pictures kick started the Toho monsters property for a whole generation, young and old, who were craving another film starring the beloved Godzilla. It had been 10 long years since his last time on screen and fans were absolutely ready. This version of Godzilla was different from many of the previous films, and that was absolutely a good thing. The cheesy man in the costume look if many of the early films was truly dead and buried and in its place we saw a hulking monster that was both horrifying and awe-inspiring. Godzilla was an important film not just for fans, but for Legendary Pictures as this was the first in a new proposed universe of monster films. The first film out the gate holds much more weight than the following films because its success or failure can dictate the reaction to the rest of the universe before it really gets going. My fellow DC fans are unfortunately experiencing that backlash right now. However, Legendary stepped up to the plate and delivered a truly unique and well received vision that helped build the solid foundation on which Kong: Skull Island continued to build upon.
To be honest, I did not love Godzilla the first time I saw it. Seeing it in IMAX made the experience grand and the visuals were amazing, but it was not what I expected it to be (more on that later). However, re-watching it now, those same reasons I didn’t like it previously are what I enjoy about them now, especially when watching it in contrast to Kong: Skull Island. First off, after viewing both again, Godzilla actually enhances my enjoyment of Kong. The films are beautifully connected, not just through storyline, but also through visuals. One of the first images we see in Godzilla is a cave painting of him – the same image that is seen in the after credit scene in Kong: Skull Island. Both movies worked beautifully in tandem to not only introduce organizations and characters like Monarch, but then having the next film serve as the origin into it. What at first felt like poor character development actually turns into a clever and unified vision. The two films are not only successful on their own but when viewed after each other, they only enhance the experience and instill confidence for the future of this universe.
One of the biggest aspects that I loved about Godzilla, that I didn’t when I first saw it, was how subtle it was. Now I know what you’re thinking, a monster movie being subtle, but hear me out. When I say subtle I mean how they handled not only showing Godzilla, but the destruction, and fight scenes that fans were dying to see. It was an experience that was unlike almost any other big monster film I had ever seen. The lighting of the film was pretty dark, often with scenes of smoke or rubble masking the full on image of Godzilla, and the MUTO’s. For most of the film, until the final act any fighting or destruction that was going on was used as backdrop, never the focal point of the shot. We see this on the news broadcast, or when we see the fall out of Las Vegas. The use of lighting or smoke and rubble was also wonderfully done. The thought that a monster as big and horrific as Godzilla could disappear behind a cloud of smoke isn’t really believable, however it did a great job of building the fans excitement. For most of the film we see glimpses of Godzilla’s foot or claws, but never a clear full shot of him. The same is done in regards to the fight scenes. At first viewing I felt this was doing every monster film before it a disservice, however on repeated viewing it is what makes it stand out from everything else. These aspects builds anticipation and teases viewers until the final reveal or fight is seen and then everyone feels greatly satisfied. My absolute favorite scene in the film is the airdrop into the middle of the city, because I felt it perfectly captured the feel of the entire movie. This scene is not only scary and makes viewers uncomfortable, but also beautifully plays with the lighting and visuals of destruction going on. That scene captures the essence of the whole movie, not to boot it was just a stunning scene.
The subtlety of Godzilla is even more impressive in contrast to Kong. Skull Island is in your face and over the top pretty much from the jump. The action and characters alike are amped up, and thus gives Kong a different feel. This is not an insult to either film; actually it is quite the opposite. This is a credit to Legendary pictures for putting out two films for the same universe, both with distinctly different feels and approaches, that are both not only successful, but organic in building their final product.
Now on paper this film sounds wonderful, but for a monster movie the real selling point is going to inevitably be the monster design, especially for one as beloved as Godzilla, and this incarnation was everything and more! The Godzilla design was pretty much true to the classic design, however with a few upgrades. The biggest of which was the sheer size of him. Filmmakers claim this version of Godzilla would be 350 feet tall, making him by far the biggest on film. That approach added not only to the character but also the film. Making Godzilla humongous helped overemphasis the idea of him being a guardian whose goal is to restore balance. Many different animals were used as inspiration in his design including komodo dragons and bears, both of which can be recognized after knowing those were the designs. As far as the iconic roar went, sound designer Erik Aadahl, and Ethan Van Der Ryn spent six months improving upon the original Toho sound. The MUTO’s were starkly different from Godzilla, both being much smaller, thinner and essentially quicker than him. Film makers took inspiration from numerous sources including Jurassic Park, Alien, and Starship Troopers into their design. From a fan point of view I also see similarities to the Cloverfield monster, as well as several different Pokémon. The design decisions here not only helped set the iconic look of the film but also aided the script in how the creatures fought and interacted. The end result was a destructive monster movie that fans of the original and new comers alike could all rally behind.
The cast, while not as big as Skull Island, did feature some heavy weights including Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olsen. Godzilla definitely focused more on character development than Kong did, and it absolutely showed, as every character was really given room not only to breathe, but to also fully shine. Once again upon first viewing I had a different outlook on this, especially in regards to Bryan Cranston’s character Joe Brody. One of the biggest selling points for me was the inclusion of Cranston, a powerhouse actor that could bring legitimacy to this monster film, however he is out of the movie within the first 40 minutes, and that bothered me. Upon viewing it now I have a deeper appreciation not just for his character but also the decision to eliminate him from the film. Cranston is a perfect bridge from the beginning of the film to the events of present day. Aside from that his death helps to further flesh out the character of his son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Ford, who his entire life thought his father was a crack pot now not only has the validation that his father was right, but now he is thrust into the role of his father, as it is his job to prevent disaster from striking his family. It is an interesting characterization that took me time to understand, but now fully appreciate it. Ken Watanabe, another very good actor, plays Dr. Serizawa, and really helps harken the film back to the originals. He is the devoted scientist who believes in Godzilla, and even delivers the name in all of its stereotypical glory. The only real issue I had with this film was Dr. Serizawa’s unwavering belief that Godzilla would “do the right thing”, especially when the only thing they knew about him was that they tried to kill him in the 50’s! However I understand not only the importance of this type of character, but also how it relates to the originals and for that I can overlook it!
During its run, Godzilla racked up over $529 million worldwide making it the fourteenth highest grossing film of 2014. The reviews for the film were mostly positive, but even more importantly it successfully set the ground work for this new MonsterVerse. A Godzilla sequel titled Godzilla: King of Monsters is set to begin filming later this year. Both Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island were Legendary Pictures one-two punch in introducing their new MonsterVerse and both blows landed successfully. As a fan of not only these monsters, but also of the thought of an Americanized connected monster universe – it is hard not to be excited for the future!
(Rob Texter – @GrundyXIII)