The debate over remakes and reboots is an endless one that never quite reaches a consensus, yet it’s safe to say that generally the moviegoing public — or at least, the more avid fans within that public — are rarely satisfied with them. It’s no surprise — you take something of precious nostalgic value, whether it be legitimately, qualitatively good or not, and threaten to trample on it by removing much of what endeared us to that project in the first place. Film makers often promise to “stay true” to the original, yet seldom does that element of truth, of genuine understanding or honest homage ever show up in the film. It’s part of what makes the reboot process so frustrating. It’s certainly been done well — look to the recent Daniel Craig-era Bond films for the concept done right — but far more often it’s bungled to the point of unrecognizable.
Which brings us to Godzilla, the 2014 reboot/remake (I’m still unsure as to which term, if any, applies here) of the iconic monster movie. Godzilla has decades of history and dozens of films behind him, not to mention comic books, video games, cartoons, and television shows. It has an fairly rabid fanbase (which I count myself a part of), and as such, updating the character is always a dicey prospect. It was attempted (badly) in 1998 by Roland Emmerich, who inexplicably opted to make his film a lighthearted romp featuring a spry, sneaky giant iguana. It was financially successful but critically lambasted (rightfully), and so taking on the big guy once more is something of a risk.
The film itself is relatively uncomplicated — occasionally to its detriment — though the premise is a clever update that remains truthful to much of the existing Godzilla mythos. 60 years ago, we tried to kill a giant monster with a nuclear bomb, a bomb that was disguised as the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. Decades later, a massive underground lair is discovered in the Philippines, and shortly thereafter, something happens at a nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in its destruction and eventual quarantine, as well as the death of the wife of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Eventually, it is discovered that some sort of creature is housed in the remnants of that plant, a creature that breaks free and begins to wreak havoc and destruction wherever it goes. At the same time, another monster rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and the two end up on a collision course that appears to intersect in San Francisco.
There’s a little more to it than that but not much more, and that absence of any real nuance gives a certain superficiality to the story. Weirdly, there’s an excellent cast of actors attached to this bit of preposterous madness, yet none of them are particularly well-utilized. Aside from a frantic and obsessive turn by Cranston, who is trying to find answers to his wife’s death, Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as his son Ford, a bomb-disposal tech who gets swept up in his father’s quest. Other prominent players include Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as scientists who have been studying the creatures, David Strathairn as a Navy admiral tasked with finding and destroying them, and Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, stranded in San Francisco as the two juggernauts converge. The unfortunate truth is that while they are all amazing actors, they’re not playing particularly engaging characters, all one-note and with little backstory beyond Cranston’s, and as such caring about them is a bit of a challenge.
This is because while the film is beautifully directed, it’s not always particularly well-written. This is an almost inevitable consequence of making a Godzilla film, considering its source material is usually based on space aliens and giant robots and clones. There’s an inherent goofiness to Godzilla, and that part is mostly absent from the update as this version takes itself quite seriously. Yet the script, penned by Max Borenstein (working off the story by David Callaham) is vintage monster movie stuff, filled with horrified gasps and rousing speeches and foreboding declarations, with plenty of running and screaming. But there’s an absence of any real sense of depth, and there’s certainly very little personality to the characters, who are saved only by the spectacular talents that were hired to depict them. And while there is a real sense of urgency to the story, and it flows smoothly even as it often switches abruptly from breakneck pace to slower expository moments, what’s behind all of that is a rather rudimentary tale.
Yet Warner Bros. made a very smart decision in this production, even if that decision was a gamble in and of itself. Giving the directing reins to Gareth Edwards — who only had a single micro-budget monster movie under his belt — was hands down the wisest decision that they could have made. Edwards demonstrated in the terrific Monsters that he has an innate mastery of suspense and mood, of depicting both an impressive scale of destruction while also giving it a breath of humanity that makes it less like your everyday disaster porn. He’s also clearly a loving fan of the character itself, because Godzilla often feels like a series of affectionate nods to the classic Toho films, something that warmed the heart of this fan. When it succeeds, it’s mostly due to the efforts of Edwards, who takes a relatively uninspired script and puts it on the screen using some very inspired techniques. There’s a sense of hushed reverence throughout the film, and the feeling that people truly do not comprehend what is coming is almost tangible, creating a bracing tension that is rather refreshing in a film that features a 300 foot lizard.
That tension is critical, because for the first hour there is surprisingly little footage of the monster itself. When he does arrive, however, it is unquestionably spectacular, and each subsequent reveal gives an even greater picture of the size of the beast and the scale of his destruction. The effects in Godzilla are excellent, and rarely feel like CGI, and that’s no surprise given how deftly Edwards handled them in Monsters, a monster movie that featured very little footage of actual monsters, yet was incredibly effective nonetheless. Using a variety of tricks, Edwards has numerous different ways for us to see what’s happening, and often all we’re seeing is a glimpse, a glimmer, and yet it never feels like we’re being cheated. Instead, it feels like we’re there, and if you’re there, you don’t necessarily get to see everything from the aerial shot that wide-shot camera angle would make possible.
What made the film so endearing to me, however, is the obvious affection that Edwards has for the character itself, something that was wholly absent from Emmerich’s trainwreck. There are numerous little touches (the trademark scream, only subtly revamped, is the most obvious) throughout the picture that are note-perfect inspirations from the Toho classics, particularly a score by Alexander Desplat that is original, yet perfectly captures the feel of the old films. The tone of the film is very much like that of the classics, and this is no more apparent than in the depiction of Godzilla himself. More than twice the size of the original 1954 Toho Showa era creature, this one is a vast, terrifying force of nature, and while the story behind him has been slightly changed, the things that make it Godzilla are largely intact. He’s a massive, lumbering creature, one that doesn’t sneak and hide like Emmerich’s did, but rather will simply plow in a straight line through anything in its path, with inexplicable strength and abilities and a power that we cannot understand. There’s also a peculiar sense of purpose to the monster, of personality that makes him more than just a force of destruction, and that’s another nice callback to the original films. Moreover, while the film isn’t a nuclear cautionary tale like its predecessors, that particular threat still plays a critical part in the story (something that Toho apparently insisted on).
So what we have on our hands is a remake that hits most of the right notes and really does stay true to the original, for better and for worse. The problem is that the flaws that we find so charming in the original films are less so here, particularly in the era of more serious, darkly-themed genre pictures. Godzilla’s strength does not lie with its script or its characters, but then again, perhaps we can accept those flaws when its greatest strength is the monster itself, the main character, and the chaos that occurs all around him. That’s odd praise for a film in this day and age, and I always hesitate to forgive something when it is lacking in depth as this picture occasionally is. Yet there’s an undeniable charisma to the film, hard to condemn when it embraces its roots so unapologetically and adoringly. As a result, while Godzilla may not be a terrific movie, it is a terrific monster movie, and sometimes, that can be enough.