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Breaking Down The Monster: The Best & Worst Of 'Godzilla'

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 19, 2014 at 3:03PM

Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla” (our review) did so well this weekend (almost $200 million worldwide) that by Sunday they had already announced a sequel was in the works. And of course, with a massive opening like that, it’s to be expected. The monster movie is a triumph, at the very least, for director Gareth Edwards. His directorial career started with “Monsters," a super lo-fi, low-budget monster movie about an unlikely pair of strangers trying to travel from Central America to the United States, in a world (and particularly the border of Mexico), now infested with gigantic creatures, that resembles a police state.
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Godzilla

Killing Cranston And Making Aaron Taylor-Johnson The Lead
As we mentioned, “Godzilla” does a great job in the opening, giving us a character in Bryan Cranston committed to unveiling the truth about the event that killed his wife (a fantastic and complex motivation), though still deeply haunted by her death, and exiled by his only remaining family, a son who has grown up under the shadow of his father’s obsession over the one day that changed both their lives.

It’s far richer stuff than you’d expect in a monster movie, and for a moment, it looks like Cranston’s damaged but driven character will be the conduit through which we’ll witness the rise of the rebooted “Godzilla.” Nope. After spending time making us care for him, Cranston is killed off—rather dismissively at that—with the POV baton passed to his son, Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. And this could’ve worked had the son carried on his father’s duty, exposed what really happened and grew closer to the man he despised growing up, even if after his death. However, Cranston’s demise is so anticlimactic (and mostly off screen), it's essentially a baffling non-event. Had the movie tried to leverage his death for peak emotional impact, perhaps it would be easier to swallow Ford Brody becoming the new lead. But with little in the way of motivation and emotional transference relayed between father and son, the movie really drops the ball with Cranston's death.

Godzilla

The script then ditches most of the elements surrounding Cranston’s character, and instead focuses on Ford Brody doing his soldierly duty, while getting back to his family. The screenplay is so unfocused that at one point, Ford is randomly saddled with a lost Asian child to care for, after the little boy gets separated from his parents, only for that kid to exit the movie as quickly as he came in. Nothing Ford does has anything to do with the first act of the movie, which undermines the character work and strips the film of any thematic or narrative weight.

Character And Emotion In A Monster Movie
Let it be said, that a movie always tells you what it wants to be. One of the chief complaints about the criticism against "Godzilla" has been along the lines of, “Well, you’re not supposed to care about the humans and it’s a monster movie, what did you expect?” Well, frankly, we didn’t expect anything other than hopefully a good movie. Which is what we hope for each and every time, no matter how good or bad a movie looks from the outside. Make no mistake, “Godzilla” does want you to care about it’s characters. It asks you to invest in its world. So, it's strange to blame the critic that then finds the movie disappointing when it abandons all its rich character melodramas in favor of something more substandard. As explained above, the film lays out clearly how it wants you care, think and feel about the environment and people it presents, and for reasons that are rather baffling, discards it all, when really, it could have taken all of that along for the ride in the same movie we all experienced. Imagine Bryan Cranston living and having to come to terms that this creature—that he wants to expose and probably kill because it’s at least partly responsible for his wife’s death—will be better for the greater good of mankind because it will defeat the M.U.T.O.s. Imagine, the already embittered and been-through-emotional-hell Cranston putting his own personal baggage aside to help the monster while his son Ford is having his own simultaneous journey to disarm the bomb and get back to his wife. There is a much more layered and textured version that could've been explored, but a different, less challenging path was chosen.

Godzilla

Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Ford Brody
Can you remember the last time critics gave a movie good reviews, but said its lead was totally bland, terrible and forgettable? That’s what happens in “Godzilla” and it’s clearly not a dealbreaker for some, but it sure makes for a boring second half of the movie if you at all care for the characters, their dilemmas and emotional baggage. The first problem is that Bryan Cranston outclasses Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a major way (an actor we’ve never disliked before, but one who just seems sorely inadequate in this movie). As does Elizabeth Olsen even over the phone (she’s terrific in her small scenes and acts circles around him). The second problem is that Taylor-Johnson's character is completely underwritten and is more of a cypher for the plot. “Godzilla” begins as a character-based movie and then becomes a plot-based one—Ford Brody simply exists to be the military man or the one human to disarm the a nuke and represent “society” fighting alongside Godzilla while he goes toe to toe with the M.U.T.O.s, but his character is bland and one-dimensional, and thus the movie suffers. There’s been defense of this approach; there are grave casualties to the individual when a global calamity strikes. So that might be the point of Cranston’s death, but the execution of it simply doesn’t work and alas, you’re largely left with one person to represent the audiences' window to Godzilla, and this guy is pretty damn anonymous and uninvolving.

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“The Hidden” Godzilla
Again, in theory, we love the idea of the camera-shy “Godzilla” you only see in small doses, because less is more, but the problem with adopting the “Jaws” method is you’ve got to adopt it all the way. “Jaws” succeeded because it had actual characters, people you cared about and terrific narrative drive and focus. “Godzilla” doesn’t have that. It splits its time (and the difference) trying to subtly suggest Godzilla is the hero of the movie, and then having one boring human act as the man to help him. So who is the actual lead? Godzilla? Ford Brody? Aside from the cool fights, do you actually care? 

The Atomic Fire Breath Doesn’t Really Work In This World
Borrowing a page from the Christopher Nolan book of approaching pop culture myths and heroes, “Godzilla” takes the basic premise of what would happen if a giant lizard actually rose from the sea and applies it to real world setting. And this mostly works ...to a point. While the filmmakers present what a logical military response might be, we don’t really learn all that much about the monster. We do know that he lives deep in the water to be closer to the radioactive core of the planet (or something), and he emerges to restore balance to the planet when two other monsters go around slowly destroying things, trying to mate and lay down babies from glowing wombs (or something). It’s all a bit hazy, but since this is a monster movie, you’re willing to roll with it. But even that leeway has its limits. When the climactic battle occurs between Godzilla and one of the M.U.T.O.s (who look borrowed from "Cloverfield"), and our hero monster unleashes his atomic fire breath, it’s a bit out of place. We don’t know much about Godzilla, and while it might be part of the canon, it isn’t clear at all how he harnesses this ability, why he didn’t use it earlier or even where it came from. The way it’s written is a convenient inclusion of the genre tropes, but with little context or explanation. Despite having his name in the title of the movie, not only is Godzilla not seen for much of the movie, by time the credits roll and he swims back into the sea, we don’t really know all that much more than Bryan Cranston did at the beginning of the film.

Thoughts? Agree or disagree? Be sure to weigh in below.

This article is related to: Godzilla, Gareth Edwards, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Features, Feature


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