“This will definitely have a very different feel than the most recent U.S. film,” said Gareth Edwards in a 2011 interview with Dread Central regarding his then-upcoming reboot of Godzilla, “and our biggest concern is making sure we get it right for the fans because we know their concerns. It must be brilliant in every category because I’m a fan as well.” With these words, said before a single frame of the film was shot, Edwards summed up everything I despise about the fanboy mentality. I’ve said this far too many times, but it must be said again: Movies should never, ever be made with only a fanbase in mind. General audiences must also be able to get something out of them. If they’re unable to, the only thing that has been achieved on the filmmakers’ part is a rather shameless display of pandering.
Watching Edwards’ Godzilla, the first non-Japanese adaptation since Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 film of the same name, pandering was all I was able to see. Specific scenes give us plenty in the way of gigantic monsters battling and the cataclysmic destruction of a major metropolitan area – a sight to behold, it cannot be denied, in the IMAX 3D process – but the vast majority of the film shows a less-than-satisfying handling of plot, character development, theme, and human drama. I could tell it existed in a closed universe the instant the title character let out his trademark roar, at which point the audience I sat with, which consisted primarily of ticket winners incapable of judging the film objectively, eagerly cheered and applauded. At what point was it deemed acceptable for movies to be so Pavlovian?
Why there even is a fanbase for this kind of material, I cannot begin to explain. If you’ve ever seen any of the old Godzilla films, Japanese or Americanized – and by “seen,” I mean honestly and critically, at a level beyond watching them for fun at home on a TV screen – you should understand that there’s nothing redeemable about them, that they’re excruciatingly incompetent on every conceivable level, especially technical. Getting it right, as Edwards puts it, would have required a total abandonment of the sensibilities, or lack thereof, that went into those original films. I submit as evidence 2008’s Cloverfield, which not only told a story and had believable characters but was also suspenseful, exciting, and deft in its utilization of found-footage narrative techniques, which were innovative at the time.
The most believable characters in Edwards’ Godzilla are a San Francisco Naval officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his wife, a nurse (Elizabeth Olsen). But even then, they’re both underutilized and bound by rigid, tiresome disaster-movie clichés. They’re separated nearly the entire length of the film, for example, and of course there will be a scene in which they tearfully proclaim their love for each other during a long-awaited phone call. Every other character is essentially a nonentity, serving no purpose other than to be a victim or a one-note typecast. In the former category, we have each of the Naval officer’s parents (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche), one of whom exits the story before the first reel ends, the other exiting only after discovering a cover-up of a disaster at the Japanese power plant he once supervised.
In the latter category, we have the Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe), who, naturally, knows of the existence of Godzilla and is able to provide explanations about his destructive patterns – which are, it should be noted, based on nothing but local Japanese legend, pure speculation, and vague references to radiation and nuclear testing in the 1950s. As for Godzilla himself, a 400-foot-tall computer-generated lizard capable of breathing fire, he has been recharacterized as a kind of mutant antihero, the plot seeing him in hot pursuit of two gigantic winged monsters leaving a trail of destruction across the southwestern United States as they look for a place to breed. The three will converge in San Francisco and destroy dozens upon dozens of buildings and structures as they attempt to destroy each other.
It is, of course, the Japanese scientist who determines that aggressive human resistance will have no effect, that the best course of action is to let the monsters duke it out. The filmmakers want us to believe that this is a pointed statement about man interfering with nature, but in reality, it’s merely a means to an end, an excuse for audiences to gawk helplessly at behemoths rampaging a city. No doubt such a sight will mean something to fans of this franchise, which many have deluded themselves into believing is viable. For everyone else, it’s likely to come off as stale, monotonous, and evidence that no real effort was put into the screenplay. Godzilla is such a lazy film, existing solely within a vacuum and almost entirely devoid of the narrative conventions that make movies watchable.