‘Godzilla’ brings the monsters and action but leaves characters (plus a potentially important environmental subtext) behind

May 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 26, 2014

The opening credits of the new film Godzilla follow a conceit. We are viewing classified photographs and footage from the 1940s and 1950s, accompanied by snippets of text from formerly secret documents. As is typical when governments release such papers publicly, many of the words are censored — thick lines appear before our eyes, obscuring material that is still deemed secret. The words that remain are names and titles. (For example, we’ll see “music,” censor lines and then “Alexandre Desplat,” the name of the film’s composer.)

I found this to be an amusing approach to the material at hand, which incorporates real-life nuclear weapons tests into its fictional story. We’re told, for instance, that the bombs detonated in the Pacific were actually strikes against Godzilla, an enormous prehistoric predacious lizard that was somehow discovered in the 20th century. Would that the film had been able to be so consistently clever throughout. Alas…

The film opens in 1999 when scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) walk into the remains of a long-dead Godzilla-type creature that has just been discovered at a remote mining operation. Inside the immense corpse, they find two pods. One is intact and evidently dormant; the other, apparently catalyzed by exposure to air, has just hatched, releasing…something. The scientists, who work for a secret project known as Monarch, gape in amazement at the trail of flattened trees left in the something’s wake.

Days later, some 2,000 miles to the northeast in Janjira, Japan, American nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, perpetually dancing on the edge of a meltdown) is obsessed with mysterious seismic activity that is growing in intensity. His wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), takes a team to double-check the seismic sensors at the nuclear generators in the plant where the couple works.

But another tremor strikes, breaching the reactor; Sandra and her group are trapped in a deadly radioactive cloud as the containment doors slam shut before an agonized Joe Brody’s eyes. As alarms sound, the nuclear plant’s containment domes collapse, and the surrounding community is evacuated.

Fifteen years later, 20-something Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy bomb disposal expert, is reunited with his loving wife and adoring young son in San Francisco after…well, after some kind of deployment. (I had the impression that he was disarming bombs in Afghanistan.) The happy scenes are interrupted by a phone call: Joe Brody has been arrested for violating the Janjira quarantine zone.

Ford (yes, I know) flies across the Pacific and bails out his dad, who insists on returning to the “Q zone.” The excursion is successful: The Brodys retrieve the seismic data Joe had stashed on computer discs at the family’s hastily evacuated home. The data show patterns that, Joe says, exactly match those of newly detected ongoing tremors.

Oddly, there is no discernible radiation in the supposedly contaminated zone, and animals, plants and insects in the area are thriving.

The duo is arrested and brought to the devastated nuclear plant, which is strangely active. Serizawa and Graham are present, part of a Monarch team studying the creature that emerged from the pod in the Philippines and…created a second, larger pod — or, rather, a chrysalis — in Janjira, where it has been feeding on the reactors it destroyed. (Rather conveniently, the creature soaks up all the deadly radioactive particles.) When the team extracts data from Joe Brody’s 15-year-old discs, they find that the seismic patterns captured therein do exactly duplicate the underground disturbances that are currently taking place.

The tremors (once again) increase in strength, and Serizawa instructs his team to kill the creature that they’ve been studying for a decade and a half. An electric shock is applied, and activity ceases…until one luckless worker climbs to the top of the scaffolding to verify that the thing is dead, when a giant winged insect emerges from the chrysalis, wreaks havoc and then flies away.

The next morning, as rescuers try to treat the dead and injured, Serizawa and Graham are informed by an American military officer that Monarch has been militarized. Serizawa says he will need the Brodys. The scientists and the interlopers (including Joe, who has been grievously wounded and soon dies) are airlifted to the Saratoga, an aircraft carrier. The U.S. Navy is on the hunt for the muto — that’s a rather comical acronym standing for massive unidentified terrestrial organism.

Ford Brody confers with the scientists, who give us the background on some of what we’ve just seen. He tells them that his dad had become fixated on echolocation, insisting that the tremors represented some kind of speech. Serizawa deduces just what the creature’s conversational partner has been: The no-longer-intact pod recovered from the fossilized Godzilla in the Philippines.

Next, we’re treated to tense shots of uniformed men in radiation hazard suits checking vaults at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility. Moments later, we see that the underground installation has a gaping hole in its side, through which a now-mature (and even larger!) second muto has broken out and is now rampaging its way toward Las Vegas.

Oh, and by the way: An actual live Godzilla enters the picture. Flanked (quite closely!) by Navy warships, the giant lizard is swimming swiftly through the Pacific, tracking — nay, stalking — the flying muto, which is moving toward its un-winged female counterpart (sister?). The rendezvous will apparently take place in San Francisco.

Now the stage is set. Adm. William Stenz (David Strathairn) declares that the military will deploy a nuclear warhead on a barge in the Bay Area. The barge will be steered west into the Pacific; once the radiation-hungry mutos and Godzilla converge on the warhead, the military will detonate it, thereby killing all three monsters!

Serizawa and Graham denounce this as a terrible plan; since the mutos feed on radiation, they warn, the weapon may just make them stronger. Yes, Stenz counters, but the blast waves should be strong enough to destroy the giant bugs and the humongous lizard. Stenz doesn’t cotton to Serizawa’s suggestion, which is simply to let Godzilla kill the bugs.

Ford Brody, meanwhile, is transferred off of the Saratoga so he can fly home to San Francisco from Honolulu, but the first (inconclusive, natch) confrontation between Godzilla and flying muto bollixes that plan. He not only hitches a ride to the mainland, he does so with the military unit that is ordered to escort a nuclear warhead on a train to San Francisco — a unit whose leader he persuades to (essentially) deputize him. The female muto intercepts the train but, oddly, leaves the warhead intact. The nuclear device is airlifted to its destination. Unfortunately, right after it’s put on a 90-minute timer, the male muto plucks the bomb off a barge and delivers it to his sibling/mate, which is with child.

Now the authorities are in quite a pickle: The bomb is primed and ready to blow, and the female muto has plunked it down right in the heart of a major American city. Since Brody helped rig the bomb’s special timer, Stenz and company dispatch him into the battle zone with a team assigned to disarm the weapon. If for some reason they’re unable to do so, the men are to put the bomb on a boat and get it as far away from populated areas as possible.

Things go on from here, but they’re easily summarized: We get a few nifty glimpses of an awesome monster-on-monster battle. The deathly dull Ford Brody, who has been blandness personified throughout, has a brain wave at a vital moment and cleverly torches a nest of nearly-ready-to-hatch muto eggs. There’s basically a happy ending for every character about whom (or which) one might have begun to care.

I had mixed feelings about the new Godzilla. First of all, it’s oodles better than the limp 1998 American take on the iconic monster, which had to borrow from Jurassic Park to flesh out its story. The special effects are excellent, and this version’s plot does a decent job of jeopardizing some important things — not just immense cities such as San Francisco, but easily understood smaller things, such as the Brody family.

Unfortunately, the younger Brodys — Ford, his wife and their child — are thoroughly generic. Yes, they’re more interesting than the people in the Roland Emmerich–directed Godzilla of 1998, but that’s like saying that eating dry cereal is more flavorful than eating a plain pier of toast. Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) seems to be a nurse, and Sam Brody (Carson Bolde) is, well, a young boy; beyond that, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the characters.

The movie also has a weakness for clichés. Grim-faced men repeatedly yank gas and radiation masks and night-vision goggles on and off their faces to highlight crucial moments. A news broadcaster grimly intones “Casualties are mounting…” as the camera cuts to a shot of Joe Brody’s body being zipped into a body bag. (This comes despite Godzilla having a surprising lack of dead bodies, and a virtually complete lack of spilled blood.) And Serizawa’s every word seems to be underscored by ominous chords that, like the frequent maskings and and unmaskings, tell his how — vitally — important — this — dialogue — is. 

And about that plot: What seems to hang together in somewhat decent fashion while viewing the movie appears to be rather scruffy after the fact. Where has Godzilla been since we saw the military nuke it in the 1950s in the opening credits? What has the thing been eating, for heaven’s sake? How did Monarch build and staff a massive operation in the rubble of the Janjira nuclear power plant while keeping it entirely secret for fifteen years? How did the authorities prevent a thoroughly obsessed person like Joe Brody from knowing that there was no ambient radiation around the ruins of Janjira? Why does the Navy have its ships sailing mere yards from the fearsome lizard, which is big enough to shrug them aside without blinking?

How did the female muto get pregnant, since it already seems to be with child before it encounters the male? How did it break out of Yucca Mountain without anyone being aware of it until a team was sent to look for the supposedly dissected pod? Why didn’t the U.S. military airlift the warhead to San Francisco from the get-go, rather than putting it on a train? Why did the military keep flying incredibly expensive jets around the mutos after the male had shown that its electromagnetic pulse would disrupt their electrical systems and cause them to crash?

More troubling than these unanswered questions, perhaps, is the movie’s shift in tone. What starts as a picture with genuinely disturbing scenes of destruction, notably the apparent meltdown of the Janjira nuclear plant and Godzilla’s beachside appearance at Honolulu, transforms into quite a different pursuit — one that wants us to enjoy, rather than be awed by or horrified at, the carnage that is being staged for our edification.

Well, of course, Godzilla is a monster movie; the whole point of it is to conjure mayhem for our amusement. Aficionados of the genre might think of Godzilla as a triumph, and maybe it is. But I couldn’t fully buy into the endeavor.

For all the plot holes that I’ve picked apart above, the film does have some truly outstanding segments. When the monsters start mixing it up in the city by the bay, the action is truly thrilling. I was also very impressed by a late sequence, shown from Brody’s point of view, in which he and his team parachute into the monster-infested downtown.

But in walking out of Godzilla, I felt haunted — not by the movie that I’d seen, but by the movie that in its early stages it had shown hints of becoming. The nuclear disaster at Janjira plays like the meltdown at Fukushima, while Godzilla’s appearance in Hawaii seemed at once to echo the flooding caused by “superstorm” Sandy and to anticipate the inundation that many scientists expect climate change to bring to countless coastal areas.

Despite Serizawa’s ominous warning that “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around,” Godzilla’s flirtation with seriousness is just a passing whimsy. Ultimately, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a monster movie is just a monster movie — alas.

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