The Problem With Godzilla (2014)
This past weekend, I saw the new Godzilla movie. It wasn’t terrible (nowhere near as bad as Elysium!) but I found myself thinking about it afterward. The thing that stuck out to me is that it’s a good idea for a movie but, story-wise, executed very poorly. (The visuals and so on are excellent, of course.) So, here is a collection of my somewhat uncoordinated thoughts. There will be spoilers, obviously.
If you don’t care about weird logic problems, skip down to the Story section.
- Why does Ford (the son and “protagonist”) have to fly to Japan to bail his dad out of Japanese jail? Couldn’t you hire a lawyer or something for a bit less than the cost of that plane ticket?
- When Ford and Bryan Cranston get caught, why do they bring them to the secret base instead of away from it? Apparently last time they just took him to jail.
- This happens a number of times throughout the movie, but the first time is in the jungle on Hawaii. Why does the military keep sending guys with rifles in search of these giant monsters? What do they expect those guys to accomplish once they find them? They even have helicopters with them, so why bring the infantry at all?
- Time is very unclear in this movie, but the USS Saratoga (top speed 35 knots) makes extremely good time from Japan to Hawaii. (Approx 4,000 miles.) They also manage to make it from Hawaii to San Francisco (another 2,300 miles) in what looks like about a day.
- The Navy completely sucks at detecting Godzilla, a giant swimming underwater monster. Given that they put a lot of effort into finding submarines, which are purposely designed to be hard to find, you’d think it wouldn’t be that difficult. But instead they don’t see him until he swims under the carrier. Good thing he’s the “good” monster or you’d all be dead!
- From the beginning, the plan to lure the monsters out to sea with a nuclear weapon makes no sense at all. Since it relies on the monsters being able to sense the radioactive material from far away (which they can apparently do), what about all the other bombs, power plants, etc that might also be in range? (Not to mention the reactors on various Navy ships, though not the Saratoga.)
- Even assuming they know the monsters will chase after the bomb, they seem to be totally blindsided by the MUTO actually coming after the bomb before they’re ready. (“No fair!”) Why transport the bomb by train, and later by boat, in the first place? They could have made the excuse that it was too big to transport by helicopter, but after the train derailment they do exactly that.
- For that matter, how does one bomb lure the MUTO out of an entire mountain full of nuclear waste? Or is it just looking for its mate? If so, why go after the bomb at all?
- Once again, the train carrying the bomb is full of infantry, who are 100% useless against the monsters and serve only to get killed.
- The monsters in this movie are apparently extremely quiet, because they keep sneaking up on people.
- Incidentally, I see that in this universe the US was able to overcome Harry Reid’s objections and actually store some waste at Yucca Mountain.
- Why leave the giant pod in Japan instead of moving it somewhere a bit safer? They moved the other one. For that matter, why not wire it up with tons of bombs so it could be destroyed if necessary?
- The Navy sails to San Francisco in formation with Godzilla. Given the destruction he’s already caused, apparently by accident, I would not be comfortable with my aircraft carrier only a couple of hundred feet from an unstoppable giant lizard.
- Dr. Serizawa’s objections to the nuclear bomb plan make no sense. The admiral tells him they’re going ahead, and he responds by producing a watch from Hiroshima to … remind the admiral that Hiroshima was something that happened? I’m pretty sure he knows that nuclear weapons are bad news already.
- The scene of the jet fighters falling out of the sky makes for a pretty visual, but what are those planes doing so close to the monsters? They know it has an EMP, and they know its approximate range. I’m pretty sure the US Navy can manage to attack something from outside a five mile envelope.
- The parachute scene also looks really cool, but why are they doing a HALO drop? (That is, opening parachutes only just before hitting the ground.) It’s super dangerous and some of them get killed, and the only purpose is if you want to avoid someone noticing you floating down after opening your chute higher up. I’m pretty sure the MUTOs weren’t paying them much attention, what with having the whole city to ravage.
- While most of these objections are pretty minor, this one made me headdesk. They get the bomb free of the pile of eggs, and try to open it exactly once. One guy says it’s stuck, and another guy says “THERE’S NO TIME!” and they start trying to drag it out of the city. Given that the chance of getting the bomb usefully far away in the 25 minutes or so remaining, mostly on foot, is essentially nil, I would think you would want to try harder than not at all to disarm it. I assume they’d bring like … tools? Explosives? Something to deal with the fact that the case is gummed shut.
- (Side note: They could, of course, simply *blow the bomb up* with plastic explosives or similar. This would scatter radioactive crap everywhere, but not actually cause a nuclear blast, because nuclear weapons don’t work that way. I forgive this lapse, though, because Hollywood does this constantly.)
- Ford in no way, shape, or form gets the bomb far enough away for San Francisco to be saved. They were planning earlier to detonate it twenty miles off shore, which should produce “light fallout” in civilian areas. He puts it on a boat going what looks like very slowly — let’s give it 20 mph to be generous. There are five minutes left on the timer, so that gets him not even a couple of miles away from shore when it goes off. For that matter, the helicopter that picks him up with less than a minute to go is probably toast. (Remember, this is a megaton-range bomb!)
- After Godzilla is “dead” the citizens are all gathered around his body like it’s no big deal, pulling people out of the wreckage. Nobody makes any effort to either check on Godzilla’s status, or to keep people away in case he’s, like, radioactive. Then he gets up and apparently manages to thread his way through the crowd without stepping on anybody, because they’re all cheering at the end.
So, the basic concept here is a pretty good one. You have to make a Godzilla movie, and Godzilla is a giant monster that destroys cities. On the other hand, Godzilla is the character that everyone knows and cares about, so just making him the villain who is defeated in the end doesn’t work that well. (Like that terrible Godzilla ’98 movie.) The solution of making Godzilla the “good” monster who fights some “evil” monsters is a neat one, if not terribly original.
Unfortunately, they execute this concept in a really ham-handed way. Dr. Serizawa tells us that Godzilla is the good guy, who is out to “restore balance” (to the Force?) by hunting down the reawakened MUTOs. But the movie doesn’t actually show us this. In some cases, Godzilla seems like he cares about not hurting humans — he goes under the aircraft carrier rather than tearing it in half, for example — but in other cases not so much; he causes a tsunami that drowns Honolulu, stomps through the Golden Gate Bridge while it’s packed with cars and buses, and overturns a bunch of Navy ships that get in his way. So in terms of establishing him as the good guy, they don’t do a terribly good job, which is odd because it wouldn’t be that hard — just only show him causing destruction after the humans begin shooting at him.
In the meantime, we spend a great deal of time with Ford doing things that are absolutely pointless. It really kind of kills the tension of the movie when the big, dramatic ending of the human part of the story is them undoing the results of previous bad decisions. It doesn’t help that Ford himself is utterly bland, with no particular motivation other than generally wanting to save his family and other people. It’s sort of baffling that they kill off Bryan Cranston so early in the movie (maybe he’s gotten too expensive) because his character is much more interesting and set up with an excellent motivation to get involved in the plot beyond just general heroism.
In the end, the only thing that Ford does that even impacts the main plot of the movie is to torch all the eggs, which might or might not have been necessary (another thing they needed to establish if they want us to care) but at least briefly distracts the MUTOs and lets Godzilla get the upper hand. But since that wasn’t Ford’s actual goal, it doesn’t have much resonance story-wise.
This actually leads to a pet peeve of mine — characters in movies that (a) serve no purpose other than to be briefly imperiled and then saved, and (b) are saved completely accidentally, without the knowledge or action of the main character. In this movie, Ford’s wife and son serve this role — they’re both in the city when things fall apart, and they both get into and out of danger, but Ford doesn’t specifically do anything to save them or even know where they are. He turns up at the end, and they’re like, “Hey! We’re still alive, by coincidence! Hurrah!” Another recent example is the two colliding planes in Amazing Spider-Man 2, which are saved at the last minute when Spider-Man turns the electrical grid back on. It’s heroic, sort of, except he had no idea they were there and wasn’t really trying to save them; the fact that he turned the grid on at that exact moment was pure coincidence.
(Worth noting: Ford’s son is saved by a heroic bus driver, who weaves through traffic to escape Godzilla. But all the other school buses behind him don’t, and they’re stuck on the bridge when it comes down. Hope you can swim, kids!)
The thing that inspired me to write all this is that it doesn’t seem liked it would be very hard to do this plot correctly. You have a natural conflict — on the one hand, you have the guy who has been studying Godzilla and is convinced he’s here as a good guy, to kill the other monsters, and on the other hand you have the military guys who are trying hard to kill him because they think he’s also bent on causing destruction. The first guy, the protagonist, could either be Bryan Cranston’s character (if he’s figured out that the MUTOs are different from Godzilla) or Dr. Serizawa, with Bryan Cranston being torn between him and the admiral, and thus between bloody-minded revenge and his higher principles. The admiral is almost certainly the second guy, the villain, who could be played either as a kill-happy General Ripper type or a more nuanced character whose just not prepared to take the risk of letting Godzilla make land.
So you have the military attacking Godzilla as he tries to get to the MUTOs, and the hero trying to convince them to let him do his thing in peace. The other big missing element is that the human story needs to impact the Godzilla story somehow. As is it is, they intersect only accidentally, which is unsatisfying. We need a scene where the human characters do something, on purpose, that rescues or helps Godzilla somehow, thus enabling him to defeat the MUTOs and be the real hero of the movie. One example, if you want to keep the nuclear bomb plot, would be that the military guys have planted a bomb to kill Godzilla, and our human hero, finally defying the admiral, rushes to the scene to stop it just in time. Then his confidence is borne out, as Godzilla risks himself to take the fight away from humans or something. That would be exciting!
While the giant monster slugging match was visually entertaining, I for one simply couldn’t get into it, because it lacked a real emotional connection for me. I think of this as the Aliens vs. Predator problem — while its cool to see them fight, it gets dull pretty quickly, because we don’t really care about it. I think the reason it fell flat for me, and not for others, is that I’ve never been that attached to Godzilla as a character. He wasn’t a fixture of my childhood, as he was for some, so while I recognize him I don’t have these fond memories that automatically make him the hero of the movie. That’s not really a good excuse, though! If we’re supposed to care, like, and root for Godzilla, the movie needs to make us feel something for him on its own terms, rather than just relying on the audience’s general nostalgia for Godzilla to make him the good guy.
In the end, that’s the ultimate lesson of the giant list of nitpicks above. Movie audiences will forgive almost any number of lapses in logic or plot holes if they like the movie and feel engaged with the characters. To compare this movie with Pacific Rim is a bit cliché by now, but for me Pacific Rim worked better, even though in terms of the kind of logic problems I’ve talked about it’s probably even stupider. I think that’s because it had human characters who had goals that mattered in the larger context of the movie, rather than being just irrelevant side stories. When the protagonists actually contribute something to the big climax, it makes that climax a lot more exciting.
Anyway. Do I recommend Godzilla? Maybe. It’s pretty, with good special effects and nice direction. If you think of yourself as a fan of Godzilla, the character, it’ll probably give you what you’re looking for. But I wish they’d built a better story to make that happen.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not nitpicking movies, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.
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