Godzilla vs. Godzilla, or, let movies be fun again!

I didn’t mind Gareth Edwards’ new version of Godzilla. The latest American adaptation of Toho’s King of all Monsters manages to avoid the mistakes of the much maligned 1998 version, but in a way, it defines everything that’s wrong with American blockbusters today, much as the Matthew Broderick vs. giant iguana predecessor defined  everything that was wrong with American blockbusters in the 90s.  Warning to the spoiler-phobic, if you want to see the new movie, you probably shouldn’t read this post.

I really hope “you probably shouldn’t read this” doesn’t become the pull quote to describe my blog.

Make no mistake, Edwards has made a much better film than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 cheese-fest.  It’s gripping, the actors are good fits for their respective parts, the action pieces are far more engaging and dramatic, and there was over all a lot i loved – the opening credits sequence in particular, as well as the fact that the military was portrayed as competent and heroic, not calculating and duplicitous as can happen in modern disaster movies.

But while the 90s version was too bright, too silly and too humorous, this movie is too dark, too stiff and too serious.  While the 90s film features broad, stereotypical characters Jean Reno phones it in as a French bad ass, Hank Azaria plays local NYC guy’s guy “ANIMAL” – this 2014 film features characters who are too often drained of humanity, cold and emotionless in their interactions with one another (also, I can’t remember any of their names).

It’s especially aggravating because Edwards clearly has the ability to create strong human moments; the film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody (I looked it up) having to sacrifice his wife’s life to save an entire city from lethal radiation is incredibly powerful.  But that level of emotion seems lost later in the film – Brody’s death is an after thought.  His son Ford later rescues a young boy from a monster attack on a train in Hawaii, but when the boy is reunited with his parents, Edwards choose to keep that moment at a physical distance.  The argument for Edwards to direct this film was his exceptional film Monsters, which focused almost entirely on human relationships a midst a monster invasion.  It was just strange to see that humanity lost in this movie.

And that’s another example of something I feel is too often lost in modern day blockbusters.  Again, going back to the ’98 P.O.S., you can’t deny that it tried to inject humanity into it’s story.  It failed – they dropped in cartoon characters instead – but I can at least recall character moments from that awful film that I haven’t seen in about fifteen years. I can’t remember much of the movie I saw yesterday.  The 90s film, for all it’s problems, did try to be fun, indicative of the pre-9/11 disaster movies where folks could still make clever one-liners as the Empire State Building fell to the ground.

Oh, the 90s.  We thought we had everything figured out back then.  That’s so much of why that decade’s foray into Godzilla-ing failed.  The character redesign stinks of a marketing department saying “c’mon, those nerds in Tokyo don’t know entertainment! Let’s make this like Jurassic Park, but better! Eviler!”  The pop theme song by Puff Daddy, the aggressive, “Size Does Matter” marketing campaign made to cash in on modern day attitudes and jokes. It’s almost like they did everything BUT make a movie.  The 2014 film seeks to treat the character of Godzilla with respect, keeping his design consistent with the Toho films and avoiding any cheesy hit single.  The ad campaign focused on the creature’s physical body, showing his size, not hyping it.  But it also ends up being too seriously committed as a result, rendering it’s obsession with the central metaphor – man cannot control nature – to feel almost like creative navel gazing.

Narratively, the 90s film highlights the worst of the explosion-porn era, as building are blown to bits but citizens have already been evacuated, allowing the audience to sit and cheer, guilt free, as New York is blown to hell.  In the 2014 film, we are in turn thrust into the current disaster porn era, where scenes of destruction are big, scary, drab and brutal.  We’d like to cheer as Godzilla tosses another monster into an office building, but we can’t because a lot of people just died, and we see them get axed.  While it’s heartening that movies today show a regard for the life that’s loss, it’s also somewhat difficult to process what kind of response a movie is really looking for in these moments where monster mayhem collides with human loss.

I can’t stress this enough – I liked this movie far more than the 1998 film, and I’m not advocating any of you go watch that film to better understand my point.  But having both films in mind reminds me of a sense of fun that’s been lost a bit in the modern era of action-adventure films.  Some have become so obsessed with being the next Dark Knight that they can forget to have fun with the impossible things they bring to the big screen.  Guys, I watched a movie called Godzilla yesterday where a giant lizard fought two giant bug monsters. I cannot believe I’m saying it needed more fun, but it did.  Fun isn’t a sign of weakness or a sign that story isn’t serious. Jurassic Park is a fun movie, full of color and characters, but it’s also a serious, effective message about the danger of man’s attempts to control nature.  Nobody ever lost anything from having fun in a movie.  Hell, fun is why something like Godzilla, King of the Monsters was created in the first place.