Here at Spooky Colorado, we’re interested in more than just haunted houses. We like to get scared any way we can, and that includes the odd horror movie. The problem is, I’ve never found a movie that scared me, ever. Sure I’m susceptible to the odd startle scare just like everyone else, but no movie has ever had me sleeping with the lights on and a baseball bat under my pillow. I’m on a quest to change that. Think you know a film that’s up to the challenge? Visit our contact page and select “Alex’s Un-Scary Movie Challenge” from the dropdown.
In this edition, we take a look at the new Godzilla movie which, as far as I can tell, is the story of how enormous prehistoric creatures from the Earth’s distant past have all banded together to wipe out one man’s entire lineage, past present and future. Oh, and also there’s some stuff about nature and balance and things like that. But mostly, a bunch of monsters just show up with the expressed goal of ruining one guy’s day. Hard.
It’s been a pretty bad dry spell for the “giant freaky monsters crushing our city” genre lately. The best we got in the last decade was Pacific Rim, where for the first time in a long time humans actually found a good way to bring the fight back to the monsters. No ineffectually spraying them with bullets, no sir! The only way to respond to a threat of this nature is with GIANT. FREAKING. ROBOTS!
That wasn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, but it felt very far removed from the spirit of the movies that had come before, which basically featured enormous monsters duking it out with the massive collateral damage as basically a side effect. And we could talk about Matthew Broderick’s Godzilla from 1998, but the less said about that movie, the better.
I saw Godzilla with a couple of friends from work last week, and it was pretty good, I have to say. The buzz about this movie has been going strong since it was first announced, and I’ve been hearing my friends say that it’s going to be fantastic, a work of giant-monster fighting art that is everything that Pacific Rim was not.
I actually liked Pacific Rim when I saw it, but I think I was predisposed to that position before I got into the theater, mainly because the computer voice was none other than Ellen McClain, basically making it GLaDOS the Movie for any of the more obsessive Portal fans out there (protip: there are a lot of these people in the world). But if I take a step back and look at the whole movie objectively, I can see that, yes, there are definitely points in the film that had fairly significant issues to overcome.
None of that is to say that Godzilla doesn’t have some of those same issues to overcome as well, but this latest entry in a long series of films about men in rubber suits dressed as giant lizards laying waste to huge sections of Japanese landscape comes from a pretty good starting place just by nature of its lineage. Overall, it seems like a fairly solid Godzilla movie… but does that make it a good movie period? The answer is a resounding… maybe. Let’s dive in.
WARNING: Significant plot details after the jump. Spoilers abound. Danger of being crushed by prehistoric creatures is high.
So, the movie starts us out in 1999, where two scientists, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Dr. Vivienne Graham are flying to the Philippines to investigate something. Turns out, a mine collapsed right out from under a load of workers in a big way. The foreman greets the scientists and shows them the disaster area, causally remarking that some 40 workers went down with it as if he were telling a story about how he went to the bagel shop once and they didn’t have any onion bagels. And if you’re expecting any more remorse from anyone about the death of a colleague or loved one, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed for the next 116 minutes, because while something like a billion people have got to be dead by the end of this thing, I can count on one hand the showings of grief I saw throughout the whole movie. With a couple fingers tied down. And a couple more chopped off.*
Meanwhile, Joseph Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an American worker at a Japanese nuclear power plant. He’s getting strange seismology readings that leave him wanting a meeting with the head honchos, and thus unable to appreciate the “Happy Birthday Dad” sign that his son Ford made (obviously with the help of the props department of a major motion picture of course, because that thing was nice). His wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) informs him of the fact that it even is his birthday (Americans are workaholics! Look! Cultural differences!), and they make plans to celebrate in the evening instead with a nice cake. As far as disaster movies go, making plans of any kind is sort of your death knell – you may as well announce that you’re two days away from retirement on the police force for all the good it does you.
Both the mother and the father work at the power plant, so when they arrive, he goes up to the control room to discuss the readings, while she takes a team down to examine the reactor. Moments later, there’s a huge rumbling earthquake, and the reactor begins to breach. The reactor team has only been down there for a couple moments, walking at a reasonable pace, but somehow at a full run they’re unable to escape the radioactive cloud of steam that barreling at them down the corridor. I’m giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here and assuming they at least know that steam and nuclear reactors have some correlation to one another, because the other possibility is that they’re assuming radiation is visible at all, which is totally crazy, but what the hell, it’s a movie, right?
Full disclosure, I’m not a nuclear engineer, but looking at the description of events that led to the Chernobyl disaster indicates that radioactive steam only shows up by the time things have gone very, very wrong, not in the first few minutes. Joseph has no choice but to seal the blast door and then watch helplessly as his wife succumbs to radiation poisoning, unable to help in any way, while their son Ford watches from his schoolroom as the power plant where his parents works falls to the ground, neatly collapsing in on its own footprint. I have to call special attention to this scene, because the acting here is the most memorable from the whole movie. You remember those couple grief-and-mourning scenes I mentioned earlier? Bam:
Fast forward 15 years, and Ford is home from a tour of duty as an EOD tech – Explosive Ordinance Disposal. He returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and son in San Francisco to joyous reunions. “Are you gonna be here tomorrow, daddy?” his son asks, and Ford assures him that he will, because he has apparently never seen a disaster movie either.
Ford has only been home a few hours when he gets a call that says Joseph has been arrested for trying to get into the quarantined area around their old house. He believes something is coming, and the accident 15 years ago was only a harbinger of things to come… terrible things. He’s been studying echolocation and seismological readings to get a better idea, but he needs information from disks he left at the old house to verify that what he’s seeing now matches what he saw that day. Ford begrudgingly agrees to go back, and they discover that there’s no radioactive fallout. The reactor didn’t breach. So why is the area quarantined?
They’re captured by soldiers and taken to the old plant site, where a huge egg/pod thing sits in a crater, partially buried and pulsing with energy of some kind that disrupts their computer systems. Joseph, held captive, tells them that he used to work at the plant, and Dr. Serizawa, the same scientist from 1999, is intrigued enough to listen to what he has to say. All hell breaks loose when the pod starts pulsing brighter, and then all the electricity in the facility goes out as the pod breaks open, releasing a giant, angry bug that starts murdering people left, right, and center before getting the hell out of there. Ford’s detainment room pops open when the power goes out, because apparently security doors with keypads default to being unlocked when unpowered, a turn of events that is neither secure nor believable, but what the hell, we’ll go with it to avoid 40 minutes of Ford chiseling his way out. Joe is injured trying to get to Ford. The two are brought onto the Navy vessel commanding the counter operation by Dr. Serizawa, but Joe dies en route.
I spent the next few minutes waiting for some sciencey technobable involving radiation to bring him back to life, but it quickly becomes apparent that Ford is our main character, and that pissed me off. I feel like the movie pulled a huge fake-out on us here. Bryan Cranston had just finished his hugely successful show Breaking Bad the previous year and when the trailer came out, he featured prominently.
In a 2 minute, 32 second trailer, he had more screen time and more lines than anyone else in the movie, so it certainly felt like a bait and switch operation to kill his character off so early in the movie, but even worse, to put the main character focus on his son rather than Dr. Serizawa, who’s been investigating since the beginning. Ford, by comparison, comes out of nowhere. I sat down with a stopwatch in front of the trailer. Do you know how long he appears in it? 3.3 seconds. Seconds! Promising me a starring role by a popular actor that turns out to be a glorified cameo? This is not the way to my heart, movie.
At this point the movie slips into hardcore exposition mode, dumping a lot of story on us in a very short scene. Ford reveals his father’s echolocation studies to the scientists, who tell him that the nuclear tests in 1954 weren’t tests at all, but an attempt to kill an enormous creature called Godzilla. The creature at the nuclear power plant that just escaped is a MUTO – a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, and it was also responsible for the initial destruction of the plant years ago. Ford gives the scientists his father’s data, prompting them to realize that the MUTO is communicating with something else, rather like whale song, and then Ford heads off to Hawaii to catch a flight home. I was hoping he’d fly right out of the movie and leave us with the scientists but no, we follow his progress there as well.
Oh, before I forget, the MUTO can, for some totally unexplained reason, cause EMPs. So anything electric that gets too close is instantly disabled. This makes absolutely no sense. These are supposed to be creatures awakened from the dawn of time itself. What possible reason would a prehistoric creature have for evolving an ability to destroy planes, trains, and automobiles? It’s a question that will remain unanswered throughout the course of the movie, much like the question of what the hell the directors think happens during an EMP anyway. But more on that later.
In the Hawaii airport, a kid gets separated from mom and dad on the tram, so Ford promises through the closed door to bring him back if they’ll wait there, and gets ready to ride the entire circuit again, when the MUTO shows up and starts destroying everything in sight. It’s been feeding on the radiation from a wrecked Russian nuclear submarine that it’s dropped right into the center of the forest in Hawaii, for some unknown reason. The military attacks the MUTO, the MUTO attacks Godzilla, Godzilla causes a tidal wave that destroys countless lives and buildings in its path. Ford accompanies the army personnel back to their staging area, offering any help he can.
A second MUTO breaks out of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository outside Las Vegas. This is the creature the other MUTO was communicating with via echolocation. Base personnel check each and every containment room through a little slit in the door, and find one that’s been completely ripped apart from the inside out as the new MUTO carves a swath of destruction out of the mountain, across the desert, and right through the Las Vegas strip. I just think it’s hilarious that nobody know this enormous thing has escaped and ripped out an enormous chunk of the mountain until they actually open up the door and take a look. And by hilarious I mean sad. And by sad I mean a cinematic crime.
Back on the aircraft carrier, the military are plotting the course of the creatures and estimates they will meet in San Francisco. One is male, the other is female, so they’re probably getting together to produce a whole boatload of baby MUTOs (Mini Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms?).
I was planning to give the movie a hard time here because there’s a scene of one of the MUTO’s tearing down the Eiffel Tower, which initially made no sense because the one MUTO is just steps away from San Francisco (relatively speaking) and the other has gone from Japan to Hawaii and is headed for California, putting Paris a long, long way outside its path. Only upon a repeat viewing did I realize this is the replica from Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, so this makes much more sense. In fact I have to give them credit – few filmmakers would have the guts to remake a franchise where the biggest criticism has been that the monsters look like people in rubber suits smashing miniaturized cities wherein they actually let their full and glorious CGI creations smash up an actual mini-city – New York and Paris are just part of the geographically anachronistic buildings available in Vegas.
The military have come up with a plan to defeat the creatures that feed and thrive off of radiation. YAAY! It involves blowing them up with nuclear weapons. YAAY! The scientists point out that this is pants-on-head stupid, and the military officers ignore them, because this is an action adventure disaster flick and that’s what military people do when they meet a problem they don’t understand in a fictional setting: they try to blow it the hell up. To be fair, they do at least realize that if the plan fails they’ll basically be giving the MUTOs exactly what they need, but they theorize that at the range they’re planning to detonate the bombs, no matter can possibly survive the explosion, and I’ll admit, it was at least nice to get that distinction made. It casts the military in a better light than dumb jocks who just want to see something go boom. The captain of the aircraft carrier says he understands this could all go wrong and he’s open to suggestions, but as nobody has any better ideas they opt to give it a try.
At this point it’s as if the movie doesn’t know who we should be rooting for. The MUTOs are just trying to reproduce, Godzilla himself is working against them but has killed many more people and caused much more destruction than the MUTOs have, and the humans are just trying to do incredibly stupid things. The message of Godzilla movies has always been, in part, that nature has the ultimate dominance over the Earth, not humanity, as these huge creatures enact an ancient battle from the dawn of time little caring what men, women, children, monuments, or bus terminals get in their way, but it’s almost as if the humans in the story are racing these prehistoric monstrosities for the privilege of screwing the planet up worse than the monsters ever could. What’s really sad is that even racing against the clock, the humans in the story still manage to almost wreck the entire planet. Twice.
Ford accompanies the nuclear warheads as they prepare to make their stand. He’s there to activate and deactivate the bomb if needed – the entire mechanism is clockwork so as to be invulnerable to the EMP capability of the MUTOs. Ford scouts ahead on a bridge before the train crosses it, but the whole team is attacked by one of the MUTOs, which feeds on one of the nuclear weapons and, through a series of possession turnovers between it and the military, ultimately takes the second nuke to meet its date for a little MUTO-nookie in downtown San Francisco.
So let’s run this down. The MUTO has killed Ford’s mother at the power plant. Years later, it killed his father in the same place. It’s been stalking him across the entire ocean, ruining his day three separate times now – Japan, Hawaii, en route to San Francisco – and all of this while it’s on its way to the city where his wife and child are. Forget nature and radiation and giant bugs, they’re all playing second fiddle to the real question – what the hell did Ford do to piss these things off? This is the way people develop complexes, folks. This is how people end up in years and years of expensive therapy.
Godzilla finally gets to fight the MUTOs in a scene the movie seems to have been trying to get to this whole time, and it’s a remarkably small part of the very end of the film. Godzilla doesn’t do too great, either. He gets his butt handed to him. Ford and his team, meanwhile, have parachuted in to find and disarm the warhead. They find that the warhead can’t be disarmed, so they have to get it onto a boat and out away from the city so it won’t make the whole thing for naught by killing everyone anyway. Ford stops to destroy the MUTO nest, which gets their attention long enough for Godzilla to kill one of them. The other appears to badly wound Godzilla and turns on Ford, who’s trying to start the engine on the boat by hotwiring it so he can make for open water, because EMPs don’t actually damage electronics in this movie, because of reasons. Just at the last moment, Godzilla shows up and gives the other MUTO what for, killing it pretty spectacularly before collapsing of exhaustion. Just when you think the big guy might be dead, he stirs and makes his way back to the ocean, slinking back beneath the waves as the surviving humans cheer him on. He even gets on the tron at the local stadium and believe me, I wish I could make that up, but no, he makes it onto the big screen. Apparently the people of San Francisco are totally cool with the billion people or so who got stepped on and crushed to death in the course of this little fiasco. Either that or they’re badly fickle.
I don’t hate the resolution to the movie, and I liked the fact that Ford’s skill set ultimately doesn’t come in handy at all. In my life, the times a person has come forward with exactly the skills necessary to meet the exact problem I’m currently having are far fewer than the times a person just had to be enterprising and adaptable and make their way through a situation, whether it was relevant to their skillset or not. Too often in movies it’s basically a situation where the characters say, “The only way we could possibly save this situation would be to have a particle physicist go undercover as a professional pool player and then fly a jet to Sweden,” after which a person matching all those attributes shows up, says in a gruff voice, “I’ll do it,” and proceeded to use every niche skill he has, wrapping the whole thing up in 90 minutes. I think it was fantastic storytelling for the movie to go this route and I applaud it – it’s a little thing, but the devil is in the details.
Ultimately the scary part of a scary movie usually comes from the realism, because while it’s pretty easy to distance yourself from the fiction in this case, a movie that presented in as close to a realistic light as possible reminds you that even thought a situation like this seems absurd, like it would never ever happen, one day… it could. Is there a chance of some enormous creature at the bottom of the ocean we don’t know about? Sure, but the odds are against it. But all the aftermath of Godzilla and the MUTOs – tsunami, flooding, fire, earthquake, etc. – are all very real dangers. We may never have to ward off giant monsters but the Earth does a pretty good job of shaking us up from time to time regardless of whether these fantastic beasts exist or not. As Dr. Serizawa says, and I alluded to before, “The arrogance of man is thinking natureis in our control, and not the other way around.”
The fear in a Godzilla movie isn’t the monsters, it’s the disaster – the wall of water coming at you that you can’t possibly outrun, but you have to try anyway, knowing you’ll still die. Making us empathize with the characters is the way to the heart of the matter, and I’m not sure the movie always accomplishes that, mainly due to the lack of grief anybody seems to show for the sheer loss of human life, both on a global scale and personally.
The effects are very well done, but we’re getting to the point in movie-making where that’s the rule more than the exception – I imagine something similar must have happened with the advent of the first speaking motion pictures. I think we’ve reached the tipping point where only a movie that features effects that are bad warrants the discussion any longer. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned – movie makers who are aware that they need more than pretty lights to please an audience produce much better, more intelligent output in the long run. Godzilla is a good movie, and it’s a fun movie, but it’s most assuredly not scary, owing mainly to the inability to place the audience in a place where they imagine similar terrible things happening to themselves.
Un-Scary Movies: 0
Join us next time, when Alex takes on 2010’s Insidious.
*Don’t actually chop off my fingers. In no way was this to be construed as an active invitation.