I’ve always thought Giant Fire-breathing Lizard Attacks City was a very stupid premise. I figured that ridiculousness could only be compounded by adding not one but two other mega-beasts. So, I was frankly stunned by how much I enjoyed this movie. Not only on a “hah, stuff is blowing up” level, but on a … “wow, that’s some deep stuff when it’s not blowing up” level.
Since it’s been my theme the past couple posts, I’m going to talk about the characters. But not first.
First I’m going to talk about the good scene setting. Like Shakespeare-level good.* The opening credits set the tone for the rest of the film perfectly and answers one of the biggest questions movie-goers have entering a monster film: how could we not know about a giant monster? The montage-style title scene explains we did know and it was covered up. By showing ancient drawings of sea-beasties and dragons and ominous text from Darwin’s theory of evolution the film puts us in mind of all the things man once thought nature contained. The montage then throws in some extremely believable footage of the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, with some clever clues slipped in (graffiti on the warhead is of Godzilla’s head inside the ‘no’ symbol and in homage to the original Godzilla, footage of the original monster’s spines are just seen rising from the surf when the shot cuts away). Throughout the censoring of the text around the credits and the flashes of Monarch’s name and insignia alludes to how such monsters were all hidden and covered up.
Due to this great opening and a fantastic soundtrack, the atmosphere of conspiracy and tension runs high from the start.
And the characters shone through it.
There’s a reason I chose the image of soldiers parachuting into Hell and not a picture of the monster. Godzilla is really about the people. This movie is what I mean when I rant about good characters. The dialogue, the acting, the emotion were all fully developed and working overtime to bring this ridiculous premise into gloriously believable life.
I adored Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Vivienne Graham. I completely believe in their mission to understand and protect the world from the giant monsters. I especially loved their complexity. Hawkins does an excellent job making Dr. Graham sensibly credulous and a good contrast to Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. I loved Serizawa’s complicated past as a descendant of Hiroshima, and his borderline religious respect of Godzilla. Two roles that easily could have fallen into caricatures of stiff-British-woman-loses-her-shit and wise-Japanese-guy-denies-progress came across as living breathing people because of their dialogue and good acting. The writers used the stereotypes and humanized them, built from the base and into real characters.
The main characters get the same richness. Brian Cranston’s Joe Brody has the twin motivation of wanting to uncover the government lies and finding out what happened to his wife (in addition to being a little obsessed with monsters before; he’s got a poster of a giant lizard knocking into a dojo on his wall in the office). He’s embarrassed that he’s a conspiracy nut, ashamed of his distance from his son, proud of his work, in grief for his wife all the threads of which lead him repeatedly to break the law and return to “home.” This is a great trick for writing; figure out what the character’s goal is and then give him as many reasons to need to do that thing as possible. Joe Brody has to uncover the truth, to avenge his wife, to earn his son’s respect, to find home again, to uncover a government lie, and to stop it from happening again. Any one of those motivations could hold a movie and the combination makes Joe Brody an irresistibly good character.
More than that, just when he’s on the cusp of uncovering the truth, receiving all the validation he’s spent his life looking for, just when he’s about to forgive himself for his wife’s death, and earn his freedom to build a new home with his son and grandson, just when the knowledge he has would be most helpful to save the world… we lose him. Crushing.
We also get little moments of character throughout the movie. A dog tied to a tree who narrowly escapes a pending tsunami (actually, he probably doesn’t survive…), a soldier firing at the monster with pants-shitting terror takes cover and then looks up and gives us her view of the giant thing passing overhead, a fighter pilot who never loses his cool as his low flying plane loses electricity and he plummets to his death into the jungle, the soul-crushing disappointment on the face of a nurse who loses a patient as the power goes off. The makers of this film truly understood that each person (or animal) on screen had their own full story to tell and they let them have their moment and because we were watching we got to have that moment with them. If you’re going to write in 3rd person omniscient, this is how to do it.
For me the best character was Sandra Brody who gets maybe five… ten minutes of screen time before her tragic death. In three to four scenes, I learned that she is a caring mother who’s used to guiding her son through his troubled admiration of his father, she’s a dedicated wife who knows how to calm and connect with her busy, distant, and nervous husband through her humor and rational, she’s an intelligent and capable leader of her technical team, and she’s heroic. That’s… at least three more character traits than anyone had in The Thing. I was rooting hard for Mrs. Brody and her menfolk, even though I knew Shit was going Down at Janjira nuclear plant. I never stopped rooting for her even when she stepped into that wicked long corridor and I knew she was dead-meat. I won’t lie, a shed a few manly tears for her sacrifice. **
Her death set us up for my favorite thing about Godzilla. The main characters all come in sets of three that are fragmented and in need of repair lest they lose/destroy what is most important to them. Sandra Brody dies and leaves both Joe and Ford alienated without her. Ford and his wife and son are separated and in constant danger of death (wife is buried under a hospital, son is on the Frisco bridge when Godzilla rips it up, husband is… a solider in a monster movie. He nearly dies every five minutes). Dr. Graham, Dr. Serizawa, and Admiral William Stenz must trust each other to save humanity (the process begins when Serizawa shares his fear about nuclear destruction with Stenz, Graham is in the wings ready to wrap her arm about Serizawa when he leaves, and Stenz ends up flanking Godzilla rather than trying to kill him immediately). This happens over and over again. There’s kid on the train separated from his two parents who is brought back only through Ford’s extreme efforts to help him. There’s Zoe and her two parents who run to safety during the tsunami. There’s three army guys working together to open the bomb and when one of them gets distracted by the nest around them, the other two declare that they can’t open the case and it’s time to move on to plan B (third guy goes on to burn the eggs down).
The final trio, of course, is the three monsters. Their differences are irreparable because of the natural order of things. Godzilla who eats radiation and lives in the sea had no need to bother with land-air dwelling creatures except that they are parasite who will obliterate the natural order. Godzilla with whatever ancient and godly wisdom he possesses is willing to risk his life to protect that natural order. So the two turn against the one and create a new trio. A family unit of mother, father, and eggs which is as doomed as Sandra Brody’s family. This expectation of three, made Godzilla profoundly lonely. The parallel of three person families separated and dying or staying together and surviving made the Mufos affection toward each other and their eggs was brilliant and heartbreaking.
And that’s some deep shit for a movie about a giant fire-breathing lizard.
*Shakespeare has very obvious scene setting. Like “In fair Verona where we lay our scene” and “Dude, what’s going on?” “Well, we’re on a boat and it’s sinking in the middle of a tempest.”
** I cried like a baby and had to hug my husband and made him promise he would never work in a nuclear reactor in Japan, which of course is highly unlikely.