With the release of Godzilla Vs. Kong nearly upon us, now’s as good a time as any to take a look back at the 2014 American reimagining of Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards. Also, I wanted to take a look at the bigger picture of what ‘Godzilla’ actually means, and how this huge reptilian has been one of cinema’s most misused creatures since its creation in 1954.
The 2014 American Godzilla (I’ll be calling it Godzilla 2014 from now on) had a relatively simple task: be a better Westernized version of the classic ‘Kaiju’ movie than the godawful 1998 film. All the prerelease materials for Godzilla 2014 seemed to suggest that the movie was going to be great – even the design of the monster was more in line with the Japanese version.
Godzilla 2014 was a commercial success, and perhaps deservedly so. It was a loud and bombastic movie that appealed to mass audiences and had a “serviceable” plot, yet it still managed to miss the point of Godzilla entirely.
Any fan of Kaiju movies – and particularly, any Godzilla fan – knows that the people on the ground and their interactions are the real main characters—the driving force— of any good Kaiju movie. The huge monsters are actually the antagonists. Granted, you can’t have a good giant monster flick without showing said monsters duking it out, but we’ll get to that later.
The writers of Godzilla 2014 seem to have understood this maxim of Kaiju films, but only at a surface level. Indeed, in the 2014 version, we follow the struggles of a Navy Lieutenant (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that has to deal with the untimely death of his father and the collapse of society due to some pesky giant monsters.
That’s the first part where Godzilla 2014 drops the ball. The character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson is only tangentially related to the events of the film: he’s simply a man trying his best to reunite with his wife. On the other hand, his father, played masterfully by Bryan Cranston, is a much more complex character.
Cranston plays the role of a scientist who feels responsible for a nuclear plant accident that took the life of his wife. Perhaps it’s due to Bryan Cranston’s memorable acting chops, but when his character leaves the film, it feels like the soul of the movie goes with him.
Gareth Edwards is definitely no stranger to the giant monster genre of movies. In 2010, he directed Monsters, an indie film about giant-sized squids and people trying to survive in a quarantined Mexico. The difference between Monsters and Godzilla 2014 comes in how it humanizes its main characters, and I don’t mean the giant squids. In Monsters, the humans at the center of the conflict feel like complex characters thrown into a situation that they don’t fully understand. The G.I. Joe-style character they chose for the main role in this American Godzilla, however, just doesn’t click.
As for the monster brawls in the 2014 Godzilla, they are clearly one of the film’s strong points. As overblown as they are, the fights feature some beautiful cinematography and Edward’s color game is on point. It also helps that the monsters were designed with the idea that an actual human must’ve been able to wear them as suits, just like the special effects of the original Godzilla films were made.
All in all, Godzilla 2014 achieves its first objective easily: being a better American version of Godzilla than the 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed disaster. That said, it still falls prey to the same mistake studios have been making ever since the first Godzilla was released: missing the point of the monster.
The original Godzilla was released in 1954, a mere nine years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of WWII, Japan lived through a period of economic and cultural changes. Rapid changes meant that an uncertain future lay in wait for Japan, and the shadow of nuclear warfare seemed to loom over the entire world.
This fear of the “atomic monster” was the main inspiration for Godzilla. The creature itself is very much a nuclear explosion – nothing can stop it, it can’t be reasoned with, and it levels cities no matter how much the people of Japan fight to stop the catastrophe.
One thing that made Godzilla unique was its focus on the humans, but not just in the personal drama, but rather in the politics and bureaucracy that happens during an emergency. Politicians and so-called experts that seem to delay progress instead of helping in times of need seems like a message that still rings true, especially in these times of pandemic.
In 2016, two years after the American Godzilla, Toho Pictures released Shin Godzilla, the last proper Japanese Godzilla film to date. Now, this is a movie that ‘gets’ what Godzilla is about – complete with a frankly disturbing Godzilla redesign.
What Shin Godzilla gets right about the Kaiju films is that these monsters are embodiments of nature’s fury: you can’t stop nature, only curb its progress. In Shin Godzilla, we see a monster that adapts to survive, much like a virus. In the end, even though the humans are victorious in staving off the monster (yes, the humans win in the end. Spoiler alert.), Godzilla understands that the way to beat humanity is to embrace humanity, seemingly splitting itself into many mini-Godzillas and leaving the building-smashing reptilian form behind.
If you’re looking for a good Godzilla film to watch, then, by all means, go watch Godzilla 2014. But if you’re in the mood for a truly spectacular horror film about an unstoppable force of nature against humanity’s resilience, then go watch Shin Godzilla.
That said, let’s not pretend that Toho hasn’t made the same mistakes the Americans have when it comes to making Godzilla movies. The giant lizard has starred in over 30 movies, and only a handful of them focus on the original concepts of the 1954 original. The sad truth is that Godzilla has become self-referential: its movies aren’t about the dangers of nuclear warfare, or about humanity vs. nature anymore – they are just movies about Godzilla.
Now that 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters has made it clear that the new American trilogy is more about style than substance, it seems likely that Godzilla Vs. Kong is also going to be a loud, Transformers-like flash in the pan. Let’s hope that Legendary Pictures does the sensible thing and re-hires Gareth Edwards. He seems to be the only American director with an understanding of what Godzilla is about. In any case, he was definitely on the right track in 2014.
As a lifelong fan of the giant lizard, here’s hoping that I’m wrong and that this version of Godzilla against King Kong turns out better than the 1962 original, at the very least. Which, in all honesty, if you’ve ever seen that endearing cheese-fest of a film, won’t be a hard thing to achieve.
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