The Road To Godzilla Vs. Kong: Looking Back At Godzilla (2014)

A retrospective look at the first entry of Legendary Picture's Monsterverse with Godzilla (2014).

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My introduction to the King of the Monsters was a bit unusual.

Looking back in time, it’s a bit hard to believe that a lot of things are now possible with just a click (or a tap if you’re a smartphone user). My city has always been small and there aren’t a lot of things to do, even less so when I was a kid – there was a cinema with only one screen and the only way to get things like movie magazines or recent book releases was to travel to a bigger city.

To this day, licensed products –especially of a niche nature- aren’t easy to find here, so your best bet is Amazon and similar online stores. That is how, when I was around five or four years old, I met Godzilla via bootleg toys and a comic series by José Ignacio Solórzano (Jis) and José Trinidad Camacho (Trino) known as “El Santos.”

I won’t expand on it, since it’s not the topic at hand, but for context: “El Santos,” as the name may imply, is a parody of “El Santo” (the famous Mexican luchador and movie star). The comics, often raunchy (and definitely meant for adults), are filled with typically dark Mexican humor – so it’s not surprising to see Godzilla working as a street taquero (that is someone who makes and/or sells tacos) or eating homeless and poor children (for him, it’s a delicacy; for the other characters, it’s a systemic problem solved: a win-win!).

Most of the comic’s humor obviously flew over my head, but Jis and Trino’s Godzilla was a dinosaur, so I liked him. I drew comics about my own version of Godzilla (albeit one inspired by the Santos’s one) going on adventures, getting in trouble and dealing with an obnoxious snake room-mate.

A fragment from an “El Santos” comic strip featuring Godzilla by Jis and Trino.

The first proper Godzilla experience I had was catching Godzilla vs Biollante on TV, although it had already started and I only got to watch the second half of it. I remember that, while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t too impressed with the special effects, especially after having watched Jurassic Park a dozen times (honestly, maybe I was too young to really appreciate the suitmation and Toho’s practical effects).

That was followed by Roland Emmerich’s infamous Godzilla (1998). My mom took me to see it and the CGI spectacle blew my socks off. That Godzilla was killed in the end never sat too well with me though, not only because he was Godzilla, but also because of the way he was portrayed as an innocent animal affected by humanity that was then destroyed by humanity when he became a problem.

Emmerich, in my opinion, fails in a variety of ways when it comes to the titular character. Perhaps most importantly: his Godzilla is neither as sympathetic as King Kong (one of the movies he was obviously attempting to ape, no pun intended) nor is he an unstoppable force of destruction – most of the damage he causes is incidental, collateral. It’s curious to note that among the walking tropes that form the cast of characters, there’s not a single bleeding-heart scientist making the creature’s case; they all agree it must be vanquished.

As I grew older, my knowledge of the Big G and his kaiju pals and foes got bigger – the same as my love for them. The decade-long hibernation that followed Godzilla: Final Wars wasn’t as painful for me, since there were so many other films to watch, from the 1954 original to the many gems from the Showa, Heisei, and Millennium eras. Then on March 29, 2010, the announcement came. Hollywood was getting a second shot at making a Godzilla movie!

Hollywood Godzilla – Round Two!

Godzilla (2014) Courtesy of Legendary Pictures

I was feeling both excited and nervous. You’d think they wouldn’t fudge a second chance, but who could be certain? It was only a matter of time before the world could find out.

The (leaked) teaser trailer from Comic-Con 2012 was nothing short of genius. Not only did it set the tone with Oppenheimer’s “I am become death” speech over shots of wanton destruction: a derailed train, a felled passenger aircraft, cities in rubble; it also gave us our first “look” at the new American Godzilla without actually showing him, a towering figure clouded in dust letting out the classic ROAR. It’s a wonderful encapsulation of Gareth Edwards film and quite the far cry from the bombastic Godzilla (1998) teaser that had the monster’s foot crushing a T. Rex skeleton.

As May 2014 was drawing near, my excitement was through the roof. By then the new design had been revealed to a most enthusiastic reception: it was both physically and spiritually closer to the Japanese kaiju we know and love, yet indisputably a new take, with its jagged, mean-looking back spines and alligator-like scaly hide. There was some noise about it looking “fat” and the jokes and memes didn’t take long to arrive, but it’s a fairly silly notion in my opinion.

And so the day came and went. My opinion on the movie hasn’t changed much since then but I remain amazed at how far the MonsterVerse has come. Four movies may not seem like much, yet it was far from a safe bet. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d get to see Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah fully realized in state-of-the-art CGI for a Hollywood production, let alone a Godzilla vs. Kong rematch. I’m digressing, however. So let’s forget for a moment about the movies that followed and focus solely on the one that kick-started Legendary’s monster cinematic universe.

While the mood is nowhere near as bleak as the 1954 original, it’s nonetheless interesting to note that the 2014 Godzilla is firmly in antihero territory. He’s a godly force of nature, a keeper of natural balance…and is wholly unconcerned with humans.

In his quest to terminate the parasitic organisms known as MUTO, he creates a tsunami that devastates Hawaii and contributes to the leveling of San Francisco. Much like a person who casually steps on a dozen ants while strolling, the big guy doesn’t set out to harm people but does nothing to prevent collateral damage. To him, tall buildings may very well be anthills.

Together with the director’s sense of scale, the film provides a sense of awe, a humbling feeling that we are indeed small and powerless. You can’t stop a hurricane or a tornado by shooting at it – and it’s the same case with Godzilla. The best you can do is move out of the way. Still, for all its large-scale disasters, Godzilla (2014) isn’t cruel, nor does it fetishize the demolishment. Its treatment of destruction is elegiac and tragic.

Godzilla (2014) Courtesy of Legendary Pictures

The human side of things, while not a deal breaker by any means, could’ve used a bit more polish.

Juliette Binoche’s character, Sandra Brody, ends her participation almost as soon as it starts and my feelings about it are mixed. On the one hand, I think the family tragedy is a solid foundation for Joe Brody’s arc, as we can empathize with his loss and the unraveling of his -until that moment- happy life.

His quest to find the truth behind the event that took Sandra’s life becomes the driving force that propels the story forward. On the other hand, it sucks that a talented, award-winning actress is wasted in favor of a plot device. It takes a bit longer for Bryan Cranston, but the fate of Joe Brody is similar; as soon as the plot no longer requires him, he’s unceremoniously killed and put inside a body bag.

From a personal point of view, it’s hard to fathom why the filmmakers made that call, as Cranston was on the peak of his post-Breaking Bad popularity and is a compelling actor to watch. Gareth Edwards reportedly wasn’t a fan of the idea of Joe sticking around, since a father and son working together would’ve felt too much like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I feel like it didn’t have to be one or the other, however. Joe could’ve been left recovering in a military hospital, or he could have even joined Monarch. Alas, it is what it is. The surviving members of the Brody family aren’t as interesting since the script does little with them. The narrative moves Ford forward and not the other way around. He’s like an avatar for the audience in that regard. And Elle is just there to look distressed at the unfolding events.

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins deliver exposition and stay in the background, but I’ll be damned if their scenes weren’t riveting. An agency dedicated to studying monsters the size of a skyscraper would’ve been my dream job if it was real. All in all, I’d say everyone did a good job with the material they were given. “I came for the monsters, not for the human characters” is a common sentiment among kaiju-eiga fans, one I agree with to some degree considering the kaijus and the battles are the main draw of the movies. So, when the storyline is a vehicle for the spectacle, I can roll with it just fine.

That said, it’s hard to deny that a stronger human plot can make for a more memorable experience, character-wise. Not everyone will agree with me but I believe Godzilla: King of the Monsters managed to find a better balance between the human storyline and the monster action than its predecessor, making the characters active players (full of Showa-like cheesiness and a flair for the melodramatic) as opposed to largely passive bystanders.

This Time It’s Personal…

Joe Brody (Brian Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson) in Godzilla (2014)

The department in which G14 delivers in spades is, of course, the giant monster mayhem. Playing the role of the antagonistic monster(s), the MUTOs are fascinating, distinct-looking creations that frankly haven’t gotten the attention and the love they deserve (how come there’s not a single official articulated figure of either of them?).

Setting them up as Godzilla’s ancient rivals was clever, as having a history adds to the conflict – they have a reason to battle other than mere survival. It’s personal. Amusingly enough, the “old enemy” position is getting crowded, as King Ghidorah has also claimed it, and it looks like it’s gonna be Kong’s case as well! Boy, the Big G sure holds a lot of grudges, though you probably would too if you had lived for centuries as the last of your kind in a world full of dangerous titans.

Much has been discussed about the director’s decision to save the kaiju rumble for the third act. There have been comparisons to Jaws and Alien, but those movies couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone and method of filmmaking. It’s also important to remember that their restraint was a result of several limitations, from budget constraints to malfunctioning animatronics.

Cutting away from the fights wasn’t a creative solution to a crippling issue for Godzilla (2014), but a conscious decision to tease. And it has to be said that it was a bold, daring move from both Edwards and the studio. Ideally, they could’ve shown us the brief Hawaii fight that ends in a stalemate as that would’ve given the audience a taste of what to expect while saving the best for the end. Foreplay is important, yes, but after a while, you want to get to it.

For me, the wait was worth it. We know Godzilla is intelligent and not a mindless brute, but I appreciated that he wasn’t given a human-like fighting style, throwing karate kicks or performing weightless acrobatics. Instead, we see a more savage, animalistic way of combating, making use of sharp teeth and claws like a pissed-off bear.

I remember holding my breath when my favorite monster’s back spines began lighting up, because I knew what was coming. And it was absolutely glorious. Sure, the HALO jump was breathtaking but there’s no topping the visual of Godzilla shooting his beam, a signature move as iconic as Superman flying.

The “kiss of death” was an unforgettably ruthless manner to cap off the battle. Hard to think of a better alternative (to not say impossible). It’s simply perfect.

Godzilla (2014) Courtesy of Legendary Pictures

Last but not least, I would like to dedicate a few words to Alexandre Desplat’s score. It’s an uncommon one to be certain, as there aren’t really many themes that stand out like in Bear McCreary’s magnificent score for King of the Monsters. There’s one for Godzilla (aptly titled “Godzilla!”) that also serves as the movie’s main/recurring theme, though it’s not as catchy as Akira Ifukube’s- and I don’t mean it as a flaw.

Desplat’s score is moody and aggressive. The entirety of the soundtrack is more of a listening experience that’s better in one sitting, not too interested in offering highlights you can pick and choose on your Spotify account. Much like the movie itself, it takes its time to build up the tension before exploding in a series of spectacularly furious orchestral pieces. When all is said and done, it turns contemplative and somber, as Godzilla returns to the ocean.

It’s a beautiful, carefully arranged, masterfully orchestrated score that sadly didn’t get enough recognition. The same could be argued about the mesmerizing visual effects, spectacular cinematography, and other technical aspects. But such is life for the genre underdogs, even when they come in the shape of million-dollar blockbusters.

Objectively speaking, Godzilla (2014) is a flawed diamond of sorts. It’s got some self-inflicted shortcomings that are arguably subjective, but without them, it could have grasped a legendary (heh) status. Regardless of that, the movie is confident and expertly crafted. It demands your attention and contemplation, every frame is a work of art that puts other similarly-budgeted blockbusters to shame. It can comfortably sit among the best in Godzilla’s filmography.

Perhaps its most enduring legacy is that Godzilla (2014) brought the titular monster to a new generation of viewers in a stellar fashion, opening the door wide open for new interpretations of other classic kaijus and the introduction of original ones. Reviving and honoring a franchise that laid dormant for a decade is no small feat but Gareth Edwards rose to the challenge and I don’t think I can thank him enough for that.

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