Controlling the Control: A Disaster Film Meets a Monster Movie [Godzilla] (2014)

I remember the teaser for Godzilla (2014) where it was just Godzilla roaring into the camera as he stood among the wreckage of Chinatown and how hyped everyone got for it. I remember seeing the movie in theaters with some buddies. I remember it being a good time. And I remember never thinking about it again.

That is… until the poster and subsequent trailer for Godzilla vs Kong recently dropped. After my initial eyerolls for a high budget film no one asked for, I watched the trailer and was just about as hyped as everyone else. So, I went to revisit Godzilla. Was this movie secretly amazing???

This is the first in a series of reviews of the Godzilla vs Kong series, leading up to the release of Godzilla vs Kong.

Has Godzilla secretly been the best monster movie and disaster movie and action movie of the last decade? Two decades? It may be that I re-watched Godzilla in the exact right mood, but I am not so sure. I hit play on Godzilla with heavy cynicism, ready for some awesome monsters crammed into a less than impressive story. What I got was far different and far better.

The scale of Godzilla is mindboggling. It spans countries and nuclear facilities and sprawling cities with minimal hard cuts that lack context because the story builds from the bottom up, as any good disaster movie does. Establish the humans through whose eyes we will view the events, then get to the events. 

Bryan Cranston crushes the opening scene in a surprisingly emotional cataclysm of events. And then the story is taken away by a less well acted but still engaging performance by Aaron Tayler Johnson as Brody and a very engaging Elizabeth Olsen, pre-Scarlet Witch. Through these eyes Godzilla seamlessly moves from massive monster, to cataclysmic event, to touching human moment with the sweep of a camera. For a movie that goes so many places and has so much going on, it manages to stay very linear, and very human.

And that is not just an aside point in a commentary on Godzilla. It is THE point. Disaster movies of this magnitude are doomed to be disjointed due to massive events that feel disconnected from the humans who traverse them or vice versa. These films usually cut back and forth benefitting only one story at a time. But Godzilla advances both stories at all times. As Brody tries to reconnect with his father and then find his way back to his family, his future becomes inextricably linked, in ways that actually make sense, to Godzilla’s future. Brody’s success becomes Godzilla’s success, and it makes for some pretty amazing moments. 

The HALO jump is the first to come to mind. Godzilla and the MUTOs are duking it out in Chinatown, the scene cuts to an Army Carrier in the sky as Brody prepares for his HALO jump to disarm the nuke that was about to blow up the city. In a genre of movies where the acts of the humans often feel so inconsequential, here was a moment where the humans felt as important as the disaster, which in this case was the monsters. 

It is a wonderful blending of a monster movie and a disaster film format. It takes the excellent human conflict of man trying to overcome the monster and places it inside the structure of a greater overarching disaster plot, and they balance perfectly. And that HALO jump makes way to a ‘boots on the ground’ view of the fight between Godzilla and the MUTO as they move in and out of dust and half destroyed skyscrapers and storm clouds. We don’t lose the terror and mystery of the MUTOs and Godzilla by being forced to watch the fight from the perspective of the monster. Instead, we see it in bits and pieces from the ground, looking up at the colossal beasts.

And it eventually makes way to a surprisingly tender moment, when man and monster meet. After Godzilla saves Brody’s life, and in some ways, Brody saves Godzilla’s, they make eye contact as Godzilla falls to the ground in a heap after the battle of his life. A shot destined to be cheesy but ended up being effective because of how much effort was put into the stories that led to it.

But lest I make this movie feel like Drive, and this post feel like a review of Citizen Kane, let me interject with a few hype moments to keep this post rooted in the reality that this is a movie about some huge fucking monsters fighting to the death….

  • At one point, Godzilla grabs the female MUTO by the neck and breathes radioactive fire down its throat, cooking it from the inside. This is AFTER he bitch slaps the male MUTO with his tail, impaling him into the side of a skyscraper. Godzilla is one bad motherfucker.
  • Ken Watanabe is incredible as Dr. Serizawa. He is reserved and quiet, a man of few words. He doesn’t display a lot of emotion other than a look of unparalleled confusion. All of this builds to one line, where the military guy, looks to the academic for answers, after having screwed up royally and having run out of ideas, and Serizawa says, with all the emotion he had held back all film bubbling beneath the surface of those three magical words, “Let them fight.” And I jumped out of my seat and screamed, “HELL YEEEAAAHHH!”
  • Godzilla’s roar is Jurassic Park’s t-rex on cocaine, layered over the rumble of an earthquake, mixed with the collapsing of a skyscraper, tempered by lions and bears and tigers and eagles screaming at the top of their tiny animal lungs, filled with the rage of conservative America, and the aggressiveness of a townie bar fight, all amplified to 11 on a rock and roll amp. And it hits you right in the chest, and you feel it deep in the plums. 

Okay, back to the analysis…

At the heart of the movie is the conflict between man and nature and that, as Dr. Serizawa says, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.”

Capturing that conflict is borderline impossible, prone to oversimplifications and flailing about in some realm of disaster that feels disconnected from humanity. But the thing about Godzilla is that he is always waiting, and the thing about the MUTOs is that they are of our own creation, found in our attempts to mine the planet, digging ever deeper to pillage its resources, then hatched in a lab in our attempts to control and understand these discoveries we make. It is up to Godzilla to save us from ourselves.

And instead of letting nature take over, returning to some state of equilibrium, even if it will never be as good as it originally was, we shoot at it, and throw more of man’s technology at it in order to make it go away, including a nuke that becomes its own problem. Man is forced to run around fixing the problems they created out of their attempts to solve the problems they brought out of nature. Their role is relegated to controlling the control mechanisms they put in place. The futility of man in the face of nature is on full display.

And the consequences? Godzilla stomps on our cities, destroys that which we hold so dear, makes a joke out of our guns and missiles. The MUTOs destroy our technology, feed on our nuclear capabilities, bring our jets falling from the sky, and wreak havoc on human beings, separating and destroying families, including one we have come to care about.

Godzilla tells so many stories at once. It tells the story of a man coming to grips with a history of nature destroying his life, it tells the story of nature fighting back for control of this planet, it tells the story of the futility of man’s invention, and the story of a monster that became a hero. All of this, while being true to a hyped-up action film with fan service and in your face moments.

It’s a hell of a movie…

Check out the rest of this series here:
Big Monkey Breaks Stuff [Kong: Skull Island]
[Godzilla: King of the Monsters] But That’s About It…
The Battle Of The Titans: And The Roundabout Way We Got There [Godzilla vs Kong]

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