You Got a MUTO Problem...
Godzilla went through quite an evolution during the original span of his films. He started out as the villain in his first film, an embodiment of the horrors of nuclear war (which Japan had felt first hand only a few years prior). Over time, though, he evolved into a kind of hero, protecting Japan from other giant monsters, the kaiju, that would come to attack. There were, of course, other giant monster movies that followed the style of Godzilla, some of which (like King Kong) were featured in crossovers with Toho’s big green monster.
Although Godzilla would, from time to time, be featured as a villain again, in one reboot of the franchise or another, the kaiju’s status as a hero and protector would be his natural, default state. Most fans of the monster know of him in this mode, fighting against other monsters (like King Ghidorah or Mechagodzilla) to save humanity. Destruction happens, people die, but in the end Godzilla saves more humans than the other monsters kill and everyone considers him the “King of the Monsters”. It’s all a bit of silly fun and everyone goes home.
And then we enter the MonsterVerse. Started by Legendary Pictures, with a license from Toho (who, after the failure of the 1998 Godzilla, exerted more control over this version of the character), the series began with a full reboot, once more, for the giant monster. But instead of making the monster into the villain of his piece, as is usually done with his solo titles, this film automatically launches into giving Godzilla someone to fight. New monsters, a different breed of monsters, so that we can cheer for the big guy and boo these strange beasts. And… well, it sort of works, but not really. 2014’s Godzilla is a messy movie, and I’d say it was a terrible place to launch a franchise if the 1998 film didn’t exist and if we didn’t already have a series of movies and shows all united around this arm of the franchise.
After a short intro setting up the possible existence of giant monsters, and the hint of two giant spores buried deep in a cave, we cut over to Japan, 1999, where nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) oversees the Janjira nuclear plant. A seeming failure in the plant forces Joe to shut the facility down. He also makes the call to send in a team of consultants led by his own wife, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche), into the facility to see what is going on. A sudden explosion forces the evacuation of the facility, but his wife and her team are trapped inside, where they all die.
Fifteen years later, Joe is still on the case while his son, U.S. Navy explosives expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), thinks he’s a raving loon. But Joe is onto something, studying the electromagnetic bursts coming from the facility. He doesn’t think the plant had a meltdown, he thinks something else caused the shutdown and explosion. Breaking into the restricted area, with the help of his son, they, along with scientists from secret organization Monarch, discover a giant monster feeding on the radiation of the facility, maturing until it breaks free. Worse, it wasn’t just feeding, it was signaling to its mate, and these two Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) are driven to find each other so they can breed. If they do, all of humanity could be destroyed by these creatures. They need a savior, something powerful enough to defeat the MUTOs. They need Godzilla.
Godzilla ‘14 is a mess of a movie, top to bottom, but its first and biggest sin is that it’s barely a film about Godzilla at all. The main threat of the film isn’t Godzilla but the MUTOs. They show up first, cause the most damage, and are the driving force of the whole plot. It would be more accurate to title this film Godzilla vs. MUTO or, really, just MUTO as Godzilla is barely a factor in the film titled after him. Not that anyone would know what the MUTO are as they’re new creatures designed specifically for this film. You gotta put the lead character’s name in the film, even if it makes him feel tacked on.
And he does feel tacked on. The MUTO are interesting, two different but related creatures that are driven by biological needs and destroy everything in their way simply because it’s in their way. They aren’t exactly evil, just uncaring, and they’re effective as the monsters of this film. Godzilla isn’t effectively used in his film. There are multiple times where the film sets up a confrontation between Big G and a MUTO and then the film cuts away to the human characters, or shows the fight afterwards as clips in news footage. Very often we don’t see Godzilla, and even more infrequently do we see him do anything. It’s a film about Godzilla with hardly any Godzilla in it. It’s weird.
What we get mostly are the human characters, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody. Now, look, there are plenty of great actors in this film, from Bryan Cranston as Ford’s father Joe, to Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife Elle, and Ken Watanabe as lead Monarch scientist Dr. Ishirō Serizawa. Not on that list of good actors is Taylor-Johnson. That’s because he’s terrible in this role. The guy can act (he was pretty great in Bullet Train) but he seems utterly lost as Lt. Brody. He’s boring, empty, hollow, a hero you simply can’t connect with. This was around the time Hollywood was really trying to make Taylor-Johnson into a lead actor and, notably, this was one of the last big films to make that attempt (there’s a reason his version of Quicksilver is bumped off in Avengers: Age of Ultron). I have to think any other actor could have done a better job in this role.
Also, and this isn’t the fault of the casting agents but it is a bit of bad casting lucky, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen make the most uncomfortable couple to watch on screen. Olsen is great, mind you, bringing every ounce of charisma she can to try and make the on-screen role work. But while this film was in production she and Taylor-Johnson were also cast as the evil siblings in Age of Ultron. So when you see them kissing and being a romantic couple here there are strong incest vibes. Not every actor should be blamed for all their roles, but you just can’t unsee Wanda and Pietro getting busy in Godzilla. It sticks with you.
Nothing else about this movie, though, sticks with you at all. I like the designs of the MUTO and there are some decent action sequences featuring them. Their battle with Godzilla is also pretty good, and has plenty of flash, fireworks, and destruction. It’s the kind of battle fans want in these movies. But in a film that stretches over two hours, the monsters show up in, maybe, fifteen minutes of run time. Most of the time is spent on the humans, watching them be boring and stupid. “We need to do this to stop the monsters!” they say, over and over again when, in the end, the monsters are stopped by the other monsters and nothing the humans do matters at all. We could cut almost all the human parts out of the movie entirely and nothing of value would be lost. An hour-and-forty-five worth of footage could be on the floor and I doubt anyone would care. We’re here for the monsters, not Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s boring adventures near them.
It’s curious that this is the film we got considering how very similar to Godzilla ‘98 it is. Monsters showing up, appearing for brief moments at a time before disappearing from the film. A cast of human characters we don’t care about taking up way too much screen time. A weird plot about the monsters breeding and creating a massive, uncontrollable species. It’s like someone said, “you know, maybe that other Godzilla film wasn’t so bad,” and then doubled-down on a ton of the plot points. Going in I didn’t realize I was getting a stealth remake of Godzilla ‘98 but that’s apparently what we were getting.
Well, there was one difference between this film and that version: Godzilla ‘14 was actually successful. On a budget of $160 Mil the film made $529 Mil at the Box Office, enough to set the stage for a whole series of MonsterVerse projects. Not that most of them are any better than this film. Kong: Skull Island is watchable, but many of them are as stupid, loud, and boring as this film. And that’s a pity because there are parts that really work. Bryan Cranston is great as the wild-eyed scientist trying to prove the existence of monsters. Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic in every scene she’s given in her thankless role of support to Ford. Ken Watanabe should be in everything. There’s a movie we could craft about these characters watching the monsters as they battle and level cities, but that wasn’t the movie we got. We got the boring movie about a boring guy who keeps standing near monsters that, for some reason, we ignore.
Godzilla ‘14 is a misfire of a film. Maybe not as bad as the 1998 movie, but certainly not great either. It’s big, it’s loud, and it has a lot of money spent on its production, but that doesn’t make it good. What we got is bad… and then we got more of it after.