So I saw that giant lizard movie you've heard them talking about so much lately. SPOILERS below.

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is really disappointing. Not terrible, in a dumb Michael Bay sort of way, but just underwhelming enough to make you wish Michael Bay had directed it. The script is flabby, the direction is uninspired, and even the mighty beast himself looks like he wishes he'd fired his agent. (With nuclear fission breath.) It reminds me, in a weird way, of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, which was also tremendously reverential towards the source material but had no clue as to what to do with it. You know you're in trouble when the smartest people working on the film are the guys who designed the title sequence.

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The big problem is that nobody could decide what Godzilla — the movie or the title character — was about. In the original 1954 movie, he was clearly a symbol of hubris and, as one astute observer placed it, the folly of men. Even more specifically, Godzilla symbolized the atomic bombing of Japan by the U.S. military that ended WWII, and the irradiation of Japanese sailors by American H-bomb tests in the postwar era. In this movie he's just a gigantic but fairly non-destructive monster, not unlike the character in the 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. (Sans Godzooky, fortunately, or maybe unfortunately.) This Godzilla seems to have little to do with Japan or WWII or the atom bomb. (Watanabe makes an explicit reference to Hiroshima with his father's stopped watch, but only as a vague warning against using nuclear weapons.) Basically 2014 Godzilla is a big friendly dog: He might knock over things or slobber all over the place, he might chew up your favorite pair of shoes, he might sleep on the sofa, he might take a king-sized dump in the living room, but he means no harm, and he likes you. For all intents and purposes this Godzilla is a titanic superhero in the vein of the late Shōwa flicks. All he needs is a robot sidekick.

Which is fine, actually — I grew up with the "good guy" Godzilla of the post-Monster Zero/Hanna-Barbera/Shogun Warriors/Marvel Comics era of the '70s. The problem is that Edwards doesn't seem to want to have any fun with the concept. The monster battles are short, and not especially well-staged, especially compared with the kaiju-Jaegar wars in Pacific Rim. It's probably unfair to compare Godzilla with Del Toro's tokusatsu epic, but that was a movie that was so much more in command of the material than this one. Del Toro and Travis Beacham clearly loved and understood the genre they were paying homage to. Godzilla feels like it was made by people who were embarrassed by the entire concept of giant fighting monsters. Rather than embracing the potentially ridiculous aspects of the genre they sought to make it "grounded" — a term that should henceforth be forever recognized as a synonym for boring.

The Big G himself has precious little screen time. The focus is instead on the human characters, which at first seems like a sound idea: Bryan Cranston is great as an angry physicist seeking to prove that something destroyed a Tokyo suburb and killed his wife in the process, and Ken Watanabe is cool as a Japanese scientist tracking giant monsters. But Cranston dies early for no good dramatic reason, and Watanabe and his crew recede into the background, so the focus can shift to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has almost zero charisma by comparison. We spend the rest of the movie following his character, a bomb disposal specialist in the Army, though it never really seems like he has any kind of drive or agency, wandering from one ill-conceived action setpiece to another until the movie ends. It's been only four hours since I saw this thing, but I don't even remember the character's name — he's just Bomb Guy to me. We also follow his wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and his young son, though they have almost no reason for being in this movie, beyond getting into trouble (although even this isn't played up for much dramatic tension). Other characters seem interesting at first, like David Straithairn's taciturn general, but they have nothing to do. The screenplay does nothing but find dumb situations for the characters to get into — some of them appallingly stupid and illogical. Why, for example, does the Army activate a nuclear bomb when the boat it's on is docked at San Francisco and the MUTOs can knock out its engines with an EMP blast? Why does the government evacuate people via the Golden Gate Bridge when there are giant hulking aquatic monsters in the vicinity? (San Francisco is not an island, guys.) Why use bombs at all when the MUTOs can chomp them down before they detonate? It's just an endless parade of lousy screenwriting in the Robert McKee vein, where the answer to every story problem is to ratchet up the audience's anxiety level, even if it makes no goddamn sense. Not only is the ship sinking, it's also on fire, there are sharks circling, and the chicken cacciatore in the galley is infected with Ebola. That's the McKee Way!

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Even as spectacle, Godzilla's pretty underwhelming. Godzilla looks like... well, Godzilla. It's nice that the filmmakers stuck to tradition, but nothing about the design is all that bold. The MUTOs, on the other hand, are totally uninspiring, recalling not only Cloverfield's Grasshopperus design but also the rubbery cheapness of Gamera's nemeses, particularly Zigra and Gyaos. The lack of imagination is truly sad. CGI could have created any number of terrifying Lovecraftian nightmares worthy of Godzilla's wrath, but the monsters look like guys in rubber suits with dangly waving bits glued on for effect. I guess that's a triumph of a sort — you don't need to build tiny cities and have men in colorful costumes stomp on them when you can recreate 1970s-level effects on your hard drive.

So is 2014 Godzilla better or worse than Emmerich's version? In a funny way, they're both about the same level of mediocre, but in different ways, and in a manner that demonstrates how bad Hollywood event movies have changed over the years. Emmerich's movie is the apotheosis of cruddy '90s genre movies — it's over the top, self-aware, pretty cavalier about death and destruction on a massive scale, and doesn't seem to really understand what Inoshiro Honda's beast was all about. Edwards' Godzilla is deadly serious, full of imagery that evokes 9/11, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Katrina, and the Fujiyama disaster (though as in Emmerich's movie there's surprisingly little human suffering). It's grounded but the ground is pretty insubstantial to begin with.

Random observations:

  • Seriously, those titles are friggin' awesome.
  • And killing off Cranston's character — who initially seems to survive but oh well — has no dramatic impact whatsoever. As soon as he dies he's forgotten. (I had secretly hoped that maybe Cranston was reincarnated as Godzilla, or his soul transmigrated into the Big G, but no dice.) Screenwriters need to get the fuck over Star Wars, which is just not that good a movie anyway. In real life, older people who are smart and/or experienced are not sacrificial Obi-Wans who impart their wisdom to twentysomething male beneficiaries before getting killed, just as minorities are not magical helper-servants. Really, fuck this stupid shit.
  • This is a movie that feels like it could have been made in 1999. One of the recurring motifs in the movie is people walking obliviously past TV screens showing massive kaiju destruction. But in this day of social media, wouldn't people be more clued in? It seems like they'd be texting each other with OMFG GIANT FUCKING MONSTERS HOLY SHIT nonstop. Smartphones would be dinging like mad with alerts.
  • Speaking of TV, I know Japan has always been way ahead of the rest of the world technologically, but that flatscreen in the classroom in the 1999 prologue looks pretty contemporary.
  • Watching this movie, I couldn't help but think of Tony Zhou's great video essay on Spielberg's strengths as a filmmaker that SPLOID linked to the other day. In interviews, Edwards has said that Spielberg is one of his biggest filmmaking influences (along with George Lucas, which is maybe not something you should admit to in this day and age), but there's precious little here to show that he paid much attention. Yes, there's shots of precocious little kids staring at stuff. Yes, there's Army guys doing things very professionally and methodically. Yes, there are slow reveals of impressive, mind-blowing things. But the composition and editing are so half-assed that none of it makes any kind of impression. Guys like Edwards have appropriated Spielberg's iconography without any sense of technique or drama. Movies like this by definition demand a human element. If you can't provide it, it's just an effects reel with some boring kaiju crap thrown in.
  • Monsters kinda sucked, too.