Two Hollywood movies enter. One leaves. Through the doggy door.
After reading this, and because I know my shit, I thought it might be helpful to detail exactly some of the things that made this newest version of Godzilla awesome instead of just another pile of rotting tuna. In the past, I've considered reviewing the 1998 Godzilla film. But as I've attempted to re-watch it, I realized that it was just plain bad. Not enjoyable. Not really even ridiculously hilarious to tear-down. So, this is the what I chose instead. A good movie set alongside a terribly, terrible movie.
With that said, I'm positive that almost everyone with half a brain came away from this movie feeling that it was pretty damn kickass, but solidifying why could be useful. So, major spoilers to come if you haven't seen the new film...
**SPOILERS AHEAD...YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!!!!**
1) Godzilla means something
This newest version of Godzilla isn't the embodiment of America's nuclear testing/use of the 1950s. Instead, we have creatures from a bygone era which mankind attempts to control and subvert to its will. The creature itself here is not the message. Instead, it is how the people of this film react to these creatures that sends the message. Humanity is still guilty of attempting to control forces of nature without thought to what that control will mean. The hubris of humanity in the film is in hoping to destroy creatures that it does not understand with bigger explosions. It's a twist on the origin of Godzilla, but one that works because there's some stuff of substance to it.
On the other hand, 1998's Godzilla was an excuse to put the best CGI effects of the time into a Hollywood blockbuster film with big explosions and very little in the way of heart. It was an exercise in technological prowess that put almost no thought into compelling the audience with anything other than a flashy giant mutant lizard that wants to lay its eggs in the most populous city in the United States. Why does it choose this hostile environment when even the most rudimentary animals would have instinctually avoided such a poor spot for a nest? Don't ask, because there is no answer other than an excuse to see the giant lizard traipsing around and through skyscrapers and scenic landmarks. There's no weight behind this CGI creature because he's just a big dumb animal. Nothing more.
There is timelessness to substance. Messages about humanity carry across eras. Special effects will always be dated in ten years. The seams of CGI crack and splinter as time goes on. But threads of the human condition, humanity's place in the world, and our relationship with technology carry across generations because they're always relevant.
2) Godzilla saves the children
There's a moment on the bridge when the military is going nuts because Godzilla has surfaced. They're firing salvos of missiles and inadvertantly put a bridge-full of evacuating civilians, including a bus full of annoyingly screaming children, in danger. Godzilla steps up out of the water just in time to block the handful of missiles that were sure to destroy the bridge and kill everyone on it. The children in the bus escape with a close-up look into the eye of Godzilla, but otherwise are unharmed.
This is important because many of the Godzilla films that you think of when you think of "Godzilla film" were aimed at children. The big G transformed from lumbering symbol of man's nuclear hubris (in the 1954 film) to defender of Japan and friend to children (arguably before, but solidly in 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster). This was the 60's era when the fighting between two men in rubber suits looked more like a wrestling match than a battle of titans.
The 1998 Godzilla film had no equivalent scene or sentiment.
3) Godzilla is both terrifying and a saviour
|Exactly what your face would do if you saw Godzilla.|
Not so for the 1998 Godzilla. GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) is tearing through New York's streets, the subway system, and even (oddly) creating a hole in a building, all while the Army is firing missiles into skyscrapers (the ones that miss have to go somewhere, right?). All of this will result in loss of human life. But GINO's motivation is procreation. Nature again, but nature of another sort. A more selfish form of it. The violence that GINO inflicts upon the city of New York is cartoon-ized most effectively by that single shot of Hank Azaria with the camera almost getting stepped-on. But we have to assume that kind of luck didn't befall all New Yorkers.
4) Get the scientist right(-ish)
Ken Watanabe plays Dr. Serizawa in 2014's Godzilla. Serizawa inhabits two important character perspectives from the original 1954 Gojira. He is the embodiment of both Professor Yamane's compassion for the monster and desire to study the unknown (on the M.U.T.O team), and also the original Dr. Serizawa's respect for man's disregard for the balance of nature (his father's watch from Hiroshima). He's a three-dimensional scientist with a complicated relationship with the giant, prehistoric beasts he studies.
|This: Yamane (Gojira 1954)|
|Plus this: Serizawa (Gojira 1954)|
|Equals this: Serizawa (Godzilla 2014)|
On the other hand, Matthew Broderick's Nick Tatopolous is a bewildered nerd stereotype who is utterly incapable and/or simply a buffoon. He's juggling his relationship issues while also giving pregnancy tests to GINO. He brings almost no specialized knowledge to the situation that any other placeholder scientist couldn't have also contributed. He's brought onto the scene because he studies genetic mutations caused by radiation, but there's nothing about GINO's behavior or physiology which requires this specialized knowledge.
|Matthew Broderick in a backwards hat with a dumb look on his face.|
We have to operate on movie-level logic here. Matthew Broderick fails this test as a scientist within the universe that the 1998 film creates. On the other hand, Ken Watanabe is a good actor whose persona and motivations contribute to the overall crux of the main conflict, calls back to two characters from the 1954 film, and actually feels like a logical scientist character within the movie's world.
5) 2014's Godzilla breathes fucking blue fire
|2014 - Atomic Breath|
|1998 - No Atomic Breath|
6) Godzilla fights something
Last, but not least, we need a rival to Godzilla. The viewer has to emotionally invest in the giant monster fight enough to feel some triumph when Godzilla inevitably wins. That means he needs something that actually threatens him because if there is no actual threat, there's no drama, and if there's not drama, there's no payoff when our main character wins (this is also the problem with Wolverine and Superman movies, but that's something to discuss in some other post).
1998's GINO battled the military, but was eventually bested by a bridge.
|Need I say more?|
The Godzilla of 2014 has a pair of adversaries that are a real threat. They endanger the human race as well as the big behemoth. The final kaiju battle clearly illustrates that Godzilla is not a clear-cut, easy winner. Sure, he triumphs in the end, but there are a few palpable moments where the audience feels that this might actually not happen, where maybe it will be up to the human characters to win with their plan instead. Ultimately, we cheer Godzilla on against these antagonists. We pump a fist when cracks his tail like a whip into one of the M.U.T.Os and shoves it against the "ropes." And we cheer (as the audience did in the screening I attended) when Godzilla breathes his blue, atomic breath into the mouth of his final adversary.
In the end, there's not much of a comparison beyond the title of the film. If you're a fan of the Godzilla series (Newsflash: there's 28 films, no matter what you may have read...re-editing a film doesn't make it a new film), then you'll appreciate how this new film handles the Big G. And if you just like good movies, you'll feel satisfied with this one on a visceral level because, at the very least, it doesn't scrape its fingernails across a chalkboard of cartoonish emptiness.