It’s not exactly The Blair Witch Project, but the new Godzilla is initially a little hesitant to give you a full, proper ogle at its titular monster. There he is on a TV. There he is out of the corner of someone’s eye. Wait, I think I saw part of him from the window of this air-train taking the protagonist to a flight I’m sure won’t get delayed because of Godzilla. Wait, is Godzilla late to his own movie? Fortunately, when you do see the big G in all his tall swinging, blue-fire-breathing action, you can’t help but think to yourself “Whoo-hoo! You show em’ Godzilla!” Actually, maybe I said that out loud.
But who are these other creatures he’s battling and is this movie really positing Godzilla as global monster-buster?
Spoilers for Godzilla ahead
As aficionados of Godzilla are aware, the thematic nature of this monster is different depending on which Godzilla movie you’re watching. Here are the two most popular options for what any given Godzilla movie is all about:
A.) Godzilla is a monster who stomps and destroys us and we feel guilty about it.
B.) Godzilla is a monster who fights other monsters and prevents us (kind of) from being destroyed and we still feel guilty about it.
This new Godzilla remake splits the difference and makes him one thing toward the start, and something else in the middle and the end, but is fairly light on the guilt trips.
There’s several human, non-Godzilla-centric conflicts in the movie, but the primary one that concerns G. Zilla is this: a couple of other giant monsters called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object) want to mate and start breeding more MUTOs. Godzilla’s appearance then, is described by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) as possibly “restoring balance to nature,” and Godzilla is characterized as an “alpha predator.” Effectively, the job of the Big G is really just acting as birth control for other monsters. Cutely, these two MUTO’s nuzzle each other when they meet up, but faster than you can say “Godzilla,” Godzilla is on the scene to monster-block their love fest. And though this premise sounds ridiculous, for the purposes of having post-hibernation prehistoric monsters fight with each other, it’s a fairly reasonable conceit and also succeeds in softly vilifying the MUTOs while putting Godzilla in a more heroic light. Is it creepy that Godzilla is so anti-sex? A little.
Even though there’s a slow burn on getting a good look at Godzilla himself (bizarrely, I’m fairly sure the MUTOs have more screen time), the scenes he is in are great. The fights between Godzilla and these creatures are totally exciting, and (refreshingly) not overly long. The moment when Godzilla’s signature blue lightning activates is thrilling, and Godzilla’s defeat of the final MUTO by snapping its jaws open serves as a kind of reverse homage to King Kong’s 1933 defeat of the T-rex on Skull Island. It’s terrifying and badass. (Even in a spoiler review, I can’t and won’t ruin the best and most hardcore part about this scene.) And while I wished there was one more Godzilla vs. Other Monster scene, the fights we got here were satisfying, fresh, and familiar at the same time.
But what about the human characters, and their metaphysical debates about super weapons and the danger of believing we can control nature? This time we’ve got Bryan Cranston as crazed and sad scientist Joe Brody and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his Navy bomb-deactivating son named Ford. Plot convenience is often a force of nature in a big disaster movie like this, and here is no exception since hunky Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) works not in advertising nor at a Planet Fitness, but instead is a nurse who is helping with all the monster-fallout victims. The movie stops short of giving us an uncle who just happens to work in giant-net-casting-monster-trap business.*
*This joke was stolen over wine and whiskey with writer and fellow Godzilla-fan, Jim Shepard.
The scientist characters in the film either die early (Cranston’s Joe is dead about 45 minutes in) or play fourth fiddle to the other characters, most of whom are in the military. (Godzilla himself is probably second fiddle to the MUTOs). I loved Ken Watanabe as this film’s version of classic Godzilla character Dr. Serizawa, though he sadly didn’t rock an eyepatch. I similarly adored Sally Hawkins as his science partner Dr. Vivienne Graham, and yet neither have as much screentime as Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody and his military machinations. This Godzilla differs from other Godzillas in a very specific way: it feels like a war movie. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, as the original concept behind the Godzilla movies deals specifically with nuclear weapons and the militaries using them, but the classic 1954 film actually features way more civilians than this one does.
I’m not saying there’s anything incorrect with focusing on members of the military as the visible human heroes of a movie like this, but I did find the militarization of this film jarring and somewhat arbitrary. It’s not jingoistic at all, but I guess I wished that the scientists (whether engineers like Cranston or paleontologists like Watanabe) played more of an instrumental part in the movie. To put it another way: if the new Jurassic Park film—Jurassic World— features mostly military dino-hunters and not scientists talking about the ethics of extinction, it will feel a little off in comparison to the original 1993 film. I suppose the militarization of a Godzilla film is realistic, and if you’re going to try and make a Godzilla movie feel realistic, this one does a fairly good job.
The film concludes with the fictional news outlets declaring Godzilla “the king of monsters,” and trumpeting him as the savior of San Francisco, but really it feels more like a western, one in which Godzilla declares “there’s only one sheriff in this monster town,” and then proves it. And so, as Godzilla descends back into the sea, no one tries to kill him, or shake their fist at all the damage they’re going to have to repair, or how they feel ripped off that Bryan Cranston wasn’t in the movie a little bit more. Instead, if you’re a regular audience member, you’re probably cheering. Has the movie manipulated you into those cheers with some heavy nostalgia and lighthearted monster action? Yes. Should you care or be offended? Probably not. As long as you don’t think too hard about Godzilla’s own family, or if there was a monster that tried to prevent his birth, you’ll be fine.
Personally, I’d rather live in world with Godzilla movies than without them, so for now, I guess I’m happy enough that this movie did something that, bizarrely, felt risky: they let the monster survive. And because I saw so little of this new version of him, I’m glad Godzilla lived to stomp and make that amazing noise of his, another day.
Ryan Britt is a writer and critic living in New York City and a longtime contributor to Tor.com.