It’s ironic that one of the few criticisms leveled at Godzilla (2014) is that human deuteragonist Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is viewed by many as wooden and uninteresting, because he’s actually one of the most realistic military characters I’ve ever seen.
I have a healthy skepticism of the military. My mother was basically a hippie who spent most of my youth going through a profound rebellion against her WWII veteran father, to the point of implying to me that my Vietnam vet father died from illness caused by exposure to Agent Orange (he didn’t). The Iran-Contra affair and George H. W. Bush’s ties to Manuel Noriega – and the amusingly cynical portrayal of politics in Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – combined to give me a jaded view of war that certainly wasn’t helped by George W. Bush’s adventurism. I even wrote a really angry poem in high school taking soldiers to task for allowing themselves to be used as chess pieces.
San Antonio, TX is, however, a city with a heavy military presence, and I found myself working at a military service company many years ago. I’ve spent most of the Iraq War dealing with soldiers and their families, and it has opened my eyes to the better side of servicemen. I haven’t lost my skepticism, but I know that there really are soldiers like Lt. Ford Brody.
He’s a man of quiet competence. He’s a an Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert – that means he’s a hero who volunteered to save people by disarming bombs instead of shooting guns. He’s a young guy without a lot of money whose wife has to work a really demanding job so they can have just a little bit of comfort. He’s a man who just spent 14 months away from his family and just wants to get home; he hasn’t seen his child in over a year.
(He’s also the son of a single parent who drives him crazy and likes to drink red wine from stemless glasses, but let’s not get into how he reminds me of myself.)
Lt. Ford Brody is noble and humble – just like a lot of real-life veterans – and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s understated performance really captures that.
Of course, you might have noticed I used the word “deuteragonist” up at the top there. That’s a fancy word for “second lead” and there’s no question who the protagonist – the real main character – is in Godzilla (2014).
(SPOILERS AFTER THE CUT)
That is what blew my mind when I saw this movie at one of the 7PM early-bird screenings last Thursday night. It really is an old-fashioned Godzilla movie.
Godzilla (1954) is essentially unique and separate from all the sequels in that it is a somberly metaphorical disaster movie where the disaster is an atomic bomb personified as a giant lizard. A friend of mine used to jokingly wonder what Godzilla (1954) would have been like if it was directed by Akira Kurosawa; after I finally saw the uncut original film during the 2004 limited theatrical release, I was able to tell him it would have been just the same. Ishirō Honda was a friend of and collaborator with Kurosawa and the original film has the same black humor and complex morality of Yojimbo or Seven Samurai. It is subtle and horrifying in a way none of the sequels could hope to match, but it isn’t really a “Godzilla movie.”
Godzilla movies are about giant monsters smashing things up. They’re about cathartic violence and fantasies of power. Godzilla stopped being a villain in 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; it (he?) has spent fifty years being an anti-hero at worst and an outright good guy at best. He has been the monster that saves us from other monsters for far longer than he was a symbol of nuclear holocaust. The astonishing thing about Godzilla (2014) is that isn’t a disaster movie where the disaster is a giant monster; it’s a god-damned Godzilla movie.
The early trailers with their haunting use of György Ligeti's Requiem and tearful Bryan Cranston were a fake-out. The last round of trailers with Ken Watanabe’s pronouncement “Let them fight” give a much better clue to the true tone of the film. Once Godzilla shows up, there is no question that he’s the hero. He is relentless in his pursuit of the vaguely Mothra-like MUTOs, but never wantonly destructive. The damage he wreaks on Hawaii and San Francisco is either the inevitable result of his sheer size or sis actually caused by panicked humans. He earns his victory through determination and hard work; he’s actually the underdog through most of the battle as the MUTOs tag-team against him, and everybody loves an underdog. His final triumphant roar is accompanied by a cheer from the humans in the film and the audience for the movie.
I’m still reeling from that a week later. I didn’t expect a heroic Godzilla and I certainly didn’t know that I wanted it so badly. I’ve lived through the nadir of Godzilla fandom and I thought I’d made peace with the laughter directed at my childhood hero. I remember John Belushi in a Godzilla suit and Godzilla’s team-ups with Bambi and Charles Barkley. I saw Godzilla (1998) in the theater and watched as Hollywood (almost literally) ran away from everything that made Godzilla more than a The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms knock-off. I’ve laughed at good-guy Godzilla just like every other Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan; I never thought that I would be so happy with, so grateful for a film that has more in common with Terror of Mechagodzilla than it does with the 1954 original.
When Godzilla’s fins began to light up – blue light igniting piece by piece from the tip of his tail – my wife grabbed by hand in joy and I squeezed hers back. Tears moistened my eyes as atomic fire leaped from his mouth. The audience went wild at the Alamo Drafthouse. The real Godzilla is back and he is our hero.