It’s always interesting to see places you know well on the silver screen, and it’s even better if these places get destroyed by gigantic monsters. So when, in “Godzilla,” a military functionary announces there’s an “anomaly northeast of Diamond Head,” we barely have time to think “Kaimuki?” when the scene shifts to a trackless jungle dozens — maybe hundreds — of miles away from civilization, and the automatic reaction is, “That ain’t right …”
Spoiler alert: Movies aren’t reality. Movies are a fever-dream impression of reality. That’s why McGarrett and Danno can make a left turn on Waialae Avenue and immediately be on the North Shore. And why Godzilla can wade ashore on lovely evening in Waikiki, tear the joint apart, get attacked by fighter jets, and then hightail it across the Koolaus without waking up folks over in Waianae.
It’s interesting. The early Hawaii scenes are clearly filmed in Waikiki, but the mountains appear a little too close, or maybe they’re quite a bit too tall. They are towering over Waikiki. And uninhabited, because there’s no suburban streetlights visible. But we barely have time to focus on Waikiki before we discover that Oahu’s rail-transit system is already up and running, and the international airport has expanded mightily, with enclosed glass-window concourses. (And, alas, neither proves to be monster-proof.)
There’s just enough reality to lend reasonable suspension-of-disbelief to the rest of the proceedings. And the reason gigantic monsters destroy recognizable landmarks is because the landmarks are recognizable. D’uh, bro. The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed so many times in movies that I’ve lost count. The bridge eats it here too, naturally, when the monsters destroy San Francisco. Only the Transamerica Pyramid is unscathed, likely because its image is copyrighted and the Golden Gate Bridge is in public domain.
Oops, did I say monsters, plural? The “Godzilla” trailers have been most excellent in playing up the awesomeness without getting very specific on details. There are three, count ‘em, three monsters for the price of one in “Godzilla.”
How has it come to this? There’s no size limit where it comes to metaphors. The bigger the better. And when you’re dealing with a filmic metaphor that encapsulates both the harsh resiliency of nature and the bumbling hubris of mankind … well, the sky’s the limit.
Toho Studios’ surprise 1954 hit, “Gojira,” which was redubbed into English and some additional American scenes added, was released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, KIng of the Monsters” in 1956, and a classic movie monster was born. There have been dozens of versions since, and a not-so-subtle recasting of Godzilla from a Tokyo-stomper into a Japanese folk hero, but basically, all the films since boil down to a guy in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood model skyscrapers. You gotta love the schadenfreude involved, and the movies are the perfect arena to experience destructo-porn.
The original film, however, was a fairly dark — and not-so-subtle — metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war. This notion has pretty much evaporated, paralleling Japan’s increasing dependence on nuclear power.
The American nightmare that provides context and weight is the 9/11 attack, and the long shadow of that horror has permeated American films since. Add to that the crushing natural disaster of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture that swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant, and you have a modern-day recipe for a Godzilla movie.
This grim background gives the new film some karmic weight. It all starts out promisingly a bit more than a decade ago as a nuclear plant in Japan has a meltdown, perhaps due to a concurrent and mysteriously regular seismic disturbance. The guy in charge (Bryan Cranston, looking bug-eyed crazy) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, looking fab) are harshly effected by the disaster, and when “Godzilla” zips up to the present day, their Seal-team son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself dragged back into the mystery as the seismic drumbeats start up again. Also on board are a freaked-out Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe, with odd English diction) and his Sancho Panza, a sidekick (Sally Hawkins) who doesn’t seem to have a name and exists mainly to provide expository dialogue.
Director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous series credit was the independent thriller “Monsters,” does a fine job here with Spielbergian camera moves and composite shots, plus that hard-to-capture sense of overwhelming awesomeness,
Predictably, on a human level, “Godzilla” is meh. The human “star” actors don’t last long, and the second-string actors who carry the rest of the film are, as you might expect, fall under Godzilla’s shadow. They’re mostly reduced to staring upward in horror or dusting themselves off after being buried by rubble.
The real stars are the monsters. Big, big, sprawling monsters. There’s the Big G himself (The film notes state that Godzilla is 350 feet tall, but who’s measuring?) plus some awkward-looking insectoid / pterodactylish / bullfroggy creatures they call “Mutos.” Godzilla spends much of the film getting from here to there so he can thrash them. Godzilla is so focused on this that he doesn’t notice the convoy of US Navy ships keeping him close company, or that he’s stomped Waikiki into brightly-painted rubble. Big G doesn’t even stop to eat.
Come to think of it, there’s been a curious switch in Godzilla’s diet since 1954. Instead of being a poster child for the horrors of nuclear radiation, Godzilla and the Mutos “eat” radiation for breakfast. Godzilla has retained his morning-after radiation breath, however.
Eating radiation? So much for science.
Hey, Mr. Science, can there really be giant monsters like Godzilla?
Actually, no. The problem is the tensile strength of the average cell. There is an upper limit to how much strain can be placed upon the cells in bones and muscles, and the enormous mass of such a creature would rend the cells apart. Even though some of the dinosaur sauropods were dozens of feet long, they were long and narrow in their physical structure. Cetaceans such as whales have large body mass, but they are supported by water, which is 800 times denser than air. Not to mention the caloric intake required by a Godzilla-sized creature to supply nutrients throughout its gigantic frame. A monster the size of Godzilla would collapse under its own mass, the pressure actually liquifying the body cells into a kind of protein ooze.
Gee, Mr. Science, you’re kind of a bummer. Think I’ll escape reality by going to the movies.