Magazine | June 23, 2014, Issue

Monster Mash

Sometimes your feelings about a two-hour movie can be summed up by the way you react to a single fleeting scene. In the latest incarnation of Godzilla, that moment arrived for me in the film’s final act, when the titular monster and his two radiation-devouring rivals are having their way with the innocent skyscrapers of San Francisco. In one shot, we see the city-destroying creatures through the windows of an office building’s 80th-or-so story, from whose cubicles and conference rooms a cluster of hapless Bay Area white-collar types watch, screaming, as their doom comes sweeping in.

And all I could think was: What are those people doing on the 80th floor of a skyscraper? Don’t they know what’s going on outside?

Keep in mind that by this point in the movie, Godzilla and Co. have been leading the nightly newscasts for days, large portions of Japan, Hawaii, and Las Vegas have been reduced to rubble by their tails and claws and wings, and the Bay Area is under military occupation, with schoolchildren being bused across the bridges and civilians herded into BART shelters. Yet the office-building shot is staged as though the people inside had been somehow taken completely unawares — too preoccupied with their TPS reports, apparently, to hear about the prehistoric monsters converging on their city.

This is a small detail, a pedantic complaint, the kind of whine you’d expect to hear from the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons . . . except that the whole movie is like this. Scene by scene, line by line, the script and story aren’t just lazy, they are offensively lazy, in ways that no amount of spectacle can overcome.

This is unfortunate, because, as spectacles go, the new Godzilla is a visually accomplished work: The director, a newbie named Gareth Edwards, has a gift for shooting action sequences, an eye for moments of beauty amid the flame and ash and lizard tails, and a healthy restraint when it comes to revealing too much too soon. And the narrative starts out promisingly enough, with opening credits that play with the original Godzilla mythos (a scaled, spiny back rises amid footage of the Bikini Atoll tests) and then the introduction of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Juliette Binoche as our apparent leads, a Japanese scientist studying prehistoric megafauna and two married nuclear-plant supervisors doing expat work in the land of the rising sun.

But this is a movie in which the quality of each actor’s work correlates almost inversely with his or her screen time, and so before you can say “nuclear accident that isn’t really an accident at all,” it becomes clear that the master thespians are around just to cash paychecks, and the actual leads are going to be a tragically body-built Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing Cranston and Binoche’s grown-up Marine son, and Elizabeth Olsen as his San Francisco–based M.D. wife.

I know that both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen can act; I’ve seen the movies where they proved it. But let’s just say that in this case I could have replaced them with two pretty faces plucked at random from the streets of Hollywood and saved the filmmakers a lot of money without reducing the quality of their movie one iota.

In fairness, the leads are working off a script that, as noted earlier, doesn’t even bother trying. You don’t go to a Godzilla movie for the repartee, but usually there’s at least a stab at humor here and there, a rumor of a shadow of a hint that actual human beings might have been involved in the writing of the dialogue. In this case, it feels as if the script were “written” by a computer program tasked first with assembling the flattest dialogue from 1950s B-movies, and then with editing it, with algorithmic rigor, to erase anything that remained that even resembled soul or wit.

The story, meanwhile, has a moronic rhythm that becomes almost reassuring after a while: Start with a boneheaded military decision, then put a cute dog in peril, then show Ken Watanabe murmuring something about nature’s awesomeness, then throw a cute child into peril, then a still more inexplicable military decision, then back to Watanabe, then put a bus full of cute children in peril, then have the military try to salvage its terrible strategy with a surpassingly idiotic gambit, then Watanabe, still murmuring . . . and then, at last, the monsters fight.

The fighting is good: Edwards understands how to direct a slugfest, and it was a smart choice by the filmmakers to resurrect the vintage Godzilla-versus-the-monsters trope and make the big dude, ultimately, a humanity-saving hero.

But all this only makes the movie’s underlying terribleness more frustrating. A weekend of script doctoring — heck, an afternoon — could have made this movie a solid B-plus blockbuster, instead of what it is: a big, scaly G-minus.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Right Reforms

Liberals are taking the publication of a new collection of essays by conservatives as an occasion to diagnose what ails the Right. The favor should be returned. Liberalism’s reaction to ...
Politics & Policy

#NoNotMe

Collective guilt is en vogue at the moment, the ever-supple concepts of “privilege,” “rape culture,” and “entitlement” having been gradually brought into the mainstream and then ruthlessly applied to anything ...
Politics & Policy

A Concert of Democracies

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing pressure on Ukraine reveal more than the Obama administration’s national-security paralysis and a lack of strategic vision. Like the collapse of the League of ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Fight the Dragon

The standard economic model treats free trade as obviously positive, creating prosperity for all participants. Conservatives, and most neoliberals, have embraced that view and consistently press for further liberalization while ...
Politics & Policy

Victus

There were a few plying the dark arts of lobbying in Washington before it, but Patton Boggs was in some ways the original modern lobbyist shop. A D.C. law firm ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Monster Mash

Sometimes your feelings about a two-hour movie can be summed up by the way you react to a single fleeting scene. In the latest incarnation of Godzilla, that moment arrived ...
Country Life

Homecoming

As a weekender, I do not subscribe to any of the daily newspapers upstate, so I had no advance notice of Sergeant Shawn Farrell’s homecoming, which happened on a Wednesday. ...
Politics & Policy

Dysfunctional Government

This book speaks directly to the malaise that has accompanied Barack Obama’s second term in office. “The West,” write John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, “has lost confidence in the way ...
Politics & Policy

High Stakes

In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland for what were supposed to be brief working discussions to prepare for a summit later ...
Politics & Policy

The Real Tinsel

The story can now be told. Sort of. Almost 1 million years ago, when then-president George H. W. Bush was running for a second term, his running mate, Dan Quayle, gave ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Is Causation Magical? While I share David Pryce-Jones’s aversion to Gabriel García Márquez’s unforgivable political affiliations and the undue accolades he received in eulogy, I’m not certain that Mr. Pryce-Jones’s article ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Hillary Clinton has a new book out. At this point what difference does it make? ‐ President Obama gave a commencement address at West Point, which he meant as a ...
The Long View

Memorandum

CONFIDENTIAL TO: POTUS FROM: Strategy RE: Rebranding as “Promise Keeper” Sir: We’ve spent the past few cycles seeing where we are in re: our rebranding efforts, and we think we’re making great progress. In the past ...
Athwart

Argument of the Week

It would appear that writers for Slate wake, stretch, yawn, and think: What comfortable, familiar, harmless aspect of life can we destroy today? What means of arranging society, accumulated over ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

OVERHEARD “Just think about her name and hit ‘delete.’” I want to interrupt, say, “Don’t believe the steps could be so simple and complete. Love rifles through your trash bin to retrieve each image that ...
Happy Warrior

Personal Library

Not long ago, I popped into a Salvation Army store in suburban Maryland to check out the used-book section. I’d unearthed plenty of gems in similar places, so it wasn’t ...

Most Popular

U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More