Reel Rumbles: “Godzilla” vs. “Pacific Rim”
In 1998, Roland Emmerich tried to Americanize Godzilla, and studios have been gun-shy ever since. Now, however, the beasts are back. With a vengeance. Nothing says, “chaos” quite like a skyscraper-sized monster leveling a city, yet as limited as the initial premise might seem, Hollywood’s two latest and biggest efforts in this subgenre have taken surprisingly different approaches.
It’s time to let them fight. Strap in for Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim.
Round One: Story
Let’s be honest: “Story” is not really the most important aspect of a giant monster movie. Yet, while audiences come for the spectacle, a proper story holds things together between the bouts of mayhem.
Godzilla finds Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) trying to track down his father (Bryan Cranston), who is searching for the truth behind the long-ago incident at a Japanese nuclear power plant that lead to the death of Ford’s mother (Juliette Binoche). Instead, father and son are on hand to witness the resurrection of a powerful beast dubbed the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that begins to wreak havoc across the globe as it searches for its mate. When the MUTO’s presence awakens the long-dormant Godzilla, the stage is set for a titanic showdown.
In the not-so-distant future of Pacific Rim, mankind has been besieged by the Kaiju, skyscraper-sized monsters that emerge from a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. We’ve found some success countering the threat by creating the Jaegers, mammoth robots controlled by two human pilots sharing a neural link. But the tide is turning, as the Kaiju attacks from the Pacific Rim begin increasing in frequency…
Godzilla represents the rebirth of a legend in modern cinema. Pacific Rim is more of a loving tribute to that legend and the rest of his ilk. While the former is more of a slow burn, and the latter nearly wall-to-wall action, both are valid approaches to the material.
Round one is a draw.
Round Two: Script
Godzilla‘s script, on the surface, seems to go through all the right motions: Give us some mammoth monsters to fight each other. Make sure their very existence is the result of nuclear war, human arrogance, and stupidity. Give us a human hero to follow around, with a past born of tragedy, and a family in direct peril through most of the film. Make sure he’s there to witness the monsters’ final, epic battle.
These are all the right major plot points to hit. The biggest problem is that Godzilla doesn’t dig too far past them. There’s evidence of meat on the bones, but most of it is chewed by Bryan Cranston before the movie is half over. From there on out, it’s all spectacle, forgetting that this movie wanted to be about something a bit deeper.
In Pacific Rim, the spectacle is the entire point. As such, there’s not a lot of story needed to string it all together: The Kaiju came, we fought back, now we’re taking the fight to their home turf. Oh sure, there’s the grizzled veteran who seeks out the disgraced hero to make a comeback, and the crazy scientist who finds the way to take the fight to the Kaiju’s home turf. Yet, unlike with Godzilla, there’s no real attempt at profundity. It’s just about the alien invasion, and us fighting back.
Godzilla tries to say something about family and the hubris of man against the backdrop of thrills and excitement. I’m all for that, but the problem is that the movie only really delivers on the latter front. With Pacific Rim, there’s no pretense. All it wants to know is: Are you not entertained?
Both films bring the epic monster battles. Pacific Rim actually gains a point for not trying too hard. It’s a script that knows what it’s trying to do, and doesn’t grasp for that little more that’s beyond its reach.
Godzilla gets points for ambition, but in this round, the slight advantage goes to Pacific Rim.
Round Three: Performances
As much as these movies are all about the monsters, you do need to have some human characters to latch on to. And the truth is, the ensemble of Pacific Rim does a little more to distinguish themselves.
Almost everybody else in Godzilla winds up feeling just adequate for their characters, mostly because the people in the film don’t have much to do beyond filling their stock roles. Bryan Cranston, in his first major role following his run on Breaking Bad, is the only one who really makes an impression, as the heartbroken and determined-bordering-on-crazy Joe Brody. Juliette Binoche has just enough screen time to make you feel Joe’s heartache, and David Strathairn is commanding as Admiral Stenz, but the great Ken Watanabe is wasted, while fellow Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins is in a completely superfluous role, and Elizabeth Olsen is simply the token damsel in distress as the wife of hero Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson).
Most of Pacific Rim‘s characters at least have, well, character, and make something of an impression, from Idris Elba‘s no-nonsense, take-charge Stacker Pentecost, to Charlie Day‘s frantic, geeked-out Dr. Newton Geiszler. Frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman is at his scenery-chewing best as the awesomely-named black market Kaiju body part dealer, Hannibal Chau.
Even if the heroes, Rayleigh Becket (Hunnam), and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), are a little bland, they’re at least surrounded by colorful supporting players. They’re caricatures, but Pacific Rim is practically a cartoon, anyway. Godzilla‘s supporting cast is nearly as drab as the production design.
Advantage: Pacific Rim
Round Four: Direction
I just mentioned Godzilla‘s monochromatic palette, but frankly, it’s an aesthetic that really works for the film. The brief flashes of red and blue really pop against the mostly black-and-grey of the ruined cities that Godzilla and the MUTOs leave in their wake. Visually, Gareth Edwards has pulled off something pretty amazing with Godzilla.
Edwards is obviously going for some meat and potatoes, while del Toro is all about the sugar rush. The former is ably assisted by Bryan Cranston, but the script lets them down a bit. The latter assembles a colorful crew of actors who play right into the over-the-top fun.
Edwards manages to (at least at first) conceal some of the weaknesses in his film’s script. Del Toro knows that if you can just dive right in, you’ll be able to overlook some of the weaknesses in the script. Both approaches result in two of the most visually distinctive films of the decade so far. Del Toro brings experience, but Edwards’ raw talent is fully on display.
Round four is a draw.
And the Winner Is…
There will be no shortage of mammoth monster movies in the future. Pacific Rim 2 is currently in development with Guillermo del Toro at the helm, and Gareth Edwards has been tapped to direct two sequels to Godzilla after he delivers a Star Wars movie for Disney in December 2016. In that sense, the success of these two movies is apparent enough.
Which is superior, though? Is it more laudable to aim higher and have your shot land slightly to the left of the target, as in Godzilla? Or do you get more points for aiming low and striking the bulls-eye?
The ambition of Godzilla is monstrously apparent, and with a better script, Edwards might be able to deliver something remarkable with the sequels. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, simply aims to thrill, and del Toro finds his mark.
The winner of this bout, by the narrowest margin, is Pacific Rim.