Caution: This review contains spoilers.
I felt guilty about enjoying the new Godzilla movie. Despite terrible development foisted on its minority characters, Godzilla makes a poignant point about the helplessness of mankind in the face of nature. My reaction was split between appreciative awe of the monsters presented in the film and painfully cringing at the tropes crushing the acting talent available to this film.
Allow me to explain. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa spends his career researching MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). He can’t seem to figure out why the male MUTO is screeching, but thankfully there’s a readily available American (Joe Bundy) to help him figure out that difficult science-y stuff. The American soon dies, but he leaves behind a son who is American military named Ford. Ford has the personality of a toothpick, but is really good at disabling bombs (supposedly—we never actually see him do it in the movie). Because of this skill, he returns to the Army to help save San Francisco. His ultimate role is to witness how Godzilla saves humanity from the MUTOs–because Godzilla is oddly benevolent, which is never really explained.
Meanwhile, the minor characters add even less personality to the film. Ford’s wife runs around in a nurse costume waiting for his return in San Francisco (there’s no footage of her actually being a nurse. A vast majority of her role is worrying about her child and waiting for her husband). There’s some Japanese boy with no lines who Ford saves to make sure the franchise has enough ethnic representation. Neither of these characters fulfill any role other than raising the stakes for Ford by putting women and children in danger—they have no lives, or really personalities, outside the scope of needing to be saved.
In terms of appealing to age-old sexist and stereotypical movie tropes, Godzilla unfortunately covers all bases. Heaven forbid an American adaptation of Godzilla would feature, say, a Japanese-American saving his hometown of San Francisco (not really far fetched, guys) or competent Asian people in general who aren’t acting as the Mystical Asian Man (I mean really, Dr. Serizawa looks off into the distance and says, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” No one in the real world talks like that or would have that kind of premonition). It’d be cool to feature a Godzilla movie where the women didn’t just run around screaming waiting for their men to swoop in and save them, or where children of color could be used as more than ethnic props. Indeed, the next Godzilla movie has a lot of ground to make up for.
But there was something greater to this movie that allows the viewers to leave all these problems behind.
Godzilla, in all reality, is about the insignificance of mankind.
Between Godzilla and the MUTOs, there is so little that people can do to stop them. They literally eat ICBMs. Their screeches can cause airplanes to drop dead in flight. They stomp through cities like a child would smash a sandcastle. The people scattering below them are no bigger than gnats. To these giants, humanity, as a whole, is irrelevant.
And that raises the bar for this action movie.
At a Jaws-like pace, Godzilla slowly reveals the MUTOs’ and Godzilla’s powers. The stakes slowly crawl higher. The military becomes more frantic, moving from ground forces to airstrikes and tanks to entertaining using a nuclear weapon to using one. All of their efforts are hopeless. A the heart of this movie, all that really matters is the emotion of the helplessness of humanity. That’s what this movie is really about—regardless of if the protagonist was male, female, Asian, White, or even privileged. I really don’t think Godzilla or the MUTOs would care.
So this film is two sided. On the one hand, this could have been a movie without human dialogue. The character “development” was a waste of time and a distraction from the awe of the giant monsters. On the other hand, the action—and emotion—attached to the horror of Godzilla was preserved. Indeed, in future iterations of Godzilla, the writers would do well to emphasize the fate of humanity—and to forego the botched trope characters.