A few days back a good number of readers took issue with my review of Godzilla, which was the kind of thing I would have hoped they would do after they had actually seen the movie. I stand by my review, but I want to point out one thing – it was mixed down the middle. The 2.5 out of 5 score was very deliberately meant to indicate that there was still just as much to like (for me) as there was to dislike.
In the comments, I was asked how this film compares with last year’s Pacific Rim. Good question. Both are giant Kaiju movies. Both are Legendary/Warner Bros. films. And both get a lot right. Mainly, they get their Kaiju right. As I noted in my Godzilla review, the new movie’s treatment of the big guy is fantastic. Not only are his scale and appearance imposing and powerful, but there’s a lot of strong character work going on in the pixels that animate him. You get what his objectives are and you can even understand his battle plan. Gareth Edwards does such a good job of getting you on his side that there are several moments during the end battle that will make you want to stand up and cheer, regardless of your feelings on the rest of the movie.
Edwards also does a fantastic job of setting Godzilla himself up. Seen only in fits and starts, from a series of fins protruding from the water to brief full body glimpses, he retains a satisfying sense of mystery up until the end. There, the film goes whole hog on the full body shots as Godzilla and one of the MUTOs wage war in San Francisco. Godzilla might wear you out with its human characters, but there’s no monster or battle fatigue.
Pacific Rim, on the other hand, wears you down a bit on both fronts. I believe that Rim would benefit from perhaps one less robot on Kaiju battle scene, just as I believe that the film suffers from a huge missed opportunity when it comes to developing its concept of “the drift.” The final version of the film explores surprisingly little in the way of character possibilities offered up by that conceit. It’s the perfect scenario to make the chances of overcoming external obstacles contingent upon the triumph over internal obstacles. There’s a little bit of that with Rinko Kikuchi’s character, but the movie could have gone full (as a friend once suggested) Strictly Ballroom here, with Hunnam and Kikuchi learning to work together – to dance – in a way that fuels their ultimate romantic entanglement.
While Pacific Rim has hugely broad characters, they almost sort of fit in with the old fashioned innocence of the film. It feels like Guillermo del Toro engineered the movie as something of a futuristic riff on those old WW2 propaganda reels, so the broadness feels earned (even if I personally find some of it grating). The characters in Godzilla are broad in a different way – they’re ciphers. There’s nothing cartoonish or exaggerated about them, which puts them miles away from the Pacific Rim universe. They are fairly bland. However, if the intent was to reduce their function to POV access points, they get the job done superbly. Since much of Godzilla is built around a slow, Jaws-like reveal, it helps to have plenty of different characters on the ground who can gape at his majesty without giving away the money shot every 5 minutes.
Pacific Rim boasts a higher quantity of Kaiju with varying designs and sizes. Its beautiful rainswept neon environment keeps them at arm’s length from our current reality. The destruction brought upon us by Godzilla and the battling MUTO’s feels much more recognizable, the terror more relatable. As I’ve said before – the monster stuff in Godzilla is fantastic. The set pieces are alternately suspenseful and grand and they don’t overdo it. The only fatigue you’ll feel from this movie is from the half-baked exposition that threatens to destroy all of the human scenes.
As far as preferences go, I’d have to see Godzilla again before I decided. While my review demonstrates a degree of disappointment, there’s enough praise coming from people I respect to warrant a second look. As it stands now, Pacific Rim beats it out for me as a movie – but the character of Godzilla himself is better than any single element of GDT’s film.
Maybe it comes down to this. If you like your Kaijus as beautifully anonymous cannon fodder, Pacific Rim wins. If you want them to be characters you can root for, Godzilla stands triumphant. Either way, if you like big lizards, you’ll probably be fine.