Quick note: this is all spoilers.
The new Godzilla film is broken. While not without merit, the final kaiju fight being one of the best in cinema, it sadly stuck to one tradition of the series that should have been left behind: almost everything before the climax is incredibly boring and populated by characters we don’t care about. Many films have this problem, but this one was especially aggravating because the film already has all the elements it needed for a gripping, human drama. A drama that would only have bettered the monster fights. It has these elements and then it seems to deliberately throw them away. And it does this before casting or directing enter into it. The problems in this movie could and should have been identified just from the script. Allow me to expound upon these failures and briefly outline the wonderful movie that could have been.
Most of the problems stem from one monumental misstep. The film has the wrong protagonist. The father should have been the main character. Even before the brilliant casting of Bryan Cranston this should have been clear just from the script. The father, Joe Brody, is the one with the goal, the motivation, and personality strong enough to create the central conflict and see it through to the end. The son, Ford Brody, has no motive to be there and no strong goal. He only enters the conflict because his father is forced to call for help. Damon Knight once had a great piece of advice on storytelling that ran like this: “If your character enters the conflict by being asked for help, your story is about the wrong character.” The person asking for help will always have the more interesting story because they are the one personally affected by the conflict. The story should be rewritten to center around them, and preferably changed so that they can’t, or won’t, call for help. We want to see them resolve their own problems.
So, now that Joe is the main character we stay with him after the time skip. He could still get arrested and call his son for help, but I think that’s a mistake. I think we should leave the son in San Francisco. That way, when the monsters begin to converge there the main character has a strong, very personal reason to want to prevent that from happening. This is already true in the current film, with Ford trying to save his wife and son, but this new configuration allows for far more character growth. In the film as is Ford wants to keep his family safe. He does. The end. Ford, his family, and their relationships to each other are all exactly the same at the beginning and ending. If you’re characters all end the same as they started you have a boring script. With Joe in the lead there is very easy, but effective, character arc that naturally presents itself. With his sons life on the line he realizes he should have spent more time with the family he had left instead of devoting himself to his dead wife's memory. We could have had the father and son, estranged at the beginning of the story, reconnect at the end. It’s not an incredibly complicated character arc, but at least it is one. Ford has no arc. The only real, permanent thing that happens to him in the film is the death of his father and bizarrely the movie doesn’t even have him react strongly to that. He has a short scene of looking very sad, mentions it to his wife over the phone, and then apparently forgets about it. Even when he meets Dr. Serizawa, the man in charge of the conspiracy his father worked at exposing for the entirety of Fords life, Ford doesn’t have any strong emotions about any of it. You’d think there’d be some really strong feelings at that meeting, but not in this movie.
So, we leave Ford in San Francisco. Joe doesn’t get arrested and doesn’t have to call his son. We still need to reestablish both of these characters after the time skip. The way I would do this is having Ford calling Joe for a quick happy birthday. This would make intuitive sense as it would mean we cut to exactly 15 years later. Joe could have once again forgotten it was his birthday establishing he’s just as much of a workaholic as he used to be. Through their dialog we could establish that they’ve become estranged, perhaps they haven’t spoken in a year or even longer, and that the father has become obsessed with proving his theories about the disaster. Joe could let slip that he’s going back to their old house, the son could object that it’s in the quarantine, the father could explain how he needs his old disks. All that needed exposition. That’s just one way to work all that in. There are other and possibly better ways, but regardless we now have Joe head alone into the quarantine zone. Having him there alone would only heighten the danger and loneliness of the abandoned city, improving what was already one of the best sequences in the film.
The next bit would go about the same as before. He gets caught and brought to the power station. Through questioning they realize he knows what he’s talking about. The monster breaks loose and escapes. Only now he doesn’t die, and we actually get a payoff to Serizawa’s dramatic statement that he wants Joe on his team. Truly, the biggest mistake in the movie is not giving these two a scene together. Even if the script had been left 99% the way it was, and Joe still died, giving these two a scene together would have remarkably improved the quality of the movie. Joe has been spending 15 years trying to unveil a government conspiracy that he holds responsible for the death of his wife. Serizawa is the man at the head of that conspiracy, has devoted his life to it, and believes it exists to protect people. These are two strong characters with conflicting goals and beliefs. Their conflict could and should have been the heart of the film. Instead they never meet. The casting only makes this mistake more painful. They managed to get two masterclass actors and then never give them a chance to work with each other. Plus, there’s a bonus reason that the conflict between these two should have been the heart of the film. It would have centered the film around two scientists trying to figure out how to stop the monsters, a wonderful continuation of Godzilla tradition.
Next, excise Honolulu entirely. Nothing that happens there has any effect on the characters or plot in any way. It’s like twenty minutes of screen time and at the end of it everything is exactly the same as it was before. The only reason for that segment to exist is to see a city get destroyed and the monsters fight. Except we don’t see much of either of those. The time and money that went into that incredibly lengthy segment could have been spent extending the final fight. Maybe we could have even gotten a few more minutes of that one monster tearing through Las Vegas. That would give the middle a bit of enjoyable action without getting bogged down in go nowhere subplots like finding that boys parents.
Now we come to the all important part of a Godzilla film: the plan to stop the monsters. I’m not entirely sold on the ‘use nukes as bait’ plot line, but we’ll leave it since I don’t want to come up with a whole new movie. Just fix this one. Instead of being proposed by the military this could be Joe’s idea. He has very strong reasons to hate all of these monsters. The idea of blowing them all up would come naturally to him. Serizawa would strongly oppose this plan, believing they should allow Godzilla to fight for them. The two could have a heated argument that quickly becomes personal. Serizawa can say he's been studying these creatures for years, knows them, Joe can counter that hundreds have died already thanks to Serizawa's decisions. Interesting conflict naturally grows out of having strong characters with opposed opinions.
Naturally the military would go with Joe's plan, and so he designs or builds some sort of special bomb casing or timer or whathaveyou to let the bombs work inside the EMP zone. Does it make sense that he could do this? Perhaps not, but at the least a nuclear engineer being able to make special modifications to nuclear bombs is not so ridiculous as Ford being the only one in the Army who knows how to turn off an Army made timing device.
Then, when the monsters hijack the bomb and take it into the city it not only advances the plot but ratchets up the human drama. Joe’s plan to save his family is now the very thing that will destroy them. Because of all this, when they put together the mission to go into the city and disarm the bombs Joe demands to be a part of it. He’s allowed because he best understands the modifications he's made. We could have left Joe at the command center and still have Ford be the one to go on the mission. Or even just sent a group of soldiers. But, now that we’ve restructured the movie to center on Joe it would be stupid to leave him out of the climax. He is the one the audience has connected with and truly cares about. Ever since we saw his wife die in the reactor he’s the one we want to see succeed. Putting him in harms way is a surefire way to make the ending of this movie exciting.
Next we do the HALO drop and with the time and money we got from cutting Honolulu we can really spend some time with it. A squad of soldiers trying to navigate through a city in the middle of a monster fight is a brilliant, brilliant idea for a set piece. One of the best ideas of the movie and now we can really explore it. Overall the mission goes as it did before, though the danger is even more exciting since it’s being navigated by a fish out of water scientist rather than a trained soldier. Plus, the little moment he gets with the battered Godzilla is all the better. He originally planned to kill it, but now realizes he owes the big lug everything. Finally, when the monster is about to kill him on the boat he doesn’t pull out a pistol in a display of cool, but generic, badassery. Instead he takes out that family photo he found in his old house within the quarantine zone. We get an emotional callback to the beginning of the film and we get to visually see that he’s grown as a person. He realizes his family should have been more important than his work. It looks to be a big sacrifice ending, but, Godzilla saves him and we end with father and son reuniting. And now we actually care about the reuniting, unlike in the actual film.
One last thought. Why San Francisco? Have the son live in and the monsters converge on Tokyo. Everyone wants to see Godzilla tear up Tokyo. That’s just common sense.