Monday, May 26, 2014

Godzilla (2014) Review

As I mentioned in my last post, news that America was going to try again with Godzilla left me excited and concerned. Excited because of what the advances in CGI could bring to the table. Concerned because...well "Godzilla 1998". Trailers for the recent one that I saw as the release date neared, while compelling, didn't quite my concern. Heavy on the human story with just the barest glimpse of Godzilla. Which is okay for a trailer. My concern was that the teasing would go on throughout the film with very little payoff. In some ways I was right to be concerned.

In the review I may divulge some spoilers (though really, there wasn't anything that spoilerific in the film). So let me say briefly here that the movie was okay. It left me conflicted. The human story was much better handled than I expected but in the end the film didn't deliver completely what I wanted.

Now, allow me to elaborate and be forewarned, from here on in, there be spoilers.

I went into the film worried that the storyline concerning the Bryan Cranston story would severely bog down the movie. In it, Cranston plays a scientist in Japan who lost his wife to a mysterious disaster at a nuclear power plant and years later becomes obsessed with finding the reason for that disaster. I was going to see a Godzilla movie and I didn't want precious minutes that could be devoted to Godzilla wasted instead on a bad storyline,

Indeed while precious monster moments were diverted to the Cranston character of Joe Brody and later that of his son Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) I was pleasantly surprised at how well done the storyline turned out to be. I believe that's a testament not only to the writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham but also to director Gareth Edwards. He moved the narrative at a really good clip and I found myself actually engrossed in a storyline I was certain would bore me. I also found Taylor-Johnson did a really good job portraying the adult Ford Brody who lost his mother as a boy in that explosion and lost his dad to the grief after. The role could have gone so sour (either overly whining or overly testosterone-ladened) but he played it very even. In fact, everyone in the cast did a really good job. I especially liked Ken Wattanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (his name an homage to the Serizawa character from the 1954 "Gojiro") and his partner Dr. Vivienne Graham played by Sally Hawkins. They had the duty of exposition, which can be a difficult task, but they played their roles with a sincerity that helped move the plot along.

The FX was also fantastic. Aside from Godzilla's stumpy little feet, he and the other two monsters, when you get a chance to see them, look amazing.

Wook at his stumpy wittle footsie!
I think it's because of these incredibly positive points to the film that my disappointment at other points became sharper.

The film first breaks down in credibility. I know, it's a giant monster movie. But still. If you're going to try to explain him, at least have it try to make sense. Much has been written about the creators' desire to hark back to the spirit of the 1954 movie "Gojiro." In that movie Godzilla is a force of nature (albeit a destructive force, more like a consequence). So the heavy implication in this film, made over and over, is that Godzilla is a force of nature.

The movie actually involved three monsters. Godzilla, who we're told is an apex predator from eons ago who feeds on the radiation from the Earth's core. In fact, during the 1950s, the nuclear bombs going off in the Pacific weren't actually tests, but rather attempts by the military to kill Godzilla who Wattanabe's Serizawa says could be coming back, drawn to the area by two MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism): giant parasitic creatures who are now free and looking for a comfy place to lay their eggs and tasty radiation they can suck on. Godzilla, apparently sensing them, is on the way to destroy them and restore the balance.

A couple of questions here. Godzilla is the size of a small skyscraper. How did the Earth support apex predators of this size (the scene with the two scientists in the cave in 1999 implies that there were more than one Godzilla-like creature)? And can he really be called a predator if he hangs out at the Earth's core and sucks up energy?

The MUTOs grow nearly as large and have lots of eggs when they breed. Again, how was this sustainable? The balance of life is often brought up in this movie but it's hard to imagine much balance being achieved with these things flying or running around.

And what of this notion of going back to the spirit of the 1954 "Gojiro?" In that movie, Godzilla and his rampage is the consequence humans must face for using (i.e. testing) the nuclear weapons. According to the mythology of the 2014 movie, in 1954 the military started whipping around this new, untested weapons technology at this mountain-sized dinosaur floating around the Pacific (a mountain-sized dinosaur that apparently none of the islanders of the Pacific noticed). And apparently, their attempts to whack him with the bombs didn't work. So I'm not completely sure why the 2014 military bigwigs thought it would be a good course of action to lure all three monsters into the sea with a boat carrying a nuclear warhead and detonate it when they were far enough out for the blast to not damage the mainland. What did they hope would be accomplished?

What they lobbed nukes at in the hopes of destroying
Edwards does make some interesting and wise choices, giving each of the main characters a single purpose. Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody devotes the rest of his life to finding the answers behind what happened at the nuclear power plant the day his wife died. He does this at the expense of a relationship with his son and his son's new family.

Ford Brody has a single minded purpose to get home to his wife and child after all hell breaks loose. This was particularly interesting in as far as a lesser director might have had him heroically leading the charge to battle the monsters and save the Earth. Indeed Ford does become embroiled in the military response to deliver a nuclear warhead to San Francisco but that's mainly because he wants to use the transport to get back to his family who are conveniently located in the area where the military is trying to lure all the monsters.

And of course each monster has a single minded purpose as well. It isn't to destroy humans who, to them, are what ants are to us. The MUTOs are trying to get together to breed, Godzilla is trying to kill the MUTOs (and again, restore balance). That human habitation may get in their way makes no difference to them.

In some respects all three represent three elements converging on a single point. The force of nature (Godzilla), the representation of nature out of balance (the MUTOs) and the creatures caught up in the melee (humans or more specifically Ford).

That is actually a neat concept to put in a big blockbuster monster movie. And if you can strike a balance it works effectively. Edwards manages to strike that balance initially, through a series of clever story telling techniques. With these techniques he was able to tease the story along without the FX being full in your face for two hours.

For example, when the male MUTO comes to life, we're treated to glimpses of him as he breaks free from his egg. The only time we see the full creature during this sequence is when we're given a view of him as he looms over Ford who for some reason decided to don a gas mask. The view is from Ford's perspective as he looks through the filmy lens of the gas mask. It works cause it's early in the movie and we're still patient. And again, Edwards is so skilled at using these devices that the story flows briskly.

This visual is sort of par for the course throughout the movie
From the moment the first monster breaks loose, the story focus shifts from Cranston's character to that of his son and it becomes the story of Ford trying to get home. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't a movie titled "Godzilla." Unfortunately with this movie, the namesake of the movie ends up as basically a guest star. 

Godzilla's official arrival, on Waikiki as he's making his way toward the mainland, is heralded, for some reason, by a tsunami. I can only guess that it was to hammer home the whole "force of nature" concept. And yes, he is a big boy, but it makes no sense for his rising out of the sea to cause the sort of tsunami that it does (especially when at the end, his going back into the sea barely causes a ripple. Nor does he create a tsunami when he enters San Francisco Bay). It's an incredible effect. Looks great. But when Godzilla (who isn't seen at this point) at last makes his entrance on screen, in a stand off with one of the MUTOs, the camera pans up, he roars, and then the scene cuts to something else. 

Which goes back to my gradual irritation with Edwards' constant teasing through POV direction. After enough times of catching glimpses of the monsters through fog, or filmy bus windows or television monitors, I wanted at last to see the monsters in all their glory. And not just for a few seconds. 

I was willing to put up with the teasing because I knew at some point the monsters would have a throw down. Surely when that happens, I thought, we'll be treated to more than glimpses. Edwards, however, never really gives us the pay off he's been teasing at.

For example, when the monsters meet in San Francisco, from the POV of the people on the ground we see Godzilla's arrival. It's a great moment of him facing off with the MUTO like a couple of old Western gunslingers. And it lasts seconds before the people are ushered into the shelter and the doors are closed as we see the MUTO flying at Godzilla's head.

No damnit! Don't close the doors I want to see this!
Then it's back to Ford, still journeying home.

The irony is that one of the best lines in the film (which I'm sure the fans went crazy for) spoken by Serizawa, "Let them fight," borders on a joke considering how we rarely get the chance to actually see them fight.

One particularly frustrating scene involves a great shot of Godzilla and one of the MUTOs battling and hopes rise, but seconds later, the combat disappears in a haze of smoke and the camera pans down to the soldiers who've been sent to dig through the rubble for the nuclear warhead that one of the MUTOs dropped. 

Again, this would have been fine if we got at least one really good, really clear fight scene that lasted more than a few moments. Almost as if he's afraid to overwhelm us with too much monster action, Edwards ends up underwhelming instead.

By the time Godzilla vanquishes the MUTOs (with an admittedly cool use of his nuclear breath) it barely registers because we've barely seen enough of the struggle to really appreciate the victory. 

So worn out from the battle is he, we're led to believe, Godzilla collapses to the ground unconscious (which I'm guessing would be like a chunk of steel the size of a skyscraper falling forward, but the street seems none the worse for wear nor does any sort of ground tremor follow. Rising from the sea he causes a tsunami. Falling to the ground, there's barely a shudder).

I think what bothered me about the film is that while it succeeded so well at some elements it failed so miserably at one of the key if not the key elements of a Godzilla film: allowing us to get to know Godzilla whether as destroyer as he was in "Gojiro" and "Godzilla Returns" or as savior as he was in this film (and many other films in the Japanese series). Even at the end when the victorious lizard wakes up the next day and heads out to the sea, the director seems to have a hard time sticking with the image long enough for us to appreciate it. 

Say what you will about the FX of the Japanese films (not to mention the over-earnestness of the message) there was something majestic about watching him walk back into the sea (usually seen off by the films human stars who were both happy that he killed that film's monster and grateful that he didn't turn and stomp on them). The FX couldn't compare to the FX of the 2014 Godzilla, but the directors weren't afraid to show it full on.

One of my favorite endings from "Godzilla vs. Destroyah"

So as someone who was waiting to see another "Godzilla" on the big screen, I appreciate the effort. And perhaps there are those fans who were far more patient than I, but in the long run this wasn't the movie I was hoping to see. Perhaps if Edwards gets the chance to direct a sequel, he'll feel more confident about letting us get to know the monsters better. Or at least, letting us see them.

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