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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla: The Unstoppable

I, like many fans of the big guy, fell in love with Godzilla when I was a kid and saw the original movie on Creature Features for the first time. I suppose I should clarify that it was the 1956 version. Known in Japan as "Gojiro," a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale", the 1954 film was re-titled "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" when it arrived in the U.S. in 1956. It was also re-edited, most notably using the American actor of Raymond Burr, to help sell it to Americans. When I was a kid, that was the version shown on TV in the 60s and 70s. Of course America had made its share of rampaging giant monster movies but never before was anything like this seen. This was a beast of absolute destruction, appearing as if from no where and leveling cities in a single attack.

The American version of "Gojiro".
I suppose it isn't unusual that 69 years after A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese film makers would personify (so to speak) that kind of horror in the form of a giant monster rising from the sea.

Of course I'm sure the subtext was lost on me in my first viewing of this film. I just liked dinosaurs and here was the mother of all dinosaurs, charging through Japan. Learning more about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as I got older made those shots of the wounded after the attack in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" even more striking because they mirrored those scenes of the wounded in documentaries of the two leveled cities. 

Godzilla personified the consequences of using science for destruction. The creature even had radioactive breath that enabled it to destroy with a concentrated blast of radiated power. He was a force of nature throwing that destruction back in our faces. 

The 1954 movie became a huge hit in its home country and abroad (especially in America in 1956 though the message of nuclear destruction was lost for the most part on the U.S., a country deeply devoted to the nuclear arms race). It was the first of many such films (popularly known as "kaiju") and spawned an incredibly successful Godzilla series.

Godzilla's later films in the 60s and 70s generally lacked the message and majesty of the original. In fact they seemed to be more excuses to dream up new monsters for Godzilla to fight. He was no longer payback for human arrogance but rather a friend to humans, helping us when other giant monsters rose up to bully us. He lived on Monster Island with his son and other monster pals.

The trailer for "Son of Godzilla"
Some of the movies through the 60s and 70s were clever, some scary, some ridiculous, others well done. But they definitely followed a formula, plot, dialogue and direction leading up to the big monster throw down, and as time went on the patches in the Godzilla suit began to wear thin. 

In 1984, Japan released an attempt to reboot the series with the movie known as "The Return of Godzilla" and while it failed in America, possibly in large part to a poorly edited version, it was a reasonable success in Japan. As if the movies of the 60s and 70s never happened, this is a return to the rampaging Godzilla of the 1954 movie. In this movie, he's come to shore seeking nuclear power, which he feeds on, and thanks to people ignoring the warnings of the previous thirty years, there is plenty to be had.

Godzilla marches into the 80s.
It was a good movie, giving the character more bite then it was having as the friend to Earth. A series of movies followed through 1995 and slowly Godzilla became the hero again, but by default. He retained that element of danger even in the redesign of the suit which boasted more muscle on the body and a more vicious set of teeth. So desperate was mankind to rid the world of Godzilla that they often resorted to backing other monsters to fight him. And once these monsters turned on humans, it was up to Godzilla to save the day (though, once the monster was dealt with, the likelihood remained that Godzilla would start stomping on Tokyo again).

Godzilla's origins had always remained speculation until 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" offered the explanation that he was at one time a creature know as a Godzillasaurus that had the misfortune of living on Lagos Island in the South Pacific when the US was testing a hydrogen bomb. The radiation mutated the creature into what we know today as Godzilla. 

Godzillasaurus saves a group of Japanese soldiers.
That series ended with the brilliant "Godzilla vs. Destroyah" which brought back the oxygen destroyer that Dr. Serizawa created in the 1954 movie. In "Gojiro" Dr. Serizawa balked at allowing the military to use his weapon for he feared it was too dangerous for humans to control. Eventually, he was convinced. True to form, a colony of microorganisms mutated by the original weapon arrive on the scene and continue mutating into the monster "Destroyah". And in the "when it rains it pours" category, Godzilla's heart, which is like a nuclear reactor, is apparently at last starting to meltdown, which could be disastrous for the world once it occurs. The end of this movie is one of my all time favorite moments.

The death of Godzilla...or is it?
This series, aside from the 1954 movie, perhaps best honored the notion of Godzilla as a force of nature. He was something to hold in awe, something perhaps even to root for, but also something that could turn on us in an instant. The more we tried to control him, the less control we had. 

Then, in 1998, something terrible happened. Well, terrible in the eyes of most Godzilla fans. 

In 1998, America tried its hand at a Godzilla film and broke the hearts of fans world wide. The buzz was positive. This movie was being handled by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, guys who had a little experience with making blockbusters. The FX was more sophisticated (after "Jurassic Park" showed what could be done with CGI). The budget was certainly there. 

I took the day off of work specifically to see this thing. It started out suitably ominous. I was concerned by the opening credits implying that Godzilla was created by A-bomb testing in the Pacific and was, essentially a mutated iguana, but I was willing to give it a chance. I became more hopeful as the story continued. When at last Godzilla entered New York it was one of the best sequences I'd seen. And it all went down hill from there. The producers tried too hard to be clever, went way too crazy with the special effects, relied on wild leaps of credulity (a creature the size of Godzilla able to live in the sewers?) and tried to interest us in the human characters who weren't at all interesting. Poor Matthew Broderick: when this movie is brought up his name is often linked with "That Matthew Broderick piece of crap." It wasn't his fault. It was the fault of the production team who didn't really seem to care about the whole Godzilla mythos that at this point is as strong as the creature itself. They turned a giant dinosaur into a giant walking iguana. They forgot completely that he breathed radioactive fire. When they went "Jurassic Park raptors" on the movie and created thousands of eggs that hatched into little, human-sized versions of Godzilla, that was it.

I'm sorry, you don't chase Godzilla; he chases you.

As if to take back their own, in 1999 Toho released "Godzilla 2000." Say what you will about guys in monster suits stomping around toy buildings, this movie is head and shoulders above Hollywood's attempt (at a fraction of the budget). The movie gave Godzilla back his power, pitting him against a mysterious alien space craft that turns into a monster. It kicked off what's known as the Millennium Series that ended with the less then spectacular "Godzilla: Final Wars."

One of the coolest versions of his nuclear breath.
All in all, there is something about this monster that has kept him relevant decades after he first stomped across the screen. When on his home soil, the Godzilla tale stood a better chance of being told right. When America gets a  hold of it, it doesn't turn out very well.

So when I heard that America was going to have another bash at it, I was both excited and worried. As I discovered when I got the chance to see 2014's "Godzilla", I was wise to be both. But that's for the next installment.