Wednesday, May 21, 2014

GODZILLA 2014 (Review)

Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

RATING: 3.5 / 5

After a 10-year absence, the King of the Monsters has returned -- with a vengeance! 

After its first week of release, Gareth Edwards's monstrous re-imagining of Japan's most famous monster is smashing its way through the box office to the tune of a $196 million worldwide opening weekend. Western audiences are obviously coming out in droves to support Godzilla's big-budget return to the big screen, but really how faithful is Edwards's take on Godzilla? And can it hold a nuclear flame to the other installments in the monster's 60-year career?

The short answer is a complicated one. I have never seen a Godzilla movie that I so thoroughly enjoyed while my butt was in the theater that I then so profoundly disagreed with while leaving the theatre. Talk about cognitive dissonance! This review is an attempt to bridge my enthusiasm with my disappointment. I guess I could say that I loved Godzilla the same way I love films like Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. Gigan, and Godzilla vs. Megalon. They're all really fun and light B-movies, but they do not feature my preferred representation of Godzilla.

 SPOILERS from this point on.

Godzilla travels to the US to try out for the San Francisco Giants.

THE STORY & CHARACTERS: 99 Problems but Godzilla Ain't One

Part conspiracy film, part military epic, and part monster B-movie, Godzilla is less Pacific Rim and more Jaws in its pacing, but it is undeniably true to the spirit of Godzilla -- at least the Godzilla of the 1970s. The film begins in 1999 with the Brody family living in Japan. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) work at a nuclear power plant and their young son goes to a Japanese school. One fateful day the plant is destroyed when some unexplained force brings down the facility, killing Sandra in the process. Although the disaster is officially labelled an earthquake, a bereft Joe Brody becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth. His young son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), meanwhile, grows up estranged from his father, joins the military, and has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son of his own. But when Joe gets arrested in Japan, Ford is thrust back into the past. In Japan, Joe and Ford both stumble upon the horrible truth: something more earth-shattering than an earthquake was to blame 15 years ago. Something terrifying. Something ancient. Something big.

Make your next trespass into a nuclear quarantined zone a family affair.
Gareth Edwards sets the first hour of Godzilla on a slow burn, and it's both a blessing and a curse. By holding back on revealing Godzilla the film really gets the audience pumped to see the titular titan when he finally emerges. It also allows the plot to develop his kaiju adversaries: the M.U.T.O's (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Culturally speaking, Godzilla's a known quantity, so it's the M.U.T.O's that really need back-story. Unfortunately, when Godzilla does appear we're relentlessly teased with only half-glances, quick cuts from the limited point of view of people on the ground, and from footage running on the news. We see Godzilla the way we would experience many real-world natural disasters: either with our own eyes and ears that cannot possibly comprehend the magnitude of what we're seeing or via the 24-hour new cycle that is able to reduce the magnitude of tragedy into a visual sound byte. In this way, Godzilla has a lot in common with Matt Reeves's Cloverfield. It's not a POV found footage film, but Godzilla's cinematography employs many of the same techniques. That's all well and good for the first monster battle, but even the second monster battle takes place primarily off screen. By the beginning of the third act, I was getting a really frustrating case of kaiju blueballs. Just show the damn monsters fighting already!

Godzilla Obscura
I wouldn't be so disappointed by the lack of monster fights if the human side of the story were more engaging. Like the Godzilla films of the 1970s, this 2014 outing keeps Godzilla on the sidelines while humans do boring human things. Don't get me wrong: Bryan Cranston is fantastic in this movie. He's the heart and the soul of the drama, but his story line is wrapped up very early on and leaves Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character in the spotlight. Sadly, he's never given anything meaningful to do and his relationship with this wife is insufferably dull and shallow. Bryan Cranston's character loses his wife 15 years prior and is forever a broken man. Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character is separated from his wife and son during what would be a mind-boggling disaster of epic proportions (an attack on their city by giant monsters!) yet his face and his actions rarely register a moment of panic, fear, or doubt. Despite all the hype around his character as a bomb expert and his first-hand experience with the monsters, none of that actually ever comes into play in a meaningful way either. He's simply there as an identifiable character to lead the audience through tedious scenes of military mobilizations (excluding the beautiful and terrifying Halo jump sequence, that is). Essentially, he's an observer. He's dull, his wife is dull, and the military is dull. Not even Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (a member of the top secret research organization Monarch) is given much to do other than look on at the devastation with pensive expressions an philosophize about the relationship between humans and nature. Simply put, making Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character the focus is almost too heavy a burden on Godzilla's otherwise capable shoulders. It's a nearly fatal misstep that's only remedied by a heavy dose of monster combat in the final act.

Go Go Godzilla!

MONSTER MASH: Let's Get Ready to (eventually) Rumble!

Story structure aside, is Godzilla given a treatment worthy of the King of the Monsters? Hell yeah! I'm pleased to report that Godzilla 2014 is a worthy reinterpretation and impressive visual redesign that keeps intact everything that hardcore and general fans identify about the character while simultaneously employing modern digital techniques to make Godzilla appear the most vividly alive that he's ever looked. Striding into battle like the mammoth hybrid of a bear and a komodo dragon, Godzilla is a thoroughly impressive digital creature that perfectly straddles the line between reality and fantasy. Godzilla gets plenty of "hero moments" too such as a beautiful little scene in which Godzilla's shrouded in dust and debris but the slowly intensifying glow of his dorsal plates foreshadow an impending blast of nuclear fire breath! If you're a fan of giant monster movies, virtually everything relating to Godzilla and his two kaiju adversaries -- the M.U.T.O. -- is a rousing and fist-pumping display of the destruction and careening carnage you crave. Since Godzilla does not fully appear until much later in the film, the M.U.T.O steal a lot of his limelight. They may not be the most visually original creatures (suffering from a bad case of Graboid-Mouth), but their desire to consume radiation and their ability to produce technology-crippling EMP blasts make them the perfect threat for the modern digital military age.

"Am I late for my Tremors audition?"

MUTED METAPHORS: The Politics of Godzilla in America

The reel beef I have with Godzilla is its political/symbolic depiction of the titular monster. There have been many incarnations of the character over his 60-year history, but his original and most potent representation is as a victim/perpetrator of nuclear horror. The original Gojira in 1954 was inspired by the legacy of nuclear disasters in Japan stemming from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, the subsequent H-Bomb tests of the 1950s, and the 1954 Lucky Dragon incident in which a Japanese fishing vessel was accidentally irradiated by nuclear fallout from American H-Bomb tests. The original Godzilla -- a giant dinosaur mutated by nuclear radiation -- therefore became symbolic of the terrors of nuclear war and the destructive nature of humanity's arm's race. The strongest Godzilla films of the 1950s, 1990s, and 2000s depict Godzilla as a terrifying living warning about what we might do to the world and ourselves if we continue to exploit nature and science for the sake of war. Of course, as Godzilla became a more popular character in the 1960s and 1970s among children, the anti-nuclear themes were obscured and the King of the Monsters was recast as a fun albeit shallow kid-friendly comic book hero. It is this representation of Godzilla that Godzilla 2014 draws most of its inspiration.

Godzilla, you might be surprised to find out, is not the villain of the film. This is not the Godzilla who rises up to destroy our civilization as payback for our hubris; this is the Godzilla who rises up to put other monsters in their place while we cheer. He's not a singular product of human folly; he's from a line of ancient and timeless beings almost as old as the world itself. He's not tormented by radiation or angry with humans; he feeds on radiation as a product of evolution and seems totally indifferent to us. Any of our buildings that he destroys in the process are inconsequential to this prehistoric apex predator from the deep. In fact, he's presented very much as a heroic force of nature -- he does a lot of damage to the M.U.T.O's and to the city of San Francisco, but the toll on human lives which must have been catastrophic during Godzilla's battle with the M.U.T.O's is never depicted and therefore have no significance. Godzilla is like Superman in the form of a hurricane. He'll show up and cause a lot of collateral damage but he's essentially a hero who will save us from ourselves. Instead, the M.U.T.O come to embody our concerns about nuclear energy. Our coveted nuclear weapons give them strength that they can then turn back on us in the form of crippling EMP blasts that render our most sophisticated technology useless. That's a brilliantly relevant idea in the same way that Godzilla was a brilliant idea in 1954. Now, however, what does he represent? What is his significance? Sadly, I think the 2014 version of Godzilla is essentially just a natural disaster that we can cheer for.

That's no tropical island!
America has a long tradition of depicting Godzilla as a hero rather than the giant anti-war and anti-nuclear metaphor with which he is commonly associated in Japan. In 1954, producers of the American cut of Gojira substantially edited out the anti-nuclear subtext and imposed a more up-beat, pro-American stance for film audiences in the USA. Obviously, during the Cold War American audiences wouldn't be that excited about spending money on a monster film that rubbed their faces in Hiroshima and forced them to identify with their recent war-time enemy. Politically, it undermines American ideology that technological might makes right. It's no surprise then that the Godzilla films most embraced by Americans in the 1970s at Drive-Ins and on TV were the children's fare starring a heroic Godzilla. Even the 1984 Return of Godzilla had its essential anti-nuclear themes neutered when it was re-edited, dubbed, and released in America as Godzilla 1985. To its credit, Godzilla 2014 does try to relate Godzilla and the M.U.T.O's to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the looming threat of nuclear accidents such as the ongoing Fukushima disaster, but it's all very halfhearted and of no real thematic or sub-textual substance. Despite what the trailer implied, Godzilla's not here to send us back to the stone age. He's here to stop the monsters that want to do that to us. And that's not a Godzilla I'm particularly interested in exploring. The Japanese have proven that Godzilla can be presented as a monster whom we simultaneously admire and fear. Sadly, I found nothing to fear about Gareth Edwards's Godzilla.

The special effects are ex-zilla-rating.


Godzilla 2014 is a perfectly satisfying movie if you're looking for some beautiful destruction to eat up an afternoon or evening at the summer cinemas. If you're a Godzilla fan, you're going to love seeing the King of the Monsters rendered in such vivid detail that's still true to his cinematic heritage. It offers a lot more artistic vision than its peers, that's for sure. Despite the almost terminal drag in pace, I'll take the less-is-more approach of Gareth Edwards's Godzilla over a bloated and nauseating Michael Bay Transformers film any day. By that same token, Godzilla 2014 doesn't strike me as that re-watchable. There's simply too much filler and a severe shortage of compelling story. Godzilla 2014 won't commit to enough B-movie cheese to be fun and not enough serious drama to be intellectually engaging. Based on my nostalgia and love for the character alone, I am truly excited that Godzilla is back on the big screen. At the same time, I am extremely disappointed that he has been so deprived of his symbolic power in the process.

 I'm perfectly comfortable recommending Godzilla; it just does not star the Godzilla I wanted to see.

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