Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2014)

30. Godzilla

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been as excited for a movie as I was for “Godzilla.” Maybe “The Avengers.” Once I think about it though, I’ve loved Godzilla longer then I’ve loved the Marvel superheroes. The increasingly impressive trailers, and director Gareth Edwards’ promise to make a great Godzilla movie, had this fan boy chomping at the bit. However, as I stepped into the theater, I had to remind myself: The bar this film needed to clear was not the massively entertaining, wildly imaginative, beloved Toho originals. Instead, the grading rubric should be against the infamous 1998 Godzilla film, the previous attempt to Americanize the character. I have no idea if this thought kept my expectations in check and it ended up not mattering. 2014’s “Godzilla’ is a roaring success and more then satisfied this life-long Godzilla fan.

In 1999, an accident at a Japanese nuclear power plant tears the Brody family apart. Father Joe continues to obsess over that day for the next fifteen years, over the mysterious circumstances of the core breach and his wife’s death. His son Ford, now a bomb disposal expert with a wife and son, has tried to move on. However, events pull father and son back together and it becomes clear that crazy ol’ dad was right all along. The government has been covering up the truth, that a giant monster that feeds on radiation was responsible for the breach. That creature, identified as a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), lived near the Earth’s core for millennia before the bomb test in the fifties drew it to the surface. The monster’s reappearance has drawn something else to out of hiding as well: Godzilla. Now, as the monsters battle, carving a path of destruction through the country, Ford tries to find a way home, hoping his family is safe.

The first and foremost question on every one’s mind going into this film is “Does it get Godzilla right?” This I can answer with a definitive “Yes!” Edwards’ Godzilla is a force of nature, paid the proper respect of awe and terror, that battles for the Earth and not necessarily mankind. Unlike Roland Emmerich, Edwards isn’t afraid of the creature’s real life subtext. The dangers of nuclear energy are a major theme in the film. Moreover, the director focuses on the people on the ground, the devastation the monsters wreck. The terms “dark and gritty” and “realistic and grounded” are overused these days as studio buzzwords. However, “Godzilla” is both of these things in the best meaning of the word. Amazingly, the movie successfully has it both ways. The new film is obviously indebted to the 1954 original for its dark tone. Yet it also delivers on the bad ass monster fights Godzilla fans want to see.

Something the filmmakers definitely understood about Godzilla is his design. They realize that slapping some back spines on a Velociraptor does not a Godzilla make. Instead, Edwards and his team maintain Godzilla’s basic outline. He’s a massive saurian creature, with a long, dragging tail, and jagged spines jutting from his back. At one point in the film, a little boy points at a television report of the monsters fighting and says “Look! A dinosaur!” Godzilla should be immediately recognizable as, well, Godzilla. While some Japanese fans have complained that the monster looks fat, this is an example of the film’s realistic approach. A creature as massive as Godzilla obviously needs a huge frame to support him. Since Godzilla is bigger then ever, the beefed-up approach is especially appropriate. Godzilla’s latest design combines elements of bears, crocodiles, komodo dragons, sharks, dogs, and dinosaurs. Even the addition of gills or flat, stubby feet don’t bother me. The look is different but this creature is unmistakably Godzilla.

The film is upfront about Godzilla’s nature, referring to him as “like a god.” Upon surfacing in Hawaii, Godzilla brings a massive flood with him, killing thousands of people. In his battle with the MUTOs, he doesn’t care about the buildings that get destroyed. Godzilla is a raw force of nature, not caring if the cities of man get demolished while he’s on his mission. Yet it may surprise viewers that Godzilla is also, quite explicitly, the film’s hero. Should the MUTOs reproduce, it would mean the end of mankind. Godzilla opposes them, saving the world. Whether he’s doing this just because he’s an apex predator or out of some sense of duty is left ambiguous. Yoshimitsu Banno, the director of “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster,” was a producer on this film. The Big G is in a similar mode as he was in that film. A representation of nature’s wrath, Godzilla begrudgingly cleans up man’s mess. Should people get stomped or cities destroyed in the process, it’s no concern of his. We probably deserve it.

Any time an outside adaptation adds a new member to an established character’s supporting cast, fans are right to be skeptical. However, the MUTOs prove a great addition to Godzilla’s rogue gallery. The male MUTO is given a startling entrance, exploding out of a hook-shaped cocoon. One of his first acts is to stomp a fleeing soldier, establishing him as a very real threat. The creature can produce an Electric Magnetic Pulse so his appearances are frequently preceded by lights going out, a nice touch. The monster is treated as blatantly horrific. A memorable moment has him dropping a slime covered submarine in the middle of a Hawaiian field. The monster slinks around in the dark, his red, visor-like eyes reflecting ominously. It’s a nice touch that the MUTO mostly moves like a man in a suit, recalling the franchise’s roots. He has weight and a realistic gait. When he takes to the skies, it’s truly impressive, it’s black, bat wings swooping through the air, the monster gliding like a missile. The creature also intentionally recalls other famous kaiju. Various elements like the cocoon, the flight, the black wings, and the curved feet recall Mothra, Rodan, Battra, and Gigan. The film’s influences might even step outside of the Godzilla universe. The monster’s long legs remind me of Clover while its flat head reminds me of Gyaos.

The female MUTO is a distinct design as well. Towering over the male, the massive beast recalls both a gorilla and an elephant. The extra set of arms and pregnant, glowing belly make it a busier design. However, I still like the monster. Moreover, the film takes the time to gift the creatures with a personality. When passing a nuclear missile between their mouths, the two MUTOs appear to be kissing. When the monster’s nest is inevitably destroyed by the human hero, Mama MUTO glares at him, rightfully enraged. Despite being apocalyptic beast and the film’s de-facto villains, the audience still has a tinge of sympathy for the monsters. As it should be.

You might expect a Hollywood Godzilla film to shy away from the original’s anti-nuclear moral. Considering Gareth Edwards’ last film, “Monsters,” had a blatant political subtext, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that his “Godzilla” maintains that message. The monsters are mutated by nuclear tests. They feed on nuclear energy and are called forth by our continued use of it. Repeatedly, they are lured out by nukes. It’s no mistake that the film nearly ends with an atomic missile detonating in the middle of a crowded city. Thus, the creatures are an indirect results of man’s abuse of the planet. We brought this destruction on our selves. The script nails this home by intentionally recalling the Fukushima incident. The MUTOs are the terrible results of man’s incompetence. Godzilla is the manifestation of how pissed off the Earth is by this. The latest “Godzilla” isn’t afraid of the King of the Monsters’ subtext, it engages with it explicitly.

The presentation of the monsters is what truly impressed me about the film. When Godzilla surfaces in Hawaii, attention is paid to his sheer scales. Buildings are dwarfed next to the massive monster, the people even tinier. When he stomps down near an airport, the ground shakes under his massive weight. The monster’s full reveal, punctuated with a thundering roar, is the first of the film’s many “FUCK YEAH!” moments. An often repeated image is of Godzilla swimming through the ocean, Navy battleships flanking him on both sides, looking like toys compared to the giant beast. As his back spines rise through the waves, huge ships are tossed aside casually. One of the film’s highlights involves Godzilla surfacing next to the Golden Gate Bridge. He stands tall over the structure, many looking on in fear, some in awe. A very suspenseful moment involves the female MUTO looming over a railway bridge. She’s enormous and the humans are tiny. By emphasizing the kaiju’s enormous size, the film returns the subgenre to its horror roots. The giant monsters are terrifying, as you’d expect an animal that big to be.

Also contributing to the film’s horror element is the amount of destruction the creatures reap. Special attention is paid to what the giant monsters do to the cities of man. At times, we see more of the aftermath then the actual creatures. The camera pans around, over, and through the ruined buildings. Planes are tossed out of the sky like stones. In a moment that rather uncomfortably recalls 9/11, a comparison the movie mostly avoids, has a jet suddenly crashing into a building. Near the film’s end, we see survivors pulled out of the rubble, firefighters running from their trucks. There’s even a small moment of humor, a public service announcement telling people to stay off the road crash-cutting to a packed freeway. That humor comes crashing down as we see why traffic has stopped suddenly: An airliner has smashed in the middle. In a world where Superman can punch through a skyscraper and the film never acknowledges it, “Godzilla” should be commended for showing the effect the destruction has on the innocents.

Gareth Edwards shoots with a wide lens. An early shot shows a massive sinkhole in glorious widescreen. Later, a man on a bridge is framed against the kaiju walking behind him. An early sequence is set in the ruins of the town abandoned after the nuclear disaster. There’s an eerie beauty to these scenes. The green moss that covers all the homes cast an unearthly glow. Edwards showed a strong visual eye in his first film and didn’t loose any of that talent as he transferred to Hollywood. So many summer blockbusters apathetically paint collapsing buildings with the same grey, drab brush. “Godzilla” distinguish itself from the pack. The final battle is painted in bold shades of red, purple, orange, white, and earthy brown. It’s a fantastic looking film.

“Godzilla” is an epic horror film that also functions as a crowd-pleasing action movie. The movie has an interesting approach to its monster battle. Godzilla stomping through Honolulu builds fantastically, the audience already aware of how dangerous the MUTO is. Just as the two monsters are facing down, ready to fight, the camera cuts away. We see parts of the scuffle briefly on a television afterwards. At the half-way point, the female MUTO destroys Las Vegas, pulling down the imitation Eiffel Tower. Godzilla and the villainous creature stare down each other, both unleashing a battle cry. The two move towards one another, ready to fight, before the movie cuts away again. This creative choice has been widely criticized by internet commenters. I don’t entirely disagree with that. It’s a risky move, intentionally toying with audience’s expectations like that. However, Edwards pulls it off, leaving the viewer wanting more.

Turns out the movie was building towards something, the delays having a purpose. The last half-hour of “Godzilla” is solidly devoted to monster wrasslin’. Going into the film, I knew there were two enemy monsters in it. I didn’t know there was going to be a three-way monster brawl. The smaller MUTO climbs on Godzilla’s back, stabbing him in the back and head with its legs. The flyer lands on his back, the monster grabbing and biting at him, tossing him aside. The bulkier female tackles him through skyscrapers. It’s extended and fantastic. A scene that caused an audible cheer, perhaps the biggest moment of fan service in the film, is when Godzilla finally reveals his atomic breath. Through the smoke and dust, his tail swings into view. The spines start to glow, spreading up his back, before the monster unleashes fiery death from his mouth. The defeats of the rival monsters are immensely satisfying. The killing blow Godzilla delivers on one of the monsters is a move I can’t believe the Monster King hasn’t done before in his sixty year history. “Godzilla” is not a movie just about Godzilla kicking ass but it doesn’t skimp on that either.

Aside from the movie not having enough monster action in, the other thing people are bitching about is the human characters. It’s true that, like “Pacific Rim,” the human characters are the weakest element of the film. Like Sam Worthington and Luke Evans before him, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is one of those actors Hollywood just decided is going to be a big star. Taylor-Johnson has yet to really blow anyone away with his talent. He seems too young and boyish in many of the scenes. His character survives all of the monster encounters through no will of his own. He’s tossed around by the script’s whim, surviving because he needs too. As his suffering wife, Elisabeth Olsen does a lot better. Olsen has proven adapt at playing panicked before and has plenty of opportunity to do just that. I honestly suspect the film would have been had she been the star instead. The story forces her off-screen far too frequently.

I suspect some of the disappointment from the film has come from Bryan Cranston’s role. The trailers made it seem like he’s the star. This isn’t “Godzilla vs. Heisenberg.” In truth, his role is actually rather small. In the screen time, Cranston tears its up, hamming his way through his line with assurance and boldness. As the in-jokey named Ishiro Serizawa, Ken Watanabe mostly glares off-screen, grimly delivering exposition. It’s not the best part but Watanabe plays it to the hilt. His best moment is a brief monologue concerning a pocket watch. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Sally Hawkins, one of the most likable actresses working today, who essentially plays Serizawa’s secretary. Similarly, Juilette Binoche’s part isn’t much more then a cameo. Still, I suppose one Academy Award winner and two nominees is an impressive pedigree for a giant monster movie.

My overall enjoyment of “Godzilla” can probably be measured in how few complaints I had about it. My biggest point of contention is that Akira Ifukube’s iconic score isn’t anywhere in the movie. Alexandre Desplat’s score is fine but he really should have incorporated some of Ifukube’s motifs. Oh, also the military tries the same dumb plan three times. You’d think the first time luring a monster out with a nuclear missile failed they wouldn’t try it again. Oh well.

“Godzilla’ is a daring blockbuster, a film that tries some really interesting things while also functioning perfectly as popcorn entertainment. More importantly, it gets Godzilla right. Toho’s famous creation finally has an American film that measures up to his legacy. As he wades back into the ocean in the final frame, releasing a triumphant shreeonk, all I could think was “The King is back.” Hail to the king, baby. [Grade: A-]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

No one left any comments here either? This is an excellent movie and I'm just pumped about the next one. Here's the review I did a few months after seeing "Godzilla" on opening day:

I have been a Godzilla fan for years. I've seen them all and love the franchise as much as any other. I'll be the first to admit that most of the Godzilla movies are just dumb fun and that's almost always enough for me. But this new Godzilla...what to make of it? It really blew me away when I saw it on opening day.

I've sat on my reaction to it ever since, because I guess, I find I'm being influenced by the weak character development consensus that has become the "Yeah, but..." for those who require an opportunity to sound smart or be dicks. But my actual satisfaction with the characters runs counter to that crowd-think. The nuclear family (literally), played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, are instantly likable. When the accident occurs at the power plant, it's heartbreaking. The fact that director Gareth Edwards instills that much depth in mere minutes is amazing. Cranston goes conspiracy crackpot over the years to come but the way that respect and trust is reestablished with his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) before the father's death is touching and reinforces the son's need to get back to his own son and wife, pronto. The fact that he keeps "bumping" into the MUTOs and Godzilla on his way home drives the film. He provides the up-close-and-personal viewpoint the audience gets of the monsters. If it wasn't for his character, all we'd have are big beasts fighting in the distance.

I found the pace of "Godzilla" pretty much perfect. Although I found Edwards' earlier film, "Monsters", to be preachy and severely lacking in actual monsters, the subtle commentary on environmental dangers found in this film are well communicated. This is a complement because I am far from the first person to swallow every end-of-the-world scenario painted by the latest hot documentary. In other words, Edwards nails it here.

In John Kenneth Muir's great review of this film, he describes Godzilla's new form as wonderfully realized with old, experienced eyes, weary gait and mannerisms, an aged soulfulness. It's an absolutely beautiful and goosebump-inducing description.

I love this take on the monster. I don't need Godzilla to be a friend to Man, a funny puppy you can find in any of the late Showa period movies. I prefer the pure evil take on Godzilla more. But the 2014 version, THIS is a beast I can enjoy. It doesn't care for man. It doesn't want to be our buddy. Instead, it corrects the wrongs to the Earth and departs, regardless of what happens to humans in the interim. I wouldn't mind the next film interpreting Godzilla as a punisher after humans have done something incredibly stupid to the planet. A "Don't f**k it up!" message delivered by the monster would be my choice for a sequel.

The fights are teased but all memorable monster flicks pull this off expertly. Compare it to the everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach in today's current action/fantasy/science fiction offerings. Seriously, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen". There is so much action, it's mind-numbingly boring. Suspense and anticipation. They are key and "Godzilla" brings them.

Gareth Edwards give us many great monster moments. The first roar...Godzilla is centered in the frame, gathers up and lets out the most satisfying roar I've ever heard. Another, Godzilla's atomic breath, building from its tail, passing through its body and firing violently from its jaws. And of course, the dispatching of the mega-MUTO with a forced ingestion of some blue heat.