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Godzilla (2014)

godzilla (1)DIRECTOR: Gareth Edwards

CAST: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche

REVIEW:

In 2010, a fledgling Welsh filmmaker named Gareth Edwards made his directorial debut with a monster movie simply-titled Monsters with a cast of unknowns and a budget of less than $20,000. Hindered by budget constraints from being heavy on monster action, Edwards instead focused on story and characters. The critical acclaim lavished on his low-key indie debut led to him coming rapidly up in the world when he was entrusted with helming the reboot of the King of the Monsters himself: Godzilla. Unlike Roland Emmerich’s deservedly much-maligned “Godzilla In Name Only” 1998 bastardization, Edwards has obviously tailor-made his Godzilla as a love letter to fans of the “classic” film series, but a few flaws make it an imperfect one.

After an opening in 1999 Japan, where husband-and-wife scientists Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are investigating unexplained tremors threatening a nuclear power plant, we jump to the present day, where Joe has become a ranting conspiracy theorist who’s estranged himself from his own son, army bomb specialist Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When Joe’s investigation takes him back to Japan and Ford gets dragged along for the ride, an encounter with a secretive organization of scientists leads to the emergence of a huge insect-like creature that bursts from its cocoon and sets out in search of its mate, wreaking havoc in its wake. The military (led by David Strathairn) scrambles forces to engage the MUTO–Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism–but they prove ineffectual. And meanwhile, an aquatic behemoth called Godzilla, relic of a bygone age, awakens and heads for land. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) believes Godzilla is Nature’s warrior come to restore balance, and may be the only force capable of defeating the MUTOs…but being in Godzilla’s path isn’t any safer than that of his enemies. After destructive passes through Hawaii and Las Vegas, Godzilla and the two MUTOs all converge on Ford’s hometown San Francisco, leaving Ford desperate to get to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son as the city is turned into a monster-against-monster war zone.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. Contrary to what the rather misleading marketing campaign would have you believe, those expecting to see Godzilla rampaging across the screen front-and-center for two hours are in for bitter disappointment. The MUTOs are the “villains” and responsible for the vast majority of the destruction, with Godzilla emerging like an avenging angel to, as Dr. Serizawa says, “restore balance”. Edwards keeps the Big G to a minimum for much of the runtime, to an extent that some viewers will find frustrating. Like the shark in Jaws, we get glimpses of his spiny back winding through the water, but it’s around the midway point before he makes his grand arrival, and even after that his screentime is a fraction of the MUTOs’. Godzilla originated in 1954 as a malevolent force of mindless, unstoppable destruction, an unsubtle allegory for nuclear holocaust in a nation still psychologically scarred by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the ’60s and ’70s, he the Godzilla films became kid-friendly and turned him into a goofy do-gooder fighting the bad monsters. In the ’90s he was played more straight as an anti-hero and the lesser of two evils. This Godzilla resembles the ’90s anti-hero the most, bordering on outright benevolent. He never deliberately attacks humans—in fact, on at least one occasion he seems to go out of his way to avoid it—and his only mission is to defeat the MUTOs and “restore balance”. His origins are vaguely explained, and it’s even flimsier why he’s coming after the MUTOs (poor Ken Watanabe stuck in the thankless role of trying to make all his ham-handed exposition and lines about the balance of Nature sound deep). Indeed, some have complained that a more accurate title may have been MUTO, with Godzilla like a special guest star. Since this reflects the plot structure of a fair number of older Godzilla films, with his nemeses like King Ghidorah getting detailed origin stories and Godzilla essentially arriving in time to save the day, it didn’t bother me as much, though Edwards pushes his luck with the monumental tease he sets up midway through (for the record, I was okay with it, and the following line was good for a chuckle; you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when you see it). In fact, perhaps still following his Monsters playbook, Edwards keeps the monster mayhem restrained throughout, with both the MUTO rampages and their skirmishes with Godzilla only caught in fleeting glimpses on TV screens or in quick short bursts. Often the monsters are seen in glimpses between skyscrapers from the perspectives of the dwarfed humans scurrying around at their feet. It’s not until the finale that Edwards lets it all hang out and gives fans the monster brew-ha they’re waiting for, and it includes some surefire crowd-pleasing moments (one above all will have classic Godzilla fans cheering). In the end, Edwards provides the monster-on-monster mayhem that many will expect from a Godzilla movie. He just takes his sweet time getting there, and some viewers will get frustrated before the end.

In the meantime, there are some memorable sequences, including a thrilling, tension-packed scene in which a MUTO attacks a military convoy, Godzilla’s landfall in Hawaii and later San Francisco Bay, and a halo jump filmed by Edwards as if we are skydiving alongside the soldiers. Armed with a budget Japan’s Godzilla installments could only have dreamed of, Godzilla is a consistently good-looking film from start to finish. The MUTOs—who bear a passing resemblance to the Cloverfield monster—are formidable adversaries who emit an electromagnetic pulse rendering the military powerless against them and eat nukes for breakfast (literally), and should find a worthy place among Godzilla’s rogues gallery. In fact, the entire film has the feel of a B movie dressed up like an A-list movie with a big-budget and flashy special effects, which I don’t really mean as a criticism. Edwards obviously intentionally crafts this as an homage to the “classic” (a term I use loosely) Godzilla films, and Godzilla has much of the same feel and narrative structure. Unlike Emmerich’s creature, this Godzilla strongly resembles the classic design, merely with a man in a rubber suit swapped out for CGI. It’s a little unfortunate that Edwards’ homage to classic Godzilla comes complete with stock characters and some melodramatic dialogue, but maybe that’s the nature of the beast.

In a way, spending much time talking about the humans seems almost pointless, because let’s face it, most people don’t watch a Godzilla movie for its human interest. It’s never been a strong suit of the series, and somewhat unfortunately, Edwards doesn’t buck the trend. In all honesty, the humans running around here are made up of cliches and stock character types—the obsessed conspiracy theorist, the soldier trying to get home to his family, the alarmed wife awaiting his return, the (several) children placed in harm’s way, the military man, the wise expert scientist—but if nothing else, they’re at least played straight and not nearly as annoying as the fatuous caricatures scurrying around Emmerich’s movie who felt like they’d wandered in off the set of a sitcom by mistake. Edwards could have done a little more here; the only character who really hooks us is Bryan Cranston’s Joe, who gets a tragic opening scene, but he’s not around for long, and one character’s demise is disappointingly anti-climactic.

The acting is adequate for the wafer-thin characters, but nothing special. Probably the best performance is by Bryan Cranston, hot off his Emmy-winning role on the Breaking Bad series, but he makes his exit all-too-soon (and takes the lion’s share of human interest with him). Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a bland and uncharismatic lead, but adequate for his generic character, albeit barely so (one wonders if the character could have been improved by one of the other candidates, Henry Cavill or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who turned it down). Despite a fairly fleshed-out backstory–we spend a little establishing time at home with the Brodys–Ford never rises above the cliched soldier trying to get home. Elizabeth Olsen does the best she can with what little she has–mostly consisting of looking worried–and David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe are stuck in one-note archetypes; Strathairn the no-nonsense military man, and Watanabe the sage scientist who stands around uttering “profound” lines about man’s arrogance and the balance of Nature. Sally Hawkins (as Serizawa’s colleague) is superfluous, not doing anything that Watanabe couldn’t do without her, and Juliette Binoche has basically an opening cameo.

I’m not quite sure how both Godzilla fans and mainstream audiences are going to take to this. Fans who grew up with and are still enamored of the older film series probably aren’t going to mind the thinly-drawn characters, because that was equally true, or more so, of the old films, but they may be the most frustrated with the long wait for substantial Godzilla action. Casual viewers may be confused why a movie titled Godzilla spends so much time on giant insects and in this era of short attention spans and demand for constant wall-to-wall action, many will find Edwards’ restrained monster mayhem disappointing. For myself, while Godzilla is a flawed film both in and of itself and as Godzilla’s big-budget return to the screen, it’s still a respectable entry into his cinematic history (it’s much better than the 1998 disgrace, but that’s no great achievement), and puts some images onscreen I had never expected to see with big-budget Hollywood visual effects, which, as a child of Godzilla films, held the same thrill for me that it will for many others. Edwards’ tribute to the King of the Monsters isn’t quite as all-conquering as Godzilla himself, but it’s a worthy homage.

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