Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Let them fight."

Now, I'm no Godzilla expert, but I do appreciate giant monsters wrecking cities, so obviously I had to see the new Godzilla movie opening weekend. I tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but in trying to look at it meaningfully, I probably drew close. The short version is this: The 2014 Godzilla is TOTALLY a Godzilla movie, and if you're into a giant monster rampage, it is well worth your time. 

So there you go. You've been warned of any potential spoilers.

Something terrible happened in 1999. No, not Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, that was 1998. Here some...thing attacks a nuclear power plant in a Japanese city following strange, focused earthquakes, forcing its evacuation. Fifteen years later, a disgraced former engineer at that plant-turned conspiracy nut and his estranged Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician of a son discover that it was a giant atomic monster that destroyed the plant, just in time for it to come out of dormancy and feeding off of radioactive materials...

Joe Brody: Bryan Cranston (the dad from Malcolm in the Middle and some apparently critically acclaimed crime show). He was pretty high-up at the Janjira power plant and tried his best to contain the disaster. It didn't end well, and he lost his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) in the process. Now he's almost a crackpot obsessed with the mystery of whatever it was that destroyed the power plant. Except instead of those Chemtrails guys, he's actually right. His scenery chewing/screentime ratio could have been higher.

Ford Brody: Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass is our standard hero type of guy. Forthright and honest, he mostly just wants to go home and spend time with his wife and son. But his dad's antics in Japan drag him into this mess, and his Navy bomb disposal skills come in handy a few times, but not nearly as handy as his exceptional luck at surviving Kaiju attacks. Seriously, put this man in a Jaeger. This also means he has the horrible luck of being present for Kaiju attacks. Not a lot to the character, unfortunately, but he does some, er, kickass things.

Elle Brody: Elizabeth Olsen is Ford's wife back in San Francisco. She works in a hospital. She cares for her son. She misses her husband. She doesn't like when monsters attack her city. That's...about it. (Amusingly/unsettlingly, Olson is set to play the Scarlet Witch in Avengers 2 and Johnson is going to be Quicksilver. So they're brother and sister in that film, and married here.)

Dr. Ichiro Serizawa: Ken Watanabe (Hollywood's go-to “Japanese Man with Gravitas”) plays a scientist working with the high-clearance/low profile organization Monarch. He studies Kaiju events and tries to work out ways to prevent and/or stop them. His main strategy is “Let Godzilla deal with it.” He is a wise man.

The MUTOs: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. Except the smaller male of the species has wings and can fly. The, uh, military gave it that name before they knew it could fly (hooray for sexual dimorphism in monsters!). Anyway, the female is much larger and land-bound, but both can emit powerful EMP blasts, and they literally eat atomic bombs for breakfast. Giant prehistoric parasites, they are a big, big problem.

Godzilla: Sadly, not a man in a rubber costume, but still incredibly well-realized. He's freaking huge in this movie (well over 300 feet tall) and is described as a primordial alpha predator. Discovered/awakened in 1954, most (if not all) Pacific atomic “tests” during the Cold War were aimed at trying to kill or stop him. Obviously they didn't work or we wouldn't have a movie. Oh, and if you're wondering, he definitely has his Atomic Breath.

Directed by Gareth Edwards and with effects work involving John Dykstra, the movie is visually very impressive. Most impressive is the Kaiju slobberknocker in San Francisco, but even before that there's plenty of rampaging and destruction. The monster designs are great. Godzilla's update is beefy and monstrous, while still maintaining all of his signature elements. The MUTOs are wonderfully bizarre insectoid creatures.

Interestingly, the movie has a gigantic Spielberg vibe going on, and not just because of the many, many shots of people staring up in wonder at something off-screen. Jaws comes to mind. Much of Godzilla's presence in the film is implied and teased before we see the full deal, and it works well (now true, the original movie did that too). The hero's last name is Brody for crying out loud. Nor is it a boating accident. There's also a great deal of Jurassic Park thrown in, and even one bit near the end that calls to Saving Private Ryan. A curious thing, and maybe I'm imagining it, but if you're going to throw stylistic nods to another director, you can do far worse than Steven Spielberg.

Story by Dave Callaham and Screenplay by Max Borenstein. The dialogue and human characters aren't amazing, nor is the plot particularly deep, and yet it still works very well because it “gets” Godzilla, who in turn becomes the most fleshed out and complex character (largely through inference). At first, he's thought of nothing more than a predator, a gigantic force of nature, a walking god that can destroy us with a mere step. Then, he's an ally by default, hunting something that hunts us. The enemy of our enemy. Then...Well. I don't want to spoil anything, but the Godzilla movies have a deserved reputation for going in some pretty crazy directions over the years, with all sorts of weird monster relationships. This movie doesn't go into those sorts of things, but as it progresses, more and more hints of that heritage seep into the story. At the end of the day, Godzilla is a good guy, after all (of sorts).

The music by Alexandre Desplat isn't very noticeable. Only a few major scenes have it swelling to powerful heights. Mostly it goes unnoticed in the background, adding to feelings of unease and dread. Which works perfectly fine. There are quite a few moments of earth-shaking WHHHHHHHHMMMMMM that show we still haven't gotten past Inception, but its not that bad. The signature Godzilla roar is present and reworked a bit to sound meatier and more animalistic.


This year's Godzilla had to prove that the West could make a good Godzilla movie. Legendary pictures succeeded by playing it with a straight face. Yet in doing so, it allows the absurd elements of the series (a bipedal, somewhat clumsy dinosaur thing with atomic breath) to stand proud. Hell, there is a scene where the United States Navy is literally running escort for Godzilla as he swims towards the mainland, and the overhead shot of Godzilla's back surrounded by a fleet of much smaller, friendly warships is probably my favorite shot in the whole movie. If the 90's version was a deconstruction (let's try to take Godzilla seriously and completely redesign him so its not a dude in a silly suit), this version is a reconstruction, which says let's make Godzilla look and act like Godzilla, and have the world react to it and go from there. As someone who opposes rampant deconstructionist narratives, I can give it no higher praise than calling it a legitimate Godzilla movie.

That trailer lies. The Statue of Liberty is nowhere near the Pacific Ocean.


Huh. The Asian trailer is way better.

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