Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review - Godzilla

Run for your lives! After over a decade of dormancy, one of the most literally gigantic figures in cinema history has reemerged from the depths of the development ocean to wreak havoc in movie houses the world over! That said, Godzilla is far more likely to draw people in than to send them screaming from the theatre, delivering as it does on the promise of an immediately enjoyable summer blockbuster... albeit one that, unlike the atomic beastie on the marquee, has a fairly short radioactive half-life.
Anyone who's even vaguely familiar with the films of Toho (the Japanese studio that spawned the daikaiju subgenre) should already understand why Godzilla really is the great great granddaddy of movie monsters. It's survived everything from nuclear bombs to Roland Emmerich bombs, and has persevered through decades of incarnations in its native Japan to become an unmistakable cross-cultural icon. Indeed, so distinctive is the look and sound of this 50-story killer lizard, that it's the most internationally recognizable star in the film's impressive cast, which includes the likes of Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, and David Strathairn.

Mind you, an impressive cast does not necessarily an impressive movie make, and even these fine actors can only do so much to elevate their thinly written characterizations. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Ford, a soldier just back home from his tour of duty when he gets the call that his father (Cranston) has been arrested for snooping around a quarantine zone in Japan. Turns out dad was onto something.

The cocoon of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (M.U.T.O.) is being secretly studied by scientists (Watanabe and Hawkins) who quickly come to regret it when the gargantuan bug finally hatches, gorging on sources of radiation like a parasite and emitting devastating electromagnetic pulses that render our human weapons moot. Ford is now desperate to get back home to San Francisco before his wife (Olsen) and his son get squished by the rampaging brute.
That's about as deep as the human melodrama gets, which is standard for this kind of film. The sole purpose of the people is merely to string together a pageant of apocalyptic action set pieces and then stand by to watch. Max Borenstein's screenplay is consequently thin on story and character development, but gets a better director than it deserves in Gareth Edwards, who impressed critics in 2010 by crafting first-rate thrills on a third-rate budget for his debut feature Monsters. He has a more monstrous bankroll to play with this time, with which he conjures more monstrous effects for more monstrous monsters than the Monsters monsters (whew!).

But it's in Edwards' form, not his CGI dollars, that he proves himself to be a visionary architect of large-scale spectacle. As the M.U.T.O. starts ravaging major cities from Honolulu to Las Vegas, Edwards shows us an ant's-eye-view of the mayhem, communicating the size of the leviathan with low-angled, artfully obscured POV shots that put the viewer square in the danger zone. Only an even bigger predator can stop this M.U.T.O., and that's when the true star of our picture, revealed with almost Spielbergian coyness by Edwards, makes his grand entrance.

Although this prehistoric mega-reptile's volume and proportions seem to have been cranked up to eleven in order to satiate the BIGGER+LOUDER=BETTER demographic, Edwards and his designers have taken care to respectfully retain most of Godzilla's characteristic traits; Namely those mountainous dorsal scales, that atomic halitosis, and that ear-splitting roar (which was originally synthesized in 1954 by rubbing a leather glove on bass strings).
But if there's one quality of the traditional Gojira (1954) that Edwards has no qualms about stomping all over and laying waste to, it's the original film's admittedly silly tone. Though hardly its intended purpose, the antiquated fakery of a costumed actor clomping about a model Tokyo can't help but elicit fits of affectionate giggles from modern audiences. Even contemporary homages to this wacky and outdated genre – such as Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim or Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers – are sure to keep their slimy tongues in their scaly cheeks. Not so in Edwards' sober vision, which doesn't dare take the easy way around death and destruction by writing it off as playfully macabre.

Purists who (ironically or otherwise) love the classic for its amusing chintz may not approve of Edwards' straight-faced approach, which only occasionally cracks up with laughable moments that may not even be funny intentionally. But what's important to remember is the context of the original film, whose concept was conceived in the shadows mushroom clouds, by a generation which had witnessed the catastrophic decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the nuclear hands of America. The creature – not-so-coincidentally born out of reckless atomic testing in the Pacific – tapped into fundamental fears that pervaded the Japanese consciousness at the time, becoming symbolic of something far deeper and darker than mere popcorn entertainment.

It was intended to scare. And it did. Only age has tinted it as “silly”. But by deconstructing the retrospective tone of the original, Edwards has stayed truer to the spirit of the original. Of course, for the purposes of this update, Godzilla can stand in for any number of our 21st century problems. The script none-too-subtly specifies how it represents nature's undiscriminating power to surface at any moment and bite humanity right in its arrogant ass, but other interpretations are certainly applicable if that climate change metaphor seems too on-the-nose.

It's best not to over-think it, though. It doesn't require a whole lot of mental stamina to enjoy this well-directed but simplistic summer diversion. The bigger mental challenge might be remembering much about it when the credits roll and that momentary thrill of beholding The King of Monsters recedes back into the ocean as quickly as it came.

*** out of ****


  1. Not sure if I liked it as much as I did Pacific Rim last year, which were pretty much made by the same people, sans Guillermo del Toro, but it was still a highly entertaining movie nonetheless.

  2. When are you gonna see X-Men?