Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Wrath of Godzilla

There's probably no better example of dumb Hollywood trend-following than the 1998 Roland Emmerich blockbuster Godzilla, an American adaptation of the popular Japanese monster movie series of the same name. While it was successful, Emmerich's re-imagining wasn't remembered fondly by those who sat through it. Newcomers were turned off by a stupid plot, annoying characters, and special effects that look dated compared to movies ten years older than itself. Established Godzilla fans were spurned by drastic redesigns of the creature itself, which ended up looking like a cheap knockoff of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. In the end, it was a movie that pleased absolutely no-one, and it would be sixteen years before the famous city-destroying lizard would ever get back to the big screen, this time with Monsters director Gareth Edwards at the helm.
That's no reef.
This new Godzilla is a very human-centric story as the world is suddenly and disastrously reintroduced to city-sized monsters with our smaller, slightly crunchy heroes left to scurry around avoiding being stepped on. As an American soldier traveling to Japan to bail his estranged father (Bryan Cranston) out of jail, Aaron Taylor-Johnson just wants to get things taken care of and return to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son at his California home. Unfortunately, this trip coincides with the re-emergence of an ancient monster that starts destroying cities and absorbing nuclear power sources all over the Pacific. Soon both soldiers and monster are converging on San Francisco, as the military struggles to contain the destruction and save the lives of all of the world's citizens in the process.
Duct tape is all the rage with crazy people in Japan.
Oh, the problems Godzilla has. The biggest is the fact that the title character has little screen time to speak of. While we get glimpses of the monster throughout the film - and his origins are merely glossed over, by the way - we never really get a good, long look at him until the end of the final act. It's not as though Godzilla doesn't have the opportunity to wreak havoc, as he appears numerous times in scenes setting up grand spectacles, only for the scenes to abruptly cut to either insignificant conversations between insignificant characters about what to do OR to the same scene but immediately after the off-screen carnage that Godzilla fans paid money to see in action. Obviously this was due to one of two things; either it was a budget decision, because that CGI LOOKS extremely expensive to produce (even if 3D added little); or it was a conscious decision to focus more attention on the human characters witnessing this crisis.
Right... what was your purpose here, again?
And we know that's a story angle that Edwards can do; his Monsters was very character-focused, even while the audience seemed to waiting on the edge of their seat for a GLIMPSE of anything alien. There are two reasons why - despite it being a brave idea - Edwards' effort doesn't work here. One is that the movie is called Godzilla, and people did not pay $8 (or more) for their tickets to watch a bunch of humans talking about all the action - and far more engaging action, mind you - taking place off-screen. Second, the characters here are one-note cliches from the annals of monster movies past. Cranston - while amazing - is your standard man driven into obsession by tragedy only to be proven right about the existence of giant monsters in our world. Olsen - while amazing - is your standard wife/mother/love interest whose existence in the film is purely to be an object for our hero to return to. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins - while amazing - are figureheads of a secret society who unsuccessfully tried to keep these giant creatures a secret, and take on a John Hammond-esque desire to not interfere and let nature take its course. David Strathairn - while amazing - is a typical military leader who doesn't hesitate to abdicate nuclear force against what he sees as a threat. And Taylor-Johnson - while struggling to wipe clean his British accent - is the MacGuffin, an American soldier with an unbelievably convenient skill set who gets caught up in trying to take down the monster before it can destroy his home. He also happens to be the luckiest man alive, as proven by the impossibility of the situations he survives. Though the acting is solid, there's not enough development here to make up for the lack of dedicated monster action we get.
Ooh, do we see him now? Wait, wait... no...
So after all that, my opinion on Godzilla must be clear... It's absolutely awesome.

Don't get me wrong, this is a movie with some clear, easily recognizable flaws. Edwards and his filmmakers take WAY too long focusing on things other than the film's main character, and the script - credited to newcomer Max Borenstein but with contributions from mediocre established writers David Callaham (Doom), David Goyer (Blade: Trinity), Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3) and Frank Darabont (okay, he's actually quite good) - just doesn't do this story justice. The actions of the humans are inconsequential (or just stupid), their motivations forced and derivative, and the characters themselves mere caricatures of established cliches.
Amazingly, you can understand almost everything Watanabe says this time around.
But while the film struggles narratively, it still has excellent action, amazing special effects, and it uses its title monster effectively when we finally DO see him let loose. Whether or not you're a fan of the classic Japanese movie creature, seeing him smash buildings or fight other giant MUTOs (yes, they look like derivatives of the Cloverfield monster, but that design was awesome so I'll forgive it) gives a definite feeling of awe and excitement, much like last Summer's similar epic Pacific Rim. Better, Edwards knows to treat Godzilla as a heroic figure, as opposed to Emmerich's more neutral stance in 1998. Sure, he directly causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (off-screen, naturally), but at the end of the day this is a monster you're still rooting for, if only because Hollywood got him right. Simply put, the best parts of Godzilla give you instant happiness, despite whatever else it does wrong. You might mentally tick off all the issues that this film has as you watch it on the big screen, but as the closing credits roll you'll find yourself putting down your 3D glasses, glancing at the screen, and uttering:
"Please, sir, I want some more."

No comments: