Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Godzilla (2014)" Review: America Finally Treats The King Of Monsters With The Respect He Deserves


No matter how many ways you slice it, the idea of an American film studio with an American director making a Godzilla movie based on a script written by an American will always seem kind of silly and illogical to me. The reason for this attitude is simple, Godzilla (the original film) was made as denouncement of our usage of Nuclear weapons, or more specifically the fear that many Japanese people held that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would, and could, occur again. Having an "American" Godzilla would be the same as if Germany made a film about the Holocaust, it just doesn't fit.

But since most of the population out there (in America at least) is unaware of this fact, the idea of an American made Godzilla film won't feel strange at all. In fact, the only thing most will note is that the language isn't dubbed and the effects work is much much much better. Thus, with that line of thinking, we have our second attempt at creating our own Godzilla film and while the results are far superior to that 1998 tragedy, there is still room for plenty of improvement. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Edwards Ontario
Time:10:00 pm, May 16, 2014       
Projector Type: IMAX 3D         
Film Rating: PG-13                   
Film Runtime: 2 hr 3 min    
Studio: Warner Bros.

Biases:  
Loves: Godzilla
Likes: Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe
Neutral:  Aaron Johnson
Hates: The 1998 Godzilla
Guilty pleasure: ...the 1998 Godzilla...shhhh, don't tell anyone


Godzilla has been a staple film franchise for sixty years and like all long running franchises such as James Bond, Star Trek, Star Wars, any horror franchise and even Harry Potter, there is an established formula of which it is based on. Unlike those film franchises however (with the exception of James Bond), Godzilla has a long list of big screen appearances that total over 28 films (32 if you count the American made entries). That is a whole lot of baggage to carry for any new entry into such a long running series and Godzilla's formula hasn't changed much over those sixty years for better or worse.

Any Godzilla fan knows to expect three things out of any new film featuring the big G. First is that the opening two thirds of the film will mostly be devoted to introducing whichever new monster has appeared for Godzilla to fight. Second is that the human characters will mostly be tools used for exposition to help explain the origins of the new monster and run in terror when it attacks. Third is that after all that exposition is delivered and we are properly informed on what kind of threat this new monster is, Godzilla will show up and commence to lay the smack down.

Those aren't official rules that every Godzilla film adheres to, but for the most part that is the structure of nearly every Godzilla film ever made. While there are those out there that say some rules are meant to be broken (please see the 1998 film for an example on why that isn't always a good thing), some rules have remained in place simply because they work. Godzilla's formula works for the most part, and while there is certainly places the films could benefit with some retrofitting (the human characters mostly), it still delivers what Godzilla fans crave most, watching Godzilla go to war with whatever monster is trespassing in his backyard.


This new film directed by Gareth Edwards, who directed the small but very ambitious film Monsters, is a Godzilla movie that is trying to do multiple things, but changing that formula isn't one of them. It is first and foremost trying to right all the wrongs of that 1998 film and restore America's honor. Next it is trying to prove that America is capable of making a good Godzilla movie that can stand proudly next to all the classics. Finally, it is trying to establish Godzilla (the monster) as a much more sympathetic creature than most American audiences aren't likely used to.

While all that is a tall order for any filmmaker, Edwards comes out swinging and has delivered a Godzilla film that is filled with the spectacle we expect. He clearly isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here and in that case it is a good thing. His approach is simple yet effective; which is to reintroduce us to Godzilla very carefully as he establishes this real world environment where giant skyscraper tall monsters actually do exist. By real world I mean this isn't the second coming of Pacific Rim, which had a much more light and breezy feel to it. Evan's Godzilla means business and he isn't messing around.

As mentioned, there is absolutely no attempt here to change the formula which turns out to be both a good and bad thing, but mostly good. The key ingredient that the 1998 film forgot was essential to every Godzilla movie ever made is that he is at his best when he has another monster to fight. While there are Godzilla movies where the humans were the only threat to Godzilla, they always found some way to throw in a monster at the last minute or have the humans create their own monster to fight him (MechaGodzilla being the best example).


Warner Bros. was very wise to remember their past mistakes because the inclusion of not one, but two new monsters here, called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), was not only a genius decision, but the only one they could have made in order to produce a proper Godzilla movie. The filmmakers go even further than expected though by giving the MUTOs a purpose that not only makes sense, but allows the film to freely move from the usual disaster hotspots such as Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco (no New York this time) with ease and real purpose.

The MUTOs aren't just something for Godzilla to fight though, they are real living creatures with instincts that have them behaving in ways that make you question whether they are bad monsters or just acting in their nature. The opening of the film is mostly devoted to learning about the MUTOs and what their intentions are other than to cause rampant chaos and destruction where ever they go which will feel very familiar to any and all Godzilla fans out there. It is a classic set up that helps align the film with nearly every Godzilla film to come before it.

As for Godzilla himself, well...they got him right...finally. While the design of Godzilla has seemed to spark a debate as to whether he needs to lay off the carbs or not, there is no denying that he looks, sounds and feels like Godzilla should. Even though we don't get a clear look at him until nearly half way into the film, when we get that first full body shot...I had tingles run down my spine. We know what he will look like, mostly, but that reveal was still something of epic awesomeness that made the next thirty or so minutes of waiting to see him again more than tolerable.


Aside from the look of Godzilla though, the one main addition here is that the film doesn't treat him like a villain which may throw some audiences who only know him as a menace. It may make him out to be a bit too much like a hero at times (who knows how many people were killed in that tsunami in Hawaii), but this is the Godzilla we know and love. He isn't here to help us exactly, but is more pissed off that another monster is squatting in his house and wants to put the hurt on them. When Godzilla and the MUTOs go head to head, it is a glorious sight and is handled to near perfection.

The only thing that would make the monster segments of the film even better would have been to pull the camera back out of the action more often. Too many times Edwards seems to be attached to this idea of always giving us a POV shot from someone sitting in a car, standing on a roof or watching from the street. While that format worked perfectly for something like Cloverfield, here it distracts from what we want to see and makes watching some of the fights more annoying than invigorating. Which leads to probably the biggest complaint you will likely hear from a lot of people, there just isn't enough Godzilla in Godzilla.


Use any example you want, the lack of Batman in Dark Knight Rises, the lack of Iron Man in Iron Man 3, when your title character is hardly in their own movie, that is a problem. While I applaud Edwards strength of will power at teasing the reveal of Godzilla for such a long time in the film, the constant cutaways from the action are almost unforgivable. The few money shots we get during the climatic battle in San Francisco is worth the price of admission alone making the lack of Godzilla action a bit more tolerable. But what we have to get through to get there is borderline sadistic.

After that awesome reveal of Godzilla in Hawaii where he is standing face to face with MUTO for the first time, you can feel the tension in the theater as everyone awaits the epic brawl about to happen. But as soon as Godzilla lets loose with his famous roar, we cut to a household with a kid watching television where we can barely see the fight happening on the TV before learning that we missed the whole thing. Sure, it is comical in a way but it is also sort of an asshole move on Edwards part.

Just when you are over that horrible tease and we see Godzilla facing off with MUTO again, this time in San Francisco, we are thinking to ourselves, "Alright, you already fooled me once, but I know you are going to show us the goods this time. OK, there they go....MUTO flies at Godzilla....Wham!, Godzilla knocks him out of the air...awesome!!!...no....what...wait...why is that door shutting?...hold on, I can't see what is happening anymore. What the hell is going on....did he just bite him....argh! I can't see anything. DAM IT! He did it again!".


Yes, that happens at least three times during the course of the film before we actually see what we all paid to see. And yes, to answer your question yet again, it is well worth the wait. But, and this is a huge "but", the real problem arises when the fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs ends almost immediately after we finally get to see what is happening. Like mentioned, the money shots are amazing. Let me say that again...A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. When Godzilla preps for his Atomic breath....holy crap! Not only is it visually just breathtaking, but it is the kind of late-for-the-party move in a fight that just makes you want to stand up and cheer.

In those classic Godzilla movies when the moment arrives that Godzilla and the monster are about to throw down, the humans take a back seat and we get between twenty to thirty minutes of nothing put pure monster versus monster bliss as we watch the monster mash we had been waiting for. Edwards gets that build up just right, but the delivery just wasn't there. The quality is definitely there, but we needed a bit more substance to go with it. Now, had there been more to the film other than the build up to the eventual Godzilla vs. MUTO fight then perhaps this wouldn't have been such a problem, but unfortunately one of the biggest plague's of the Godzilla franchise formula has been held over along with all the positive points, which is the bland and useless human characters.

Edwards has stuffed the film with a ton of acting talent. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Aaron Johnson are all great actors who are arguably better than your usual disaster/monster movie epics deserves. But with the sole exception of one of them, they are given absolutely nothing interesting to do. They are all character types instead of being actual characters with a purpose behind their actions.


Ken Watanabe is a fine actor, but here he is relegated to the scientist who has an "Oh Shit!" look plastered on his face the entire film.  David Strathairn is a powerful and understated actor who spends the entire film spouting out exposition letting us know why they do or don't have power, how long until they reach their destination and stares intently at monitors while trying to emote a sense of dread. Juliette Binoche is little more than a cameo appearance and Sally Hawkins is busy handing information to Watanabe's character for him to stare at.

Those actors, as crazy as it may seem, have the least offensive roles and at least fit into the picture in a logical way. But Aaron Johnson is probably the biggest human tragedy in the entire film. His character not only circumstantially pops up where ever inbound trouble is headed, but what we know about him being a soldier/bomb expert and family man makes absolutely no impact on anything in the film. The fact that he is a soldier only gives him a way to get from place to place and the one instance in the film where his expertise would come into play is never taken advantage of making him even more useless. Elizabeth Olsen and their son likewise could have been left on the cutting room floor as all they ever do is get in trouble in the most asinine ways possible.


The one character in the entire film that had any sort of purpose or emotional ties to everything going on was Bryan Cranston's crazed scientist. From the moment he is on screen he immediately sets up a connection with the audience and we want to go on this journey with him. His passion is evident and his anger even more so, but in probably the worst move anyone could have made, he is taken out of the picture far too early for no other reason than Cranston had to get back to the set of Breaking Bad. If he had been the focal point as those very misleading ads made him out to be, the human element of the film would have fared much much better.

Even with the disappointment of having a severely lacking human connection through most of the film, there is no denying that it is still successful in what most will be looking for, which is of course the monsters. If you go and see Godzilla for Godzilla and to watch him smack around some monsters then there is no way that you won't have a joygasm or two. Just remember that the human parts of the film are more or less just a means to an end and there shouldn't be much of an issue with them, especially when Godzilla finally lets loose. This is not going to go down as the best Godzilla movie ever made, but it has succeeded in aligning itself with those other classics which is good enough for now.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

It took America far too long to make a proper Godzilla movie, but the impossible has finally happened. As long as you go into the film with leveled expectations about how much Godzilla you will see versus all the poorly handled human elements then the film delivers for the most part. Here's hoping that the next Godzilla movie we get features the big guy a bit more prominently and with far less teasing.

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