Saturday, May 17, 2014

Kaiju Theater: Godzilla (2014)

Back in the summer of 2000, one scorching August afternoon I made my way to the crummiest theater in Temple, Texas, because that was the only place showing Godzilla 2000. The film was the first Japanese Godzilla film distributed to American cinemas since Godzilla 1985 15 years before. Growing up watching all the cheesy Shōwa series films on Saturday afternoon TV "Creature Features" and was jazzed to see a modern incarnation of the Big G. But when I got to the theater, they told me the air conditioning was out, and would not be repaired for the foreseeable future. It was at least 100 degrees out, and likely to get hotter before the day was out. What's worse, I couldn't catch an evening show because as a sports reporter, I worked evenings. Knowing this was very likely to be my only chance to ever see a real, for-true Godzilla film on the big screen (even then I dismissed the 1998 travesty completely) I bit the bullet: I bought my ticket, and watched the film, all by my lonesome in the empty screening room in sweltering, 90-degree temperatures.

I share this only so readers understand from where I come from. I'm a Godzilla fan from way, way back, and take the atomic age metaphor seriously. Which is why I--and my family--looked forward to this big-budget American production (co-produced by Toho) directed by Gareth Edwards, who gave us 2010's nifty low-budget Monsters. The film opens with an extended setup in which Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody loses his wife, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) in a suspicious nuclear power plant accident in Japan. Flash forward 15 years, and Joe Brody has become a wild-eyed conspiracy nut, convinced the government is covering up the real cause of the accident and his wife's death. His son, Ford (Kick Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson), all grown up and a bomb-disposal expert in the Marines, is just returning home from a tour of duty and desperate to spend quality time with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Except he get a phone call that his crazy dad has been arrested in Japan, so Ford flies to land of the Rising Son to bail him out. Once out, Joe convinces a skeptical Ford that the same seismic events that triggered the disaster 15 years ago are repeating themselves, and needs to return to the restricted area around the ruined power plant to recover his records to prove it. Ford reluctantly agrees with the scheme, but once they sneak in, not only do they recover Joe's long-list zip drive discs, they also discover the area isn't a radioactive wasteland. They're promptly captured by security and get a ring-side seat at a MUTO--a giant, vicious insect-like monster that eats radiation and has cocooned itself in the reactor for the past 15 years, breaks out to join its mate and reproduce. The rest of the movie consists of Ford attempting to return home to San Francisco whilst Godzilla pursues the two MUTOs because Big G is the "apex predator" and the MUTOs are his prey.

Edwards plays things very close to the vest, withholding any glimpse of any monster until well into the film, and only then offering glimpses. Godzilla himself doesn't show the halfway point, and by then, audiences are primed for some serious kaiju-on-kaiju smackdown. Except we don't get it. When Godzilla confronts the male MUTO in Hawaii, Edwards abruptly cuts away to show news reports of the devastating battle. That's it. What works as a cute joke quickly loses its humor once the audience realizes the break isn't just a brief interlude, that Edwards really isn't going to show any of the fight. I've seen reviewers praise Edwards for making "such a bold choice" but I have to call bullshit. Sitting in the theater, watching Edwards tease the audience over and over without delivering the action, all I could think of was my utter disappointment with 1981's big budget flop, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, another movie that chose to tease the audience with promised excitement of a larger-than-life title character, yet fail to deliver until the final act. To be sure, Godzilla does a better job of maintaining interest than that earlier snorefest, but only just. Yet when the final battle comes... well, I didn't feel the payoff was worth the wait. Yes, it's cool when Godzilla finally (reluctantly, it seems) unleashes his famed radioactive breath. The male MUTO makes good use of his hooks and wings to aerially attack Godzilla in ways that would make Rodan jealous. Godzilla himself fights tooth and claw and tail, far more effectively and convincingly than even the best of the rubber-suited Toho films. But still, it remains a fight very much cut from the same cloth of those earlier films. I didn't see anything new brought to the table other than a much, much bigger budget. It certainly wasn't as inventive as the jaw-dropping battle for Hong Kong in last summer's Pacific Rim, and perhaps that film makes a good comparison. The battle for Hong Kong was such a spectacular show-stopper that the final act, with the two Jaegers Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka battling massive kaiju on the ocean floor something of a letdown. It just couldn't measure up. Godzilla's final act feels very much like the final act of Pacific Rim, only Godzilla's show-stopping spectacle was the battle for Honolulu, which audiences never actually saw.

Imagine, say, World War Z with all the zombie action happening before, or after Brad Pitt arrived on the scene. Leaving the theater, The Wife groused, "Who'd have thought Superman would give us too much carnage, and Godzilla not enough?"

The biggest flaw with Edwards' Godzilla is the same flaw inherent with all Godzilla films--the audience really, really, really doesn't care about the humans in the film. The plot centering around the people is, to be blunt, filler to pad out the movie between expensive, special effects-laden monster battles. The Japanese worked around this somewhat by shamelessly ripping off... er, paying homage to such U.S. blockbusters as The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Pacific Rim skirted the issue by making the human actors actually physically fight their monstrous adversaries by donning armored suits that happened to also be giant robots. Edwards tries to move his film beyond this by going for a poignant human element, but Ford's efforts to get home to his family (a family that is given nothing to do other than be threatened by giant MUTOs) is the exact same story arc as Tom Cruise's in War of the Worlds. Although to be fair, Ford doesn't beat a crazy Tim Robbins to death in a basement whilst hiding out from MUTOs.

Lest I forget, Ken Watanabe is a fantastic actor wasted here. His only job is to look alternately pensive and confused, then spout plot points when convenient to the narrative.

Is Gereth Edwards' Godzilla really all that bad? No. I don't hate it, although it may sound that way. I'll get the Blu-Ray when it comes out, and skip to the final 20 minutes. In many ways it is superior to previous Godzilla films. It goes a long way toward washing away the stain the 1998 film left on the Godzilla legacy. The acting is better. The directing is better. The special effects are better. There are nifty set pieces in this film--the Halo jump from all the trailers being the undisputed emotive and visual high point. But the film can't maintain that level of awe, or even tension. Great effort is put into fleshing out the origins of the MUTOs, but from a storytelling perspective the film is no different from King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which helpless humans simply stand back and "let them fight." Except, in this instance, the audience doesn't get to watch the fun.

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