May 16, 2014



“I don’t want to disappoint our Japanese public, especially Godzilla.  Haha! I’m just kidding, I know he doesn’t care what humans do.”

-Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock


The Godzilla property is a difficult one, to say the least.  It’s greatest effort is largely considered to be it’s first, back in 1954, because it so effectively harnessed what was great about romping science fiction in the nuclear era.  Less than a decade after the national trauma wrought by nuclear weapons in Japan, not to mention the vast destruction of Tokyo experienced by so many, it directly confronted national fears about the nuclear age while still firmly rooted in B-movie territory.  That kind of smuggling genre picture gave way fairly quickly to high camp, especially as Toho studios saw the merchandising potential and box office receipts that kids fare brought to their coffers, and Godzilla became a leathery fun guy hero.  Neither would be particularly easy to pull off in 2014, certainly not for American audiences not pre-geared to the campy aspects of the legendary character, oft considered an affectionate cult curio that’s most famous Stateside these days for a resurgence in the 90s that saw a terrible American version that not only couldn’t avoid the pitfalls inherent to the picture, but decided to create a whole slew of new ones, as well as a Nike ad campaign that saw the man in suit version going head to head with Charles Barkley in one-on-one basketball. 

I’m sure the hardcore kaiju fans will disagree with me, but despite the sheer number of Godzilla films made over the course of fifty years, there seems to me to be a limited number of scenarios for each film, roughly boiled down to: Godzilla is a menace wreaking havoc and the human scientists have to figure out a way to destroy it (or at least send it back to the ocean), or there are other beasties from the depths or other worlds stomping through civilization and our only hope is Godzilla stepping into thwart the effort.  The first scenario is tiresome, and the second is limiting as far as human agency is concerned – all the characters just stand around looking worried until the monsters duke it out, usually in an urban area.  The latter of these is what director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriters, Max Borenstein and Dan Callaham, opt for with decent results.  There’s no particular interest in subverting the genre or playing with it in an ironic way.  Instead, the shift is in perspective as we spent much of the film getting a grounds eye view of giant beasties wreaking havoc or, more often, stumbling through the havoc they’ve already wrought.

The human element is represented by a terrific cast that is given absolutely nothing to do, including Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Straithairn, Ken Wantanabe, and Elizabeth Olsen.  The ostensible lead is, absurdly, Ford Brody, played with no particular charisma or gusto by Aaron Taylor Johnson, an actor whose dullness continues to astound me.  Brody’s parents worked at a nuclear plant in Japan in the late 90s that was destroyed by something unexplained, and he grew up to be a bomb disposal expert in the Navy.  Wantanabe is the scientist in charge of investigating the seismic activity and, yes, strange creatures seemingly dormant that are causing problems.  Straithairn is the military man in charge of containment.  The plot itself involves the awakening of one (and then another) “M.U.T.O” – Mutant Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, if memory serves – who feeds off nuclear energy and grows in strength and size.  The two cause destruction across the Pacific as they attempt to breed and then our man Godzilla enters the fray to restore balance.  The humans spend a bit of time trying to figure out what’s happening before following the beasts and coming up with a ridiculous plan that’s really just a holding pattern for the script.  Frankly, the creaky plotting is about putting recognizable actors into perilous situations despite the pointlessness of their respective goals.  It’s not helped that all the characters are paper thin clichés, which I suppose is to be expected, but if Edwards’ desire was to shift the perspective to the insignificant humans, some better writing would have been appreciated.  As they are they’re you’re standard fonts of exposition with a bit of “reunite with loved ones” motivation thrown in for good measure.

It’s not a damning problem, however, because even though they’re ciphers, they’re visual perspective on the events is key to the film’s success.  Refreshingly, Edwards has no interest in frontloading the film with ginormous CGI battles.  The monsters are, for a while, only glimpsed, and even when Godzilla himself turns up we’re only given flashes of bits and pieces of his humongous stature (there’s a great scene at an airport where a chain reaction of exploding planes as seen from the terminal is met with those stomping legs).  Even the first meeting between Godzilla and one of the MUTOs is immediately cut away from just as the fight is about to begin, and we only see a few seconds of the ensuing battle on the news.  Indeed, the majority of the running time is spent dealing with the aftermath, and the monsters are only seen moving away in the distance as the survivors stumble around dazed in the wreckage.  One of the better action scenes is straight out of Jurassic Park (no points for finding Spielberg to be probably the most significant influence here) as pitiful little humans attempt to stay hidden from a lurking monster on a bridge.  Withholding is the key, and it’s not dissimilar in design or style from Edwards’ previous film, the micro-budget Monsters, which saw two characters struggling to find their way through a quarantine zone in South America that has also been affected by giant beasts.  If that film required the delay of the reveal until the end due to budgetary restraints, there’s no such need in this $160 million behemoth, but Edwards understands the power of suspense and denial.  Closing doors or cutaways to other characters quickly obscur several fights, until the final, inevitable showdown.  This might frustrate some, but as I am quite frankly bored to tears with endless CGI knockdown drag-out fights, it’s a much-needed antidote to such excess.

The final battle, then, is spectacular, even as it’s intercut with the flimsy human action of trying to dispose of a nuclear bomb.  It’s not about fast cuts and swooping camera movements, but about the lumbering awe of giants in battle.  Given that recent blockbusters have found the mass destruction of cities to be an afterthought that just sort-of looks cool, Godzilla actually gives weight to the carnage, even having one of those falling skyscrapers play a crucial and painful role in the battle for the beasts.  Yes, there are moments of genuine badassness, but they’re brief and all the more effective for it.  If the underlying theme of all Godzilla pictures is that it’s his world, we’re just living in it, then Edwards plays it up with grace.  Critics have talked about the Malick-like tone and framing of some of the shots, and though I’m not sure he was much of an influence, they’re correct that the feeling so often expressed in his movies is present: the absolute indifference of nature.  Godzilla doesn’t seem much concerned with humans at all, and why should he be?

The film effectively splits the difference between B-movie tropes and A-budget spectacle, even down to Alexandre Desplat’s sometimes somber, sometimes stomping homage to Akira Ifukube’s indelible original score.  Even if the characterizations of the humans leave a lot to be desired, it nails the character of Godzilla head on.  A force of nature, not a force for “good” or “bad”, and whether he’s asserting his dominance or just attempting to restore some balance to nature, the fate of humanity is inconsequential.  Edwards plays on recent natural disasters, especially the Thailand Tsunami and the Fukushima earthquake, to draw a pointed parallel between the beasts and man’s relationship to nature.  We’re not as in control as we think we are, and that giant fire-breathing beast is a sobering reminder.


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