Thursday, June 5, 2014

GODZILLA Is King of All Monsters, But Is He King of All Movies?!


- I was so looking forward to GODZILLA. A few months back, at Wonder-Con in Anaheim, I saw director Gareth Edwards speak. It was clear that - in addition to being humble and self-deprecating - the guy was passionate about this film, about Godzilla, and about the legacy of the character and the film franchise. This was also a guy who seemed poised to deliver the Godzilla movie that we'd all been waiting for. I don't hate the 90's Emmerich version as much as some, but that movie was a goofy thrill ride when, clearly, the Godzilla character demands darker, epic, and more mythological treatment. And man, the footage that we saw at Wonder-Con seemed to promise just that. We saw a massive, insect-like creature emerge from the darkened ocean - hordes of screaming people fleeing in terror. Then, a giant leg stomped on the beach, and it was clear that the insect creature was about to meet its match. The camera panned up gracefully, and there, before us, was Godzilla in all his glory - taking a form that both paid homage to his man-in-suit origins, yet looked spectacularly badass. This. Was. Godzilla.

But maybe I should have been a bit worried all along. Edwards made his mark with indie creature-feature Monsters, which garnered a cult following and minor critical acclaim for the way it created a feeling of ominous dread and scale even with a barely-there budget. And yet ... I watched Monsters when it came out a few years back, and it left me pretty cold. I admired its ingenuity, but I also felt nothing for its characters, who I found to be whiny and inhuman-seeming. I put all of those doubts out of my mind though prior to GODZILLA. I mean, this was the return of the King of All Monsters. Who cared about the puny humans that might happen to populate the film?

As it turns out though, human characters are pretty important, even in a GODZILLA film. Especially when you consider that Edwards expends so much effort centering his story around his human protagonists. In many ways, his biggest inspiration here is Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park. Edwards looks to create a JP-like sense of awe and wonder in his film by grounding it in an all-too-human POV. But there's a coldness in these characters, a blandness, similar to what I saw in Monsters. I mean, in Jurassic Park, characters from Alan Grant to Ian Malcolm became instant fan favorites, because they were bursting with personality and life. They were colorful, distinct. We cared about them. Godzilla, meanwhile, is saddled with good actors playing non-characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is our hero, Ford Brody. But I guarantee you won't remember that name when the film is done. He's a military guy whose main character trait is being the military-guy-with-the-heart-of-gold. I've enjoyed Taylor-Johnson's work in the Kick-Ass films. I know he can do way better than this. I don't even really blame him ... he's given pretty much nothing to work with. This is even more true for Elizabeth Olsen. She was Oscar-worthy in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here she is playing Generic Wife. David Straitharn is Generic Military Officer. Ken Watanabe is Generic Scientist. At least Watanabe is given a couple of super-badass lines to say (the movie could really use a heavy injection of badassery). I guess it's not just badassery that I was looking for. It's emotion.

The huge bulk of the movie's emotional core comes, not surprisingly, from the great Bryan Cranston. Cranston plays Taylor-Johnson's dad, who, as we see in a riveting opening flashback sequence, was once a nuclear scientist charged with maintaining safety at a Japanese nuclear plant. His wife, who also worked at the plant, was tragically killed in an accident, and now Cranston has become obsessed with finding out what really happened that day. The movie's best scene is actually in this flashback sequence, as Cranston makes a desperate bid to save his wife's life, but ultimately, tragically, comes up short. Cranston kills it here, and helps GODZILLA to open on one hell of a high note.

But as the movie flash-forwards to the present, the focus shifts to Taylor-Johnson, and things start to go off-the-rails. Here's the thing: I'm all for restraint in this type of movie. I admire that Edwards takes his time in revealing Godzilla, and that he builds and builds the tension until, finally, all hell breaks loose and this finally becomes the Giant Monster Movie that everyone was expecting. It's an admirable tactic, in theory. The problem though is that all of the other, non-Godzilla stuff in the movie is sort of weak. Taylor-Johnson's character isn't interesting enough to carry the film, and he and his mini family drama with Olsen and their young child is uninteresting and carries minimal emotional weight. The characters who do show some promise - i.e. the team of Watanabe's Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins' Vivienne Graham - are given the short shrift.

When Godzilla finally makes his formidable presence known, the movie takes on new life. All of the giant monster stuff in this movie is pretty damn awesome, and Godzilla, as mentioned, looks great. Godzilla is, far and away, the best character in the movie. In fact, he feels more fully-realized than just about any of the humans. This is a Godzilla who is sort of a weary protector of humanity. Woken up from his long dormancy, he goes about the business of laying the smackdown on all other monsters with head-down efficiency, even though those unappreciative humans he's out to help tend to just devise ways to kill him. I really like that there's a character in the film - Watanabe's - who quickly advises the military types about Godzilla's proclivity for helping humans. And I like that not everyone immediately thinks he's insane. But again, Godzilla is a great character as portrayed here. His face is surprisingly expressive, as is his body language. He has real personality, even while also being a gigantic, awe-inspiring monster. Kudos to the creature-designers for really nailing it.

For some reason though, Edwards never lets the movie just become the all-out monster vs. monster battle royale that it seems to want to be. He literally cuts away right in the middle of giant monster-fights to check in on the much-less-awesome dramatics of his not-so-great human characters. Once or twice, I'll accept. Build the tension, right. But eventually, I found myself getting actively annoyed with the movie. GODZILLA is exchanging blows with a giant mosquito monster, and we care about anything else at that moment? Show us the fight! Edwards has a bad habit of undercutting the momentum he's deftly built up. The hot air gets let out of this balloon way too often, and it becomes frustrating.

Especially given how fun and cool some of those big fights are (when we actually get to see them). I do think that Edwards's tendency to shoot things from a human level adds something to the proceedings. There is that sense of awe and wonder as we see these creatures appear, destroy, and battle, that, again, both pays homage to the fun of the Toho originals, but also feels like something new. My one complaint: as great as the Godzilla creature-design is, I wish that the other monsters were equally as memorable. They do feel a little blah as compared to the fantastically-realized Godzilla.

I think I enjoyed the idea of this GODZILLA a lot more than the actual execution. A dark, mythic, huge-scale parable that took the material seriously? Yes, please. All of the trailers for this film had me utterly convinced that it was going to kick all manner of ass. But as I sat through it, the sort of darkly clinical coldness that was evident in the trailers never faltered or broke. The result is a movie whose execution oddly mirrors its own narrative: in the film, Godzilla gets little love from the fearful humans, and on a meta-level, the movie just won't cede the spotlight to its true star, instead force-feeding us half-baked Spielbergian character drama that totally underwhelms given the awesomeness that we know is occurring just off-screen. I'm not asking for some Michael Bay-esque f/x orgy. I'm just saying that if you're going to do the slow-burn, than that burn had better be interesting, and it had better result in a worthwhile payoff. GODZILLA is well worth checking out, if only because its best moments - that superbly-crafted Cranston opening, the big reveals of Godzilla and the other monsters (or "mutos" in the film's vernacular) - are really, really good. But the rest feels less like necessary narrative and meaty character drama, and more like plain ol' filler. I get it, lots of people are inclined to love this movie because it "gets" Godzilla and does right by the character. And that it does, and for that it deserves much credit. But doing right by a character does not, in and of itself, a great movie make. This one re-establishes Godzilla as The King of All Monsters, no question. But it is not, sadly, The King of All Monster Movies.

My Grade: B

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