Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Godzilla (2014)

We all know about this franchise, right? Just in case you’re a hermit I’ll briefly discuss it. Godzilla is the American name for the fictional Japanese giant monster Gojira, star of a huge film series popular in both Japan and the United States (probably significantly more so in Japan) produced by the company Toho. Godzilla originally appeared in the self-titled film from 1954 where the creature was a metaphor for reckless use of nuclear weapons (this was a post-World War II Japan so nuclear destruction was a pretty terrifying concept). Since then Godzilla has appeared in a ton of films. The Japanese movies are split into three distinctive eras: the original Showa Era (where things were goofy and more often than not Godzilla is basically a superhero), the Heisei Era (which supposedly to be more serious yet still produced a film called Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla with a straight face) and the Millennium Era, which I know nothing about because I somehow managed not to see a single film in that series. Interestingly all eras seem to use the original 1954 as a starting point for their continuity.

In 1998 Hollywood made its first attempt to make their own fully American version of a Godzilla film directed by Roland Emmerich, who has pretty much never directed anything anyone has considered art ever, and while it did well financially it was a critical disaster that seemed to wipe it’s ass with everything that made Godzilla what it was in favor of, I dunno, a weird giant iguana thing that no one could possibly like (and thinly veiled potshots at Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel). The film to this day is considered one of the most hated movies of the 90s and a huge betrayal of the Godzilla franchise that even Toho openly mocks in their own movies.

Now let’s fast forward to 2014 and Hollywood is at it again. That’s what we’ll be looking at today. This time, with Gareth Edwards as director, they have sworn up and down that they had learned from their blunder from sixteen years ago. The marketing has at least proven that, yes, that’s totally Godzilla in that poster. So far so good.

I love Godzilla. My father was a huge Godzilla fan when he was a boy so when I was a little kid and expressed interest in it he gleefully fueled the fire by getting me access to lots of those old kaiju films from the 1960s and 1970s. This would lead to me having a casual Godzilla addiction during the mid-nineties. For the record my favorite film of the franchise is Godzilla on Monster Island, actually titled “Godzilla vs. Gigan”, which is goofy as hell (the villains turn out to be human size cockroaches and I’m pretty sure Godzilla and Anguirus have a conversation at some point) but I still have a lot of nostalgic fondness for it. But my point is that I’m a pretty big Godzilla fan and I, like all of the other Godzilla fans, hold a generous amount skepticism about this flick. Can Hollywood succeed where those before them (also Hollywood) failed to do; to create a good adaptation of a classic Japanese franchise? Or am I just a fanboy who will never be satisfied? OR WILL IT BE BOTH?!?!?

Yeah, this movie wasn't great
Full review after the jump.




Godzilla, visiting the west coast during his American vacation
In 1999 American nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) works as a supervisor for the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan and has been alarmed by the recent seismic activity occurring and the effects on the plant itself. His fears become a reality when the activity causes an explosion that kills Brody’s wife and leads to the plant collapsing. In the ensuing 15 years Brody, convinced the cause of the disaster was not natural, has become viewed as crackpot conspiracy theorist but is nonetheless determined to discover the truth. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now with a family of his own, works as a Navy bomb disposal officer. He is dragged back to Japan to bail his father out of jail which leads to him accompanying him on yet another crazy trip to prove an impossible theory. However this time Joe is proven to be right and the two are dragged into a battle that can only be described as “apocalyptic”.

So you may have noticed that there were no giant monsters in that description. Well that’s because giant monsters don’t really come into the plot until a good while into the flick and a lot of people have been criticizing the film for this. Even in the old Godzilla movies that always happens; we get at least of full half hour of scientists or whatever having boring human problems and boring human drama while we wait for giant monsters to show up and make the movie interesting. So in that regard the film didn’t bother me because that’s just these films work, for better or for worse. Thankfully Godzilla does eventually show up and it does in fact make the movie better when he does.

Pictured: Bryan Cranston's default facial expression in Godzilla
Speaking of Godzilla he’s pretty good here. He actually feels like Godzilla which is a step above the 1998 film. He even had thermal nuclear breath, which is an aspect of Godzilla that I don’t understand why he wouldn’t always have it. I’m 100% fine with pretty much everything that the filmmakers did with this guy. His design is kind of chunky but it’s no more jarring to me than the visual difference between Showa era Godzilla and Heisei era Godzilla. All the visual cues that Godzilla should have are clearly there so shut up please. The other monsters, the MUTO, are fine; they’re kind of reminiscent of giant monsters that have appeared in recent Hollywood films like Clover from Cloverfield. (Anyone else who rather think of the monster as just being called “Cloverfield”?) Not in a bad way or anything. It was almost like a battle of old school versus new school in that regard, which is kind of fun. Hopefully, should this film get and sequels the designs will get a bit more original. Or they could just bring back Rodan, Mothra, Gigan and King Ghidorah ‘cause, you know, that’d be cool.

Of course the kaiju fights are the reason the vast majority of us came to see this flick. They’re pretty good and they get pretty darn violent towards the end. It has an annoying issue where the fights seemingly are cut off and it really feels like we’re missing out. For example Godzilla finally shows up he goes straight for the MUTO and just when we think we’re about to see the slugfest happen it suddenly cuts to HUMAN DRAMA and by the time it goes back to the monsters they’ve already stopped fighting completely. What?! Also this flick shares one of my major issues with Pacific Rim in that pretty much all the fighting takes place in the dark so we don’t get to see as much as I think we should have. Does the reason so many of these kind of movies take place in the dark have to do with the CGI?

Sadly all Godzilla films must have a human cast since the monsters aren’t exactly compelling characters. Here the cast is hit and miss. I really liked Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston in this flick, even though Cranston was chewing the scenery (but he’s playing a disgraced scientist who everyone thinks is crazy so I’m pretty sure that’s an appropriate way to play the role). Although she is given almost nothing to do Elizabeth Olsen manages to irk out a pretty good performance. The weak point in all this, sadly, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The Kick-Ass star is easily the least compelling part of the cast and I believe there are two reasons for this: 1) Taylor-Johnson is pretty flat in his delivery and unfortunately has mastered the art of Dull Surprise when it comes to reaction and facial expression. 2) The character of Ford Brody is really boring. I would say that the least interesting characters in Godzilla films are always soldiers since they are pretty much just fodder for the monsters to mow through. Scientist are usually the better choices for protagonists since they usually have some idea of what’s going on and, on the times where human intervention is what saves the world, the solution makes more sense coming from them. I certainly believe that either Watanabe or Cranston would have been considerably more logical choices as main characters as both are much better actors and both their characters seem to be more natural fits for this type of film. Hell, Olsen would have probably been a better choice if they beefed up her role. But this is typical of post-9/11 Hollywood where the armed forces are heavily celebrated, which is fine so long as it makes narrative sense and it fits here way better than in the Bayformers movies. Not to mention the sad fact that it’s clear that your typical American doesn’t relate super great to scientists. Bleh.

Ford Brody, as dynamic as a piece of wood
Speaking of the humans let’s face it: the major flaw of this movie is that we focus too much on them and not on Godzilla. Don’t get me wrong; Michael Bay famously f**ked up his Transformers movies by focusing on the humans and almost ignoring the majority of the robot casts but the difference here is that Godzilla and his ilk aren’t fully realized characters the way the Autobots were so it’s a minor problem compared to Bayformers. But the balance is still way off in this film and the big G gets far less screen time than he should have while boring characters (Ford) ate up the majority of the film. I don’t think the human cast is expendable BUT the least interesting parts were the scenes with Ford doing anything.

The plot is a bit weak but I’m not going to give them too much shit about that because if you’re judging a Godzilla film based on the strength of its story than you may be running a fool’s errand. Bottom line is Godzilla is a solid flick. More importantly it feels like an actual Godzilla film. There were a few things that bugged me but we’re in mostly uncharted territory in what makes a good American made Godzilla movie and the fact that this film is about 100% more enjoyable and more faithful than the TriStar flick makes this a success. But I had a really good time with this movie and I left the theater with a huge grin. Some movies you can judge by the substance and as art but then sometimes you have to judge it by how good a time you had. I’ve had more fun here than any other film during summer blockbuster season so far.

I think I have a new Hollywood crush
 I give Godzilla 4 out of 5 Adorable Pandas.


Pros

-Pretty good monster action

-Good performances from the human cast

-Godzilla himself is done pretty well

Cons

-The monster fights take place in the dark and are shorter than I would have liked

-The main character is the least interesting part of the film

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