Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Alternate Title:  Oh Where Oh Where Has My Kaiju Gone...

One sentence synopsis:    Godzilla battles monsters across the Pacific and in San Francisco as US military forces try to stop them.

Things Havoc liked:  What was I expecting, really, walking into Godzilla? Was I expecting cinematic gold? Dramatic weight? Acting performances worthy of the Academy Award? In theory any movie is capable of producing these things, but let's be real for a second about what Godzilla actually is. A movie like this, a series like this, cannot really be seen in the context of Citizen Kane. Kaiju films, of which Godzilla is the grand dean, must be seen in their own context, a context I have to confess I'm not the best person to speak to. But since these are my reviews, let's see what we can do.

Godzilla comes to us courtesy of British-born director Gareth Edwards, whose sole credit prior to this was 2010's Monsters, unseen by me. I'm always nervous when a new director is behind the helm, especially for a blockbuster film, but it must be admitted here that Edwards, unlike many that have taken on the task of making a Godzilla film (Roland Emmerich comes to mind) knows what he's doing. The destruction of cities and the grappling of monsters is the draw here, and while the editing does deserve comment (and will receive it), when Godzilla or his quarry are on screen, absolutely nothing is allowed to interfere. Sequences involving the great monsters are lovingly-shot, with long, slow takes to enable the audience to drink in the spectacle that they are being shown. Battles between the monsters are lumbering affairs, slow and methodical, with immense weight and power lent to the beasts, as well as to the buildings they are casually erasing in their gyrations and struggles. "Signature" moments, such as the revelation of Godzilla's famous Atomic Breath are front and center, shot without artifices like Shakey-cam. Nor is Edwards' cinematography limited solely to the monsters. The film is riven with gorgeous, lush shots, often using smoke or dust to artfully frame an image and rivet the audience's attention to it. A flaming locomotive emerging from the fog, a monster disappearing into smoke or water, the trails of smoke left behind by skydivers descending into an arena of dust and fire, these are the images that Edwards plays with, and I must admit that several of them remain fresh in my mind a full week after watching the movie.

Edwards understands that the visuals are the draw here, which is why it is so important that this film, the thirty-second movie to feature everyone's favorite destroyer and defender of Tokyo, has a budget larger than the previous thirty one combined, and before we go anywhere else, it's important to note than unlike the catastrophic Roland Emmerich version from 1998, the money for this film at least shows up on screen. It is not merely that Godzilla devastates everything, but he does look good doing it, not an oversized iguana but a monster straight from the old Toho films, huge and lumbering, a towering dinosaur whose enemies, by contrast, look like they've been ripped straight from Pacific Rim. Their movements are realistic and hefty, and their battles, though consequence-free until it becomes time to "finish them", have the proper earth-shattering feel to them. Compare these creatures to those of Transformers (or Pacific Rim itself), and you will notice quite the difference. The city backdrop enables us to avoid the lack of scale that bedeviled Guillermo del Toro's take on the genre, presenting objects that we know the scale of in every frame and letting the monsters contrast against it.

Speaking of the city, while San Francisco is often destroyed in films (Pacific Rim opened that way), it's usually a sideshow, its destruction used as a quick beat before returning to the main action elsewhere. This may be the first time I've seen San Francisco's annihilation take front and center, and as a native of my fair city, I must admit to being surprised at just how well the film stuck to the actual geography of the city in question. It's not perfect by any means, but the flow is roughly accurate, in terms of where the monsters (and soldiers) go, and the buildings that are annihilated are not simply the usual landmarks that everyone would recognize, but real buildings of the SF skyline. I doubt anyone outside the city actually noticed it, but I appreciate such things.

Things Havoc disliked: Well I suppose there's no use putting it off any longer. Yes, the plot of this movie is stupid.

Actually stupid may be the wrong word. 'Pointless' comes to mind instead, for while stupid things do abound in this film (and we'll get to them), the base story, of a soldier (Kick Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson) trying to help his father (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston) prove that Godzilla (or something like it) killed his mother years ago, is so pointless and tangential to the action of the film that the movie itself jetisons the entire idea halfway through, in favor of a sort of travelogue, wherein Johnson follows Godzilla from Japan to Hawaii to California and... bears witness to it I guess? The main action of the film takes place without the intervention of humankind in general, as neither Godzilla nor the Kaiju he battles seem to take much notice of humanity, save on the rare occasions when the humans manage to annoy them with their pea-shooters. Johnson's role then becomes that of escorting a nuclear missile being shipped by rail to San Francisco in the hopes of luring the Kaiju offshore and destroying them, which becomes an excuse for a series of scenes that I would call "action" were there any action really involved. Action implies a fight or struggle to survive, whereas in this movie, the monsters do as they would, and the humans die or do not die, largely without input from anyone. On top of that, the entire plot with the nuclear missile makes no sense whatsoever. We get no real idea as to what the plan with the nuke actually is, nor why it is necessary to escort this particular nuke to the city through such torturous adventures. The entire US navy is sitting offshore of the city. Did the filmmakers forget that aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines (ships clearly established to be present) also carry nuclear weapons? Ones that can be fired on any point required?

I fear that they did forget this, and it's not the only thing they forgot. For one thing, while I applaud the notion of putting actors like Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn in films like this, it is only polite to actually give them something to do. Watanabe's role this time is to play the concerned scientist, to look worried at the screen and intone meaningless garbage about how man's hubris is causing Godzilla to rip cities apart, even though the film has already established that Godzilla is an ancient being from the wilds of prehistory, and that man has had no role in his actions or intentions save as debris. Watanabe's insistence that the US military should not use a nuclear weapon to destroy the monsters advancing on San Francisco is not buttressed with any suggestion other than allowing Godzilla and the other monsters to battle freely within the city, something they seem inclined to do whether the military interferes or not. Strathairn meanwhile, who is a wonderful actor, manages to avoid the usual "cigar-chomping military officer" trap in favor of the cool efficiency that he displayed in the Bourne films, but there is simply nothing for him to do other than to stand in the center of large war rooms and narrate Godzilla's actions to the audience.

And why does the audience need Godzilla's actions narrated to them? Because this film is astonishingly reluctant to actually let us watch Godzilla. I understand the Spielberg technique of leaving the monster off-screen as long as possible, the one he used to such effect in Jaws, but that movie had compelling characters, a story we cared about, and a sense of tension and menace lurking off-screen, as men hunted the shark and the shark hunted them. This film has no tension, by design, being merely a destruction extravaganza, which makes the decision to let us see none of the destruction until the last ten minutes of the film a baffling one, to me at least. Unlike Pacific Rim, the filmmakers cannot have deluded themselves into thinking that they were producing compelling character drama, as there are practically no characters worth speaking of here. And yet the movie is so insistent on not allowing us to watch the monsters play that it begins to infect the plot, such as it is. A sequence wherein soldiers search through a nuclear waste repository built deep underground, looking for any signs of the monster, would appear to be going the Thing/Alien/hidden-monster-attacks-from-the-darkness route, until we are shown that while they were searching, the monster they sought literally tore its way out of the mountain that the facility is built into, and leveled most of Las Vegas, all without any of the soldiers noticing. These are the lengths the film has to go to, cutting away from battles between Godzilla and his enemies in transparent and even nonsensical fashions, all in the service of ensuring that we never get to see what the filmmakers know we came here to see.

Final thoughts:   Godzilla is a bad film, of this there can be no doubt, and yet I must confess that I did not hate it the way I expected that I might. Unlike movies such as Pacific Rim (yes, I will continue to reference it. Too bad), Godzilla's failings are not a hackneyed plot and cardboard characters, they are instead sins of omission. It is not that the characters that we see are terrible, it is that they do not have any purpose in the film, and the film seems to know it, which makes the decision to focus solely on them one that I simply cannot understand. And yet, despite my complaints, the heart of Godzilla is in the right place. The reason Roland Emmerich's 1998 version of Godzilla was so reviled was because it was ironically quite unlike a typical Roland Emmerich movie, and much more like a Michael Bay film, with its relentless focus on dopey characters performing stupid comic relief while inept idiots failed to contain the titular threat. This film, meanwhile, plays much more like what I would expect a Roland Emmerich Godzilla film to look like. It is a movie with a massive scope and an eye for the majesty of disaster and ruin, about a giant monster who battles other giant monsters in a city.

In attempting to present this spectacle on film, Edwards' Godzilla is unquestionably a failure. But at the very least Edwards tried to get it right. Some directors can't even be bothered to do that.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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