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The Once and Future King (of All Monsters)? – Godzilla

May 16, 2014

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  1. A highly decorated cast has been assembled here, and every one of them is given little to do. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (once Kick-Ass and soon to be Quicksilver) is our lead, an expert at defusing bombs with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child who he spends most of the runtime trying to get home to — in one of the bigger clichés. Really, they could have stuck any slab of American beef into this role and you wouldn’t have noticed. If you’re a big Breaking Bad fan anxious to see the thespian stylings of Bryan Cranston, get seated early. And your heart will go out to poor Ken Watanabe, who’s saddled with most of the leaden exposition, delivered as he stares off into space with his mouth agape. You won’t know whether to chuckle or doze off. They’re all ciphers.
  2. The good news about Godzilla himself is that he looks right, not the completely underwhelming velociraptory thing from the 1998 dud. (About that Beuller-infused nightmare: it always seemed doubly insulting that an American remake of a Japanese classic that was an allegory about American atomic bombs being dropped on Japanese cities would itself be such a misbegotten bomb.) He’s huge and lumbering and round and thick in the right places and pointy where he needs to be and knows how to throw down. Good. But he’s handled somewhat oddly. After barely glimpsing him in a whimsical credits montage that shows how the Pacific nuclear tests were really designed to try to kill him (What has he been doing since? Playing solitaire? Collecting stamps?), he spends his time hunting the two other prehistoric nasties (MUTOs) awakened by man’s dabblings with radioactivity. And these contretemps, up until the last, are only hinted at — we keep cutting away just when they’re about to get good, and wind up only catching snippets of them on TV news coverage. This is a decent trick when used sparingly, one that saves the money shots for the last act, but Edwards goes to the well far too often, frustrating the audience and making for some awkward transitions. You want to keep Godzilla fresh, but it’s not clear that this is the way to do it — the word “cocktease” comes to mind. And having him spend about twenty to thirty minutes of the runtime docilely swimming across the ocean complete with a U.S. Navy escort feels a bit odd too. The USS Godzilla.
  3. It’s weird to say/type it, but it’s possible that the most sympathetic characters in this whole damn thing are the “evil” MUTOs, the two giant monsters who Godzilla hunts and battles because damn it that’s what Alpha Predators like Godzilla do. (The first and only time MUTO is spelled out — Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — the entire theater I saw this in erupted in laughter. I don’t think this was a good thing.) They’re a male and a female (the female is bigger but the male can fly, making him a vague Mothra stand-in), and all they want to do is get their hands on some radioactive material so they can incubate their young with it. Ignoring that this procreation element is plundered from the dreadful 1998 fiasco, this is a reasonable goal. Yeah, they kill a lot of people going about it, but who can’t understand this impulse? And when poor Big Momma MUTO realizes that all her eggs have been barbecued by our human hero like so many shrimp in a bucket, her reaction generates the only empathy you’ll find from beginning to end.
  4. I’ve read over and over that this film had a budget of 160 million dollars, which is par for the course in summer blockbuster-land. But for 160 million simoleons, you think they could at least deliver the bulk of the action in the daytime, you know, when you could actually see it. Yes, just like Pacific Rim this movie has its titanic battles in the dark of night. Rainy night. I’d love to know where all this money goes, especially in a movie where there’s no Tom Cruise-like salary to the leading man. Are daytime FX really that expensive? Do the Key Grips have a super strong union that gets them huge dollars? Is some studio accountant running a Ponzi scheme? Are they building actual cities and cloning giant monsters to destroy them?
  5. This is another movie where characters behave as if they live in a world where no one has ever made or seen a movie about giant human-stomping animals. Case in point: One of the MUTOs hatches in Japan, after soaking up radiation at a nuclear plant that blew up back in 1999. Scientists have been monitoring it all this time, and have the cocoon or whatever in a pit with electrical wires all around. When it looks like it’s going to wake up, they decide that they’re going to have to kill it. So they decide to electrocute it. They decide to electrocute the thing that feeds on radiation. I realize that radiation and electricity aren’t the same thing, but it apparently never occurred to these learned men that this failsafe might go awry and work about as well as a taser that a lady carries in her purse. Might Joe Young, King Kong, and hell, even Gorgo apparently do not exist in this dojo.
  6. Edwards tries hard to bring out his inner Spielberg and has a degree of success — it doesn’t hurt that the central family’s surname is Brody. He keeps the camera low, placing us at ground level to experience the action as we likely would if it was actually happening. There are small but appreciated visual notes, like a railing with Godzilla-ish spikes on it getting crushed by a MUTO’s foot(?) and Chinatown dragon decorations paling before the real thing. Edwards might have done well, though, to look back at young Spielberg and how he injected a note of mystery and anticipation in movies like Jaws and Close Encounters, which also strove to keep the money shots in the final act. Those movies build, this one just teases until the explosive denouement.
  7. I was somewhat stunned that Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” the music from 2001 used in the promotional material, was kept for the skydive sequence glimpsed in the trailers. I don’t know if this was planned all along or if the people responsible simply thought that hey, if it worked in a trailer it can work in the movie, but it felt a tad sacrilegious to have it in the film proper. Lazy, even. This could just be me, but it’s something so closely identified with one of the great films from one of the great masters, it’s not a track you can plug and play in your own work without making a viewer think about how much smarter 2001 was than what they’re watching now.
  8. Our hero — the human one, Kick-Ass — is a military man who’s also an expert at defusing bombs, handy considering that there’s a multi-megaton haymaker sitting in downtown San Fran (another of the bright “kill the radioactive monsters with radioactive weapons!” strategies that goes haywire). He fails utterly at this, though in fairness it’s not his fault. And apparently the bomb detonates somewhere around the Golden Gate Bridge, though this has no fallout effect on the rubbelized city. Maybe Batman used the Batplane’s autopilot to fly it out beyond the ohwaitwrongmovie.
  9. To close on a somewhat positive note — fans of the Godzilla franchise will not be disappointed with the climactic battle between the big guy and the MUTOs. It unfolds as it should, like a pro wrestling match, and not one of the high-flying off-the-top-rope affairs of today, but like the old Bruno Sammartino donnybrooks, where beefy dudes tried to club each other to death with their meaty forearms. Godzilla is more than a match for either of his foes individually, but the MUTO teamwork can bring him down (Come on ref, get in there! Wait a minute, that’s Jet Jaguar’s music!). His deadly tail and his radioactive breath come into play most entertainingly, and he departs an annihilated San Francisco (after a dopey “death” scene) as humankind’s newly anointed savior. It’s kitschy and charming — as it should be.

This isn’t a terrible movie — a lot of the negativity in this review is the distilled disappointment of a man who hoped for something that this movie was never intended to be. I thought it would be smarter. It’s pretty stupid. I thought it would be more clever — at least up to the standards of the very crafty 1954 original (that’s the real original, not the re-edited/bastardized American version with Perry Mason calling the action like Howard Cosell). It’s incredibly predictable.

And here’s a prediction: It will make a good amount of money, and many will enjoy it thoroughly. More power to them.

But we still owe Godzilla some awe.

Two and a half spikey backs out of five.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2014 7:55 pm

    I am rather disappointed that Godzilla didn’t even come close to living up to the hype. Please check out my blog at pulsecola.com

  2. Jake Berlin permalink
    May 17, 2014 8:03 pm

    Two things I hated – Bryan Cranston was phenomenal but totally under utilized. Some of the best human scenes throughout the movie were from him. Second, three times they kept us waiting for the big fight. I get the anticipation & the final battle lived up to it, but I wanted to see them fight on the tarmac! One thing I didn’t like but felt with and just like Cranston, Elizabeth Olson who has become an aiming actress was just used as the distressed wife. She could have been a solid character for the movie, but she was either worrying for her husband or running from monster mayhem.

  3. Volker permalink
    May 19, 2014 12:52 pm

    I rather liked the US Navy escort scenario. Instead of the by-now-routine Godzilla-vs-The-Fleet set piece, this clearly shows that the Big G is not innately malevolent or even aggressive towards humans–and that’s despite having been nuked in the 50s (a deft piece of alt.history). He’s not docile, rather the fleet isn’t relevant to his mission. His role is protector of the Earth’s balance, and the entire film is consistent with that tenet in many details, large and small.

    Also, it’s indeed nicely explained where and why he has been the last 60+years (in the depths, looking for residual radioactivity).

    The plot is kept simple, which I thought was helpful in maintaining momentum. Yes, the characters are somewhat two-dimensional, but I would argue that this is a story that does not need stars, it need archetypes. And Admiral Stenz is Godzilla’s human equivalent in that his primary goal is saving human lives, not destroying monsters (rather nice change from the usual stereotype).

    I should mention that kaiju films do exist in that world, their posters hang in homes, but presumably their popularity is limited to Japan.

    I give it 4.5 spikey backs out of 5,for clarity of vision, linearity and internal consistency. And a really, really awesome Godzilla.

    • May 21, 2014 12:59 am

      I guess it can hang its hat on its “linearity” then. 4.5 out of 5 for this strikes me as a vast overvaluation, but to each their own.

      I figured in those 60 years or so that Godzilla was the same place that Nero and his Romulans went after the prologue in the Star Trek reboot: Plot Convenience Limbo.

      • Volker permalink
        May 21, 2014 8:15 am

        Well, admittedly at least one of those 4.5 of 5 is due to my irrational love for all things Godzilla as well as redeeming the shame of the ’98 ‘Zilla.

        You bring up an interesting topic with your comment about plot convenience limbo: to what standards should one hold a film about giant radioactive monsters? I have an innately higher suspension of disbelief and general tolerance here than for say “The Maltese Falcon” or “Memento”. Granted, some level of thoughtfulness and logic is required lest we descend into the slop of “Power Rangers”.

        By comparison, the Heisei “Godzilla vs King Ghidorah” attempted a lot more but I think it ultimately failed because the plot was over-convoluted (time paradox stories are usually doomed to fail in all but the best of hands), and the monster battles were so well staged as to overshadow all else.

        Which Godzilla film would you rank highest and why?

        Cheers!

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