Godzilla (2014) review

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Is Legendary Pictures’ GODZILLA the perfect re-imagining of the classic kaiju character as the star of a Hollywood blockbuster? No. Is it a decent antidote to the disappointing 1998 film from Sony Pictures? Yes. Does that mean the new film is a mediocrity that falls somewhere in the middle? Hell no. For all its dramaturgical faults, GODZILLA captures the fundamental nature of its radioactive reptile in a manner that eclipses its weaknesses, like the shadow of Godzilla himself eclipsing the efforts of the puny humans frantically scurrying beneath his feet. Unlike Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devilin in their 1998 fiasco, which diminished its GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) into nothing more than an over-sized lizard, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein realize that Godzilla’s power lies in his stature – not only physical but also metaphoric. Godzilla must be more than large enough to fill the IMAX screen; he must be large enough to fill our collective imagination.  This is GODZILLA’s singular triumph: it invests its titular character with a Sense of Wonder that outweighs his mere bulk, lingering in the mind after that last building has toppled and the last roar has faded from the soundtrack.

THE STORY

godzilla05GODZILLA begins with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa1 (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) examining a giant skeleton of a beast apparently felled by a pair of prehistoric parasites, one of which heads toward Japan, where a nuclear power plant goes haywire, causing the death of Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche). Years later, Sandra’s husband Joe (Bryan Cranston) has become estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while devoting his life to proving that his wife’s death was the result of something more than an ordinary accident. The parasite (later dubbed a MUTO, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) reawakens and goes searching for its mate, and the U.S. military, led by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) wrestle with the thorny problem of how to stop apparently unstoppable creatures with an appetite for nuclear material – including bombs. Fortunately, in the words of Dr. Serizawa, the MUTOs are being hunted by an ancient apex predator, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla), who will restore the balance of nature upset by the MUTO’s access to a vast new food source, thanks to the proliferation of nuclear energy.

Borenstein’s screenplay (developed from a story by Dave Callaham) is stretched a bit thin in its attempt to provide an epic-sized vehicle for its titular monster. The problem is not with the number of incidents – there is plenty happening in the film. Nor is it necessarily with the characters, who are sketched in basic terms but are more than serviceable (aided by solid performances). What’s missing is a larger dramatic conflict – the sort of moral quandary that invested the original GOJIRA (1954) with a memorable gravitas, rendering the film as something much larger than a mere genre piece.

The closest GODZILLA comes to this is with the decision to use a hydrogen bomb in an attempt to distract the radiation-hungry monsters from converging on San Francisco – a decision opposed by Dr Serizawa, whose father died in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. However, this element winds up being less a thematic development than a plot device, galvanizing the human action during the titanic tag-team wrestling match that makes up the third act.

THE DETAILS

godzilla-trailer-02The story deficiency weakens the film but, fortunately, is not nearly enough to knock the crown off the King of the Monsters. The plot may be thin, but that is almost beside the point when director Edwards imbues the images with a serious tone that renders the action believable even when it is at its most incredible. (In a weird way, GODZILLA is like Darren Aronfsky’s NOAH, which unabashedly embraced not only genre fantasy but also sheer physical impossibility  while simultaneously selling its tale with a layer of straight-faced realism – cognitive dissonance be damned.)

Edwards’ gift, previously displayed in his low-budget MONSTERS (2010), is the ability to depict an apparently believable, human world, in which unbelievable monsters exist, affecting people’s lives and altering their very perception of the world – even when the monsters are off-screen. Consequently, when the monsters do show up, their appearances register not as obligatory set-pieces carefully and generously distributed to satisfy genre junkies (I’m looking at you, PACIFIC RIM); instead of empty spectacle, GODZILLA evokes a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of civilization poised on the brink of destruction, of humanity perhaps on the verge of extinction.

And in case you haven’t heard, Godzilla is off-screen quite a bit, but that’s all part of the film’s carefully wrought strategy.

Edwards plays his hand like a master card sharp, holding his trump cards in reserve until he can lay them down when they will score the most points. He teases us with a series of tantalizing glimpses: a massive shape surging beneath a battleship; a glimpse of a tail from behind a building; a brief battle seen via televised news report; dangling claws and chest scales illuminated by flares; dorsal spines slicing through the ocean like the shark’s fin in JAWS.2

Edwards is not enough of a visual poet to carry off the gambit completely. The tease does lead to a massively satisfying pay-off when GODZILLA finally emerges in all his glory, but until then, the slow build-up sometimes seems merely slow. The opening sequence of Dr. Serizawa examining the underground remains of another Godzilla skeleton, for example, is merely adequate, when it should be awe-inspiring, sending shivers of anticipation down the spine. A little patience may be required from over-eager audiences, but that patience will be rewarded many times over. When the King of the Monsters finally unleashes his most famous power near the end, it’s a jaw-dropping moment of glorious spectacle, but it is all the more satisfying because it is not played as a sop to Godzilla geeks eager to sate their hunger for more of what they saw when they were kids attending bargain matinees in their local theatres; instead, it is depicted with all the immediacy of something newly discovered, and for at least one brief moment, the neophytes and the veterans can unite in communal joy, as if both are witnessing the event for the first time – an impression enhanced a thousand fold by the awestruck audio reaction from the screen, as one character gasps: “DID YOU SEE THAT?!…WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”

I may seem to be over-emphasizing a single moment, but there is a method to my madness. The fundamental failing of the 1998 Godzilla was diminishing – or even completely eliminating – the awe-inspiring aspects of its monster. Boronstein, Edwards, and the technical craftsmen embrace this aspect and bring it to convincing life, partly with modern, high-tech cinematic craftsmanship, but mostly through the use of a human perspective on the events, which allows the audience to engage directly and uncritically, without undue reliance on suspension of disbelief, ironic detachment, or fond nostalgia.

That’s the power of this GODZILLA: not in “re-imagining” or “re-booting” the past, but in taking raw materials from the old films and refining them into something that feels newly created instead of merely recycled with a bigger budget and better effects. Yes, it’s still only a movie, but you don’t have to keep telling yourself that to gloss over the weaknesses; you can simply be enthralled – not from reliving old memories, but from enjoying this experience now.

THE MONSTERS

godzilla_2014__the_winged_muto_by_sonichedgehog2-d7aqlg7With Godzilla playing coy throughout most of the running time, it is up to the MUTOs to satisfy the film’s monster movie mayhem requirements. This mated pair  - a larger female, a smaller male with wings – are insectoid in appearance, with elements seemingly borrowed from Gayos (an opponent of Godzilla’s rival, Gamera) and the Orga from GODZILLA 2000, not to mention the titular creatures in Edwards’ own MONSTERS.  Though destructive and frightening, they do evoke a tiny spark of sympathy when the male passes along a tasty treat (well, an H-bomb) to its companion: if only they weren’t going to breed and overrun the world, they might seem almost endearing. More to the point, they make for intimidating foes – one purely terrestrial, the other aerial – as they deliver a monumental tag-team beating to Godzilla.

Godzilla himself retains the classic elements of the familiar design – a scaly, upright-walking dinosaur with dorsal fins and an angry, reptilian appearance – but those elements have been adjusted. Once a mere 100-feet tall, this new Godzilla towers over his older selves, at 350 feet. He also looks heavier, more muscular, like the kaiju equivalent of a barroom bouncer, and his face suggests a battered old boxer, used to receiving and dealing out punishment.

Of course, this Godzilla has been rendered with modern computer graphics instead of a man-in-a-suit, but the problems of CGI (cartoony movements, lack of inertia) have been overcome, providing marvelously realized special effects with the spirit of the best of Godzilla’s old Toho films – which is to say, the action is allowed to play out so that you can see it, without any editorial razzle-dazzle to goose up the sequences (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). There is a convincing sense of momentum to the monster’s actions, and the massive scale is effectively suggested by slowing the  movements down (though not as much as in PACIFIC RIM); the 3D photography, though not essential to the film’s overall effectiveness, enhances the illusion that we are seeing large objects at a distance (as opposed to the old-fashioned miniatures, tricked up to look big by placing them close to the camera lens).

There is a tactile quality to the monsters, which makes them seem like living, breathing creatures, not just computer-animated creations, and Godzilla actually gives something approaching a performance, in both his facial expressions and his body language. (His post-battle collapse suggests an exhausted warrior falling like a deflated balloon, leading to an image almost as iconic as the final panel from The Death of Superman.)

Interestingly, this performance was captured without the use of performance capture. Though mo-cap specialist Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong) consulted to enhance Godzilla’s movements, the special effects footage was actually computer-animated. (Director Edwards says motion-capture would have worked had Godzilla been fighting another two-legged beast that could be portrayed by an actor, but the multi-legged MUTOs required CGI handling.)

The result is somewhat akin to the 1990s era Godzilla, a massive hulk that implacably repulses the attacks of any opponents. Though the story pushes him into heroic mode, there is nothing benign in his countenance; rather, this is a mean-ass junkyard dog who just happens to hate on the thing attacking San Francisco. Oh well, the “enemy of my enemy,” as the saying goes.

THEMES

The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.

Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge. Military action backfires, nearly killing civilians, but for the intervention of the Big G.

Thus speaks Dr. Serizawa, precipitating the final act of GODZILLA. If he sounds a bit oracular, delivering the film’s message here and elsewhere rather unapologetically, that is actually an appropriate part of Godzilla’s tradition. Godzilla was conceived in 1954 as a none-too-subtle metaphor  - in essence, a walking nuclear weapon, a living embodiment of the perils of the atomic age. This element diminished throughout numerous sequels in the 1960s and ’70s, which eventually turned Godzilla into a hero defending Earth from alien invaders such as King Ghidorah. When the character was revived in the ’80s and ’90s, his atomic origins were acknowledged once again, though the emphasis shifted. Godzilla was no longer merely a nuclear menace; he was nature’s reaction to mankind’s tampering with the atom. Thus he could be seen as in some sense a righteous character, an anti-hero whose city-stomping destruction was the consequence of mankind’s actions but whose defense of his territory yielded benefits for humanity, who otherwise might have been destroyed by the numerous monsters Godzilla defeated.

The new GODZILLA film follows through on this later idea. Godzilla is still a prehistoric creature awakened by nuclear science (by an atomic submarine rather than an atomic bomb, if I heard correctly), but he is not necessarily here to extract vengeance for that awakening. Instead, the MUTOs are the real monsters of the story, their nuclear appetite for destruction fueling the plot, and it is Godzilla’s job to balance the scales (though not without collateral damage).

Though not literally faithful to Godzilla’s original conception, the Warner Brothers film is a smart updating that speaks to current concerns; like a text translated into a new language, it has been rendered in a form that speaks to its new audience, conveying the ideas if not the exact words.

When GOJIRA (later released as GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS in the U.S.) stomped into Japanese theatres in 1954, it was seen not only in the context of the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; it directly referenced U.S. H-bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean, which irradiated the crew of the Japanese fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon. This sort of topical reference is used in the new film, but with fear of bombs and nuclear testing no longer at the forefront of our public consciousness, Edwards and Boronstein opt for an attack on a nuclear power station, eliciting painful recollections of the ill-fated Fukushima plant. We may no longer lose sleep over nuclear Armageddon, but Fukushima reminded us radiation poisoning is still a fearful long-term problem – and one that may be symptomatic of a larger problem regarding our treatment of the planet on which we live.

GODZILLA brings that fear to life and embodies it in the MUTOs, whom Godzilla must destroy to save the Earth. This may seem like a bit of a cheat, robbing Godzilla of his own metaphor, but it works in the context of this film3, which suggests that humanity is incapable of fixing its mistakes. We are told that, after Godzilla was awakened, the subsequent nuclear bomb tests were actually unsuccessful attempts to destroy the beast. Though not emphasized, this is a subtle condemnation of U.S. Cold War policy, in which the answer to the problem of nuclear weapons was – wait for it! –  even more nuclear weapons.

The point is underlined when the military initiates its plan to destroy all three monsters with yet another H-Bomb, hoping that the blast will be enough to destroy creatures that would otherwise thrive on the resulting radiation. The insanity of the proposal is not lost on Dr. Serizawa, who – in one of the film’s most touching moments – displays a pocket watch that belonged to his father – a watched that stopped when his father died at Hiroshima, its frozen hands like an eternal reminder of the horrific event. A chastened Admiral Stenz can only silently acknowledge Serizawa’s point and then continue with the plan anyway – because that’s what the military does, regardless of whether it makes sense.

The result very nearly causes even greater destruction for San Francisco, which is averted only because of the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla (in one of the script’s nicer touches, the human protagonist is actually given something more important to do than simply watch the monster action from afar). This stands in marked contrast to the more archetypal message of American science fiction films (such as Godzilla’s progenitor, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), which suggested that nuclear science, working hand in hand with the military, would solve any of the problems it caused.

GODZILLA is clearly less optimistic about our abilities to auto-correct ourselves.

CONCLUSION

With its nuclear disasters and tidal waves suggesting nature thrown out of balance by mankind, GODZILLA pitches itself as a pop-message movie laced up in genre attributes. Though the actions of the human characters may be somewhat generic, the film itself is anything but. Whatever its weaknesses, GODZILLA sells itself, its message, and its monster to the audience – unabashedly and unapologetically. It suffers no undue restraint from fear of indulging in the absurd, but nor does it rely on audience good will to see it over its dramatic short-comings. Unlike PACIFIC RIM, this is no Geek Movie, simply sending out dog whistles to the tribe of the already initiated. This GODZILLA works overtime to earn any good will it receives from the audience, and for that reason, it works as well for newbies and initiates alike.

Or put it another way: In an era of over-hyped blockbusters, each straining to be bigger, louder, and more cataclysmic than the competition, GODZILLA takes a relatively low-key approach to deliver not just what fans want but what audiences need: incredible entertainment that seems somehow credible.

[rating=4]
Out of five stars on the CFQ scale: must see.

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GODZILLA (May 15/16, 2014). From Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Boronstein, from a story by Dave Callaham. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Editing: Bob Ducsay. Production Design: Owne Paterson. Special effects: WETA Digital, Jim Rigiel; John Dykstra.  PG-13. 123 minutes. Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Straithairn, Akira Takarada.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. The name of Watanabe’s character conflates the first name of GOJIRA director Ishiro Honda with the last name of Dr. Serizawa, the character who sacrifices himself to destroy the beast at the end of the original film.
  2. Other critics have noted similarities to Steven Spielberg’s gradual revelation of the Great White, but a more apt comparison would be to Ridley Scott’s clever did-you-or-didn’t-you-see-it game in ALIEN.
  3. This plot device also recalls GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (1971, a.k.a. GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTERS), in which Godzilla’s opponent was a metaphor for the harm mankind had done to the environment. Since Toho films stopped making Godzilla films in 2004, director Yoshimitsu Banno had been trying to launch a sequel to GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH. The project eventually led to the current GODZILLA film, on which Banno receives an executive producer credit, so it is perhaps not too surprising that there would be some similarities.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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