Hail to the King, baby! “Godzilla”

May 19, 2014


Well, the summer movie season is upon us in full force with the arrival of a 60 year-old classic movie star, whom movie execs are hoping will set the box office aflame with his radioactive breath (no, not Tom Cruise—his movie comes out later this summer). Of course you know who I’m talking about—the poster’s right up above this post, and even if it wasn’t we’ve all been deluged with ads for this movie. But aside from the normal box office-related expectations, hanging over this movie is also the vague dread that springs from what happened the last time the US tried to handle this property. Well, let’s lay that fear to rest right now: this Godzilla movie does nothing less than return the G-man to his rightful place as King of the Monsters. It’s an amazing film It’s the most visually-distinct summer movie I’ve seen since I-don’t-know-when. I hope Roland Emmerich watches it and cries.

There’s almost no point in getting in the weeds with the plotline of this Godzilla, as it’s eschews much of the weird hugger-mugger of Millennium-era Godzilla installments and brings things pretty much back to the basics. Lizard meets Tokyo. Lizard stomps Tokyo. Tokyo manages to pull one out at the last-minute and sends Lizard packing. This movie does complicate the mix somewhat by extending the build-up and throwing some new monsters in the mix, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.

Okay, so that’s a little glib. Actually, Tokyo doesn’t get crunched, but Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco sure get worked over. This movie also features a hell of a wind-up, as much of the first act is spent just revealing the premise of the movie. Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a nuclear scientist haunted by an inexplicable accident which leveled the Japanese nuclear power plant where he was employed. The accident cost him the life of his wife (Juliette Binoche), and estranged him from his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), as he has obsessed over the cause of the mysterious seismic event for fifteen years.

"Where are those Google-bus douchebags?"

“Where are those Google-bus douchebags?”

Joe manages to convince Ford–now an Army EOD technician on leave–to accompany him into the quarantined zone of the accident, but, weirdly enough, find that there’s no radiation in the supposedly radioactive area. They also meet a giant insect-like monster and a couple scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) who are members of something called Monarch, a top secret multi-national agency that tracks said giant monsters, called MUTOs—Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.

Well this MUTO beats feet, but hot on its tail is something  much, much bigger. Three guesses what that is.

From here, the movie mostly follows these characters as a US Navy fleet chases them hither and yon to the various places where they meet up and scrap (and trash everything in sight). So, pretty much like every other Godzilla movie. But what this movie does exceptionally well—and here credit is due to relative tyro director Gareth Edwards—is make these encounters with the monsters truly awe-inspiring and terrifying.

"Happy Year of Horse!"

“Happy Year of Horse!”

Edwards last—and only other—film was Monsters, a low-budget creature feature that seems like a dry run for this one. Edwards famously designed those giant monsters on his Mac, and his budget limitations taught how to suggest these massive beasts without showing too much of them. Surprisingly, he’s imported that restraint here, so for much of the film, we never only get glimpses and pieces of the donnybrooking monsters, viewing them from the perspective of the ant-like humans, who can’t take in their full size.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how well Edwards directs this movie. Almost no major action sequence is shot in an expected manner. The much-publicized HALO jump is simply gorgeous and unbearably tense in its full presentation, but there’s also the ruination of an airport that unfolds like a slow motion nightmare, and a late-game battle around a suspension bridge—something featured in both Cloverfield and the 1998 remake—is executed so assuredly it all but erases those movies from memory. Edwards even throws in a quick nod to the master, in one jaw-dropping homage to Jaws.

Shit. This is going to delay my flight, isn't it?

Shit. This is going to delay my flight, isn’t it?

Edwards also uses the devastation they wreck to build a palpable sense of tension and dread. One attack on a city is barely shown—we catch only some news footage—but the aftermath is lingered over (though not in the usual summer-movie fetishistic way), driving home the point of just how destructive these beasts truly are. Edwards also cannily utilizes recent (non-Godzilla related) cataclysms to suggest the human cost of these events, which is a refreshing note of maturity, and worlds away from the climaxes of Man of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness, which just sorta hope we’ll forget everything 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina taught us about the human cost of the devastation of a major urban center.

"Um...maybe the mafia will move back in."

“Um…maybe the mafia will move back in.”

Unfortunately, this style has turned some people off. The biggest complaint leveled against Godzilla is, well, not enough Godzilla. Personally, this didn’t bother me, since Edwards is so judicious with the way he parcels out his views of the titular green guy. I mean, at the end of the day once the awe of these monsters wears off—which it will do once they’re shown in all their kaiju-ey glory—all you’re left with is big monsters slugging it out. By keeping the monsters suggested more than realized, Edwards never lets this happen. I mean, it’s filmmaking 101, right? Once you see the whole alien sexually harassing Sigourney Weaver you start wondering how uncomfortable that guy must be in that suit.

"C'mon! Launch a few more cruise missiles at me! this city can just shrug it off."

“C’mon! Launch a few more cruise missiles at me! This city can just shrug it off.”

The other big knock on this movie is that the human characters are uninvolving. Well, yeah, that’s gonna happen. I mean, we have giant monsters beating each other up, what? We’re supposed to watch someone coping with a midlife crisis? Sure, Ford is kind of a blank, but he’s serviceable enough to carry the  movie. And Watanabe is supremely watchable. Likewise, as the Admiral in charge of the monster-chasing fleet, David Straithairn brings a genuine humanity to what could have been a clichéd warmongering military-man role.

If there is a legitimate complaint to be made against 2014’s Godzilla, it’s that it has considerably less on its mind than the now-classic original. Of course that film was a direct response to a H-bomb test gone wrong, and tapped directly into post-War Japan’s nuclear anxieties–sandwiched between the atomic bomb attacks which ended the war and the now-ongoing nuclear testing occurring in its backyard. This Godzilla is less directly relatable to any recent incident (though, as mentioned earlier, it does a fantastic job of evoking recent disasters). If anything, this Godzilla is an amorphous reflection of our helplessness in the face of any natural disaster. It prevents the movie from being as pointed at the original (and, thankfully, not as bleak, because holy shit! is that movie dark), but it’s nowhere near as brain-dead as the execrable 1998 remake.

No! No! Wrong! Bad!

No! No! Wrong! Bad!

So, that’s Godzilla. Best Sixty years later, the big guy still leaves an outsized footprint.

One comment

  1. Ken Watanabe is fantastic.

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