Friday, May 23, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014) was directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Max Borenstein (with uncredited input from from David Callaham, David S. Goyer, Drew Pearce and Frank Darabont).

Edwards also wrote and directed 2010's Monsters, which, as the title suggests, is also about rampaging giant creatures (and not a bad little film). If you need to make a movie about oversized monsters, Gareth Edwards is apparently your man.

So what's the verdict? Is this second attempt at making an American Godzilla film any good? Eh, yes and no. It's definitely better than the execrable 1998 version (how could it be worse?). But I wouldn't exactly call it good either.

Unfortunately Godzilla (2014) suffers from the same condition plaguing many current sci-fi and fantasy films-- it's just no fun

Whether they were trying to replicate the serious tone of the 1955 original, or this is the only way to get a modern cynical audience to accept such an outlandish premise, I have no idea. All I know is it's a well-made but joyless affair. That's really too bad, because most of the Godzilla films I grew up with reveled in their insanity and goofiness.

I had the same problem with the Christopher Nolan Batman, er, excuse me, Dark Knight trilogy. Slickly produced, grounded in reality films that were absolutely no fun.


The Plot:
It's a Godzilla movie, with the usual plot. Lots of scenes of scientists wringing their hands with worry, giant monsters knocking down various buildings, humanity powerless to stop them, and Godzilla saving the day by defeating a monster worse than himself. Oh, and there's a lot of talk about man vs. nature and nuclear powers and all that.

OK, OK, I can do a little better. Years ago Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife worked at a nuclear plant in Japan. An accident at the plant kills his wife, and Joe becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened.

Cut to the present, where Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) meets his father in Japan to convince him to come home with him. While there, two massive creatures dubbed MUTOs attack the city. Joe is killed and Ford spends the rest of the film avoiding giant monsters in an effort to get back home to San Francisco and reunite with his wife and son.

Scientists and the military are at a loss as to how to stop the giant monsters. Eventually Godzilla arrives on the scene to put nature back in balance and destroys the MUTOs, saving humanity and the planet.

• So is this a remake or sequel? We see quick shots of Godzilla's back spines during the opening credits, indicating he was around before the movie begins. Also, Ken Watanabe plays Dr. Serizawa, and there was a character with the same name in the original 1954 film. 

Dr. Serizawa states that Godzilla was first spotted in 1954, which is the year the original movie premiered. Dr. Serizawa and his team find some sort of egg sac or pod inside the skeletal remains of a massive creature. 

These elements all suggest that Godzilla existed prior to this film. So I'm leaning toward sequel.

• The CGI Godzilla looked OK I suppose, but I still miss the "man-in-suit" version from the older films. Part of the charm of these movies was always seeing a man in a suit stomp around miniature sets while battling a giant moth on a string. I know, I know, things were better in the olden days; get off my lawn.

I was especially dismayed to see that once again that every single monster battle occurred at night. Surely CGI technology has advanced to the point where we no longer have to rely on darkness to hide the seams (so to speak)? Would it kill them to show the damn monsters in daylight for once? Last year's Pacific Rim had this same problem. Ah well. At least it wasn't raining in every scene in this film (as seen in Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla).

• Bryan Cranston seemed to be wearing a rather obvious wig. I wonder if he still had his Walter White shaved head when filming began?

• Despite the fact that Cranston is in virtually every scene in the trailers, his character dies about twenty minutes into the film. That was certainly a surprise, but unfortunately not a pleasant one.

Killing off his character was a misfire, in my opinion. He's a terrific actor and brought a much needed level of intensity and passion to his small role. Once he exited the film it definitely suffered for it. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was way too bland and just couldn't carry the movie by himself.

• Speaking of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, what the heck happened to him? In last year's Kick-Ass 2 he looked like he was 18 if he was a day. Suddenly in this film he looks like he's in his late twenties.

• One last thing about Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He and Elizabeth Olsen star in this film. The two of them are also going to be in the upcoming Avengers 2. Apparently Congress has passed a new law requiring them to be in all blockbuster films from now on.

By the way, I swear by the old gods and new that I thought Elizabeth Olsen was one of the Olsen twins. She's actually their younger sister.

• The film has a frustrating tendency to cut away from things just when they're getting good. We see Godzilla's first battle with one of the MUTOs after the fact, filtered through cable news coverage on a TV in the background. That's too bad, because what we can see of the fight looked pretty cool.

Later when Ford's wife Elle is running into a bomb shelter, we see Godzilla lunge at a MUTO in the background right as the blast doors close, obscuring our view. Apparently the titanic battle happening outside was none of the audience's concern.

We finally get to see a proper monster a monster battle in the third act, but by then you may no longer care.

• Ford is ostensibly the hero of the film, but he doesn't really do anything all that heroic. In most kaiju films the hero is determined to stop the monsters at all costs. Here Ford's sole motivation is to get back to his family. Admirable, but not really heroic. He's buffeted randomly from set piece to set piece by the random winds of the plot.

He eventually offers his bomb-diffusing services to the military, but not out of any sense of duty-- he only does so in exchange for transport back home!

He does destroy a nest full of MUTO eggs, but only because he accidentally stumbled onto them and saw a convenient way to do so.

It's not until the very end, when he tries to diffuse the nuke and save San Francisco, that he finally does something halfway heroic. 

• I'm happy to report that this film continues the long, rich kaiju movie tradition of containing preposterous science.

For example, we're told that the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s were not designed to try out new weapons, but were instead meant to kill Godzilla (!). 

Later Dr. Serizawa explains that in the past the Earth was "naturally" far more radioactive than it is now, which spawned giant creatures that fed on radiation. As the level of radioactivity faded over time, the creatures burrowed deep underground where the radiation was still prevalent. Now that's science!

Of course no one brings up the point that skyscraper-sized monsters could never possibly exist-- in any era.

• The scene in which Godzilla's atomic breath powers up and is released was quite awesome. Kudos to the effects team. 

That said, they totally botched Godzilla's trademark roar. It starts out sounding kind of like the old school shriek, but there was so much bass added that the characteristic groaning tones were completely obliterated.

• Godzilla fights the MUTOS to a standstill a few times in an effort to pad the run time, before finally deciding to fire up his atomic breath and incinerate them. So why the hell didn't he do that in the first place and get it over with?

It reminded me of every episode of Power Rangers. They fiddle around for most of the episode fighting the monster of the week to a standstill, before finally jumping into their MegaZords and summoning the Power Sword which defeats it. If they'd just skip right to that step first...

• OK, I'm not an expert on electromagnetic pulses, but the way they're handled in this film doesn't seem quite right to me. 

The MUTOs can generate EMPs which disrupt all nearby electronic equipment. So far so good. But it's always been my understanding that such a pulse would permanently fry an electrical system. 

There's at least one instance in the film in which a system that was fried starts up again later. I don't think that's the way it works. If there are any electrical engineers out there who deal with this sort of thing, feel free to chime in.

• Several times in the film the MUTOs seek out nuclear bombs and other sources of radiation and feed on them. There's even one scene showing a MUTO happily chomping away on a nuclear missile. Some have wondered why this didn't cause the bomb to explode in the MUTOs mouth. 

I don't think this is a mistake. Nukes don't go off just because they're handled roughly. I'm pretty sure they need some kind of detonator to set them off.

• After Godzilla defeats the MUTOs, the danger isn't over. The last remaining nuke is on a boat in San Francisco bay, threatening the entire city. Ford jumps onto the boat and tries to diffuse the bomb but can't. Note that the timer on the bomb reads around five minutes. He then somehow starts the boat and sets it on a (very slow) course away from the city.

The next thing he knows he's on a rescue helicopter and being hauled away to safety, as the nuke explodes in the background. Do I need to say that there didn't seem to be time to do all that before the bomb went off?

• Amazingly this film made nearly a $100 million dollars in its opening weekend. I'm frankly astonished by this. I figured the stench of the 1990 film still tainted the Godzilla brand, and expected it to be a colossal flop. 
I guess the public really does have a short memory these days.

It's been such a success that Warner Bros. has already green lit a sequel. I wonder where they'll go with a follow up film? With the "grounded in reality" tone I can't imagine they'd go the Mechagodzilla route, or pit Godzilla against giant killer moths or three headed dragons. We'll find out in three years I suppose.

Godzilla (2014) is better than the previous attempt at bringing the creature to American shores, but the effort to ground the film in reality renders it dreary and just plain no fun. Offing Bryan Cranston's character early on didn't help matters either. I give it a B-.

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