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‘Godzilla:’ Film Review

As a great big film nerd, I can’t ever underestimate the importance of Japanese giant monster movies as a very early influence of my love of movies.  This will date me a bit, but when I was growing up near the Kansas City area, one of the local TV stations (I want to say it was Channel 5, Kansas City’s CBS affiliate.) always had an afternoon movie that ran between 4:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon.  Eight-year-old me would get really excited when Channel 5 would have Monster Week for that afternoon movie slot.  It never really mattered to me how cheesy the special effects were (and, in retrospect, now as an adult, I find the idea of a grown man in a rubber monster costume stomping away at a miniature set of Tokyo to be endlessly charming).  There was something about Godzilla and his Batman-rivaling rogues gallery of enemies that really captivated me.  Also, eight-year-old me was keenly aware of just how incredibly lame Gamera was.  A giant turtle who protects annoying children?  Come on!  I am not one to wax nostalgic over childhood relics, but there’s no doubt that Godzilla and other giant monsters inspired me to seek out other forms of cinema.


But, when Warner Bros. announced they were making a new, big-budget version of Godzilla, it seemed like kind of a fool’s errand to me.  The low tech approach to the classic Toho Godzilla films gave them their distinct charm.  Also, the Japanese Godzilla films were often an allegory for nuclear irresponsibility and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Updating Godzilla for the 21st century with state-of-the-art, computer generated visual effects seemed like taking away most of what made him fun.  And, it wasn’t all that long ago that Roland Emmerich crashed and burned with an absolutely terrible, goofy American version of Godzilla.  Who thinks it’s a good idea for Godzilla to look like an iguana?

Hiring English director Gareth Edwards has proved to be at least 50% of a good idea.  Edwards made his name with similar material (Monsters) on a much smaller budget (about $500,000 for his feature debut).  He definitely knows how to shoot the giant monsters in a way that gives you an awe-inspiring sense of size and scale.  He also emulates early Spielberg by creating a sense of awe with what he doesn’t show.  The entire T-Rex isn’t reveled until the very last minutes of Jurassic Park.  Up until that point, we’ve only seen its feet, its snout, and its lower half.  I still contend the best shot in Jurassic Park is the slow push in on the rippling plastic water cups on the truck’s dashboard.  Likewise, it isn’t until about halfway into this movie that Godzilla makes his entrance, and it’s a spectacular movie star reveal, like Norma Desmond coming down the stairs in Sunset Boulevard.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of not-so-compelling human stuff leading up to that.

The film opens with an American engineer named Joe Brody (national treasure Bryan Cranston) who is concerned about seismic activity at the Japanese nuclear power plant where he works.  Things go downhill very quickly as a safety breach traps a team of scientists (which include Joe’s wife) as the plant melts down.  Skip ahead 15 years, and Joe’s son Ford has grown up to be a bomb expert for the United States Navy.  Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is called to Japan, where his father has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantine zone of the old power plant disaster.  Joe has become a bit of a crank, obsessed with the accident, and has correctly deduced that some thing caused it.

The downside to a lot of the early parts of the film is how dull and uninvolving all the human characters are.  I don’t consider this a spoiler, because I won’t reveal any plot points, but it turns out Cranston isn’t in the movie that much, which is odd considering how prominently he’s featured in the marketing, though it makes sense because of how revered he’s become since Breaking Bad.  He’s such a great actor that his scenes have real dramatic spark, he knows the kind of work and tone this material needs.  But, once he goes away, we wind up with a bunch of characters I couldn’t care less about.  This is only Edwards’ second film, and his visual sense is much more effective than his work with the cast.  In recent years, these expensive, tent pole films have stopped hiring big stars in favor of strong character actors.  Ken Wantanabe and Sally Hawkins (both Oscar nominees) play scientists and are given absolutely nothing to do.  Elizabeth Olsen turns up as Ford’s wife, and they have a total of zero chemistry together.  Even Taylor-Johnson registers as kind of a blank.

This makes the middle section of the film a bit baggy, as there’s really nothing there to engage with.  But, once the monster mayhem begins, business picks up.  In the Toho Godzilla films, his role as hero or villain was always in flux.  In the Emmerich disaster, he was the bad guy.  But, here, he’s cast again as the film’s hero.  It seems that two other MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) have awakened.  They look a lot like a bat crossed with a praying mantis.  One of them has wings and is going to have a lot of baby MUTOs (oddly, a similar plot point from the Emmerich fiasco in which Godzilla was actually female for no good reason).   Godzilla will instinctively hunt them down to restore a natural balance to the world.

The third act really cranks up the action, as a military team must enter San Francisco to retrieve a nuclear bomb as the three giant monsters fight to the death.  When Godzilla finally breaks out his radioactive fire breathing, it brings the house down.  The movie is stuffed with awesome monster imagery.  It’s a very impressive set piece, and adding the human characters helps give reference points to the size of the monsters and the scale of the mayhem.  Imagine how much better it would play if the audience had even the slightest emotional investment in the humans and what they were doing.  If you were disturbed by the beat Metropolis went through in Man of Steel, you should be warned.  San Francisco is nearly leveled.

This 2014 Godzilla is in no way the disaster the 1999 version was.  It’s far from perfect and, at times, more than a little tiresome.  But, the template seems right, and the monster action was most impressive.  If they’d add some characters we were invested in (and there’s really no need for anybody from this to be in a second film) and let the creatures have more screen time, I think they’d be onto something.

Chris Spicer, Fanbase Press Contributor



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