Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (*1/2)

Directed by Gareth Edwards


In 1995, during the Fourth of July Weekend, Roland Emmerich's Independence Day dazzled moviegoers with the grandiosity with which it chose to destroy the world. Los Angeles? Boom! The White House? Zap Bang! The Statue of Liberty? Toast. As seemingly juvenile as Independence Day may have seemed at the time, twenty years later it is clear how much of a landmark that film has become. And rightfully so; the film's screenplay is a masterpiece of character study balanced with buildings bursting into balls of flame. No movie before (or since, really) ever had such a dedication to major city destruction. But by 2014, I've become fatigued. We watched The Avengers beat Manhattan to a bloody pulp, we watched the Kaijus and Jaegers turn Tokyo into their own personal boxing canvas in Pacific Rim; even Emmerich himself has destroyed the world so often that he's directed himself into the self-parodying joke of Hollywood action movies. Emmerich was also the director of the 1998 Godzilla film which turned America off of the subject matter so badly that it took sixteen years for another one to pop up (an eternity in today's climate where franchises are rebooted just a few years later - even if the one previous was good). This new 2014 version of Godzilla - directed by new-ish filmmaker Gareth Edwards - is more mature  (more Chris Nolan-y) with a bevy of proven acting talent. It's definitely different from the '98 film in every conceivable way. And yet, it seems just as arbitrary.

Edwards takes this film very seriously, which is not altogether an offense, except that he tries to have it both ways. He commits to the characters as to only give the film's main star, the one and only Godzilla, really only a sliver of legitimate screentime; and yet, how many of these characters that we're watching feel anything like actual people? Certainly not Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in full beefcake mode), the closest thing this film has to a protagonist with a name only a Hollywood movie could provide. Brody's father Joe (Bryan Cranston, excellent in limited time) may have witnessed the original hatching of Godzilla back in 1999 when a Japanese power plant he was managing had a radioactive breach brought in by an "earthquake". Joe's wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), dies in the '99 incident, and Joe is sure there was more to the breach than just an earthquake. Fourteen years later, Joe is still convinced that there is more than the company owning the plant is willing to let on, but everyone, including the now adult Ford, thinks he's just a crazy, heartbroken widower. Ford Brody sympathizes as much as he can, but he has his own wife, Elle (Elisabeth Olson), in San Francisco along with a four-year-old son.

When Ford returns to San Francisco, after a long deployment with the U.S. Navy where he worked in explosive ordnance disposal, he doesn't have a very long homecoming. That night he learns that Joe was arrested in Japan for trying to break into his old home which is even now still in a quarantine zone. This sets the table for Ford to travel back to Japan to bail out his father, hear Joe's crazed theories about a cover up once again and the inevitable revelation from Joe: there is a similar tremor pattern as that day in 1999. Whatever was coming then will be coming again. The only other people who know this is not just an earthquake are the scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who were witness to a gargantuan skeleton in the Phillipines, also in 1999. The skeleton was accompanied by two egg-shaped pods, one of which had hatched - this was just before the breach in Joe's power plant. The plant itself, is still ruined, but commandeered by scientists, including Serizawa and Vivienne, who stand watching over a large chrysalis, studying it. It's the electromagnetic pulse coming from this cocoon that is creating such a stir. As the tremors become more and more devastating, the chrysalis finally hatches, unleashing a giant, horrifying winged creature which destroys the reconfigured lab and makes its way East for the sunny shores of Honolulu.

This creature, we learn, is called a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and it's not until it enters the shores of Hawaii that our favorite benevolent mutant monster arrives and does battle for the right to be the best giant monster on the planet. The rest of the film can probably be guessed at. A second MUTO, a female ripe with pregnancy, emerges out of Nevada and is even more repugnant than it's winged, male counterpart. It all boils down to the ultimate showdown of the big guy versus the tag team, which evolves into an admittedly exciting, Pacific Rim-ish conclusion that is both not hard to predict and generally pretty fun. But Pacific Rim knew what kind of movie it was: a dumb monsters vs. robots picture that let global marketing decide its characterization. Dismissing that movie as silly was almost what Guillermo Del Toro, it's director, expected. Godzilla reaches for Shakespearean pathos at times, but it doesn't have the chops to really pull it off. We get so much character that you can't really turn your brain off, and yet none of these characters are all that interesting. But it's a monster movie, you may say. Then give me more monsters, I'll reply.

To be sure, this is just not the kind of movie that I tend to warm up to. Instead of trying to find a substitute for destroying a major city, they just substituted another major city to destroy (Oh hey! I've never seen monsters demolish Honolulu before!), and no matter how you slice it up, when we're watching the clash on skyscrapers shatter and cars flip over, all of these movies are exactly the same (for a more in-depth take on this Hollywood movie problem, here's a terrific column by Matt Zoller Seitz - though, it should be said that he actually loved Godzilla). Independence Day and The Avengers are examples of movies that struck that perfect balance between meeting the demands of a character while also providing the earth-shattering action. Even Pacific Rim, I'd argue, does a better job. The common note is that those movies have a sense of humor about themselves, where Edwards sees Godzilla as a very dreary, albeit moral tale. This is how Nolan envisioned his Batman films, but Edwards isn't nearly as good as Nolan. At least not yet. The fact that Godzilla didn't insult my intelligence gains it extra credit, but it still must be entertaining. If this is the best that we can do with Godzilla, then let's make a movie out of the MUTOs instead.

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