Review: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla

Rating

Director
Gareth Edwards
Screenplay
Max Borenstein, David Callahan
Length
123 min.
Starring
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Carson Bolde, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, CJ Adams, Juliette Binoche
MPAA Rating
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence

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Review
In comparison to the terrible 1998 reboot, this new reboot of Godzilla would seem like a masterpiece. The truth may lie somewhere between how much of a fan of monster movies or disaster movies that you are.

Instead of bringing the barely-Godzilla to Manhattan as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version did, we start off where the original Godzilla took place, at a collapsed nuclear reactor in Japan. The source of the meltdown that kills Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife (Juliette Binoche) is a mysterious creature that has been the source of investigation in the intervening 15 years. Citizens are kept away by radioactivity warnings, but Brody believes there’s more to it and despite being arrested once for trying to trespass into the zone, he heads in again, this time with his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) whose tour of duty has just ended, but has only precious moments with his son Sam (Carson Bolde) and wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen).

There, they discover the experiments being carried out by U.S. military contractors in cooperation with the Japanese government and a pair of researchers (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins). When the creatures comes to life and flees the area, a battle begins to uncover where the monster is going and what his intentions are other than sheer destruction. Godzilla doesn’t appear right away, leaving this MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) as the key antagonist for a good portion of the early scenes, not revealed until a particularly thrilling encounter in Hawaii.

Director Gareth Edwards who turned heads with his debut feature Monsters was given the reigns of the new Godzilla film because of his prior experience with the genre. Yet, the ultimate result is more similar to a disaster film with movie monster elements than it is a strict monster movie. The original films had their fair share of property damage, but the monsters were a significant part of that, commanding considerable screen time. Edwards focuses on revealing his creatures slowly and methodically, ramping up the tension with each near-miss, close-call and skulking surprise. Keeping an edge to the action before finally throwing down the gauntlet and bringing these beasties into full combat mode helps keep the film from feeling tedious out of the gate.

Emmerich is a modern master of the disaster genre. His films are high octane adventures set in cataclysmic situations. He just isn’t a very good screenwriter, which could explain why his Matthew Broderick-Jean Reno Godzilla didn’t work. He wasn’t as much interested in widespread destruction than on developing sensible characters in significant peril that the audience ultimately cares about. This time out, inexperienced writer Max Borenstein teams up with The Expendables franchise scribe Dave Callaham and creates a narrative that has more genuinely interesting characters even if they are still subservient to the explosions and sheer tonnage of destruction on screen.

As with most modern disaster films, audience’s shouldn’t expect much connection with the human protagonists. With few exceptions, these characters are thinly written and explored to make way for maximum action. Watanabe and Binoche are the only actors in the film that try to go beyond their standardized tropes, though the results are mixed. Both are underutilized, but Binoche would have had more success with significantly more screen time.

Cranston, coming off his celebrated streak in Breaking Bad has chosen to let himself flow with the scope of the film and doesn’t seem to be taking much seriously, especially not his acting. Taylor-Johnson isn’t a great actor and this is a far cry from his last solid attempt in Anna Karenina. There is a bumper crop of actors in this film. In addition to Watanabe, Cranston and Binoche, add in Olsen, Hawkins and David Strathairn and you have a bountiful, rich cast that could fit well into an Irwin Allen disaster project from the 1970’s and at least be given a bit more character to convey.

Godzilla‘s myth has been tweaked here. Instead of being a byproduct of nuclear war, he becomes the subject of purported nuclear testing in the mid-Pacific. It’s not a huge distinction, but for fans of the original’s anti-nuclear political commentary, it may be enough to discourage them. Still, Watanabe delivers a rather pointed criticism of the operation commander (played by Strathairn) that shames him about the U.S.’s use of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, there are still political undertones to the film, more subtle perhaps, but still present.

One of the comments the film makes is about the U.S. military’s immediate gut reaction to any threatening situation by employing lethal force, up to and including dropping a nuclear arsenal on the beasts’ heads. As Watanabe and Hawkins point out, this is a completely terrible idea since the monsters seem to feed off nuclear radiation, rather than succumb to it. The scientists are completely ignored, a pointed jab at the military industrial machine of the U.S. government who frequently refuse to listen to the global science community or even fellow industrial leaders that indicate that other options are equally viable. They only decide to listen after their last resort is wasted and they realize they made a mistake in not heeding the advice previously given. This can apply to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well U.S. resistance to Climate Change. If the U.S. can try to blow it up, that must be the first option used.

As a fan of disaster films, this version of Godzilla is every bit superior to the Emmerich outing. It would be interesting to see if Edwards could replicate this success with a better script to a true disaster picture focusing on human interaction rather than extreme property damage. Godzilla might be as popular with fans of monster films, especially those who are big fans of the Eiji Tsuburaya productions that catapulted the anti-nuclear monster into movie legend history.

Spoiler Discussion
This is the kind of movie that lives or dies on how much makes it into the trailer and how much surprises the audience in the theater. Godzilla‘s marketing campaign was one of the strongest in memory. The stellar halo drop scene depicted in one of the earlier trailers is played out almost exactly in the film, including that stirring musical score from the superb Alexandre Desplat. You don’t get to see much of the creature in the trailer, heightening anticipation.

Even in future trailers, he was infrequently pictured, which is also true of the early scenes of the film. Additionally, the MUTO referenced above is one of two in the film, the other being a mate trying to converge so that the two may procreate and re-inhabit the planet. Neither of these antagonists are referenced in the trailers, nor the events surrounding them. This enables the audience get a nice jolt of realization hen they discover that not only is Godzilla not the prime antagonist as depicted in the trailer, he is ultimately a heavily destructive hero, the lone creature capable enough to destroy the MUTO’s. This is especially true when you consider the idiotic plan the U.S. Government has concocted to deal with the threat.

This is what I was referencing in a paragraph in the main review for the film. The military has decided that using a nuclear warhead, hooked up to manually detonate at sea, will be a good decoy to get the MUTO’s out to see and then irradiate them. The problem with their theory is that the warhead is nowhere near San Francisco, the convergence point of the male-female monsters, it has to be shipped through territory that’s in the path of one of them. Since we already know that the monsters are able to sense nuclear radiation from several nautical miles away, how does the logic of moving a warhead even remotely near them not immediately telegraph to the audience that it’s not likely to make it to its destination.

This all is a clever plot device. Not only does it showcase the utter lack of forethought frequently displayed by today’s modern military, but it also creates a series of long-ranging plot threads to converge in the final half of the film. Typically, a plot this ludicrous would be rife for bitter complaints from disappointed audiences, but when placed in the framework of anti-military obstructionism against scientific experimentation and advice, you get a modern allegory for all that’s wrong with our shoot-first, ask-questions-later military mentality. Cooler heads must prevail or our future could be irreparably harmed.
Oscar Prospects
Probables: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Potentials: Original Score
Review Written
May 29, 2014

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