Friday, May 16, 2014

In Theaters: GODZILLA (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards.  Written by Max Borenstein.  Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, Al Sapienza, Taylor Nichols, Carson Bolde, CJ Adams. (PG-13, 123 mins)

The second attempt at an American GODZILLA serves to commemorate the iconic monster's 60th anniversary as well as erase any lingering trauma left by Roland Emmerich's universally-despised 1998 GODZILLA. Emmerich's "Zilla" was so reviled by Godzilla purists that 2004's GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (thus far the final film in the official Toho franchise) brought Zilla onboard and, in one of the all-time great big-screen disses, had Godzilla kill it in a matter of seconds. Director Gareth Edwards previously helmed the overrated 2010 monster movie MONSTERS, which was unique in its minimalist approach but lacking overall even though it already has a devoted cult following.  Edwards' affinity for Godzilla is obvious and he does a nice job of honoring its legacy as well as reshaping it for today's audiences.  Edwards knows he has to eventually give the audience what it wants, but he utilizes the same kind of anticipatory buildup that young Steven Spielberg used on JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, letting the tension mount and making Godzilla's entrance--about an hour into the film--a truly impressive sight to be behold. This is the biggest and most imposing Godzilla has ever been onscreen, but in finding some common ground between his low-budget MONSTERS roots and this mega-budget GODZILLA, Edwards often seems to be working at cross purposes.  It wasn't uncommon in the Toho productions of old for Godzilla's appearance to be delayed, and Edwards paces his film as such that even though Godzilla doesn't make his entrance until halfway through, it still works because it's just the way this story flows to that point.  Edwards also takes a page out of Spielberg's JAWS playbook by not showing too much.  There are very few full-on shots of Godzilla and even that isn't a problem.  The biggest mistake Edwards makes is that Godzilla simply isn't in the film enough, and it's a film that frequently seems to relegate its namesake to a minor supporting character and could just as easily have been titled ATTACK OF THE MUTOS.

The "MUTO"'s are "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms."  Opening with a prologue set in 1999, Japanese scientist Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) are investigating a creature skeleton found in the Philippines with evidenced of hatched eggs.  At the same time, a Japanese power plant explodes, and American supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has been tracking strange seismic shifts. The explosion, which kills several scientists including Brody's wife (Juliette Binoche), is blamed on an earthquake and the entire area is quarantined due to intense radiation. 15 years later, Brody is a raving conspiracy theorist convinced that there's no radiation in the area and that the Japanese and American military are covering something up regarding the truth behind the explosion. Of course, he's right. His Navy explosive experts son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has to go to Japan to get his father out of jail and the two are eventually arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area.  They're met by Serizawa and Graham, who are on the scene and recognize the same seismic patterns Brody was talking about 15 years earlier.  It's then that the first MUTO, a winged arachnid-esque creature, appears.  Serizawa deduces that it feeds on radiation and was trying to send a signal to a second MUTO that they trace to a nuclear waste site in the desert outside of Las Vegas.  But the signal was also heard by another creature, an ancient god resting near the core of the earth.  Known as "Godzilla," it has the power to restore balance to the natural order of things, and Serizawa is convinced that it will rise to fight the MUTOs, one of which is female and looking for a place to lay hundreds of eggs.  From Japan to Hawaii to Vegas and finally to San Francisco, the monsters will wreak havoc and do battle, and oh yeah, Ford has to figure out how to get back to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco.

True to the Godzilla that most fans love, Edwards opts to make him a good guy here, despite his villainous, horrific kaiju origins in Ishiro Honda's 1954 classic.  As those films went on and were aimed at younger and younger audiences, Godzilla eventually became a good guy who would even do victory dances after winning a kaiju battle.  Godzilla is the hero here, but that doesn't mean he's any less furious.  His final battle with the MUTOs culiminates in perhaps Godzilla's angriest moment in the last 60 years.  It's a crowd-pleasing capper to the expected fight, but Edwards fumbles the ball a few times.  I heard grumbling from the audience on a few occasions where a Godzilla/MUTO throwdown was about to happen and Edwards cuts back to whatever Ford is doing.  It's one thing to subvert expectations and formula, but that's dangerously close to just being a contrarian dick.  It's commendable that Edwards has no interest in turning this into a generic Michael Bay-style, quick-cut, shaky-cam, video-game, CGI blur--and the CGI on display throughout GODZILLA is top-notch and proof that it can look good when the filmmakers want it to--but why cut away from a kaiju battle?  Edwards walks a fine line and mostly ends up on the right side with the film's effective pacing, less-is-more reveals, and some stunning visual effects, but when he ends up on the wrong side, it's glaring and deflating. The actors are fine, but no one cares about Ford, especially when Watanabe's Serizawa (a nice nod to the 1954 film for those in the know) is the far more interesting character (it's too bad Watanabe and Hawkins vanish for most of the last third of the film).  Taylor-Johnson has little to do other than run from place to place and doesn't really have much to build on, though I suppose it's nice that Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (with uncredited contributions by Frank Darabont) didn't turn him or Navy Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) into the kind of slogan-spouting, flag-waving cartoons that most films of this sort would.

It's got some major flaws (the climactic battle is sometimes too dark and murky-looking for its own good), but overall, GODZILLA is a fun time, especially in the almost quaintly old-school way that it's made.  The suspense is allowed to build, the action sequences are coherent, the CGI is done with care, and the monsters are genuinely frightening.  It's as much a tribute to Spielberg as it is to Godzilla.  This is once again a situation--OCULUS was another recent one--where it's a surprise that a film is made in an almost defiantly old-fashioned way and manages to stick out from the crowd simply for looking more like a movie instead of a video game.  I like Edwards' Spielbergian mindset.  It shows he's studied the classics, he knows what works, and he knows what doesn't need fixed.  We've seen it enough times that we're maybe a little numb to its magic, but remember the first time you saw JAWS or JURASSIC PARK?  Remember that feeling? Edwards goes for that here and sometimes pulls it off.  Sometimes he doesn't and makes some questionable decisions that have the best intentions but seem to stem from him wanting to go too far in the opposite direction.  No one needs a feature-length WWE battle, but at the same time, cutting away from kaiju throwdowns is a risky move that provoked audible frustration in the crowd.  Edwards gets enough right that this is a good GODZILLA, but his missteps prevent it from being a great one.  Yes, it's a classic compared to Emmerich's botch job, and while every dollar is up there on the screen and it looks fantastic, I'm still partial to the guys running around in monster suits while demolishing scale models of Tokyo.

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