Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Meet the New Lizard.  Same as the Old Lizard.
Feeling Pacific Rimmed

Oh, I had such high hopes. After ignoring it for so long (probably because my eyes were rolling back in my head at its mention), a glimpse of a preview of the new Godzilla movie looked terrific, was moody and atmospheric, and gave you just a glimpse of the new "Gojira" (the name of the creature in the Japanese original), giving it an air of a Ray Harryhausen beastie—fake, sure, but with a look you could respect. There was a "buzz" about it, that this one (the 30th) might actually be a good one...for a change. Time Magazine threw it in as the lead for its large article on upcoming "Cli-fi" movies.*  Certainly it had a cast that was respectable: Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliet Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olsen, and I genuinely admired director Gareth Edwards' documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.

But, let's face the music, kids: it's a "Godzilla" movie. It's not even a "Gojira" movie. It's a "Godzilla" movie with a stern American militaristic seriousness. That's all well and good if you want to take that parade stance, but all the verisimilitude in the world can't make you resist giggling when the creatures begin crashing into each other like sumo wrestlers, as they did in the old films. At least Pacific Rim went right for the funny-bone by having its "Gigantor" robots delivering hay-makers to the threatening kaiju.

But it does try and make a point—just as the original Japanese film used a monster movie to talk about the dangers inherent in setting off nuclear weapons—about making this old ancient Earth cranky and unstable, in this case with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and with a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster in Japan that leads to the unleashing of even more cranky creatures (labeled M.U.T.O.'s "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms" and the only humor to be found in the film is the straight-faced way in which military commander David Strathairn—another terrific actor—delivers this information as if he were throwing out anagrams of a coalition of the willing), who have no regard for the ant-like bi-peds in its path.
"My name isn't above the title—it IS the title—and I don't
show up until the last third of the movie.
Do I have a great agent or what?"

Speaking of which, one of the nice things about this Godzilla is how it maintains a certain visual connection to the Japanese series; certainly, anyone who's seen those movies remembers the visual scheme where Godzilla is in the background stomping around, while in the foreground blue-screened Japanese citizens are fleeing towards the camera (even if you haven't seen one of the films, it's been parodied so often, you may be familiar with it).
Edwards' direction is very bystander-centric, you usually see the monsters from the perspective of the citizenry being threatened (and in a neat touch for 3-D, through windshields and office windows that puts just enough barrier between creature and "creatured" to lend perspective and communicate vulnerability). It gives the film a slight sense of nostalgia, even while it's trying to create its own crater in the series.  And one has to say that it has moments of beauty to it—it never doesn't look terrific—but scenes like an eerie night-time HALO jump (set to Ligeti's "Requiem") and a brief eye-to-eye moment between the big "G" and the movie's hero (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) before the creature is enveloped by the dust of San Francisco's destruction stay with you, and even haunt.
The cast (other than Taylor-Johnson and Olsen) are largely extended cameos (and one is advised to not get too attached to any of the characters, if that's possible), but one comes away from this evolution of the beast feeling like one's only seen a better-made version of the old hokey movies of the past, like a better wrapped tie for Father's Day. What makes this film special is what made the ideas behind the original special, told with a portentousness far exceeding its worth. Maybe in their efforts to make everything believable, they decided to make it less fun.
Why, the giant lizard doesn't even do his "happy dance" that he'd do after defeating Robot-Kong or whatever.  Certainly, I didn't while exiting.

* The subsequent review by Time's Richard Corliss was very disparaging.  Reading the earlier article, I got the distinct feeling the writer never saw Godzilla versus the Smog-Monster.

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