Friday, May 23, 2014

In Theaters: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla poster

Godzilla is a film that feels well overdue. There was, of course, one past attempt at making an American take on the character, and while I'll always have a soft spot for it, the filmmakers basically dodged a lot of the inherent challenge by making their monster less grandiose, less powerful, and theoretically more plausible as a result. After that didn't quite work, Toho brought back the "proper" Godzilla for a series of films that, while sometimes good, never had much of a reason for being other than reasserting tradition. Godzilla has been dormant for ten years, falling out of favor even in his native Japan, and so making a true, traditional Godzilla film for American audiences used to seeing him as a camp figure seemed like a long shot.

Gareth Edwards, director of Monsters, is at the helm for what turns out to be a slow, methodical burn of a monster movie. Godzilla eases the audience into the concept of a giant radioactive dinosaur who fights other giant radioactive monsters, knocking over skyscrapers in the process. People have complained that the King of the Monsters doesn't get enough screentime, and to be sure there's a lot of teasing involved, but the payoff is worth it. It's both a fantastic reintroduction to the kaiju eiga genre, and a film about reckoning with forces greater than ourselves.

Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) lost his mother to a nuclear plant disaster in Japan when he was a little boy, and has spent most of his life estranged from his father (Bryan Cranston), who is convinced a cover-up took place. Convinced by his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) to come to his father's side after he's arrested for trespassing at the still-restricted accident site, Ford ventures into the ruins with him only to witness the emergence of a strange prehistoric insect (called a Muto) feeding off the radiation. The creature destroys the government's installation and heads east, while Ford is dragged along with a research team headed by the obsessive Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). The Muto's journey attracts the attention of another prehistoric beast, the "apex predator" Godzilla who emerges to confront the new challenger to his supremacy.

In a move reminiscent of Jurassic Park or Jaws, the filmmakers spend a long time building up to Godzilla's first proper appearance, and are almost as stingy with the spindly Muto. Perversely, there are a few points where the film shows us what is clearly the beginning of a fight between the monsters, and quickly cuts away. Part of this is a showman's trick, keeping the audience wanting more and making sure you save your best stuff for last. However, I also get the feeling that, rather than throw the audience in the deep end of insane kaiju action as Pacific Rim did, Godzilla is slowly acclimating the audience to its absurdity. We're given realistic scenes of human response to disaster, of families separated and people fleeing for their lives, and the monsters are shown from ground level, often through windows or on screens. Though the film isn't as bleak as the original Godzilla, it retains that classic's serious approach to the subject matter, and the naturalistic approach makes the absurdity, when it happens, all the more convincing.

This gradual approach does mean we spend a lot more time than we probably expected to with the film's human characters, though way less with Bryan Cranston. Ford Brody is something of a generic character, a little flat, and Taylor-Johnson doesn't do a whole lot with the part. I'm not sure there was a lot for him to do, however, and the simplicity is something of the point. As little screen time as the monsters take up, the movie is basically about them; nearly every scene with the human characters ends up revolving around the monsters and their effect on the world around them. This is a film where gods walk the Earth, and for the most part we can only stay out of their way.

Godzilla himself is beautifully realized, a great hulk of a beast standing in defiance of modern cinema's trend towards fast and sleek monsters. When we finally see the monsters fight each other, it's with a perfect brutality and intensity. And in the film's dark, smoky climax, a remarkable kinship is drawn between Godzilla and the humans scampering at his feet, and there is the hopeful implication that we're not totally helpless in the tide of larger forces. The film's story does rewrite Godzilla's origins so as not to connect him so closely with the atom bomb, but there is still the implication that our use of nuclear power has drawn terrible things out from the depths.

In many ways this is not the Godzilla film I expected, but it does its job very well regardless. Though it starts cautiously, keeping the monsters and their clashes offscreen for some time, but by the end it fearlessly embraces one of the most outlandish elements of the character's history. I have quibbles, the dialogue could use some punching up, but what's important is that the filmmakers have made Godzilla's comeback a meaningful one. This is a film clearly made with genuine love and dedication, and it has given the King of Monsters a new lease on life.

Story by David Callaham
Written by Max Borenstein
Directed by Gareth Edwards

Grade: A-

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