Saturday, May 17, 2014

GODZILLA - Hail to the King, Baby

That'll do Gojira, that'll do.


You'd be forgiven for thinking that 2014's Godzilla is an oppressively grim, serious, "dark" affair, the sort of reboot sculpted from the mold of Nolan's Batman films and all but genetically-designed to erase the memory of Roland Emmerich's. . . unfortunate 1998 film from the collective consciousness of movie-goers.

The good news is that, while the film definitely is the former (there's no way this doesn't become THE definitive American Godzilla in movie history), it does so not by punishing the audience, but by creating a film of awe, wonder, terror, and pure child-like exhilaration at the impossible glory of giant monsters.

Director Gareth Edwards (who got the job in part because of his low-budget monster movie Monsters back in 2010) delivers a film that is obviously familiar with the legendary Toho dinosaur. Not only are there several nods to the original Gojira in form of characters (Dr. Serizawa in particular), references to nuclear "tests" back in 1954 (the year of the original film's release) that were actually trying to destroy a creature, as well as a recreation of the slow reveal of the monster and his destructive powers.

Unfortunately, the film also recreates the bland main character from the 1956 American edit (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) in Ford Brody - a bomb disposal specialist who is only an improvement on Steve Martin in that he gets to do a few things other than simply speak exposition directly to the audience (that job is mostly given to Bryan Cranston who plays Ford's father, but is only a supporting role in the film, if a memorable and sympathetic one). However, like Martin, Ford still distracts from the more interesting characters in the film  - the aforementioned Dr. Serizawa - who's the world's only Godzilla expert -  would have been a far more interesting protagonist. And while Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Avengers: Age of Ultron) isn't terrible, he's even more bland than Matthew Broderick was in Emmerich's disaster. If there's one area in which last year's Pacific Rim handily trumps this movie (and there is at least one), it's how Del Toro was able to create a film with memorable, dynamic human characters who drove the narrative even as they drove giant robots, and tied character development inextricably to its scenes of destruction.

Luckily, Ford works as a ground-level perspective on the destruction being wrought by the sudden awakening of giant monsters, and does a decent job of establishing a consistent scale for the ever-increasing mayhem. Godzilla owes more than a little to Jaws and Jurassic Park in how it builds to its visually-sumptuous finale through glimpses and teases early on, and while the title character doesn't get a lot of screen time, there are some very cool and memorable scenes involving his opponents. And while the MUTOs aren't as visually-interesting as some of the creatures in the Toho films, they have nifty abilities and the film manages to give them a bit of personality.

But it's Godzilla himself, in spite of "not enough" screen time in the movie, who absolutely steals the show. Not only does his character communicate a great deal of "mood" through his reactions - from petty annoyance at weapons fire to apocalyptic fury at his opponents to the exhausting toll that the final battle takes on him, but the visual realization of an honest-to-goodness GODZILLA VS. MONSTERS FIGHT (accompanied perfectly by the type of pounding, blaring score you'd expect, courtesy of Alexandre Desplat) that caps the film is a dream come true. Three enormous creatures punching, biting, flying, and rolling around a mostly-evacuated San Francisco as the army air-drops in a team of commandos (yes, that scene really is as amazing as the trailers made it look) is sure to go down as one of the most awe-inspiring moments of cinema this year.

Part of why it works so well is the film's structure. It's arguably a shame that the film's story didn't elevate the genre/series legacy the way that its visuals and action sequences did, but the movie certainly doesn't waste your time - even with several monsters, multiple destructive set pieces, and a lot of moving parts, Godzilla clocks in at almost exactly two hours. It builds to a huge conflict, delivers in spades, and then ends before over-staying its welcome.

Mileage is likely going to vary on this film - its tone is still playing more "for keeps" than the goofiness of the Emmerich movie - or even the pulpy adventure of Pacific Rim - but it doesn't wallow in misery or darkness. The destruction is allowed to be frightening at first (though the most tense sequences of the film are quieter, including an obvious homage to Jurassic Park's "Raptors in the kitchen" scene), but once Godzilla himself is positioned as humanity's last hope, we're allowed to revel his him as a force of nature. And while the film's mostly-useless cast of humans is "traditional" for the series, it would have been nice to see a film in 2014 take a few steps forward in this regard.

But the film is absolutely a fantastic example of what it sets out to be. And when "what it sets out to be" is a movie that delivers spectacle and majesty that manages to impress even in an age where audiences have become so used to the extraordinary, that's a damn fine thing.

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