Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla (2014) - Review

Like the velociraptors of JURASSIC PARK, the marketing departments of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have been clever girls. All of the promotion footage of this latest American attempt to reboot Big G have been completely vague, barely showing the dinosaur hybrid or much of the story. The studios instead focused on the citywide destruction, often beautifully organized in frame, and brief snippets of the characters. After sampling the final product, the marketers can party hard with a giant "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging above them because it paid off. They partially pulled off the arduous task of crafting a bait-and-switch that will not bomb with general audiences; I say partially because the diehard fans like myself will walk away with mixed results but at least be content that the movie is a magnum opus compared to what was spawned in 1998.

GODZILLA is more of an action-adventure epic than a giant monster mash. It often forgoes the sight of the kaiju pro-wrestling amid tumbling buildings in order to to maintain the strict human viewpoint of the disaster unfolding around them. Think more along the lines of last year's WORLD WAR Z or the singular structure of CLOVERFIELD. More fittingly, however, this movie is very much akin to director Gareth Edwards' previous feature MONSTERS, where the short flashes of the creatures are overpowered by the sheer scope of people struggling to physically and mentally survive.

The movie opens with a prologue featuring two back-to-back catastrophes in the alternate year of 1999: an underground mining collapse in the Philippines, which reveals a cavern full of huge skeletons and other mysteries, and a nuclear plant meltdown in Japan. The latter event severely impacted the Brody family, especially the gaijin son Joe, who later grows up to be a military bomb expert and be played by a bulky Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Joe is still trying to move on from the tragedy but is constantly incensed by the criminal actions of his father (Bryan Cranston), who continues to venture into the quarantine zone in order to find out what really happened. Script-wise, his conflict is a ludicrous overdose of Hollywood motivations: Daddy is mad because Mrs. Brody (an oddly fourth-billed Juliette Binoche) died during the radioactive breach, largely due to his split decision to send her down to investigate the seismic problem, then had to lock her out right at the containment doors. Oh, and all of this happened on his birthday; talk about a hat trick of anguish. Anyway, Joe decides to accompany his dad into the radiated area, only to be quickly swept into a series of bad circumstances and be a witness for every military operation directed towards a certain beast that decided to make its public debut.

I really, really must sustain myself from describing any more because the biggest fun of the picture is the many unexpected surprises that pop up. These developments constantly throw a mighty wrench in both the story and the expectations of the audience. They also allow this movie franchise to be given a new direction forward, a welcoming change of pace for the Godzilla character. Kaiju fanatics may be up in arms that Godzilla is now treading into the territory of one of his monster rivals but his character modifications will help allow the niche of monster movies to be given a fair shake with the public. To answer a few other fan questions: Yes, he does have his signature roar; Yes, he retains a key feature that was stupidly removed in the previous remake by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin; And no, Akira Ifukube's theme doesn't play. Alexandre Desplat does deliver a Zimmer-like musical score full of bombastic exclamations yet I still yearned for at least a music cameo during the credits. As for his redesign, I do really admire the chunky body and his more emotive face. By fattening him up, his durability and destructive force is counterweighed by his slow muscle movement and accuracy, making all of the battles fair and balanced.

Unfortunately, as stated before, 90% of the skirmishes here are obscured or quickly cut off. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein wanted this to be more about humanity's story than Godzilla's, a sound strategy yet it's still an unnerving mood killer for those who want the elephant/lizard in the room to be noticed. To add further insult, the human despair is contrived or quite sickening. Standard blockbuster tropes like a dog in danger, a little girl in danger, and the good ole lost orphan who needs to find his displaced family for a feel good moment are all underlined for maximum exploitation. When not eye-rolling at that material, you're forced to engage with "homages" to real-life calamities like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; none of it is as torturous as what appeared in say MAN OF STEEL but it will soil the popcorn-eating. To be fair to the creators, some of their story elements actually pack a lot of punch, the best being a brief scene where the sounds of a Las Vegas casino drown out the televised warnings of a giant monster walking through the city. Even the original subtext of the 1954 Japanese film is pencilled into the proceedings but with a clever twist. Instead of just featuring the same past metaphors to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this film includes the recurring dangerous threat of an EMP, a crippling device that shuts down all electronics in a given area and a weapon that is set off right before an atomic bomb lands on the ground.

GODZILLA's idea of prolonging all of the rock-em-sock-ems to build up the anticipation for the climatic finale certainly is a "fireworks factory" scenario but the movie does pull out all stops at the end, concluding with a moment that is sure to generate applause and be added to the highlight reel. It's just too bad that titled character had to be a supporting player to a bunch of humans. The actors are all serviceably good though the truly great performances are only regulated to the first act. Despite my personal heavy gripes, GODZILLA is a fun ride, has more depth to it than many of its competition (including some of the recent throwaway superhero films), and can be slotted right above all of the average Godzilla flicks. See it on the biggest screen and with the sound turned all the way up, as Godzilla will invigorate your goosebumps.


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