Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla

Directed by: Gareth Edwards.   
Written by: Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham.
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Carson Bolde (Sam Brody), Sally Hawkins (Vivienne Graham), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), Richard T. Jones (Captain Russell Hampton), Victor Rasuk (Sergeant Tre Morales), Patrick Sabongui (Lieutenant Commander Marcus Waltz).

As has been pointed out in most reviews of this latest reboot of Godzilla, the human characters in Gareth Edwards’ screen appearance by the legendary Japanese monster are not particularly interesting or deep, and most barely have an a full story arc to themselves. Despite the fact that the movie counts among its cast one Oscar winner (Juliette Binoche), three other Oscar nominees (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn) one of the best TV actors of his generation (Bryan Cranston) and one of the best up and coming actress working right now (Elizabeth Olsen) they are all basically given one note to play in all of their scenes – and while they play those notes well, none of it really adds up to what one could call fully rounded characters. The human lead is none of these characters – but rather Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – best known for Kick-Ass and its sequel, and for playing a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy. He doesn’t have the pedigree – or really the acting chops – of his co-stars, but he also does what is required of him. Many see these one note characters as a flaw in this latest Godzilla – and to be honest, it does make some of the “human dominated” scenes in the film rather dull at times. Yet I think that the characters are one note on purpose. Edwards’ first (and only other) film as director was Monsters (2010) – his low-budget movie about two characters making their way through a hostile landscape in a world that is no populated by giant monsters they are powerless to stop. The two films – although they are hundreds of millions of dollars apart in terms of budget (and also gross receipts) share quite a bit in common with each other. And that makes this Godzilla the rarest of blockbuster movies – ones with its director’s fingerprints all over it. I’ve complained in the past that even though I still kind of like superhero movies – at least enough that I still go see them – that they are all starting to feel the same, that they all feel like they’re coming off the same assembly line. In the Avengers-cycle of Marvel movies, they have even stopped hiring directors with their own point of view – so the like of Jon Favreau or Kenneth Branagh have been replaced by people like Alan Taylor or the Russo brothers, who mainly work in episodic television, where their goal isn’t really to express themselves, but rather to execute the vision of the show long since established by others. If nothing else (and there’s plenty else to like about the movie), this Godzilla feels like the work of the same man who made Monsters – and that’s something.

The story opens in 1999, in Japan where Joe and Sandra Brody (Cranston and Binoche) are foreigners working at a new nuclear plant that do not like the readings they are seeing – they seem like earthquakes around the plant, but they aren’t random like earthquakes are, but instead have a pattern. Something bad is going to happen – and it eventually does. Flash forward 15 years, and Joe is a paranoid man, still ranting and raving about a government cover-up – and his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is tired of listening to the old man’s seemingly insane rantings. Ford has just got home to San Francisco for another tour of duty in the army – where’s he’s an explosives expert – to his wife Elle (Olsen) and their 5-year old son. They get a phone call – the old man has been arrested again in Japan. So Ford heads over to get the old man out of trouble again. But it turns out that perhaps Joe isn’t as insane as Ford thought. Soon they are being enlisted by scientists Serizawa (Watanabe) and Graham (Hawkins) – who press them for information about what they know about the plant Joe used to work at. It turns out something has awoken, and has been feeding off the plant for years. But that something doesn’t want to stay hidden any longer.

Spoiler Warning: I’ve given you the setup for the movie above, but if you know nothing of the movie, you may want to stop now. I won’t delve into too much detail from late in the movie, but there are some twists that I do not think the trailers give away that will be discussed. Consider yourself warned.

This creature isn’t Godzilla – in fact, there are two creatures in the movie that aren’t Godzilla – but are different “parasitic MUTOs” (yes they explain what that stands for, no I don’t remember) – and the two have been communicating with each other. They “decide” to meet in San Francisco so they can mate. But Godzilla – who arrives in the words of Watanabe’s words to “balance the scales” – has other ideas.

The human characters in the movie spend their time coming up with one ultimately futile plan after another in the hopes of stopping these three giant creatures – who for the most part, barely acknowledge their existence. All three creatures are shot at repeatedly, but they don’t even seem to notice or care about the people they are killing – and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or millions – are killed and they don’t notice (the movie doesn’t dwell on these deaths, but it doesn’t complete ignore them either, like most blockbusters, where skyscrapers collapse, and cities are destroyed seem to). The movies ultimate viewpoint can be summarized in the quote by Serizawa  when he says “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” The human characters in the film aren’t really heroes or villains – they are an ultimately meaningless afterthought with no power to do anything but sit back and watch.

Edwards makes this clear throughout the movie – as often the destruction the creatures create is seen through the eyes of the characters as they do nothing except watch. We see multiple shots of the creatures fighting or destroying cities on TV – as characters get the latest updates – or through car windows with windshield wipers going, or through the eyes of people as they flee for their lives from creatures that do not much care one way or the other about them. The humans try to survive, but their survival is ultimately beside the point. If Godzilla is there to “restore balance” as Serizawa says he is, than even thousands or millions of deaths of people will ultimately have little impact on the planet – but these giant creatures will.

This probably sounds rather depressing – and if you look at this way, than I guess it kind of is. But on the grand scheme of things – when a human life is taken into consideration with the entire history of the world – it is ultimately meaningless. Edwards expressed some similar sentiments throughout his previous films Monsters (2010) – that human beings are powerless to control nature, and we even if we are the dominant species on Earth, we may not always be. But this new Godzilla is thrilling in the best way for American blockbusters as well. The special effects are top notch, the fight sequences are brilliantly handled without relying on rapid fire editing and the film is genuinely frightening at times. There is a certain element of Spielberg in the way Edwards shoots much of the action – and that’s certainly preferable to the heavy influence that Michael Bay has seemed to have on too many action directors today.

I enjoyed most of this new Godzilla – it does deliver the goods that you expect in an summer blockbuster in terms of action, but it also feels like a movie made by a director with a point of view instead of one made by committee like most blockbusters feel. I would have preferred if Edwards had found a way to make the human characters more interesting while still delivering his ultimate message, but in terms of summer blockbusters in 2014, the fact that Godzilla has a genuine point of view, and doesn't seem quite as much like a movie by committee as most blockbusters do, makes it rather refreshing.

1 comment:

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