MAY 16, 2014
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
I, like every single person with a brain cell that is living on planet Earth, thoroughly disliked the 1998 Godzilla, and as a result I wasn't inspired to watch any of the originals that I had missed along the way. I had seen bits and pieces of a few of them thanks to Sunday morning cable broadcasts, but even now, 16 years later (Jesus that makes me feel old) I've seen very few of them. However, this new Godzilla (2014) has corrected that, as it was not only enjoyable on its own but helped me understand WHY people love these movies so much, and using my good friend Evan's guide that he posted, will be doing my best to catch up over the next few months - maybe I'll even review a few of them for y'all!
The main thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, oddly enough, is a "lack" of giant monster action. Don't worry, several cities are destroyed by the time it ends, but it's not "disaster porn" like most big budget movies of this type are nowadays. Director Gareth Edwards is smart enough to know that audiences have seen enough buildings get knocked over in the past few years, and so he keeps that sort of "Let's pull back and admire the view of what is assuredly causing massive casualties of innocent people!" thinking to a minimum. Like any good big monster movie, he teases us with glimpses of his creation, but even after G has been revealed in full, he keeps things grounded, always showing us what's going on from the perspective of someone on the ground. One of the (many) problems I had with Pacific Rim* was that it was often impossible to get a good sense of the scale (especially during the underwater final battle, where they're fighting what's supposedly the biggest Kaiju yet but it looked pretty much the same), but that's never the case here. Whether it's from one of the hero characters or just some anonymous guy who opted to stay in his office, we always see it through a human's eyes, which means we can't usually see the entire beast at once. It's a tail, or a scale on his back, or a foot... we're always in awe of truly how massive this thing is.
Of course, this might lead to some impatience for audience members who are children (technically and/or mentally). There's a good 40 minutes or so before anything gets destroyed, and Edwards doesn't want you to be numb to his money shots before the final battle. Again, we stay with humans, so when G faces off against a "Muto" (a bat/spider thing that serves as the movie's true villain/obligatory other monster for Godzilla to fight, another thing Emmerich and Devlin bungled), we only see it for a couple seconds before the human being we're with (Elizabeth Olsen, in this case, perhaps cast to soften the blow in this exact moment - it's hard to argue with keeping a camera pointed at her) ducks inside and obscures our view on the monster bashing. We also see television footage of destruction or aftermath more often than not - again, this isn't a movie obsessed with showing us shot after shot of CGI debris crumbling down around us. So for the final battle, when Edwards lets them at each other in full widescreen glory, it's something WE HAVEN'T REALLY SEEN YET, a concept that is forever lost on Bay, Emmerich, etc.
It's ironic, then, that he succeeds by sticking with the humans more often than not that the movie works despite the characters not being particularly interesting. Aaron Johnson is the main star, and for the life of me I can't see what this guy's appeal is; he's got a Hanksian everyman look to him, which is fine, but he's just not that exciting to watch (I couldn't help but think of his Savages costar Taylor Kitsch; he's a much more interesting presence to me, and it's a shame HIS shot at starring in a big budget invasion movie was the lousy Battleship). His character also lacks any real purpose beyond a knack for mirroring the monsters' journey from Japan to San Francisco; he's one of those bomb-defusing guys (like in Hurt Locker) but the movie never has him defuse a bomb - he's SUPPOSED to do one but something gets stuck and he just helps the older soldiers go with Plan B, which is taking out to the ocean and letting it detonate away from the populace. The ability to just say "OK let me help" and do what everyone else is doing is a skill even I possess, so I'm basically just as qualified to be the hero in this movie (incidentally, the opening titles are fantastic and way more inventive than anything I would have come up with). There's also a bit where he and like 15 other soldiers parajump onto Godzilla (you've seen the sequence in the trailers), but bizarrely we lose track of all of them except Johnson, who lands expertly despite, you know, not being a parajumper, as far as we know. Why not have someone land on the big guy and have to clamber his way down or something? Why even bother with the jump if they're just going to cut to everyone elsewhere later on anyway?
Then again maybe this stuff was shown and just edited. It's about two hours long, which is all it SHOULD be, but that counters the thinking of every big studio action movie of late, which demands that these things be 145-150 minutes no matter what. Olsen's role has seemingly been trimmed as well; at one point she's inside the hospital helping people, and then the next time we see her she's for some reason out on the streets, about to run away from the giant monster she already knew was rampaging around - why did she go outside? (FIRST ACT SPOILER AHEAD!!!!) But the real bummer is Bryan Cranston; I don't think we lost much of his role, it just didn't seem to be that big to begin with; his entire character arc relies on proving to the world that there's a SOMETHING out there, and once they know he's right, well... let's just say he doesn't need to be in the movie anymore, and thus, er, *leaves*.
Johnson does figure into one of the movie's best (and scariest!) scenes, where he's on a train with a nuke and has to go with a couple other soldiers to investigate the bridge's integrity before proceeding. Naturally, one of the monsters shows up, leading to a pretty tense bit where they're trying to avoid detection and also keep the monster from destroying the bridge so that they can continue on their mission to kill it. If we're comparing to Jurassic Park, this would be akin to the first T-Rex sequence in the jeep, with lots of "stay still" and unnerving closeups (and of course, a device that could blow their cover; the flashlight there, a crackling radio here). Bizarrely (SPOILER, SORT OF, AHEAD), the movie isn't interested in offing any of its human characters after the first half hour or so, so there isn't much tension for any of the action sequences, but this is an exception (Johnson's fellow soldiers being fair game). This is actually one of the only things that it has in common with the 1998 piece of shit; there's a bunch of characters that could have died to justify their existence, but they're all left standing at the end.
That said, there are two interesting characters here; one is Ken Watanabe as the obligatory scientist who knows better than the military folk. He lost his father at Hiroshima, and thus takes it personally when the army guys want to nuke the monsters to hell. His much more crowd-pleasing option is of course, the right one - "Let them fight". I dunno HOW he knows this, but he knows Godzilla will wake up from wherever he is, kick the shit out of the Mutos, and then go back to sleep after, which may result in some destruction (it's not like Godzilla CARES about the humans, after all) but will at least prevent more nuclear chaos. The other good character is Head Military Guy, played by David Strathairn with his usual stern authority, but what I liked about him is that he wasn't the usual gung-ho asshole that laughs at the science folk - he actively seeks out their advice and is legit torn between the two options. On that point, while they didn't have much to do, I liked that Johnson and Olsen's characters were a happily married couple, not the usual estranged one that uses this horrific disaster to realize they still love each other and should give it another chance.
The FX are, unsurprisingly, incredible - Edwards did a great job on his own computer for Monsters (which I hope more people are checking out, now), so with 200m at his disposal they should be among the best ever, and he doesn't disappoint. In addition to just LOOKING great, the monsters have a weight to them that most big budget action movies often lack (the Transformers films are notoriously awful for this); when one of them stumbles you can feel the impact, and they aren't graceful, another problem with most CGI beasties that move too perfectly to ever be believable. So you should do the filmmakers and FX wizards a favor and NOT see the film in 3D, as it's pretty bad and most certainly not worth the extra dough (and I say this as someone who likes the "gimmick" when it's properly applied). It's a post-conversion, and while I'm never truly impressed with any of them they have improved over the past 4 years, but this is susceptible to all of their usual problems: strange glitching whenever people run past the foreground, flat faces giving off a "pop up book" look to the proceedings, and (more than often) an obvious difference when a CGI effect is in the shot with an actor (as the CGI can have the 3D effect properly applied, unlike the traditionally shot live action portion). And when nothing is going on, you won't even notice any effect at all anyway, something that wouldn't be the case if it was shot with 3D cameras, as even the "boringest" shot will offer something impressive when properly filmed. The DP for the film has urged people to see it in 2D, saying that they didn't shoot planning for the extra dimension later like some converts are, and he is 100% correct.
The emphasis on small-scale action as opposed to toy-selling "hero" moments might mean the kids are a bit bored, but I for one walked away quite impressed that Warner and co. opted to aim their giant monster movie at adults. It was only a year ago that they made the kids' version (Pacific Rim), so there's nothing for them to complain about. If you want mindless action for your inner or actual 9 year old, you have that movie. If you want something a little more impressive and "adult", but still quite fun (I cheered two or three times; there's a Godzilla fire breath moment that should make ANYONE applaud, even if this is their first Godzilla movie and they weren't aware that it was something he could do), they got you covered, and have done a fine job of wiping away the stink of the last remake AND the summer's previous big budget action spectacle ("He shot at me he lied to me....").
What say you?
*I enjoyed it as a decent summer time-killer, but I expected much more from Guillermo.