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Sunday
May182014

Godzilla, A God Amongst Blockbusters

This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad


If Hollywood's goal is to infantilize all audiences into impressionable insatiable snot-nosed consumers of movie-product (remember how easy it was for a commercial to make you all "gimme!" as a kid) they’re doing a great job this year. Though movie studios churn out plenty of all-quadrant dross every year that's aimed at pleasing children of all advanced ages and genders, it rarely goes this well. The year began in the shadow of Disney's unexpectedly unstoppable Frozen and the critical and commercial smashes keep coming. The Lego Movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the two biggest hits of the year (thus far) and not undeservedly. They're like joyful corporate filmmaking - cash grabs, sure, but no robbery is involved since they give you your money’s worth. And here comes the third home run: Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014).

[Insert prehistoric monstrous rawr here]

Can my review just be wild-eyed hyperactive childish pointing? "LOOK!!!"  No? Fine. A few slightly more coherent thoughts featuring hot soldiers, worried women, and monster smash-ups after the jump...

Watching Ken Watanabe watch old 1950s Godzilla while talking about Godzilla still probs being alive in 2014 in Godzilla (2014). The layers!

Most franchises today don't like to acknowledge their own histories. It makes regurgitating the same film over again much trickier, leaving us with "the reboot". The new Godzilla instead uses its own history as a comeback springboard, acknowledging that the original Japanese movies occurred (okay, maybe not all 28 of them or the world wouldn't be so surprised that monsters exist) but that the truth was buried as Godzilla went out to sea in the 1950s. Enter our three inciting characters from different countries (British Sally Hawkins, Japanese Ken Watanabe, and American Bryan Cranston) making upsetting discoveries in 1999.

They all have deep-rooted histories with either the Godzilla cover up or the strange infrequent electro magnetic pulses from what they believe is a monster spore which may or may not be related to the Godzilla legend. Tragedy strikes the American when his wife (Juliette Binoche) is killed in a freak power plant accident leaving his son motherless, which ends the movie's prologue. 

Cut to: 2014. The American's son is now a bomb expert soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, still easy on the eyes, still somewhat lacking where the leading man charisma is supposed to go) who has just returned to his own son and his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) when he has to suddenly return to Japan to bail out his crazy conspiracy theorist father and bring him home. By the father's design, they end up back at the scene of their shared original tragedy. Naturally it's just that night when all hell breaks loose (you know how these things happen). The long dormant spore suddenly activates and what looks like a behemoth mutant cockroach emerges and escapes, presumably to wreak immediate havoc in a nearby metropolis.

The rest of the film, then, becomes a chase and hunt movie as the scientists and soldier pursue this MUTO ("massive unidentified terrestrial organism") from Japan to the US. For once, it's worth noting, New York City is not the site of mass destruction; we get to live! Along the path of destruction, the heroes realize that Godzilla has reemerged from his decades of exile at the depths of the ocean and appears to also be chasing the Muto. The genre trappings, story beats and themes are nothing new, at all. It's hard to be new with sixty years of your own franchise's history within the very populated subgenre of sci-fi / horror known as the monster movie. I also wish I could be super enthused about the human cast, who get a lot more screen time than you'd expect, but despite a collection of very fine actors there's not much in the way of character specificity: The men have little to do other than sell fear mixed with their passion in their heroic convictions (Aaron Taylor Johnson is rescued for awhile from film carrying duties by a team of soldiers - hello Victor Razuk! -- who he meets in mid chaos) and the women have even less to do, working intense variations of worried for the world / worried for their men and, in Sally Hawkins' case, worried for Godzilla.

What's fresh and redemptive, though, about this particular Godzilla is the artistry and confidence of the young director Gareth Edwards and his team (the cinematography, visual effects, production design, sound, and original score are all super). Edwards made his name on the inventive strength of his low budget alien invasion debut (Monsters, 2010) but he never seems to be straining for effect or letting his new colossal budget squash his storytelling instincts with a Godzilla sized foot. He doesn't let the effects do the work for him. He goes for gorgeous minimalism whenever possible: silhouettes of monsters in the fog, telltale shadows on broken buildings, and some of the most beautiful strokes of color I've ever seen in a blockbuster. That's especially true of a dreamy sequence late in the film involving paratroopers. It's weird to call a movie with typical monster thrills (the crowd goes wild whenever Godzilla unleashes his best fighting tricks) "beautiful" but it is just that. Godzilla is more like a moving painting than a motion picture at times.

The first of many memorable images in this crazy/beautiful blockbuster is the title card. "Godzilla" with all the hysteria and nostalgia the name provokes, emerges faintly on a white screen obscured only by drifting ashes. The score makes almost no fuss about it. The world's beloved embodiment of its own atomic age anxiety went boom long ago and this king of monsters disappeared. The title card is quiet and surprisingly funereal. But the movie that follows is no elegy for the monster movie, childhood awe at massive animals, or even for old school blockbuster filmmaking. Gareth Edwards might well be a new mad genius Doctor Frankenstein because this Godzilla (2014) is a bonafide resurrection of all of those things. The only thing it's going to bury are the basic bitches that follow it.

Kick back and watch with jaw dropped. Chew your popcorn like it’s a tasty skyscraper that got in your way.

Grade: B+ if only the humans had better defined personalities. Than we'd totally be in the As.
Oscar Chances?: Definitely. If it's as big a success as it deserves to be financially, it'll be a threat for a handful of technical nominations and possibly even a win or two. I'd already suggested it would win nominations before seeing it, but now I can breathe a sigh of relief that that was a good call. Consider it like the Greystoke of Godzilla movies, a high-end prestige edition of a B-Movie nostalgia franchise.

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Reader Comments (13)

From the trailer alone I could detect the nuanced artistry on display as it never really felt or looked like your typical blockbuster movie. I'll be sure to check this one out.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

I was very excited for Godzilla but I didn't like it. It was incredibly boring and nothing interesting or exciting happened in it until the final 20 minutes, and once it did it wasn't that great. The characters were super dull too. That aside the film looks incredibly beautiful. The final fight was so epic visually.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I liked it a lot, more than I was expecting to like it. The worst thing for me was how pointless the female characters were, especially Elizabeth Olsen's - I like her and Sally Hawkins so much and they gave them absolutely nothing.

Also, *insert Regina George voice here* Stop trying to make Aaron Taylor-Johnson happen. It's not going to happen! He has no charisma whatsoever.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I liked Hawkins I thought she might get eaten,poor Binoche.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

As well made as the film is, I can't say was totally in love with it, though there are worse ways to spend two hours (cough -- Spider-Man -- cough). It lacks a certain wow factor for me. The awe of watching those behemoths duke it out, leaving a trail of destruction in their path, just doesn't exist in the way I'd hoped it would.

What I did appreciate were the diversity of casting and the choice not to use New York as the setting for annihilation.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

It's been a long time since I've been in a theatre that exploded with applause and cheering the way mine did during the Godzilla kill. It was pretty awesome. That being said, I was extremely sad about how all the females in the movie were related to nothingness. I had no idea going in who the cast was aside from Cranston so seeing all these amazing names tick by in the opening credits got me so excited. I was really let down by its pretty epic fail of the bechdel test.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJtagliere

I have to admit I was disappointed by the film. Everything we've been saying about the lack of any real character depth is true. Bryan Crainston may have a good moment or two, but everyone else is wasted. Ken Watanabe is the best actor of the cast, but all he gets to do is stare astonished at the monsters even though he knows they already exist. All three of the actresses involved are completely wasted. Olsen is a cliche, Hawkins doesn't add anything to the movie, and Binoche (while she does have the one moving moment in the film) is better than the two scenes she's given.

I hated the "Day After Tomorrow"-run away from the killer mist sequence in the opening. I hated the bridge sequence in the rain with the school bus that seemed to be saying: "Look! It's Jurassic Park!" I hated the climax with the atomic bomb that made me wonder if the filmmakers had seen The Dark Knight Rises and why they bothered to rip off a shitty movie. I hated the finale in the stadium after the disaster was finally over and the family was reunited because it reminded me that The Impossible with Naomi Watts was a better way to spend two hours. And finally I hated that we had to suffer through boring and tired drama when all I wanted was to see Godzilla kick ass. I was so pumped when I found out he'd be fighting other monsters and actually get to be the good guy of his movie, but the filmmakers ended up doing it all wrong.

All we know about Godzilla is he was created by an atomic bomb and he's basically mother nature correcting anything that man takes too far. But why does he have the ability to shoot blue light out of his mouth (even if that looks really cool)? And what has he been up to for the past 60 years since no other monsters have been wreaking havoc on mankind? I want to see a Godzilla movie that is actually about Godzilla and not about stock disaster movie characters who are so useless that it makes me wonder why such great actors signed up to play them.

Godzilla is not a good movie, but it is better than the 1998 travesty, so it's not a total failure.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

The climactic monster throwdown is fun enough, but you have to sit through 90+ minutes of terrible, terrible screenwriting and acting to get there. Edwards had the right idea, withholding Godzilla, letting anticipation build, but there are absolutely NO compelling human characters to carry the action until that big showdown. Made me resent his otherwise fun appropriation of Spielbergian set piece moments throughout the film – Spielberg, whatever his shortcomings, would’ve made sure *something* interesting happened when the monsters weren’t on screen. I don't think I could rate this movie much higher than a C/C+, honestly, and that's incredibly disappointing, since this is actually the summer movie I was looking forward to the most.

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

What I find strange is that I can't find any posts commenting on the image of another monster's head / image in the water underneath the MUTO's eggs as Ford incinerates the eggs. There's a clear image of another monster head in the water. Both people sitting to the left and right of me in the theatre all said at the same time.. "Look another one in the water".... So what's up with that?

May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterImpulsePilot

GODZILLA sucked. Badly. Yeah, it had awesome CGI but that's all that can be said in its defence. Apart from that: boring and badly written movie that is utterly forgettable.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

I LOVED this movie. Probably my favorite directorial feat so far this year. There was just shot after shot that I thought were so creative and clever (and the below the line work that brought these scenes into being was universally fantastic). I completely understand the complaint about the flat characters, but it didn't bother me very much because, for me, the movie was all about Godzilla. The build up toward his appearance and then the rooting for him, and on that, Edwards totally delivered.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

I watched Godzilla last weekend with six other people.

We all did not like it.

The movie is not about Godzilla, the movie is not about the characters. The main actor is emotionless.

I could not stand the main character asking his wife to stay put because he was going after her and their son. What??? Are you kidding? They could have left and they have to wait to face death? Give me a break.

A Brazilian movie reviewer complanied a lot about the visual effects in the dark because, in fact, it disguises the lack of competence with visual effects. Godzilla looks like a rubbert toy, in a bad sense. The monster has no expression as the main actor.

The move is about the MUTOs and this is not a good thing.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

A rubber toy, I mean, sorry.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

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