Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

"Let them fight."
-Ken Watanabe-

Now there's a novel idea. Please don't read this if you haven't seen the film. There are no major spoilers, but -. Here are my general reflections on the big lizard with a few days to simmer.

Like director Ishiro Honda's classic Gojira (1954) this is a review of Godzilla (2014) by a monster unleashed. Please tread carefully and certainly see the film for yourself.

Trailers are a funny business. It was roughly one year ago I was completely underwhelmed by the trailers for Pacific Rim (2013). Eventually, my son dragged me along with him to the cinema and to my utter surprise director Guillermo del Toro had crafted an energetic, lively, colorful, H.P. Lovecraftian-drenched love letter to the kaiju genre that completely took me by surprise.

To the contrary, apart from being mildly disappointed that director Gareth Edwards felt the need to reveal Godzilla himself in the trailers, the Godzilla (2014) trailers had me riveted with anticipation, primed and stoked for the latest incarnation and rebirth of the classic monster that we have all loved from afar normally from the ground and gazing skyward.

Imagine how utterly stunned I was to discover that the new Godzilla film was underwhelming and even disappointing. The highlights in those trailers certainly placed my expectations in a relatively high place.

I cannot praise Edwards enough for having the guts it took to take on the iconic creature full speed ahead based solely on the small budget, indie work that was his solid little Monsters (2010). Monsters was a bold, forward-looking approach to guerilla-style filmmaking if there ever was a film crafted in such a manner. The level of detail and seamless production work made for a nice surprise. Based solely on the journey of two principal characters, Monsters was a subtle, tender journey with the titular monsters merely operating as a backdrop for their story and Edwards' political message.

In many respects Godzilla takes a similar approach, with a story that sees the creature through the eyes of its human principals set against issues of radiation and Fukushima-inspired terror (even if Edwards denies it all). But I had secretly hoped for a picture with a stronger Godzilla-centric view of the universe.

So with all of the praise that Godzilla had heaped upon it as a character-centric film placing largely 90 minutes on so-called "character development" I can tell you it was sorely lacking in that department. Do critics understand what character development means? Or do they read from the same scripted talking points? Certainly the classic Toho kaiju pictures had their fair share of underdeveloped players, but today sophisticated audiences expect more at least if that is how the picture is sold to them.  Transformers will remain mind-numbing escape but Godzilla (2014) was reaching for more. To compare, Pacific Rim's character development looked more like Shakespeare by comparison. That's an exaggeration, but it was certainly as good if not better. Many cite some the great monster films whereby the monster is revealed much later from Jaws to Alien, but at least in those films the character drama was second-to-none and their trailers didn't give the monster away already.

I periodically looked down to my phone at the time awaiting Godzilla's arrival from the weak dialogue and the less-than-engaging character stories. Seeing the two seasoned and most interesting acting professionals (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche) meet their early demise took a bit out of the film for me. Godzilla and the film sort of arrives in more thrilling fashion at the ninety minute mark with just a little more than thirty minutes dedicated to the film's titular monster protagonist.

I say protagonist because Godzilla is hardly the force of destruction purveyed by Honda in his 1954 original. Godzilla is much more an amalgamation of concepts from the long Toho legacy - a legacy even inspired by Gamera.

In fact, I was often reminded more of the Gamera-like approach found in the spirit of the Gamera trilogy, Heisei series, and Gamera's efforts to rein in the Gyaos and restore balance to the world, a concept often cited here in Godzilla. And personally, I enjoyed those Gamera films a bit more. And I see no problem with that approach to Godzilla at all. As a kid I always liked the idea of Godzilla, like Gamera, as friend over foe, but no need to push the 1954 original.

Again, in a rare turn, the CGI Godzilla looks phenomenal. That much is true and he has it all over the Roland Emmerich debacle, but we never really feast our eyes upon the creature for any great length of time or prolonged, paused moments. Pacific Rim took a lot of criticism for being dark and rainy, but the neon look and the lighting of that Lovecraft-inspired world was generally successful as an artist's vision. The photography here in Godzilla is dark, sometimes smoky and just as unclear as the aforementioned previous summer blockbuster. Edwards really goes conservative with his approach to unleashing Godzilla which is surprising given that trailer had me expecting much more. But, the gritty, earthy look of the film is becoming trademark Edwards. It's hard to believe this is just his second picture in many ways.

The moments with the atomic breath were nice, but sometimes Edwards would cut away from the action just when things seemed like they were about to really take the gloves off.

The MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) were also another originally conceived, well-constructed monster design with a bit more background than our human characters. Edwards employs a good bit of his effects work, concepts and ideas to those creatures straight from his own Monsters origins. Those creatures seemed a natural extension of his glowing alien designs from the aforementioned picture complete with a nifty electro magnetic pulse energy. And like the creatures in Monsters, the MUTOS exhibit a familial inclination. They are actually fairly sympathetic. At least I felt something for them. In fact I felt more for those misunderstood creatures than I did for the human characters in the film save for Cranston and Binoche. And sadly, we never have the joy of a Cranston/ Binoche-anchored film. The rest of the film rested squarely on the shoulders of Aaron Taylor-Johnson who simply had little presence to hold the picture together on the human front.

I feel like a curmudgeon. Have I become so cynical and jaded with films that I am unfair in my assessments? Is my discerning eye working against me now?  Based on all of the positive feedback over at Rotten you would think I saw a different film. Everyone raves and I come away rather puzzled. Though I had a gaggle of youth with me whose reactions ranged from "it was okay" to "it kind of sucked." Those kids would have had a ball seeing Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973) back in the day. But I had a similar response and reaction to the unwieldy The Avengers. Well, the good news is, Godzilla is better than that and certainly better than Godzilla Vs. Megalon as a work of cinema.

I don't mean to be unkind to Edwards' film and vision. This is a director with real promise even if he doesn't quite pull it off with the wisdom of a visual, veteran hand like Ridley Scott. There were only a few truly suspenseful sequences (the train bridge, the nuclear facility with Cranston and Binoche). Otherwise I was often left rather disaffected. Sometimes it might seem you're damned if you do and damned if you don't with me. It's a fairly fine line to walk. Transformers this is not and nor would I want it to be that, but if you are going to spend time developing character it needs to be more compelling and interesting than the material in the first ninety minutes of Godzilla. And when we get to the spectacle after viewers wait ever so patiently, a director needs to deliver a more significant punch than the one found here. Sequences are certainly not without merit, but I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Edwards was slightly out of his league or needed more of the practical experience of a Guillermo del Toro to really deliver such a mammoth film.

I've been a huge champion of Edwards after Monsters and I wanted Godzilla to be as massive as those banner posters and as special as the design of the creature which he gets entirely right.

But Godzilla, despite plenty of reverent touches of homage to the ideas often placed in classic films like The Thing (as in Godzilla Vs. The Thing) or Rodan or any host of other terrific Showa Era classics including the original, marginally succeeds. Still, that 1954 original representing Godzilla as an untamed force unleashed is still as classic as they come. Why the press, cast and crew interviews continue to sell the film as returning to the 1954 roots is something of a curiosity, because even my young son could see the contrast as clear as atomic breath. Certainly there are elements that bring us back to that era from the mushroom clouds and issues of a world impacted by the creation of nuclear science. But there are moments in the film whereby the human race sees Godzilla as a savior, like Gamera, which, as I say, is fine by me. I want him on our side.

Perhaps Godzilla will settle in for me, but, for now, the film was marginally a good picture with meticulous technical production that was extensive. But pretty devastation and talking heads are not enough to fill a film called Godzilla. The rebirth needed to be better. Ultimately I think Godzilla delivers the necessary, prerequisite excitement for another shot and I expect it to do well.

For once, I don't slight the CGI, because Edwards really does a masterful job with the effects work. I take absolutely zero issue with Godzilla's design. In fact, over decades there have always been modifications to the Godzilla appearance and design.  Only the 1998 Godzilla from the Roland Emmerich/ Dean Devlin production remains truly unfaithful in execution. The new film offers a faithful and gorgeous rendering even in the absence of the man in the suit. The human absence takes a little away from the spirit of a Godzilla film if I'm to ask myself did it feel like a Godzilla picture? Maybe that is why this Godzilla somehow still feels a little empty. It's not a bad film and the vistas are stunning. It's just not as good as I had hoped. I had longed for a little less subtlety in favor of a few killer shots. The classics will certainly always have their place with men filling those suits and watching them trudge through the rich, detailed legacy of Eiji Tsuburaya's amazing model work. In my opinion, enter Godzilla with lowered expectations. I entered rather enthusiastically, maybe too enthusiastically. It's a faithful but flawed film, reverent and thoughtful to the monster's legacy, still there's plenty of room for improvement in handling the Godzilla sequences and character work going forward improving upon this and the deficiencies of the classics. I'll remain optimistic about future potential.

Godzilla (2014): B-. Director: Gareth Edwards. Writer: Max Borenstein.