“Godzilla” Reigns with Artistic Restraint Over Indulgence

I was utterly bewildered during my background research for this movie when I found that everybody pretty much unequivocally hated that 1998 lizard-esque Godzilla vs. New York City movie. I was 9 years old when the film came out, and I absolutely loved it. Maybe it was a bumbling, blubbering, utterly confused Matthew Broderick as the everyman that I related to, or maybe it was the always too-cool-for-school appearance of Jean Reno. I was a timid little thing, whose lingering fear of the dark was only exacerbated by the thought of enormous, T-Rex-esque monsters terrorizing Manhattan. What can I say? The size. The scope! The way Broderick looked right into the eye of the beast (an eyeball larger than a modern day Smartcar) and everything stood still. It gave my 9-year-old body the chills. It still does. Frazier Tharpe from Complex.com perhaps said it best in his recent defense of the movie:

As we get older, we all have those moments when we have to sit our younger selves down and explain how that movie or TV show that was wildly significant during adolescence is actually just garbage.

I agree with him wholeheartedly when he goes on to explain that this never happens with Godzilla (1998) because the movie doesn’t suck. The movie is ridiculous and ambitious and, in a way, out of place in the time period because it tried to merge a bombastic monster movie with a character-driven story. Compared to some of the storytelling we have today, Godzilla (1998) was irrefutably bad, but it’s enjoyable for what it was and still is.

The new Godzilla (2014) movie, however, had all the potential to be something great, particularly with director Gareth Edwards at the helm. The family-focused tale stars Aaron Taylor-JohnsonBreaking Bad main Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Elizabeth Olsen. Take a look at the trailer:

Haha! I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself, but if you want some of the real trailers go to the Godzilla Youtube channel.

Director Gareth Edwards hasn’t done a whole lot, with his one substantial piece of work being Monsters (2010)Monsters is one of the best movies on Netflix right now, so if this is the first you’ve heard of it, add it to the top of your queue. (Liam included a brief comment on it in our Halloween 2013 Netflix Recommendations if you’d like to take a look). Gareth Edwards utilizes the “less is more” principle to great extent in Monsters. The threat of alien violence looms around every corner, but not until the very end do we even get a good look at them. Only then do we understand anything about what they look like or what drives them. It’s the same sort of visual tease that made Super 8 so compelling.

With Godzilla (2014), Edwards has a nearly endless array of money and tools at his disposal but still chooses to misdirect and tease us with brief glimpses of the titular beast until the final, epic sequence. This tantalizing effect is pretty much the opposite of Pacific Rim‘s gleeful indulgence, and for most people that will make Godzilla that much more enjoyable. Edwards achieves this effect — both in Monsters and in Godzilla — by focusing on the human stories.

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Joe and Ford Brody in present day, visiting the quarantine zone

My below review will get a bit spoilery, and I suggest going into the movie as spoiler-free as possible. Take it from me that Godzilla is a delightful spectacle teased to us via a limited human perspective before it culminates in an immensely gratifying final act.

In 1999, two scientists from a secret organization — Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) — discover the ancient remains of a massive monster, along with two reptilian pods, one of which has hatched. The Janjira Power Plant near Tokyo then begins experiencing strange quakes that are quite clearly not your standard earthquakes. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are physicists and engineers overseeing the nuclear power plant. Their young son, Ford, attends a local school and watches the devastation from afar as the entire power plant is consumed, taking the life of his mother.

Cut to present day, and Joe Brody has become a manic conspiracy theorist who correctly believes the disaster was the cause of some “thing.” Here, fifteen years later, the focus shifts from Joe to his now adult son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has become an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the US Navy and also now has his own wife and son. He’s just returned from over a year of active duty. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he plays with his 4-year-old son and reconnects with his wife. It’s the calm before the storm, and although Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal feels a little bit hollow, these short minutes with his family make the devastation that will come all the more dire. They receive a call in the night and Ford must go to Tokyo to bail his father out for trespassing into the quarantine zone.

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We find out that Ford is preoccupied with burying the tragedy in his past, while his father relives it every day, trying endlessly to uncover the mystery of what really happened that day. While sneaking back into their old home within the quarantine zone, they are taken by soldiers minutes before the proverbial crap hits the fan.

The international organization that Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham work for have been studying a massive creature (not Godzilla, by the way) that woke up in 1999 and has been cocooned, feeding off of nuclear radiation since then. Things go from bad to worse when it hatches, calls its mate, and the two monsters, dubbed MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) cause enough ruckus to wake up something even more massive. That’s right. GODZILLA!

Without delving too deep into the pseudoscience here, I’ll tell you that these monsters burrowed into the earth millions of years ago and fed on nuclear radiation emanating from the Earth’s core. Humanity somehow awakened some of them decades ago and slowly drew some of them back to the surface. On an animalistic level, Godzilla is the apex predator who rises to prey upon the MUTO’s. Though they can emit EMP blasts from their weird claws and the male can fly, the MUTO’s are dwarfed by Godzilla’s size; he is an awe-inspiring brute. On a more metaphorical and reverent level, Dr. Serizawa spends much of his screen time in a shellshocked daze mumbling about how Godzilla is a force of nature sent to restore balance.

That’s about as much exposition (or maybe too much?) as you need to get a sense of what happens in this movie. Ford is at ground zero when everything starts, and although he spends all his time and effort trying to get home to his family in San Francisco, he conveniently globe hops to every stop the monsters make. Rather than focus on the epic encounters for long periods of time, we instead see the destruction from Ford’s perspective. Eventually, he gets wrapped up in the human military efforts to protect humanity (you know, due to his bomb expertise and convenient placement as the single human being most connected to these monsters). In this, he provides the viewer a useful narrative lens through which we view the larger story. We only learn information or see destruction when he does at first, but the perspective broadens out as the movie progresses towards the inevitable 2 vs. 1 showdown in San Francisco. It all feels a bit too convenient at times, but it’s more that forgivable.

And boy is it wonderful.

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Godzilla (2014) stays true to the classic spirit of the beast, in which the monster progresses on an Incredible-Hulk-esque arc where it begins as feared menace and becomes the savior. Dr. Serizawa correctly assumes that He is our only hope to destroy the MUTO’s, but he also correctly assumes that He is a force of nature. Godzilla is the embodiment of nature’s destructive power, all harnessed up into a hard-shelled brutish brawler that can breath radioactive streams of fire. He’s apathetic towards humanity. He’s only here to lay down the law upon the MUTO’s, and he doesn’t care about the cars, buildings, or people he smashes. Don’t forget that part folks.

The more exposition we get, the more the film becomes something of a heavy-handed cautionary tale about humanity’s dabbling in nuclear power. We’re led to believe that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings awoke these beasts from their slumber, something that is made clearer in the prequel graphic novel, Godzilla: Awakening. Various nuclear “tests” were actually attempts to kill Godzilla and/or other monsters. None of this is necessary, however, to enjoy the awesome action or the Brody family’s attempts at survival.

In the first few scenes, Aaron Taylor-Johnson‘s Ford Brody is a delight on screen. He’s an emotionally controlled soldier who warms up at the sight of his son and wife, but as time progresses and the scope of the story gets wider and wider, his presence feels hollow and more like a distraction than anything else. If the film has any faults, it would be in his somewhat lackluster performance as he struggles to balance the driven, good-natured hero with the emotionally distant, seasoned soldier. That and the sporadic but permissible logical inconsistencies are the only weak points in the two-hour span (i.e., If he’s a predator, why doesn’t Godzilla eat MUTO? If they all consume nuclear power, why does Godzilla even care about them?).

For classic Godzilla fans or anyone who loves a good monster or apocalyptic film, you will love what you get here, but pretty much any viewer will get a kick at the wow and cool factor as they are glorified to the Nth degree here.

 

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