Friday, May 16, 2014

American Godz

Year: 2014
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

From the beginning, Godzilla was never going to please everybody. It's hard enough to successfully reboot a foreign franchise into an American market, but when the franchise is a beloved 60-year-old kaiju series with a despised American remake only 16 years earlier, it comes saddled with a lot of expectations.

On top of his limited directing experience, visual effects artist Gareth Edwards had to face the precarious challenge of updating a cultural icon just enough for it to seem fresh and relevant in 2014 while staying true to the character's original intent way back when he was introduced in 1954, as well as the ways the proceeding years shaped his development. It should come as no surprise that the film was a mixed success.

Poor guy can't catch a break.

Let us also not act surprised that the human element is largely clich├ęd. That one was a given and, in fact, is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the franchise. The film is full of people shouting things into telephones and melodramatically putting on glasses, but you won't catch me complaining. It's all in good fun.

So, the humans. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an American worker in Japan, of all places. Basically, he has Homer Simpson's job, managing the local nuclear power plant. When his wife (Juliette Binoche) dies in a mysterious accident that collapses the entire structure, he dedicates the rest of his life to discovering the true cause of the devastation.

Fifteen years later, their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and current holder of the title of Broadest Man in the World) is all grown up in San Francisco and is a lieutenant in the Navy who works with defusing bombs. He has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) because of course he does. I'm just glad they aren't estranged and forced to reconcile during the inevitable disaster.

An ill-timed encounter with his father in Japan sends Ford smack-dab in the middle of a full-scale catastrophe as they discover the truth behind the wreckage - a massive insectoid monster known as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that immediately flies off in search of more radiation to devour, destroying everything in its path.

It's impossible to find production photos of the MUTO so soon after the film's release. Please accept my apologies and this photo of Bryan Cranston.

So off they go to stop the monster menace before it finds its mate and destroys the world. But lo! Help is on the way in the form of a giant lizard known only as Godzilla, protector of the natural balance of nature. Will these giant monsters duke it out, destroying entire cities in the process while the sound designers pump out rumbling bass that will rattle the bones out of your sockets? Hells yeah they will.

Let's get into it. Because the good largely outweighs the bad, why don't we start with that? The film takes a lot of cues from Jaws and Jurassic Park in the first act, using a slow burn tactic and subtle imagery (pencils rolling off a desk in an aircraft carrier and a terrific "airplane domino" scene are reminiscent of the rippling glass of water in the latter film) to hint at the impending doom before we get our first true glimpse of the titular monster.

The action is excellently choreographed across the board, at least where the humans are concerned and during the bulk of the monster mayhem, interspersed with some dazzling shots that I will not ruin here. I'll just mention the one used in the teaser trailer of parachuters falling over San Francisco, trails of lights following their paths. It is majestic and truly epic and not the only sequence in the film that feels that way. Edwards really knows how to frame an event for maximum import.

This scene is accompanied by a taut orchestral piece by Alexandre Desplat that is the standout in a mostly nonintrusive score and is certainly one of the best cinematic moments of the year, if not the decade so far.

That and Aaron Taylor-Johnson shirtless.

So that's all fine and dandy. The artists behind Godzilla had a real eye for visual storytelling and it is a massive benefit to the film as a whole. But it can't entirely overcome some of the more telling weaknesses in its plotting.

Unfortunately, the largest issue is, in fact, literally the largest: Godzilla. At the risk of sounding like a petty fanboy, he's not in the movie nearly enough. The human scenes are great, as are their tense interactions with the unleashed monsters, but this ain't the MUTO show. This is freakin' Godzilla and he only gets about a fifth of the screen time that they do.

It's the arrogance of man (specifically Edwards) to think that he can sideline our title creature - a veritable force of nature and king of the monsters - for some B-side kaiju of his own creation. And while there are some great moments in the monster clash finale, it's all a little clunky and haphazard and Godzilla is a little too fallible. 

Not that I'm asking that there be no element of conflict or suspense, but I just wish we could have spent more time with Godzilla destroying crap instead of wrestling crackerjack original creatures. I'm sure some people agree with me. And I'm sure some people don't. 'Tis the nature of the medium. But for what it's worth, it's still massively enjoyable even with what I consider its wasted potential.

Speaking of wasted potential, let's talk about the female characters. There are two women with major speaking roles and both are sidelined almost immediately, even though one of them - a scientist played by Blue Jasmine's Sally Hawkins - is ostensibly an expert on the subject of giant monsters. The other, Ford's wife, spends the back half of the film running around in the rain and crying.

It's like she was trapped in a Nicholas Sparks poster.

I do understand that the human characters are inconsequential in a Godzilla film. But come on, people! We can do better than this! Other than that though, Godzilla is a great popcorn flick and I have absolutely zero regrets shelling out the money to go see it. I'm just hoping it'll garner enough money to warrant a sequel where they can work out the kinks and bust out a truly magnificent American kaiju film. It's in the DNA of Godzilla, we just haven't quite reached it yet.

TL;DR: Godzilla is a terrifically tense action flick but some missteps with the giant monsters deflate it somewhat.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? This month, you've got Godzilla or X-Men. Nothing else matters. If you're on a budget, pick one. If you're into pop culture at all you'll already know which one you'd rather see.
Word Count: 1165

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