Saturday, 24 May 2014

'Godzilla' Review (2014)

The creature feature has come a long way in movie history. What once was depicted using a man in a rubber suit and a couple of cardboard boxes with windows on them, has now been revolutionized to truly embrace a scale which warrants the terrifying theme these movies cover. The arrogance of man and the danger of hubris. This is essentially what all science fiction can be boiled down to. A style of story telling that takes dilemmas grounded in reality (science) and exaggerates them through a hyperbolic metaphor (fiction). This is arguably best done today in which we have the means to truly portray that metaphor in a way that can be realistically perceived.

That's not to say that practical effects can't achieve the same level of resonance, surely the fact that David Cronenberg's 'The Fly' still scares the wits out of me is evidence of that. Computer generated imagery can most certainly go awry, depicting something that isn't so much spectacle as it is debacle. Whether the effect is practical or otherwise, the look of the monster doesn't mean anything if the script is drivel. The original 'King Kong' is a much more poignant movie than it's 2005 remake with a photo realistic ape. The way in which a special effect is used determines if a story has any real weight to it or if its just popcorn fodder. When a movie can find that sweet spot between a good effect and a killer story, it's like Christmas in whatever month that movie came out. Except December. Cause that's just Christmas. It just so happens that giant monsters are more likely to feel real through cgi rather than a suit-thing. Speaking of giant monsters, the king of monsters' latest movie opts to crush the damned suit-thing and go the way of the dinosaur. The tech upgrade is a welcome one and marks the first time the beast has ever been depicted using pixels instead of pastels.

Fan art for the 1998 movie that was supposed to happen, but didn't. Capisce?

Kicking off with a montage of newspaper clips and redacted documents that make up the opening credits sequence, 'Godzilla' is a movie that is fully aware of its history and the connection it has with actual history. In fact it's a movie that's also very aware of movies that might've paved the way to this films creation. Numerous references are made to Jurassic Park, Cloverfield and other movies of that ilk. The opening sequence seems to be pulled directly from Jurassic Park, mirroring the scene in which the amber containing the mosquito is discovered. This time instead of a million year old fossil of a mosquito, scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe, and Vivienne Graham, played by Sally Hawkins, are pointed in the direction of what appears to be a kaiju skeleton which is somehow related to the collapse of a mine in the Phillipines. "Is it him?" Asks Dr. Graham, and suddenly the audience is thrust into the world in which these characters inhabit, where science and fantasy become one.

It's this aspect of the film that probably works best. There's an element of suspense to Godzilla not found in most science fiction films. While most movies struggle to explain the rules of how their universe operates, Godzilla never has to work too hard due to the fact that the audience is largely familiar with the concept because of the franchise's history. That's not to say that there aren't moments chock full of exposition at certain points, but those moments are infrequent and don't bother as much simply because the ideas they present are so interesting and fresh. The best thing I can compare it to is the current 'Hannibal' television show. Both properties benefit from the familiarity audiences have with the titular character, and thrive in showing the way such characters could come to exist.

Somehow I doubt they could fit that on Godzilla

This is most shown through the eyes of Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody, an engineer working at a Japanese power plant which, shortly after the scene involving Dr. Serizawa, is affected by a catastrophic event believed officially to be an earthquake. Flash forward 15 years or so and we see a man still affected by that event. His son, a Lieutenant Ford played by Aaron-Taylor Johnson, thinks him insane due to his obsession and simply wishes for his father to move on and find peace. The movie doesn't dwell on their opposition, quickly coming to a resolve that sets the story in motion, as the audience ultimately wants to follow Joe on his quest for truth. We then follow Joe and his son through the irradiated quarantine that they once called home.

Here is where the movie's most emotional moment lies. As they go through the remains of their old home to collect 15 year old data, they also find a few things they'd assumed long lost. It was as if watching characters go through a time capsule they didn't know they'd made. Bryan Cranston is a joy to watch as always and brings a depth to his character as a man who for years forewent his family for the sake of his work. It's a familiar theme but there is a sense that he's not only lost the chance to play a game or two of catch but also pieces of his sanity over the years making it even more tragic. Aaron-Taylor Johnson is less engaging as the kid who grew up with a distant dad and seems to have come out okay all things considered. I never got the sense that his childhood was of any real consequence to him, making him even less interesting.

The two get caught however, and eventually, there are monsters.

The first scene involving a great beast is a thrilling one. It's a fantastic depiction of a creature that seems to rest on the line between a terrestrial foundation and other-worldliness. The most impressive thing is in how the thing is shot. A mix of wide aerial views along with a few point of view shots from the civilian level, give the creature the space it deserves to elicit awe and the grounding it needs to strike fear. The method is interesting, with both angles attempting to give a sense of scale, and it works. Until it doesn't. The king of monsters emerges from the depths off a Hawaiian coastline, causing a tidal wave in his wake. With a single step the ground seems to shiver until finally, before his opponent, Godzilla lunges forward with a roar so intense, it rivals anything heard before it. And then the film cuts to a few quick cuts of the fight being watched by another character, halfway across the world from the action, on the local news channel. The intention is obvious. It means to establish the world that reacts to these monsters, which is a noble effort. But when your movie is chock full of scientists, military officials, and John Q. Everyman explicitly stating their reactions to the monsters, it's safe to say that a highlight reel of WWE monster smackdown in the corner of the screen isn't appreciated. You just feel cheated.

This would've been more engaging. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI8hWJ1zbxs

This happens more than once. Monsters are about to throw down hard and the film moves to one of its many characters who are nowhere near the current setting. It's not to say that they don't show the monsters, because they do, it's just that whenever there happens to be a scene in which there is tension, excitement and genuine fear for a characters' safety, the film suddenly negates that tension by leaving the scene in the middle of it. You suddenly feel like nothing matters in this world and the characters you're fearing for are all going to be fine. Simply because you doubt the film would bring about their demise off screen.

It's a strange thing for a movie to do especially when so much emphasis is placed in their character's interactions. After the initial scene where the monster is revealed, the plot then focuses on two basic stories. The first is damage control. Finding a way to minimize death and destruction for the larger population. The second, is centred around Ford's mission to return to his family back in San Francisco. Luckily, Ford is not just a family man, but a soldier with a sense of duty, making it easier for the movie to juggle the two stories without feeling as if one overshadows the other. While they do find a good balance between the two, the first is more engaging simply because of the implications it has on the world at large, and maybe because we see so little of Ford with his family to care. At the beginning of the movie he's a bomb specialist just returned from a tour overseas and just before we can get any real investment into these people, the movie kindly asks him to leave. There are a few scenes which are very touching, but they're so few and so distanced that the overall effect is frankly very little.

The military on the other hand has an interesting and at times morally ambiguous dynamic. The sergeants and generals thankfully don't suffer from the elective ignorance that plagues their kind in most sci-fi, and are more than willing to listen to the advice of Dr. Serizawa, being the renowned expert in all things Godzilla. There is a tendency to say that perhaps the military is handling the reveal of gargantuan creatures a bit too smoothly, especially when the expert is constantly jaw dropped, but this only serves to up the stakes. The military is so calm and collected it speaks to the idea that the damage that these creatures could do is so great that they really don't have time to do anything other than what's necessary. Unfortunately what's necessary is somewhat ridiculous. The overall plan to deal with the creatures strikes a tad bit silly in its execution but the supposed ideas behind it are so compelling that it's easy to give this a pass.

In any case, characterization usually is the saving grace for a silly plot, so it's a little grating that 'Godzilla' has very little to speak of. The overall effect of the situation at hand is felt through both the general population and the military but the main characters in the film just seem like one of those larger subsets. Lt. Ford is just another soldier, albeit one with the particular skills needed in the final act, and his family is just another family. At the end of the movie they don't feel any more present to you than any of the characters in the background.
Dr. Serizawa is probably the only other character to speak of in the movie but it's hard to invest in his character when you're given so little about him. The little bits they do give about these characters come off as half-assed attempts instead of definitive declarations of who these people are. The only character that you want to spend time watching is Godzilla, and the movie doesn't give you much time with him. While this is to the movies benefit as it not only serves to make his scenes more effective, it just makes the scenes without him unnecessarily frustrating.

It's like this except with a pinch more bland.

When the movie does show you Godzilla however, they sure as hell show you Godzilla. The scene I described of Godzilla's introduction is indeed a powerful one, but the finale is appropriately mesmerizing. There is real tension in these scenes but the movie definitely delves into the real meat of it's titular monster. The downside to these scenes is that they are frustratingly dark, with Godzilla fading into the shadows of fallen buildings. The very final moment of the climax isn't as powerful as what came before it but the movie achieves a spectacle worthy of its tumultuous set up.

Overall I can say that Godzilla is a movie worth seeing if not only for its finale. While I appreciated the ideas of its main story, the haphazard way in which they were brought forward combined with a significant lack of character, makes it hard to imagine most people feeling the same, given how long the movie ends up feeling. With a couple pacing problems in the tenser scenes of the movie, 'Godzilla' can sometimes feel like it exists solely to frustrate but with such a fantastic payoff, it's easy to forgive it.

Abritrary numerical rating: 7/10



3 comments:

Alison Irvine said...

Damian, I really enjoy and like your writing. I haven't seen the movie yet, but plan to go this week ...Did you have a look at the original Japanese film? This is so good - again, I urge you to submit a portfolio to the Gleaner/Palace and see if they show some interest in publishing you...

Keren A said...

"Except December. Cause that's just Christmas."

I'm not even going to pretend to write anything thought-provoking. I think from here on I'll just quote lines that made me laugh. =D

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