Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Up From The Depths

Godzilla is not the film that you are expecting. It is not a remake or reboot of the 1954 Gojira. It is not a horror movie, although it has leanings in that direction, and it is not a monster fight movie, although monsters do fight in it. It's something a bit more interesting.


But how interesting, exactly?



In 1999, a terrible event obliterated the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, ruining the life of chief engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and driving a wedge between him and his young son Ford (Aaron Tyler Johnson). Fifteen years later, and Joe is apparently a conspiracy nut, convinced that the Janjira event was but the first of many. This theory, unsurprisingly, is ignored by basically everybody, especially Ford, who's now a bomb disposal tech for the military with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and family of his own in San Francisco. But when Joe's snooping around the ruins of Janjira lands him in trouble with the Japanese government, Ford reluctantly flies in to bail him out. Before Ford leaves Japan, though, Joe insists that they go back to Janjira one more time. Against his better judgement, Ford agrees.

There's something very weird about the ruins of Janjira, though. For one thing, there's no fallout. The nominally radioactive area is essentially inert. When both men are apprehended by government officials yet again, the mystery deepens, as they are brought to the former site of the nuclear reactor. It's been converted into a facility to hold something, a strange organism that presiding scientist Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) calls a MUTO, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. At present, it's only an egg. But the arrival of Joe and Ford Brody has coincided with increasing flickers of activity from the entity, and at the worst possible time, something massive emerges, destroys the facility, and takes off toward San Francisco. At roughly the same time, another, larger MUTO emerges from a similar facility in Nevada, where its egg had been stored in a nuclear waste depository. It too is headed for San Francisco, and what's worse, the two creatures are apparently calling to each other.


It doesn't take much insight to see that nothing good can come from a situation like that. But as luck would have it, something else is stirring in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, brought out of hibernation by the MUTO's calls. Something bigger.

 Much, much bigger.


It’s hard to shake the sense that Godzilla is going to be a wildly polarizing film. In some ways, that’s a relief; most modern blockbusters are engineered to be as inoffensive as possible, with bland direction and basically inoffensive storytelling, with every decision made with an eye toward giving the audience what they want. This is especially true of franchise films, which have developed a nasty tendency to function less as movies and more as feature length advertisements for their own sequels.

Godzilla doesn't do that. As directed by Gareth Edwards, the film is defined by distinct choices on both the level of craft and storytelling. Every shot feels engineered to produce the most stunning image. Scenes build in scale as the camera moves, initially teasing us with the unseen, then pulling back, revealing unexpected components, layering suspense into every shot. The direction, the cinematography, even the musical score–all show a surprising (and almost Spielberg-like) level of restraint.


That restraint extends to the film's star. The film is very careful about when, where, and how it deploys Godzilla. He's actually present throughout the movie, but at first, all the audience sees are the spikes on his back, jagged and huge as a line of distant cliffs. The rest of the creature is teased in fragments, often shrouded in fog or dust, and when Godzilla stands revealed at last, it’s an appropriately powerful moment. For much of the movie, Godzilla is simply too big to be fully seen, a choice that does more to sell the monster as a force of nature than all of Watanabe’s awestruck dialogue. He's a mountain on legs, stoop shouldered and impossibly huge, so large that the glimpse of his tail swinging through the mist is remarkably ominous.

The film's greatest weakness are its human characters, who's primary use seems to be to underline how large Godzilla is. There's some solid theory behind this: the film fairly obviously wants to depict how meaningless people are in the face of such immense forces, but the script's need to delay Godzilla's appearance necessitates that we spend a good deal of time with the actors. it compromises by focusing fairly narrowly on people for about the first third, before pulling the scale of the story back in latter portions of the film.   Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen and Julie Binoche all make the best of their underwritten roles, investing them with as much gravity and character as possible, but the film eventually forgets about basically all of them. The one character consistently onscreen is Aaron Tyler Johnson's Ford Brody, who is the walking definition of 'serviceable.' Neither an especially interesting actor or a character, Brody ends up feeling like a living version of a scale silhouette. It's not inconceivable that a different performer could have sold the character as an interesting person, but Johnson doesn't seem inclined to try.  He's there to give a human face to the titanic struggles around him, and nothing more.


The fighting, by the way, represents the most risky choice the film makes. The camera constantly cuts away from the preliminary scuffles between the MUTO pair and Godzilla, preferring to move toward a shot of the battle happening on a television, or a panoramic view of the devastation wrought afterward.  But there's method in the madness here as well. The dirty little secret of most kaiju movies is that monster fights are kind of dull after the first fifteen minutes. It’s hard to vary the situation much when your combatants are larger than the landscape around them, and harder still when much of the fighting is essentially two huge animals tearing into each other. Pacific Rim gave it a good try, but even that colorful film dragged toward the end. Godzilla prefers to save the impressive stuff for the finale, and as a result not only does the last third of the film give us our best looks at the star, it gives us a fairly continuous moving battle between all three of the film's monsters. It may not be enough for some audiences, but it goes a long way toward making the film's climax an actual event instead of the longest tussle in a series of fights.



In spirit, Godzilla has much more in common with later Godzilla films than it does with Gojira. That is lacks the metaphorical heft of the original isn't really a surprise. The majority of later Godzilla films did the same thing, pulling away from the horror in favor of characterizing the monsters. As a result, the character of Godzilla has been pulled in contrary directions for years, often in some strange ways. Is he a horror visited upon Humanity by our own arrogance? Is he a protector of the natural world? Or is he simply an animal that is largely indifferent to us?

The film does its best to reconcile these separate threads, albeit in ways that are more subtle than effective. A careful viewer will notice that Godzilla was awoken by humanity, and will probably piece together that his atomic fire came from the concerted attempts of the military to nuke him into submission in 1954. But the lack of a central thesis about where Godzilla comes from leaves things feeling a bit muddled. The character has always drawn strength from the central clarity of his creation myth, even when his motives are unclear. But here, Godzilla simply appears without much in the way of explanation, a choice that may be an attempt to add mystery but that results in a lack of coherence.

Once he's onscreen, though, his characterization is pretty straightforward. He does his thing without the slightest interest or attention to us. The other monsters are his goal, and he pursues them with a single-minded focus across the world, destroying anything in his way with nary a thought, ignoring the attempts of people to either help or hinder him. This version of Godzilla isn't an unstoppable juggernaut of vengeance. But he does feel something like a god: an  immense force that does as it likes, keeps its own council, and explains itself to nobody.



At bottom, then, Godzilla feels like a pointed effort to make a Godzilla movie that both works on its own terms and feels different from past installments. It doesn't entirely pull it off, mostly due to the blandness of the central human character and some coherency issues. But any effort to subvert modern blockbuster tropes is commendable, and the sheer level of craft involved makes the movie pretty enjoyable in its own right.  As the first in an inevitable series of Godzilla films, this is a very fine start.

10 comments:

  1. I really hated this movie. I wont make a full review, but here are some points:

    Bad characters

    To little godzilla

    Sympathetic villains

    american flags everywhere

    wayyy to large focus on humans

    false advertising

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  2. "Godzilla is not the film that you are expecting."

    I just saw it tonight, myself, and I agree with that statement, as well as much of your review. But I'm finding it a just little difficult to appreciate it for how it turned out. Particularly jarring for me was how G's origin and the cover-up plot (and one of the major components of the latter, if you'll pardon the attempt to stay non-spoilery) were ignored and thrown to the side early on. In I went expecting an unfolding tale about how military forces attempted to kill and confine Godzilla over the decades, and the mounting horror of the futility of it leading up to his present-day explosion into the global conscious to 'send us back to the stone age'; then all of a sudden they're taking Serizawa's awe at face value and essentially giving G a naval escort to Frisco.
    You say this movie has more in common with later movies than the '54 original, and I can agree with that. It started to feel like 'Godzilla vs. The Mutos' (or 'The Mutos vs. Godzilla'), though the Heisei films depicted him as a more threatening force than this movie. Sorry to say, but at my least generous I'd say I wouldn't have been surprised if Godzooky turned up at the end. Not to mention a couple of glaring plot holes.

    Oh well. The effects were nice and as an afficionado of creature design and speculative zoology, the big G's design was *lush*.

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    1. The trailers sold it as straight horror, and that's very much the film that I wish we had gotten (and I wouldn't be surprised if that's the movie that was originally pitched.) That being said, though, I'm not sure it's really even possible to make that film in the current Hollywood climate, and I think it's notable that even Toho basically gave up on that angle fairly early. Godzilla's been an antihero for longer than he's been a monster, and for a lot of people (likely including everyone working on the film) that's the Godzilla they grew up with. The gravity of the "Godzilla as monster-killer" is pretty overpowering at this point.

      Also, I kind of liked the navy shadowing Godzilla, mostly because I read it as them following and him not giving a damn at all. Less of an honor guard and more of a completely ineffectual attempt at control. But yeah, it's ambiguous.

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    2. Well, yeah. I'm being a little unfair to the 'navy shadowing' bit. :) I guess the basic problem is, like you say, that it was difficult to judge the eventual tone from the trailers.

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  3. Great review, Asher. Minor pick, but there's only one 'n' in "Watanabe".

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  4. Followed a shared link from a FB dinosaur group. Good review from an adult POV. On opening day we got the best seats at the IMAX 3 premier ... or rather the ones next to the nine year old boy and his mom and dad. Somehow he had gotten there earlier than I, his 64 year old counterpart. The kids - both of us - did not miss a thing. Of course we were in a crowd applauding and cheering the beast from his first mesmerizing rise into that enormous frame to his last, pacific farewell. A perfect film for kids of all ages who see humanity in stereotypes and life as a series of tropes.Gareth had me from the rubber hoses on the radiation suits.I plan to see it in 2nd this weekend by myself. I plan to sit in front of the nine year old this time if I can.

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  5. I recently watched the Gojira (1954) classic and it truly is the original and the best. As the horrors of WWII fade into memory while eyewitnesses die off each year and the terror and fear of Nuclear destruction feels like a trope now more than an actual living threat, Godzilla no longer is a metaphor for the devastating and unstoppable power of Atomic Death. As in Monsters, the director's previous monster film , Godzilla focuses on the awesome beauty of a mountain beast. I see it as a change where Man is looking to assume we again have control of our destiny and can heal nature and live in harmony. Nature brings balance etc. I think it stands as a counterpart to the original and highlights the delusion that we have better knowledge of the Universe. As before Quantum Theory came about, we think and behave like we are in the Newtonian approach to nature as a giant clock, everything in place for a reason that we can understand. The terrifying awe of the unknown Universe exists in the original film. We have taken a step back towards arrogance in the new film.

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  6. "his atomic fire came from the concerted attempts of the military to nuke him into submission in 1954"
    I don't think anything like that was implied in the movie. Godzilla's so-called "atomic breath" was a natural ability, much like the MUTO's electromagnetic pulse.

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