Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

The second attempt by an American studio (Legendary Pictures this time) to adapt Godzilla on this side of the Pacific is a deeply flawed film, yet still a surprisingly watchable one when all is said and done. The human story is a complete mess once the film gets past the first act and its horribly generic main character takes center stage, but at the end of the day, it still remembers the most important thing about a Godzilla movie. No matter its other faults, when it comes to making the King of the Monsters look, sound, and act absolutely awe-inspiring, it pulls that off perfectly. Overall, it's a film born from a wish made upon a cursed monkey's paw: you'd be hard-pressed to ask for a better rendition of Godzilla from American filmmakers, but it also comes packed with many of the weaknesses of the lesser Japanese sequels, with nearly everything surrounding him being disposable junk.

Most of the problems with this film can be laid at the feet of its protagonist, Ford Brody, a soldier trying to get home to his wife Elle and son Sam while Godzilla and a pair of other monsters called Mutos rampage across Hawaii, Las Vegas, and finally San Francisco. The first problem with Ford is his actor, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Having seen him give good, lively performances in the Kick-Ass films, I was shocked as to just how dull he felt here. He only displays one mode of acting, and that is a meatheaded soldier stereotype with zero depth that wore thin before the second act was up. He was almost as bad as Maria Pitillo in the first American Godzilla movie, and that's something I never thought I'd be saying about another big-budget blockbuster. The second problem, meanwhile, is that even if they had a better actor, there's not a whole lot of character to Ford beyond a generic jarhead. He gets practically no development over the course of the story (his fellow soldiers are little more than extras), and his wife Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen, has so little to do in the film that she barely even counts as a love interest so much as she is a plot coupon to get Ford moving towards the final showdown in San Francisco.

The worst part is that there were so many other characters to choose from who could've been our protagonists instead of Ford. Elle, for instance, could've provided the perspective of a civilian on the ground watching Godzilla and the Mutos converge on San Francisco and eventually fight each other in the city, instead of disappearing for most of the film and serving as a waste of a talented actress like Olsen. Or, we could've had Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins' characters, a pair of scientists working for an agency that tracks and contains monsters like Godzilla and the Mutos. Watanabe's character is all but stated to be the son of Dr. Serizawa from the original film -- a great angle that could've been explored but went to waste. (Oh, don't tell me they're planning on saving that for the sequels, I already had to put up with The Amazing Spider-Man 2...) And last but certainly not least, we could've had Bryan Cranston's character Joe Brody. Joe is Ford's father and a former nuclear plant supervisor in Japan who, after a meltdown caused by one of the embryonic Mutos, became obsessed with trying to uncover proof of its existence and of a cover-up by the Japanese government, partly to assuage his guilt over having sent his wife and co-worker Sandra (Juliette Binoche) into the bowels of the plant to try (and fail) to stop the meltdown. Indeed, the marketing for this heavily focused on Cranston, while neglecting to mention that (spoiler alert) he dies very early in the film.

The point is, pretty much any of this film's side characters could have made for a better protagonist than the incomparably dull Ford Brody. All of them were played by actors who gave much better performances than Taylor-Johnson did, and all of them were more interesting as characters to begin with. Instead, the guy we spend most of the film following is a random, one-dimensional soldier played by a guy who was sleepwalking through his performance, while scores of interesting people are all left on the sidelines. So many lost opportunities here, so many obvious changes that could have been made to the script. It's a film that very much wants to copy Jaws' slow buildup to the actual reveal of the monster, while forgetting that the reason why Jaws worked was because it had amazing main characters to carry the story before then. Director Gareth Edwards surprised me with how poorly he handled this film's human drama, given that he was picked to direct this thanks to his work on the great indie horror film Monsters.

So yeah, the human story in this sucks. What else is new -- the Japanese Godzilla films, outside the original, aren't themselves known for having very moving characters and interesting plot lines. Sure, this was a particularly egregious example of such, but then again, I've never seen any of the '70s or Millennium-era Toho films, which are typically what people think of when they think of Godzilla as campy. And when you get right down to it, while a good human story can elevate a Godzilla film to greatness (seriously, watch the original), people don't go to see Godzilla movies for the human characters. They're just there to provide the barest framework of a plot for the main event, which is, of course, to see Godzilla kick ass.

And kick ass he does. I am pleased to say that, if you're just seeing this movie for the monster, then you'll get your money's worth and then some. He leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes, he refuses to let himself go down easily, and while he uses his radioactive breath only twice, both times are among the most "hell yeah!" moments in the film. He deserves to be called a God, dominating the screen in every frame he shows up in with awesome presence, and utterly redeems the garbage portrayal of him in the last American remake. Furthermore, the two Mutos (who carry many of this film's action scenes early on) are pretty cool monsters in their own right, being faster and more graceful than the Big Guy (and in the male's case being able to fly), as well as having some weird, almost mechanical-looking designs that make them stand out. When the final fight between Godzilla and the Mutos in San Francisco comes, it is worth everything that came before, good and bad, with Edwards delivering visuals that are both beautiful and pulse-pounding, putting you right in the middle of the action and making the monsters feel like real beasts instead of just blobs of special effects. The HALO jump scene, despite having been not only spoiled but having been the focus of the trailers, is no less impressive seen in its entirety.

Also, despite its overall darker and grittier feel, on a story level this film has less in common with the original Godzilla film and more in common with the sequels, where Godzilla was (unwittingly) fighting to defend humanity from even worse monsters. He does plenty of collateral damage here, but his real target isn't people or buildings, but rather, the Mutos, the other two monsters featured in this film, and who get quite a bit of time to show off before Godzilla arrives. The film teases just enough devastation, showing (for example) TV news clips of Godzilla's fight with a Muto in Honolulu in lieu of showing the actual fight, to continually get you pumped for the big brawl at the end without turning into a deafening cacophony that just blends together. Even though it means having to sit through the awful human story, rarely does the film keep the monsters off-screen for too long, and every fight and destruction scene is distinctive and creative in its own way.

Score: 3 out of 5

Ultimately, the thing that redeems Godzilla from its mess of a plot and characterization is Godzilla himself. A truly amazing portrayal of the King of the Monsters made me wish that much more that I could care about the people running from his fury. Worth a matinee just for him, but don't expect anything more than mindless entertainment.

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