Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla (2014) Review: Epic Kaiju Destruction Through Human Eyes

By Andrew Braid

Believe it or not, but this isn't even the coolest poster for this movie.

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
Release Date: May 16, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

Godzilla, the proclaimed "King of the Monsters", has been dormant for some time now. First introduced to audiences in the original 1954 Japanese film Gojira, the giant fire-breathing dino-lizard has rampaged and battled all manner of mighty foes in his 60-year history. But perhaps his greatest foe of all was Hollywood: despite dozens of films made in the character's native country Japan, the only American Godzilla feature was the disastrous 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) and starring Matthew Broderick. Hacked into a lame Jurassic Park ripoff, Godzilla was positioned as a massive record-shattering blockbuster that ultimately fell short of everyone's huge expectations. No sequel ever happened, and Toho, the Japanese production company who created the character and distributed every film in the series, completely disowned the film. If not the King of the Monsters' only defeat, it's certainly the most humiliating one. 
It's been ten years since the last Toho Godzilla film (2004's Godzilla: Final Wars) and sixteen since the disastrous Emmerich film, but now the King has returned to the big screen in an effort to reclaim his crown. Excitement is high, but so is wariness and anxiety: the '98 film left a bad taste in many viewer's mouths, and the new film's director Gareth Edwards has no prior experience directing big-scale blockbusters (this is only his second film after the 2010 low-budget, independently-made sci-fi horror film Monsters). Now that America's second stab at the iconic character has finally hit movie screens, I can spread the word:
The King of the Monsters has returned. Long live the King.

The #4 Coolest Poster For This Movie

Our story begins in 1999, when an enormous skeleton is found by Doctor Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) containing two mysterious pods in the Philippines. One of the pods has hatched, and the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (aka MUTO) arrives at Tokyo's Janjira Nuclear Plant, causing a dangerous radiation leak that kills the wife of the plant's supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). The event is declared an earthquake by military officials, but Joe knows that a cover-up is afoot, and spends the next 15 years trying to uncover the truth. 
In the present day, Joe's son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) is a US Navy Lieutenant returning home to see his son Sam and wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), only to reluctantly cut it short when he has to go to Japan and bail out his father from prison. Initially dismissive of his father's theories, Ford follows him to the Janjira site... only to find no radiation there. Hidden in the area is a secret test site, where the second Muto creature is cocooned, seeping up strength from the radiation. Just as Ford and Joe are taken to the site Muto break out, bringing a rampage of destruction in its wake that no amount of firepower from Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) can hope to stop. But Doctor Serizawa knows a way, and it proves to be the only chance humanity has to stop Muto: to unleash a dormant alpha predator, a force of nature known only as... Godzilla. 

The #3 Coolest Poster For This Movie

If that plot description sounds somewhat different from what the trailers and marketing have been selling us (ie. a grim-toned disaster film with Godzilla as the force of nature antagonist), that's because it is. Instead the film is very much in the vein of a traditional Toho Godzilla movie: disaster strikes the world courtesy of a new monster threat, scared human characters are scared, and only Godzilla can save the day (whether he really cares all that much about the humans he's saving in the process is up to the writers).  How you feel about that may vary, but in my opinion it's for the best. Hollywood's been trying for ages to prove they can make their own Godzilla movie, and like it or not that's exactly what director Gareth Edwards and crew have delivered.
The film spends most of its first two thirds on building up the monsters, with Godzilla himself not appearing in full until about the halfway point. Some have already raised contention with this decision, and it's not hard to see why: many modern blockbusters have treated their audiences like they have no sense of patience, throwing whatever flashes of mindless action and spectacle they can in seeming desperation of trying not to bore viewers. While it's easy to believe that this has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, I choose to assert that it is a fallacy- if a film can deliver an intriguing or engaging story or give us reason to care about its characters, then they will be willing to allot the film at least some level of patience when it comes to delivering on the action and spectacle equation. And Godzilla does indeed deliver this, at least as well as it needs to. The buildup of mystery and intrigue surrounding the monsters' histories effectively lures you in, reminiscent of the careful, character-driven buildup of early Spielberg films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We know they are something to not only fear but marvel at when they make their presence known. The character drama is simple but effective (particularly in a heart-wrenching early scene where Joe loses his wife), giving the action its anchor of emotional investment that keeps it from getting overblown or silly.

All of a sudden I'm not so scared of Jaws anymore...

In the end though, Godzilla is a film that is first and foremost driven by its action and visuals, and what we get here is pretty damn spectacular to say the least. Despite this being only his second feature film (and his first big-budget blockbuster), Gareth Edwards shows a supreme sense of confidence behind the camera, delivering a film of jaw-dropping scale grounded with often-striking intimacy. In the realm of giant monster movies it has a distinct visual sense all its own, finding just the right balance between grit and polish. I was flat-out floored by many of the film's artful, stunning shot compositions, whether its an explosive piece of ground-level destruction reflected in towering glass windows or the halo jump sequence that has already proven to be such an amazing centrepiece for the film's marketing. It all concludes in a climactic old-school Godzilla showdown (most of which thankfully hasn't already been shown off in all the trailers and advertising), and proves that it sure as hell wasn't bluffing- they really were holding onto the best cards all this time. Believe me when I say that this is exactly what hardcore Godzilla fans have been waiting for.

"You have no idea what's coming..."

The cast itself is great all-around, rich with skilled character actors that satisfactorily fill what are undeniably stock parts (the soldier protagonist, the wife in peril, the conspiracy theorist, the stern military leader, the scientists, etc.). Cranston in particular really sells his stock part for all its worth, and Watanabe lends quiet gravitas to the film's smartest man in the room. Many of the characters don't really make much of an impression, particularly Sally Hawkins' scientist partner to Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa: we know nothing about her other than she works with Serizawa and that she reacts to Godzilla a few times.
But when you get right down to it, the characters themselves aren't really all that important in this film, at least not in terms of being multidimensional or fully fleshed-out people (and even then, they're still better-drawn characters than you'd see in most disaster movies these years). Their real purpose is to act as human perspectives, eyes through which the audience sees the destruction and horror first-hand from the ground view. This lends Godzilla and the other monsters a sense of awe-inspiring scale in a way that hasn't really been done before by any of the older films in the series (though it certainly helps that this is also the biggest version of Godzilla to date, as seen in this chart here). This role of human perspective is particularly evident with Aaron-Taylor Johnson in the film's lead: he's likable and believable, and even has some emotional material to work with (particularly with Cranston in the first act) but doesn't really have that much of a character to play, essentially being the (kinda bland) straight-man protagonist. This sounds like a problem, but it honestly isn't: his role in the story is to be the audience's main source of human perspective. His job as a soldier and relationships with other characters effectively justifies his presence in all the various action beats of the film, supplying the human perspective that makes the action feel simultaneously believable, grand-scale and awe-inspiring. That we actually do care about the characters despite their existence more as cogs moving the story than as fully dimensional people is a credit to the script and actors, but perhaps even more so to Edwards' skilled, confident direction. Seeing Godzilla fight a bat-like monster is one thing, but seeing the destruction and overwhelming size of the monsters through human eyes on the ground makes it feel so much more visceral and impactful. Seeing Godzilla tower over all this way doesn't just make him feel scary again- it makes him feel mighty again.

The #2 Coolest Poster For This Movie

Godzilla is the first genuinely great blockbuster of the summer, an old-school monster movie brought to life with awe-inspiring visuals, filtered through the emotional core of a story about repeating and confronting the past. It pays true respect to the roots and history of its source material while making it feel fresh, thrilling and even imposing again. It consciously takes its time building up to much of its action spectacle, almost to the point where it might frustrate less patient viewers, but delivers a spectacular and wholly satisfying payoff with a climax that makes the whole movie worth it on its own. It's accessible to both newer viewers and series veterans alike, delivering the first real flesh-and-blood Godzilla film in some time. By the time the credits rolled I knew for sure that the King of the Monsters was here to stay, and man does it feel good to have him back.

And finally, hands-down, the #1 Coolest Poster For This Movie (and possibly the whole year).

Final Review Score: 9/10

+ Spectacular direction, with some truly awe-inspiring compositions of grand destruction and scale
+ A great human cast, with Cranston and Watanabe in particular standing out
+ Extensive focus on buildup, mystery and human drama (plus the focus on the ground-view human perspective of the destruction) gives the film an emotional investment
+ It all builds up to a big climax that delivers in spades on everything a Godzilla fan could want
+ Godzilla himself is every bit as awesome here as you could want him to be

- Not everyone in the high-caliber, talented cast gets much of anything interesting to do
- The long buildup to action may be a turnoff for some, and the excellent morsels of action we do get around the middle may get you impatiently awaiting more
- It's not exactly the somber disaster movie the marketing has been selling it as (whether that's a problem is up to you)