Friday, May 16, 2014

GODZILLA: Not Godawful Like The '98 One So There's That

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

GODZILLA (Dir.Gareth Edwards, 2014)

When I was a kid I loved GODZILLA movies. Well, I loved laughing at them. 

It was the '70s run of the series, so it was the iconic overgrown fire-breathing creature at its cheesiest. The gigantic lizard (a stunt actor in a rubber suit) was portrayed as a friend to the people who'd save Toyko or whatever Japanese city from an attacking monster, then wave to the cheering masses and head back into the sea. Even toddlers could tell how ridiculous those movies were. 

This new American remake/re-boot/re-imagining/re-whatever wisely acts like the godawful 1998 Roland Emmerich version never happened. Max Borenstein's screenplay neatly builds upon Godzilla's atomic age origin story from the 1954 original, with a  set-up featuring an intense Bryan Cranston as a Nuclear Power Plant supervisor in Japan convinced that there's a cover-up surrounding a massive meltdown that took the life of his wife (Juliette Binoche).

As Cranston's Navy officer son, and the movie's real protagonist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson flies to Japan, leaving behind his nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son (Carson Bolde), to bail out his now thought to be crazy father after he was arrested for trespassing in the quarantined are where they lived when the tragic accident occurred in 1999 - hey, that's not far off from when the tragic accident that was the '98 GODZILLA happened but I digress.

Cranston and Taylor Johnson trespass on the property again and are taken into custody to some sort of secret installation where the plant was, which now has an insanely large chrysalis pod being studied by scientists played by Ken Watanbe and Sally Hawkins. Watanbe seems to have only been hired so that he can dramatically say “Godzilla” (or “Gojira”) in his thick Japanese accent.

There's all this layered plotting to get through before we even catch a glimpse of Godzilla, but the build-up has a lot of genuine suspense and Cranston's great emotional gravitas going for it. 

However, once Godzilla finally rears his spiky, scaly reptilian head and roars his trademark roar in an in-your-face close-up (one of the many times I was glad I wasn't seeing it in 3D), the movie is all about the big battle scenes with the human element and the science whatnot taking a backseat.

So a terrifically thrilling first half bleeds into a tiresomely bombastic second hour that apparently has the sole goal of outdoing MAN OF STEEL in the amount of devastating destruction it can fill the screen with.

Godzilla chases the Winged Muto (I think that's right) that hatched from the pod at the plant site across the ocean from Japan so we get to see Honolulu, San Francisco (Jesus, how many times do I have to see the Golden Gate Bridge getting destroyed in the movies?), and Las Vegas get destroyed. Like usual we don't see many people get killed, because this is a popcorn picture and that would bum us out I suppose.

It is a major improvement over the '98 one, and I like that this American film by a British director based on a Japanese commodity takes its source so seriously, but I was bored to tears by the messy, noisy battles. 

I'll give them that they succeeded in wringing some instances of excitement out of CGI creatures wailing on each other, but I think I had more fun in my youth watching men in bulky costumes with obvious zippers slugging it out with tacky backgrounds covered with unconvincing miniatures and models.

But here, the cluttered visuals here looked so much like every other event films' visuals that I kept expecting a superhero to show up.

There's also the attempt at a Spielbergian sense of awe that director Edwards, whose modest low budget debut film MONSTERS was a dry run for this ginormous genre exercise, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (THE AVENGERS), and thousands of special effects artists just can't pull off.

It could be that beyond the campiness I enjoyed back then, I never really cared much for the whole Godzilla thing. I mean, I appreciate the anti-nuclear subtext of IshirĊ Honda 60-year old original - perhaps the only essential entry of the series - but can anyone claim that any of the nearly 30 sequels that followed is quality cinema?

I know, I know - they're not supposed to be high art, they're supposed to be big ass popcorn movies with monsters mashing, buildings being smashed, missiles exploding (or getting eaten), and mass hysteria.

This has all that in spades, so Godzilla fans and audiences seeking mindless thrills will eat it up, but, in my case, I'm going to borrow the words of Butthead (of Beavis and Butthead fame, of course) commenting on a long forgotten video: “Usually, demolition and destruction is pretty cool, too, but I don't know, like here, it's like, here it just, it falls flat.”

More later...

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