[Review] - Godzilla

Courtesy of Legendary Pictures
It has been 60 years since the original Gojira, 16 years since Roland Emmerich's disastrous film, and 10 years since Toho said goodbye to the nuclear allegory in Final Wars. In all that time, if we are being honest, there has never been a good Godzilla film. The closest any of the films come to being good is the original, which carries far more merit as a film utterly of it's time and place, a heart breaking exploration of the devastation Japan suffered in the aftermath of The Bomb. The film, directed by Akira Kurosawa's friend and protégé Ishirō Honda contains some powerful visuals and some incredibly unsubtle messages about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, or any WMD. It is a stern warning at the onset of the Cold War, and an emotional reminder of the fear, suffering and devastation that the only people to have ever witnessed the effects of the nuclear bomb up close experienced.

This is not that film. This is not a film that concerns itself with message. Or with real purpose, honestly. It is as transparent as a film can get that it is in it for the money, not for anything deeper. However, it chooses to go about that in such a shallow, distracted way that it alienates the audience from it's own design. This film isn't as bad as the '98 Godzilla, but it isn't any better. It's a different kind of bad, the kind that is dressed to the nines, swaggers onto the screen under the presumption of being a complex film, then reveals itself to be little more than cliches and shadow puppets. But, it is better than Pacific Rim, which isn't saying much, and only by a hair.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that seek a balance, be it in nature, or the force, or whatever.

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla could be seen as one of two film: the first would be a disaster movie, driven by the emotional turmoil of the characters caught in the wake of destruction and strive to both survive the immediate calamity and rise up in the following calm. The other would be a straight forward monster movie, a crash and bash CG extravaganza where beasties bite and punch each other through major landmarks. In both of these regards, the movie is a failure of a feature. By the standard measures for judging the quality of these types of films, the film just isn't up to the task. Or rather, Edwards seems frustratingly unwilling to actually show us anything. The characters are malformed cookie cutter shapes, reliant on stilted, cliche ridden dialogue that reads like filler until they could come back and figure out something interesting for them to say. And as a monster movie, the title character is a secondary character at best, appearing only in snippets, rarely in full, almost always obscured by some cloud of dust or a landmark, and sharing a total screen time with Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice or Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.

Which is a damned shame, because the best thing about this film is Godzilla himself. The animal, which began life as the personification of the devastation of a nuclear explosion, has never looked better. The few times we get to glimpse him in full, or better yet, in the day light, the movie only adds to it's own downfall, by highlighting what could (should) have been. The monster, which was so readily put on display in the advertising, is disregarded in the actual film. The initial fight between him and the real primary character of the film, the Muto, is entirely constructed in cutaways on a cable news station, as if in that moment the audience would be more interested in seeing a five year old child's reaction to watching the fight rather than letting us watch the fight and have that reaction ourselves.

But the creature design is second to none. Godzilla no longer looks like a guy in a rubber suit (though, as a sign of the times, the rubber suit was replaced by motion capture overseen by Andy Serkis, so in a way there is still a guy at the heart of the monster), but a creature of bulk and time. He is animalistic while remaining familiar; he is immediately and recognizably Godzilla. The Muto looked like the Cloverfield monster crossed with one of the bugs from Starship Troopers, and was a worthy addition to the Toho pantheon of horrible things out to destroy the world (though I was holding out a hope for Rodan).

Everything else is a let down. The cast is an absolute waste. Juliet Binoche and Bryan Cranston put in little more than cameos (which I guess puts them on par with the title character), and are able to make the most of the material they are given. Cranston's Joe is the last time the film comes close to having a reasonable protagonist, someone who is taking part in the plot in a reasonable and organic manner. Thirty minutes in, the narrative shifts focus to Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose role is to coincidentally be present at the site of every major set piece, and to unreasonably survive every attack so he can move on to the next one. The character has no depth or function (or appeal), other than to be at places.

The film would have been far better off to adopt a World War Z novel-style narrative, focusing on a selection of characters, each present for the different catastrophes rather than shoehorning Ford into every single scenario. It got ridiculous pretty fast. As it stands, despite the various character types culled from Writing A Disaster Movie 101's lecture notes, no one else has anything to contribute. David Strathairn issues commands and acts stern the entire time, Ken Watanabe isn't allowed to be anything other than monosyllabic, and Sally Hawkins' entire function is to stand about twenty feet behind Watanabe and look concerned. And then there is poor Elizabeth Olsen, who I forgot was in the film on three different occations.

Frank Darabont apparently did some heavy script doctoring on this film, and I want to know what of his survived, because nothing seemed up to his standard. The credited writer, Max Borenstein, provides nothing in his script to rave about. It is an insipid piece of unremarkable flotsam, too concerned with attempting to appeal to popularism rather than producing any material with merit or substance. In a time when climate change threatens millions, when Japanese nuclear reactors crack and leak poison into the ground, when tsunamis destroy entire islands, when not the threat of nuclear war, but the lingering damage of nuclear waste is front and centre in the public consciousness, there was a chance to bring Godzilla back to his allegorical roots, to imbue the film with intent and deliver a clear and damning message to the masses in an entertaining way. There is none of that here.

And Edwards seems disinterested in making the film a straight up monster clash picture too. The shroud he pulls over the film, covering it in the tell-tale "grit" that needs to mark all films today to prove their worth, only distracts from the core of the piece: a giant lizard beating the shit out of a giant bug. Too easily does the public embrace the King of the Monsters. Too easily is Godzilla accepted as an element in the environment. I liked the stuff about the Bikini Islands tests bombings being an attempt to kill him, but the film lazily allows him to become a simple responder to prayer. They prattle on about finding "a balance to nature," as that that is meant to mean something, or be profound. Instead, it comes off as ignorant (a mean feat in a film lousy with junk science).

And at least a dozen times in this film, characters are taken by surprise by these 350 foot tall beasts, who can apparently slip into silent running mode when it suits the drama of the moment. In a film where giant radiation monsters step on San Francisco, that was the least believable element at play.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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