Friday, May 23, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Yes, it's true: in a monster movie, you shouldn't expect to actually spend a lot of time with the monster. On the high end, you get the monster for maybe half the movie. On the average, though, we're looking at a long suspenseful lead-in, situation development, the sinister sense of something lurking, and, eventually, the arrival of the thing itself in the final third or fourth of the film.  It's a formula, and one the newest iteration of Godzilla adheres to rather rigidly.  This time, our beloved destroyer wreaks global havoc in a nightmarish landscape of contemporary disasters. Where the franchise once belonged rather explicitly to a single nation's tragedies, director Gareth Edwards locates Godzilla's destruction in a place that feels like it should be marked by innumerable trigger warnings. Japan's meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 is mirrored in the film's opening scenes as mysterious electro-magnetic pulses force the evacuation of an entire town. Even before we're introduced to the flesh and blood beasts, we're shown large scale tragedy after tragedy. Later, as the creatures rise, their wake is represented in all-too familiar scenes: tsunamis, earthquakes, attacks that force planes to fall from the clouds and skyscrapers to implode and crumble.  Our kitsch monster is become death, and no one is safe.

After last summer's unceasing barrage of destruction, I'm certainly not the only one suffering from special effects exhaustion. Godzilla should be more of the same, and it often is. When the buildings start falling, they fall repeatedly, incessantly, and in monotone. The film is dark, marked by accent colors that highlight the din in often startling ways. At times, it's boring to watch, and there's something about the dull chaos of the action sequences that makes it all feel at arm's length. We're watching, but we're not participating. We're understanding, but we're not feeling.  This isn't the same as the fun, harmless destruction of the Toho B-movies.  Instead, Godzilla seems to force a weird type of unfeeling and beg our disinterest in the human elements of the story.  Where we're introduced to a happy family unit in the film's opening scenes, and made to read Bryan Cranston's half-mad scientist in a particular way, the film takes pains to repeatedly redirect our focus. Characters we think could be protagonists are killed off or removed, actors we recognize are forced into minor supporting roles, and the closest thing we have to a 'hero' is Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson): the milquetoast white-boy military hero to end all milquetoast white-boy military heroes.  That Ford is so bland, so devoid of a personality is both a massive misstep for the film as well as an interesting possibility.      
It's a misstep because he sucks, plain and simple. Ford Brody is generic from his name on down. His story is one we've been privy to countless times, and he proves his honor by being nice to lost children and edging close to sacrificing himself for the greater good.  He's a face in the crowd, and one that doesn't even try to land an endearing punchline. He's so bad, in fact, that it almost reads as deliberate.  As in: no effort was put into the construction of an interesting or relevant contemporary action hero. Instead, all of the focus lands on Godzilla himself and the new oversized monsters he's hunting: the mantis-like MUTOs. In the face of so much muted destruction, it's almost like we're supposed to leave humanity behind and find solace with the beasts instead.  Godzilla is interesting. Godzilla is nuanced. Godzilla has layers and opens up possibilities well outside of what the scientists in the film think is possible. Humanity is all too busy navel gazing and focusing on small victories in a space where that doesn't matter anymore, and if the film stepped away from a couple "through a kid's eyes" sequences of reunion, we could believe that as a theory.  We could consider Godzilla as a sort of departure from our understanding.
But, the humans take too much focus and weigh the film down in ways that seem conflicted instead of statement-making. Major, potentially interesting characters are killed off in surprising ways, but we're still left with no less than three small children scattered throughout the film seemingly to remind us of something.  To trigger something like empathy.  The human elements just don't work in Godzilla, though, and when the film ends we're left wanting more of the monsters.  This is in part because it's in rendering Godzilla that the update excels.  There's a sequence that stems directly from the Ken Watanabe character's decree that the military must "let them fight" -- here on the battlefield that is San Francisco -- that is worth the price of admission alone.  We follow a cluster of troops as they skydive down to the ground below, falling through the darkened clouds of dust and ash with streams of red smoke trailing behind, making them visible to one another as Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna" (see also: 2001) moans on eerily in the eye of the storm.  As they fall, we see Godzilla and the MUTOs in flashes and glimpses, they're too large for the human eye to behold in one look, and their destruction leaves them too obscured.  It's frighteningly awesome, and the film captures something of the actual godliness of Godzilla, that thing that makes him a force instead of merely a monster.  It's a moment that's weirdly beautiful, and which turns the destructive action of the summer blockbuster on its ear and forces it to speak to something else.  The final sequences suggest the dawn of something new, something possible, and it's that that saves the film from the drudgery of its first half.


  1. I think this sounds pretty cool. I've never seen a Godzilla movie, so I'm all the more excited! I've always wondered how it would be to have a very ordinary hero, but seems like it didn't work here. Oh well. Lovely review!

    1. Yeah, it's not that he's ordinary in an "everyman" type of way, but just that he's like the action movie standard: military-trained white dude with a family debt. Nothing special whatsoever, but this time they barely even try to make him stand out.


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