Saturday, June 21, 2014

They Say He's Got To Go... GODZILLA 2014

Gareth Edwards' 2010 feature film, MONSTERS, was his first feature, and it was an intriguing one, at that; a minimalist travelogue about an American journalist who agrees to escort a young, rich girl back to the Northern side of the border despite the roadways having been cut off to quell an alien outbreak of Cthulhi-esque monsters. The film wasn't entirely shy about showing the aftermath of wanton destruction or about establishing a nuanced, carefully structured world for the creatures themselves, but the bulk of the film was a human drama in which the aftermath of the disaster was very much the same sort of grim, quiet fallout one sees after a natural disaster; it was a film that felt much like the interviews you see on the news after a tornado has whipped through some poor bastard's family home, and he has to remind himself that his family survived, so the fact that they're broke and now homeless sucks, but isn't the end of the world. Monsters wasn't the best minimalist-monster movie ever made, but it was a beautiful, fascinating one, and one that was deemed good enough for Legendary Pictures to hand him the keys to a reboot of the King of the Monsters itself...

It's with mixed feelings that I say Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot of GODZILLA represents a well intentioned and thematically relevant reboot of the title character very much in the style of the earlier Showa period films, with a particular reverence for both the original 1954 Godzilla: King of the Monsters/ゴジラ, and 1964's Godzilla vs The Thing/モスラ対ゴジラ. It does, however, take a page from later entries and casts the creature not as a mindless destructive analogue to the Atomic Bomb, as was his original conception sixty years ago, but has aligns him an alpha monster who's role is protecting his territory, and humanity along with it as a mere side effect, skipping ahead to the shift from the villainous role to one of something resembling chaotic heroism first explored in Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster/三大怪獣 地球最大の決戦 - released the same year as Mothra's first appearance, incendentally.

To put my relationship with Godzilla into perspective, I watched the majority of the Showa Era (1954 - 1975)  while I was still in my single-digits on cable TV. I loved them unconditionally, but haven't revisited much more than the original 1954 film that started it all in the last 20 plus years, though I have re-watched some highlights just to satisfy my curiosity. My experience with the Heisei Era (1984-1995) is limited to one or two titles, largely since getting unedited, subtitled copies of the films were far more of a hassle than I was willing to spend, when I cared enough to try and get them at all. With several Heisei films having been re-released by Universal on uncut, bilingual Blu-ray double features, I expect this to change quite soon. I'm slightly more familiar with the Millennium Era (1999-2004), and seem to be the only person out there who thought Ryuhei Kitamura's tasteless fan-fiction, Godzilla: Final Wars, was a legitimately fun little train-wreck. Perhaps not quite the 50th anniversary send-off Godzilla deserved, I'll give the franchise faithful that, but if you can think of a more memorable giant monster movie, I'm all ears.

I'm exploring all of this because I think there's a curious reaction that happens when people who read reviews think that a review wasn't written by a "real fan". There's this odd, slightly narcissistic undercurrent from people who grow upset - sometimes downright offended - by people having differing opinions, and sometimes those grievances are the simple result of said person not having a goddamn clue what they're talking about. Someone who hasn't actually read the Song of Ice and Fire novels has no valid opinion the TV series A Game of Thrones, because they don't "really" know what the story is about. Someone who hasn't read Knightfall can't talk about the Christopher Nolan film that took many of its core ideas from it, because they won't understand what was re-purposed from it. Someone who hasn't watched the last [pick any arbitrary number] Doctor Who series' can't have an opinion the latest Doctor's adventures because fuck you, I liked it BEFORE it was for sale at every Hot Topic in North America. So on and so fourth. Sure, I've been guilty of this myself, and probably still am from time to time; it's infuriating to see someone who doesn't "get" something you like take a giant, steaming dump on it, not because of what it actually is, but because of what they - perhaps mistakenly - assume it was supposed to be. I bring this up, in part, because I see a lot of people frustrated with the criticism leveled at this film that don't seem to know the history and commonality with previous Godzilla films, and to some degree, I think those concerns are fair - if not, simply overblown. I'm not a die-hard Toho fanboy, but I'd like to think I, broadly speaking, know what a "real" Godzilla movie is... and, for better or worse, that's exactly what I think we were handed here.

Let's get a few things straight before I spend a few minutes complaining like an asshole. Gareth Edwards' 2014 GODZILLA is not a bad film. It's a fascinating film with a lot more potential than it chose to take advantage of, and in a way, that almost makes it more frustrating to watch than if the film were just straight-up irredeemably bad, as was the case of the 1998 Roland Emerich train-wreck that decided Godzilla should, somehow, be the Alien Queen. Taken solely as yet-another-Godzilla-movie, it probably sits somewhere on the better half of the previous 30 or so films. In fact, the first and third act suggest an incredible film unto itself, just struggling to escape the infuriating mediocrity of the lengthy slog that is the second... but, I'm getting ahead of myself. Without spoiling the whole film if you're the one person reading this who didn't see it opening weekend, suffice to say, the film is a very different entry than the disaster-drama the trailers and trying to sell; it's actually a legitimate, earnest throwback to the Toho classics of yore... right down to their structural flaws and reliance on things that absolutely nobody in the audience cares about. Perhaps it's easier to forgive those flaws when the results cost less than one-hundredth what this latest Hollywood revamp cost, and particularly since I doubt a single Showa era films ran longer than 90 minutes total. The problems are much more subtle than that, and that makes discussing them all the more difficult... if, for some ungodly reason you just want to know what I think, I'd say "Go see it on the biggest IMAX screen you can find. Just bring an iPod for the middle of it, 'cause you aren't going to miss anything."

Since it's impossible to discuss why this film doesn't quite work without just flat-out discussing the shit out of it, consider the rest of this SPOILERIFFIC.

To get into the nitty-gritty, let's discuss the biggest non-issue of the film: The actual amount of Godzilla footage on display. The LENGTH of time we see the monster isn't a problem; the original 1954 film likely has even less, and that was literally the film about Godzilla, without a second giant monster to mug for screen time. More importantly, the giant monster battle porn that makes up much of the final two reels is the absolute best of its kind. There's just no comparison. Much as I love giant rubber monsters the weight, the scale and the deafening power exuded by both Godzilla and the M.U.T.O have forever raised the bar for films of its ilk. Watching moments like the male M.U.T.O touch down on top of a skyscraper and every floor sequentially disintegrate is just... oh, my fucking God, that's the stuff that makes he hot. Again, length - even percentage of runtime - isn't the issue.

See, the crime that this film committed in regards to Dai-Kaijuu Battoru was a structural one; you can't show both monsters sizing each other up, cut away, and then not revisit a battle that left one of them defeated. You're not allowed to cock-tease an audience with a massive second-act game changer like "By the way, there's ANOTHER HUNDRED FOOT TALL MONSOON-FARTING MONSTER..." and just shrug it off without at least trying to establish what went down. The sensible thing would have been to have cut to the news footage and pull a brief, minute long montage Cloverfield style that showed Godzilla challenging the male, taking a fall, and then taking flight. It would have established that the M.U.T.O is a badass, and given the audience a more direct, tactile reason to sympathize with Godzilla instead of just assuming he's the good guy because...well, just because, I guess.

Hell, as it stands we have no fucking clue what happened in Hawaii beyond "Godzilla made contact with the M.U.T.O", and what the fuck does that mean? We aren't allowed to observe it. We don't get a chance to make up a meaning for ourselves. All we get are a couple less-than-clear lines from Ken Watanabe saying "something-something alpha predator", which doesn't even make sense, because Godzilla never actually eats the M.U.T.O - he just kind of cock-blocks them and then shits on their corpses. Structurally, it just feels like the scene was held back to artificially tease us, make us ache for the inevitable throw-down... but it would have worked so much better if we'd had a taste of what was to come. A battle is just a battle. A rematch is a chance for revenge, for vindication - and the fact that our "hero" - you know, Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson - was there, watching this happen, the whole fucking time. If they were holding it back so that the audience only knew as much as the main characters themselves, fair enough, but even the hero saw what went down! What justifiable reason is there to keep it from the audience at this point? I understand that Godzilla is trying to cock block the M.U.T.O, but that doesn't mean you need to extend the same to the paying audience.

Perhaps cutting away to remind us that Private McDullface has a family sounded like a good idea on paper - the best monster movies, after all, are human dramas about the presence of monsters, rather than balls-out creature features. Cut the rubber shark out of Jaws or the titular rubbery alien bits from Carpenter's The Thing and you'd still have solid, memorable characters and tension based on the situations they find themselves in alone. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson's military grunt persona is never nuanced or conflicted enough to be anything more than a generic Call of Duty style self-insert soldier; his parents were both killed by the M.U.T.O, but he's oddly dispassionate about the whole thing. He doesn't seem to give a shit if those giant cockroach fucks live or die; he just wants to get back home and use his magical ability to not randomly die with his comrades to protect his equally uninteresting family. Don't get me wrong, I know that Elizabeth Olsen has done great work elsewhere, but she's given nothing to do here; she's a cardboard cutout, given exactly one moment of gravity when she watches the bus with her young son pull away, and otherwise spends the whole film struggling to find anything to do but sound worried. There's no big set pieces for her to showboat in or feel like she's ever in any real danger, nor are there any layers beneath the surface for her to play with. She's just a non-entity, and it makes her bumbling husband look like a fucking Oscar contented solely by default. Sadly, neither of them are half as infuriating as their glorified MacGuffin of a son. Jesus, do they feed this kid Prozac-Os or something? The kid sees a giant dinosaur fighting a giant bug, on the news, and he points it out to his mother with the same dispassionate interest he might have noting that there was a candy wrapper on the side of the road. For fuck's sake, I'm almost 30 and I'd have thrown my coffee table through the window with sheer excitement; how do you think an actual, non-movie child would react to this shit?

Probably similarly to the way I reacted learning that Luigi Cozzi was responsible for a 1977 "colorized" recut of Godzilla, complete with a new theme by Fabio Frizzi, that's basically a funkatronic prelude to his incredible title track for Zombi 2. How the fuck did I never know this existed?!

*Deep Breath* We'll talk about Cozzi another time, honest... back to Gareth Edwards' movie.

I'm probably coming down pretty hard on these poor bastards, but there's a reason for that. The film HAS a fantastic cast to work with, and a completely obvious arc for them to move in. Bryan Cranston is a living legend at this point, and it's infuriating to watch him get killed half an hour in, the mystery of his wife's death - and his failure to protect her - closed. The script didn't see Cranston's angry, wounded, and driven mad scientist/paranoid truther as a potential character, it saw him as a perfunctory character arc, and once that arc was satisfied it let him bleed out. Contrast his character to Ken Watanabe's, a man who lost just as much to the threat of nuclear power abuse but instead chose to embrace and learn to guide those destructive forces... isn't the answer obvious as to what direction the film SHOULD go? Cranston is the M.U.T.O expert, and encourages that the military use their technical might to blow them straight to hell. Watanabe is the Godzilla whisperer, and tries to convince them that they're trying to shoot missiles at the moon to change the tide; all they can do is lead Godzilla to them and let nature take its course.

Cranston and Watanabe butt heads over their differing philosophies... now imagine the scene where he pulls out the watch, and reveals that he's lost just someone, and still believes that what they're doing is right. Imagine how much weight that would carry in that context! WHY THE HELL WAS THIS MOVIE NOT ABOUT THE UNLIKELY BROMANCE BETWEEN BRYAN CRANSTON AND KEN WATANABE?! Can you imagine the flood or erotic fan-art? Christ, I feel like this relationship writes itself... and yet, we never get the chance for that to happen. They're never even in the same room. Instead Watanabe is paired with a slightly less generic military type to whom the concept of both the M.U.T.O and Godzilla are somewhat meaningless; to them they're just targets, and his job is to come up with the plan to neutralize them both with the least mathematical likelihood of human casualties. Watanabe's character makes up some of the more interesting scenes through the second act, but the film seems so obsessed with the non-story of Taylor-Johnson marching back to his boring wide and his zombified son that they don't even try to explore him as a character. Why does he know so much about Godzilla - was his father the man who organized the attempts to put him down in Bikini Atoll in 1954, after somehow surviving the blast in Hiroshima? For that matter, how did his father survive the blast - Watanabe certainly isn't old enough to have been born during World War 2, so what relevance does that actually hold? The answer is none, not directly... his role is just sort of there. Shoehorned in as an appealing looking distraction that doesn't ultimately give us any of the answers we so desperately need about what Monarch knows about Godzilla, and why they're so ready to trust him to - intentionally or not - serve humanity's ends.

Having since learned that Watanabe was added to the cast long after Cranston and Taylor-Johnson, and only mere days before principal photography... well, now we're getting somewhere. This is a film that suffered massive re-writes at the last minute, and that explains why such heavy and interesting ideas never come together; there wasn't time to mesh those concepts into a cohesive whole. Ken Watanabe's scenes takes place on another planet's from Bryan Cranston's, which is tragically the same way Godzilla's scenes happen in a completely different, far more interesting film than Aaron Taylor-Johnson's. I'm actually disappointed that I didn't realize 'till it was pointed out to me that this has a certain odd sense of déjà vu... because Hollywood star Raymond Burr was, quite literally, cut into the already finished 1954 Japanese film in a bid to make it more marketable to American audiences who might have otherwise been turned off by a cheap, black-and-white monster movie from Japan. The irony that sixty years later we're splicing in scenes of a Japanese actor to legitimize a $160 Million dollar Hollywood remake. The karmic irony is simply off the charts.

Say, does anyone remember the San Diego ComiCon teaser, released in 2012 and put up on the internet last year with a longer shot of Godzilla? We saw a curious shot of a defeated giant monster among the wreckage...

What is this pillbug-like monstrosity? I, uh... I have no clue. It sure as hell ain't a M.U.T.O, and thus isn't in the film. While I'm slightly disappointed that, ultimately, the two M.U.T.O are effectively cobbled together using elements from both classic Japanese kaiju - particularly Gyaos, and American monstrosities like Brundlefly and Cloverfield, ultimately the big payoff is "one big mutha-fuckin' cockroach". It has a more functional and well-planned design than most creatures of its ilk, but it's neither a "real" animal nor a balls-out monsters for monsters' sake we saw in films like Pacific Rim and the 1970s Toho output which inspired it.  I do really like the scenes in which the male and female are shown courting, giving each other presents and generally protecting one another... it actually establishes character, something that - for better or worse - Godzilla himself is sorely lacking.

To be fair, that's true of the original 1954 Ishiro HONDA film as well: Sixty years ago, he was a thinly veiled metaphor of the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki some nine years prior, a maniacal warning of the unchecked terror of weapons of mass destruction made downright mythological. Now, nuclear weapons are less terrifying to this films target audience, a generation to whom nuclear power has more or less become a largely stable and viable business model for keeping under-powered microwaves turning delicious, gut-destroying Hot Pockets into the wee hours of the night. Instead, Edwards' Godzilla is a personification of nature's fury - of tsunamis and lightning, of the unshakable and only somewhat predictable realization that all of your plans mean nothing when Planet Earth decides it's time to drop the mutha' fuckin' bass. Watanabe describes Godzilla as an "Alpha Predator", but that doesn't seem to be entirely true; for one thing, despite slaughtering the M.U.T.O he never actually eats them. For the most part, Godzilla just seems to be the personification of doom itself, and for all intents and purposes, he ignores humanity for the same reason the Great Cthulhu does; he's simply too impressive to care what the little squirming ants called humanity do.

Neither did I, sadly. Perhaps the most telling moment in the films greatest weakness is the scene in which Taylor-Johnson comes face to face with a M.U.T.O, and whips out his pistol. Does he fire the bullets with grim determination, knowing all he can do is fight to the death? Does he realize the absurdity and toss the gun aside like the pea-shooter in the face of a primordial beast that it is? Does he put the barrel in his own mouth, crushed by the terror of nature's full potential, only to prevent his own demise when Godzilla returns, triumphant? No. Taylor-Johnson, the most boring leading man possible, literally pulls the gun and sits there, doing fuck all. You're fighting a monster that can level a sky scraper, and your solution is to pull out your miniature side-arm and just, fucking, sit there? The honest truth is Taylor-Johnson is a young, inexperienced performer, and having him carry the film was a huge mistake from day one. He isn't cringe-inducing, exactly, but he brings absolutely nothing to the role, and focusing so much if the movie on him just leaves me pining for even the Saturday Morning Cartoon level of intensity we got from a sleep-walking Charlie Hunnam in Del Toro's Pacific Rim. Yes, everyone's quick to point out that all of the character motivation and dialogue in that film was painfully simplistic, but at least they existed!

I've avoided comparisons to Guillermo Del Toro's 2013 mecha vs kaiju epic to this point, largely because they're trying to accomplish two very different things: Del Toro was trying to make a candy-colored and braindead 70s era monster movie, and succeeded with dazzling efficiency. Gareth Edwards tried to create a legitimately terrifying and brooding eco-horror film, and it stumbles on a regular basis... but man, when it works, the results are incredible. Infuriating a thought as this is, Godzilla has substantially more personality than his human co-star (even if his actual motivation is a bit fuzzy), with body language and a stage presence that brings everything to the screen it ever needed to. Everyone complaining about the fog and fire obscuring the view of Godzilla is ignoring how gross the real-world atmospheric conditions tend to be during a natural disaster, and the way that Edwards pulls the Big G back into a gray haze, denying us the satisfaction of knowing when - or even if! - he'll strike the M.U.T.O next is handled well enough. In short, when Godzilla is being epic destruction porn, it's delivering on every level the audience could hope to ask for. When it's not, oh, boy can it be a big, ugly mess.

Still, for all of these failings I can't hate this film. Anyone who's watched any of the actual Showa era Godzilla films - or similarly themed giant monster pictures from other studios, like the Daimajin and Gamera franchises competing for those low hanging rubber monster dollars - will know that dull human characters and nonsensical writing are just one of those basic problems anyone who watches these films has come to accept as the bitter pill we must swallow to get to that sweet, sweet monster mashing action. Edwards' film isn't structurally any worse than the majority of the vintage Godzilla films it's emulating, but with the increased budget and runtime, those flaws feels somewhat less forgivable. Much like Man of Steel before it, I think trimming a good twenty to thirty minutes out of this would have resulted in a less bloated, tone-deaf action film with far less to complain about... and, yes, since I don't think I've talked much about it here, I happen to think that when Man of Steel is good, it's really good, and when it's not it's little more than a pile of confusing, stupid nothing... in other words, it's Godzilla with a cape. Which is totally a motif someone should find a way to sell.

In the meantime, I'll happily take a Bandai S.H. MonsterArts figure to go. Thanks.

At the end of the day, what we got feels like an imperfect, but perfectly competent franchise starter. And part of me feels like that's enough for only the second Hollywood made Godzilla film. While people love to roll their eyes and talk about how sequels are always worse than the first film in a series, that's often not the case; damn near every trilogy is a trilogy specifically because the second film expanded whatever was good about the first film and made a fortune doing so, while the third film is merely proof that entropy is a part of every cinematic universe. If Legendary Pictures' goal was to convince both Toho and Hollywood audiences that a $150 Million Godzilla picture was exactly what they needed every couple years to keep them satisfied, they've done an admirable job here - the public clearly doesn't care how inherently bullshit the concept of a 106 meter tall tyrannosaurus who feeds on radiation is, and since they've had one film to "explain" all of that away, now they can get to the good stuff, like pitting Godzilla against Mothra, King Ghidorah and (my personal favorite) Hedorha, the Smog Monster. They found a way to update and expand the mythos for a modern audience without completely stripping out the core of what made the Toho movies good in the first place, but in doing so they managed to create a somewhat slow film that establishes a lot of mood and questions without fully realizing its payoff. If the goal is to build Godzilla up as a hero to the public [read: the audience] and then have them rooting for him next time they pull out a bigger, badder monster, mission accomplished. That's hardly as revolutionary as what Ishiro Honda pulled off 60 years ago, but hey, that's a hell of a lot better than anything Roland Emerich pulled off with the same basic premise about 15 years ago.

So yeah. I like Edwards' Godzilla, I just don't think it lived up to its potential. Whether that was the result of behind-the-scenes meddling or intentional stunted-storytelling to promote the growth of sequels (or if these are one and the same), only time will tell. But whatever the case may be, even if you skipped this, do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-ray. If you can't literally masturbate to the final throwdown between Godzilla and the female M.U.T.O, trust me, you're doing it wrong.

Sorry this got posted, like... a month late. Basically every waking moment of free time has been eaten up by a new digital restoration, and I've been Goldblooming like a motherfucker every night over it. Stay tuned when I'll look at an actual DISC for the first time, in like... I don't even fucking know how long!