Sunday, December 21, 2014
2014 at the Movies: Godzilla
Godzilla is sixty years old in 2014, and there’s likely no better birthday gift for the long-lived atomic lizard (or his devoted fans…) than Gareth Edwards’ impressive new film. The 2014 Godzilla treats the sturdy old creature and his franchise with abundant respect, and perhaps more importantly, with a sense of ingenuity and even love.
Because of Edwards’ meticulous care and devoted attention, Godzilla likely qualifies as one of the best Hollywood blockbusters made this decade. It is far more interesting and comprehensible for instance, than the over-sized, mind-numbing Marvel movies of late, like Thor: The Dark World (2013).
Furthermore, Godzilla is constructed with an eye towards character and human-sized thrills rather than CGI special effects or monumental set-pieces.
And commendably, the film’s narrative actually makes sense…a factor one can’t actually take for granted in the age of turgid, over-stuffed, “synergistic” summer blockbusters.
One critic, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has even termed Godzilla the best action movie since Jaws (1975). He writes of Godzilla: "This is a movie of tremendous visual daring, magnificent special-effects work and surprising moral gravity."
That comparison to Jaws may be a bit of an over-statement, but there are points of comparison worth making, and O'Hehir's description of Godzilla's virtues are right on the money.
Jaws, of course, was the very first “summer” blockbuster and Godzilla is the latest, but the connection between films run deeper than that, and deeper, even, than the fact that both film feature protagonists named “Brody.”
This Godzilla thoroughly impresses based, to a great degree, on its careful generation of suspense, and Edwards’ insistence on providing a “human eye” perspective to the kaiju-sized action. One might make the same statement regarding Spielberg’s classic. There, the human story about Brody, Hooper and Quint was just as captivating as the death scenes with the great white shark, if not more so when one considers the power of the Indianapolis sequence aboard the Orca.
And just as in Jaws you don’t see the great white shark for long spells there are times in Godzilla wherein the story moves along quite nicely without giant monsters wrecking national monuments on screen.
The film’s prologue in Japan is absolutely riveting by itself, even outside the giant monster milieu. And this has precisely nothing to do with scale, special effects or disaster movie clichés, but rather the fact that the scene involves two people the audience cares for trapped in a terrifying and tragic situation.
In total, there are likely four crucial factors that come into play when considering the success or failure of any Godzilla film, and Edwards’ 2014 fresh take on the material absolutely runs the table. It aces the checklist.
I’ll discuss each of the four factors in turn -- and in detail -- after the synopsis below.
In the year 1999, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) makes a strange discovery in the Philippines: the egg-sac of some giant, unknown and apparently recently-dormant creature. Unfortunately, the prehistoric being is now awake but gone…having escaped to the sea.
Soon after this unique discovery, something strange occurs at the Janjira Nuclear Facility in Japan. An engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has detected strange readings emanating from the plant, and he sends his wife, a scientist (Juliette Binoche), to discover their source. Disaster strikes however, and Janjira is evacuated as the nuclear reactor apparently goes into meltdown.
In 2014, Joe’s grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. soldier and expert in explosives, is called to Japan to bail his Dad out of prison. Unable to put down his obsession with the 1999 incident, Joe is convinced that the government and nuclear plant company are hiding something dangerous inside the Janjira facility.
Joe’s suspicions prove correct, and at the facility, Ford and Joe witness the awakening of a horrible creature: a giant creature called MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). It destroys most of the plant, kills several people, and flies away. Joe is injured during the incident.
Later, Ford teams up with Dr. Serizawa aboard the air-craft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga, a vessel which is attempting to pursue the monster. Serizawa reveals that this creature is not alone, however.
In fact, another beast -- which Serizawa dubs “Godzilla” -- was awakened by nuclear testing in 1954 and is now pursuing the MUTO. Serizawa believes Godzilla, nature’s alpha predator, is hunting the newly-awakened monster, and attempting to restore the Earth’s sense of balance.
Before long, another MUTO rears its head in Nevada, near Yucca Mountain, and the U.S. military is faced with the possibility of three giant monsters on its soil. Worse, the MUTOs are preparing to reproduce…
In my introduction above, I mentioned a checklist consisting of four boxes, and noted that Godzilla marks each one successfully. I want to discuss these four qualities in detail now.
First, does the film feature -- and successfully express -- a viewpoint about Godzilla?
This is the arena where the 1998 version of the material failed most egregiously.
The Roland Emmerich film had no notion about why Godzilla is special, or why people should care about him or his story.
Was he a villain? A mere animal? A hero?
The film never decided. In fact, the 1998 film never even gave serious thought about answering the question.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if Godzilla is portrayed as Terror Personified (as was the case in the Ishiro Honda original of 1954) or as a stalwart friend to mankind (as in Godzilla vs. Hedorah  for instance.)
Instead, what matters is that the filmmakers possess a clear concept of and opinion about Godzilla, so they can capably transmit it to audiences.
On this front, Godzilla (2014) succeeds marvelously. The new film contextualizes the giant beast as a kind of “alpha predator” whose main purpose is to balance out-of-whack nature.
Long-time fans of Godzilla films will recognize this approach as seeming rather Mothra-esque (think: Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle for the Earth ). Yet it certainly works in terms of Godzilla and our understanding of him. We have seen Godzilla as an Earth defender before, in the aforementioned Hedorah film, and also in efforts such as Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). Even in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1995), Godzilla was our champion (perhaps reluctant…) against more ravenous, horrible monsters.
But this Godzilla of 2014 is a hero, and the filmmakers realize it. They humanize their hero by giving him soulful, old eyes, and letting our human hero, Ford, register them. This is no mere “wild” animal, no mere berserker.
No, this Godzilla is not a monster at all…but a God who walks among men.
And judging by this Godzilla’s gait and lumber, he has seen quite a few fights too. There is something wise, deliberate and, again, soulful about this creature. I would even state that at times he seems somewhat gentle (particularly during his evacuation from San Francisco).
And indeed, that’s how the movie understands, recognizes and treats Godzilla for the audience’s benefit. If Godzilla is an avatar of nature, then he can be both dangerous and beautiful, and Godzilla 2014 nails that duality.
Second on the checklist: Godzilla films function best, universally, when the giant monsters serve as avatars for man’s misuse of the Earth or Earth’s environment.
In Godzilla (1954), of course, Godzilla represented the bugaboo of atomic bombs, and atomic testing in the Pacific by the United States.
In the aforementioned Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the “smog monster” was an alien who thrived on pollution, and mankind provided more than enough sewage and garbage to allow him to rise up and challenge the human race and the king of monsters.
And Godzilla 2000 explicitly compared Godzilla to a tornado: a natural force without malice, but with great destructive capability, nonetheless.
Again, Godzilla (2014) satisfies regarding this expectation, or artistic comparison. Many critics have read the film as an anti-global warming tract, and that seems, at least, a borderline legitimate reading.
However, the film hits many environmental notes -- and ones across the board -- in terms of modern environmentalism. To wit, the film opens in 1999 in the Philippines in the aftermath of a mining disaster. It is that mining disaster that leads promptly to a nuclear disaster in Janjira, Japan.
The MUTO -- a formerly dormant giant monster -- is awakened by man’s destructive hand at this particular mine, and so it is not impossible to see Godzilla as a commentary on fracking.
That mining technique is the source of many environmental risks, including contamination of the air, noise pollution, and the bringing up of (unhealthy) chemicals to Earth’s surface. Clearly, the MUTO is comparable in terms of noise pollution (!) and was brought up from beneath the Earth’s surface with very unhealthy consequences for man. The MUTO can thus be interpreted as an avatar for man’s greed in plundering the resources beneath our soil.
Similarly, the anti-nukes metaphor from the original Honda film is updated masterfully here, if that is the aspect of the film one chooses to concentrate on. Godzilla’s opening scene, about a pseudo-meltdown at the Janjira nuclear plant is frighteningly plausible, and brings back all-too-vivid memories of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011, which is still being cleaned u even as I write this review.
But in Godzilla, man knowingly nurtures the MUTO at the Janjira facility, nursing it, essentially on a diet of nuclear waste or nuclear energy. This facet of the MUTO implies that man is a self-destructive organism who courts disaster by continuing to “feed” technologies that are dangerous, and which could radically recreate the environment.
In the movie, fortunately, Mother Nature “summons” Godzilla -- the restorer of balance -- to set things right.
In real life, as I informed my son, Joel, we are not so lucky as to have a Godzilla on our side, and it seems we often don’t possess the wisdom to respond well when we create an imbalance. This facet of man’s nature is diagrammed in the film by the U.S. military force, which wants to detonate more nukes in order to stop a creature that actually feeds on nukes…a terribly reckless and poorly-considered notion.
There’s an old saying that man proposes and God disposes. In a very real way, Godzilla concerns what happens when nature must correct damage that man has created. Regardless if one focuses on the mining aspect or the nuclear aspect of Godzilla’s narrative, it is plain that Gareth Edwards’ film concerns, often deeply, the idea that when man errs catastrophically, nature will respond, and not always in a manner that directly benefits us, or our civilization.
By focusing intently on this subject -- that man is a fool to believe he can control nature -- Edwards’ Godzilla absolutely lives up to the noble and pro-social meaning of Toho’s Godzilla film series. The very existence of Godzilla reminds one that man is not, necessarily, at the top of the food chain on Earth.
Thirdly, in terms of the Godzilla movie checklist: do the human beings who move the story forward do more than merely serve the plot, and actually enhance the film as a narrative and as an experience?
Again, I’d suggest that the answer is strongly affirmative.
Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche vet powerful supporting roles early in the film, and almost instantly establish that there is a strong emotional and human under-current to this Godzilla film. Again, a contrast to the 1998 film seems to be in order.
There, the characters were one-note jokes (remember Mayor Ebert and the Tatapoulos joke?), and some characters were so unlikable, so disconnected from the experience of being in a world with Godzilla, that you actually found yourself wishing they would get killed by the giant iguana.
Not so here. The new Godzilla not only opens strongly with Cranston and Binoche as a doomed and tragic couple, but features a cerebral Godzilla “advocate” in the form of Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), a man who has seen precisely how man can imbalance nature through his father’s experience at Hiroshima in 1945.
This new Dr. Serizawa essentially fulfills the role of Miki Saegusa in the Heisei Era of Godzilla films, feeling and expressing a kind of emotional connection to this “alpha predator.”
Everyone else sees Godzilla as a monster, but Serizawa see him as something more…something remarkable.
In terms of the action, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing Ford, is asked to carry the greatest burden, and he does a fine job of establishing a character who is contending with less-than-ideal circumstances.
Ford encounters the MUTO in close-quarters twice, and sees Godzilla close-up at least once, but Taylor-Johnson doesn’t reach for irony or humor, instead embodying a brand of wide-eyed operational-intelligence, or survival mode instincts. Dropped into the frying pan, he’s constantly figuring out how not to get burned. The character need not do more than that, especially since he is also well-defined by the film as a good son, a good father, and a loving husband.
But importantly, Edwards permits us to see through Ford’s human eyes on multiple occasions. The air jump scene is one example that allows us to experience his point of view in visceral terms. And when Ford sees Godzilla relatively close-up, as I noted above, we see with him. We see the “monster’s” eyes through the man’s eyes.
This is Gareth Edwards’ greatest gift as a filmmaker: he is able to keep a strong focus on the human and the individual, even in moments that could seem unbelievable, or far-out. He grounds everything in the human experience, and the result -- as was also the case with Monsters (2010) -- often proves staggering.
Last but not least vis-à-vis the checklist: any Godzilla movie worth its weight in lizard scales needs to feature great monster fights.
Here, again, the film does not disappoint.
Edwards plays against expectations and reveals only glimpses of the first MUTO vs. Godzilla encounter. He holds his fire as long as possible before showing us the Full Monty, as it were. This reserved approach works effectively because suspense is generated, and we mustn’t suffer through a continuous orgy of destructive, non-stop special effects. Man of Steel (2013), j’accuse.
That film gave up plot, characterization -- everything -- for an hour of city-destroying action that ultimately had no visceral impact. A lot of CGI doesn’t have tremendously more impact than a little CGI, and Edwards seems to understand that lesson.
Godzilla doesn’t go there, and gives us a great final scene. Had the battle occurred at Honolulu mid-way through, the battle royale would not have succeeded.
Instead, the final battle between monsters in San Francisco proves a wonderful catharsis, and it lasts just long enough so that we don’t have to ask questions about Godzilla’s capabilities (such as: why didn’t he use his atomic fire breath in Hawaii). By keeping that battle largely off-screen, Edwards avoids a lot of questions about how and why things go down.
The final battle is extraordinary in Godzilla, so much so that the audience I watched the film roared, clapped and hollered in joy when the giant green monster powered up and fired his atomic breath for the first time.
Everyone was waiting for that precise moment -- a moment that Emmerich’s film studiously avoided because it wasn’t “realistic,” I guess -- and the moment here truly plays as cathartic, and if truth be told, rousing. Godzilla also lands a brilliant death blow on the last MUTO, and one that recalls, nicely, a similar move involving Orga in Godzilla 2000. As a monster, Godzilla has always been a slugger. He’s not always the strongest monster, and he doesn’t always have the most impressive powers, but he learns from each encounter and devises a strategy to win. That idea plays out in the film’s climactic encounter.
This Godzilla is truly a king of monsters (and monster films), and it could be the savior not just of the summer box-office, but of a certain style of blockbuster film-making; one where we care about the people and the narrative outcome as much as we do about the special effects, and plugs for upcoming franchise films.