Friday, May 31, 2019
In 2016, Godzilla (or Gojira, if you prefer…) celebrated his sixty-second birthday.
The big green, atomic-breathing creature has now been a crown jewel of the global pop culture longer than any competitors, including James Bond, or the heroes of Star Trek and Star Wars.
And in his six decades as a silver screen star, Godzilla has featured several distinctive faces. He has grown and changed with the times.
I grew up with the Showa Godzilla, a set of filmed stories which ran from 1954 to the mid-1970s. During that span, Godzilla went from being a terrible menace (and overt avatar for the terrors of nuclear power) to a friendly guardian of the Earth, with friends on Monster Island such as Anguirus, Mothra, and King Caesar.
When Godzilla battled Hedorah (the Smog Monster) in the early seventies, the Godzilla series lived up, again, to its reputation as a vehicle for meaningful social commentary; contending with what series filmmakers believed was the great, existential menace of the disco decade: our thoughtless destruction of our own home, the planet Earth.
After the Showa Era we got the Heisei Era, and kaiju challengers such as Biollante, Space Godzilla, and, finally, Destoroyah. The Millennium Era was next, with Godzilla compared to a natural disaster -- like a tornado -- in Godzilla 2000 (2000), and broaching a Matrix-esque world in the steroidal Final Wars (2004).
Now, with the arrival of Shin Godzilla (2016) we have officially entered an age that I suppose will be called the Akhito Era of the Godzilla franchise after Japan’s current emperor…at least if tradition holds.
To my surprise and delight, the new film, from director Hideaki Anno, is fresh, original, and briskly paced. The movie doesn’t rest on franchise laurels, but instead -- once again -- has taken the temperature of the times, and produced a Godzilla film that seems like it belongs in our world and our time
The franchise doesn’t feel sixty-two in other words. It feels like it was conceived in the now.
How would I characterize “the now?”
Well, we live in troubled times. We’ve had the Brexit vote in England, and the recent American presidential election too. Both events suggest that the post-World War II era-- and Order -- is finally showing signs of its age; showing signs of fraying. Globalization, for instance, is meeting with intense blow-back because of its negative impact on local communities, a phenomenon called glocalization.
Also being rejected are longstanding Establishment rules and norms about political decorum, political parties, and matters such as trade and even, shockingly, racial integration or multi-culturalism.
Again, the whole Post-World War II Order is being re-thought. The Status Quo is showing signs of coming to an end.
In short, we are barreling forward into a future that appears frightening to some people because the old rules and hierarchies seem to be crumbling. The assumptions we have carried about the past may no longer hold true.
The future is -- as it always was -- unwritten. But our assumptions about its shape are being called into question.
Shin Godzilla captures and reflects this age of anxiety with almost perfect grace and execution. Call it “Brex-zilla,” because this film is really about one topic: the modern Japanese identity, as reflected through its government and alliances.
At times that government seems mired in red tape and tradition, to the detriment of all. And at other times, the government -- or at least parts of it -- remains flexible enough to allow a breakthrough in innovation and technology that could actually fight the film’s challenge, Godzilla, to a standstill.
Featuring fantastic special effects, edgy, non-stop, overlapping dialogue, and a constantly accelerating pace, Shin Godzilla is a total, ground-up rejuvenation of the long-lived franchise, and a facelift for a beloved movie star that promises to carry him (and his films) into a brave new world.
In short, I loved Shin Godzilla.
This is actually my favorite film so far of 2016, a heartening, thoughtful re-think of the silver screen’s greatest monster. It’s not only a great monster movie, it’s a great movie about the world as it exists today.
Much to the chagrin of the Japanese government, a strange disruption occurs in broad daylight in Tokyo Bay. A strange, long-tailed creature emerges from the sea and moves inland, pulping bridges, cars, boats and everything else in its path.
Unfortunately, the government can offer no consensus about what to do regarding the creature. Even before information can be gathered about the monster, however, an attack is launched by the air force. The creature retreats to the sea, but soon returns in a new, even more deadly form, standing fully erect on two legs.
As scientists determine that the monster is powered by nuclear fission, the crisis worsens. The creature continues to cause billions in property damage, and the Prime Minister agrees to a U.S. request to use B2 bombers against the monster, now known as Godzilla.
Unfortunately, the attack by the U.S. spawns a second mutation. The creature again alters itself. Godzilla retaliates by using atomic rays fired from its mouth, dorsal spines, and even tail. In the ensuing blow-back, the Japanese Prime Minister is killed.
A low ranking government official, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) attempts to execute a plant to freeze Godzilla, but he is competing against the Americans, who want to immediately drop a nuke on the monster…and Tokyo itself.
Yaguchi teams up with a special envoy from the U.S., Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihari) to rally a plan to stop Godzilla before Tokyo is obliterated.
It is not difficult to view Shin Godzilla as a commentary on the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the response to that disaster by the Japanese government.
Specifically, this Godzilla is a threat who keeps changing shape. He’s not exactly a tsunami or an earthquake, but the nature of the danger he presents keeps changing. Similarly, in real life, Japan had to grapple with a meltdown, and then, containment, and then, unfortunately, radioactive contamination.
Shin Godzilla knowingly sets up a conflict between the higher-ups in the Japanese government, who are unable -- from their establishment perches -- to respond to the crisis in a meaningful way, and the younger generation (Yaguchi and Patterson), who are able to heroically and meaningfully respond to the constantly changing menace. These young heroes rally various industrial and scientific sectors to stop Godzilla, a feat that the old guard can’t manage.
Instead, the old guard simply cedes authority to the Americans, relying on an antiquated alliance or power structure that may no longer have Japan’s best interest involved. After all, the Americans believe everything will be solved if only they are permitted to drop a nuke on Godzilla, destroying Tokyo in the process.
By pitting the younger generation against not only the older one, but against international forces and alliances, Shin Godzilla perfectly reflects the dynamics of our post-Brexit age. The criticism here of the United States is a criticism, as well, of the outdated status quo, and by extension, globalism. The criticism of the old guard (both prime ministers in the film) is a judgment against the wealthy elite who control the world for their own benefit, and can’t seem to solve any real problems.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Shin Godzilla is cynical about the world.
Contrarily, the film states, rather convincingly, that government can also be an effective force of good, in the right hands. Yaguchi is also part of the establishment system, but he is able to think outside of it for the good of his nation. Patterson, an American, is motivated by what I term “enlightened” self-interest. If she manages the Godzilla crisis successfully, her power base will grow, and the film makes clear her ambition to be U.S. President.
But ambition isn’t the problem here. The problem is lack of ambition.
The Prime Minister(s) in the film don’t seem to recognize that the primary concern is saving people's lives. Rather, they seem to see the problem as one where they just don't wan to be assigned blame.
There is a vacuum of leadership.
And this is a crisis that calls for emboldened, innovative leadership. Instead, the first thing the interim Prime Minister can offer on the job is his disappointment that his dinner is now soggy. To him, that’s his first “trial” or sacrifice on the job, having to deal with soggy noodles.
I find it fascinating too, that Godzilla -- for the first time in his long history -- is now a shape-shifter, and not merely a radioactive dinosaur.
This fact makes the monster, more than ever, our responsibility. Godzilla first emerges from the Bay as a big eyed, open-mouthed, thing. He’s kind of cute, actually. It’s true he is leaking red radioactive fluid and destroying things in his path, but his destruction doesn’t seem intentional. He’s just…large and ungainly. He’s an animal on the loose.
The government, fearful of being blamed for a crisis, or property destruction, orders Godzilla attacked before he can be studied, as Yaguchi prefers. After the attack, Godzilla returns as a more fearsome monster. The question is: had he been met with something other than violence, would he have had biological need to develop into this more terrifying stage?
And again, a second time, Godzilla is met only with violence. The U.S. B-2 bombers go after him, and activate his ‘atomic’ capacities.
In other words, Godzilla evolves as he does because of the way we treat him, because of the decisions we make.
In a very real sense, we are his parents, and our choices transform him into a walking, talking avatar of mass destruction.
Again, I see a very Brexit/2016 connection evident here: the idea of an uncertain future unfolding in ways both unpredictable and scary, because of the choices we make.
What impact will electing a reality TV star to the White House have on World Peace? What will England’s exit from the EU do to the rest of Europe?
We have no answers to those questions as of yet.
Just as we have no idea, finally, of Godzilla’s ultimate form. The movie ends with him frozen, about to (asexually) reproduce. Freezing him (and his offspring) is temporary solution, and one, perhaps, with unforeseen consequences.
The future -- like ours, post-Brexit -- is not yet written. What will be the consequences of our choices?
Shin Godzilla is beautifully filmed, and one aspect that stands out for me are the scenes of destruction.
When Godzilla goes nuclear, literally, it is an awe-inspiring moment, visually-speaking. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they have updated the monster’s atomic breath and made it more like an atomic barrage, firing from all quarters. This is the most over-powered Godzilla in film history, and yet he doesn't feel evil or malicious. He is, as the movie seems to note, a Force of Nature (or, in the verbage of the film, a God Incarnate.)
And the moment during which Godzilla attacks is terrifying too. The Prime Minister’s helicopter is cut down in flight, and a city goes up in flames. It is a fantasy setting -- replete with giant monster -- and yet the damage and pain feel very real, almost tangible.
Perhaps it’s just the events of the 21st century so far which make this movie so terrifying. I never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) thought I’d witness the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the drowning of an American city in a hurricane. But watching Shin Godzilla in 2016, this destruction in Tokyo doesn’t feel far-fetched, but rather frighteningly real.
Shin Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie my (10 year-old) son Joel has seen in a theater (mine was Godzilla: 1985, when I was fifteen), and we saw it in a crowded-to-capacity auditorium. In fact, we saw it in the same theater where we saw The Force Awakens last December, and it was even more crowded for Shin Godzilla, because it was the only theater in Charlotte showing the film. The movie earned a rousing reception from the audience, including all the Muirs.
I knew my son didn’t get the larger real-world context behind the film. He just saw his new favorite monster movie (and his new favorite Godzilla movie) up there on the screen. Watching the film through his eyes, I realized how the Godzilla franchise has achieved, again, something magical and wondrous.
Shin Godzilla honors the franchise's ancestry and history by succeeding as both as a monster movie for kids, and a movie for adults about the monsters of our own making.
Long live Godzilla!
Godzilla was 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 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. 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.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...