26 May, 2014

And Death Stomped With Him

I AM BECOME DINOSAUR
Some Thoughts, Feelings , and Pained Metaphors on Godzilla (2014)
GO GO GOJIRA

If you asked me a year ago about how much we need a Godzilla reboot, I'd say that we need one about as bad we need teeth in our asshole.

Ignoring the brain-dead fiasco that is Roland Emmerich's 1998 fiasco, even the original Godzilla movies are silly, if charming, balls of cheese. At worst, they're Final Wars. They're the kinds of film that you watch because you've either got a real yen for camp, you're eleven years old, or you're very, very high.

That is to say, overall, with the exception of the very first film, Godzilla movies are not high art that has changed the way we watch movies. So, yeah, the idea of a remake, even one helmed by the director of Monsters made me feel like I ate too much burrito: Tired and a bit queasy.

And I'm not alone. In 2004 Toho, the "Owners and Creators" of Godzilla, pulled the plug on Godzilla. Or, at least they saw fit to have him hibernate until there was a worthy reason to bring him back. And that's how I thought it would be until the end of time.

Then the teaser came out.


And then I realized that a new Godzilla is exactly what we needed.

THE MONSTERS ARE COMING. . . EVENTUALLY

Gareth Edwards' first big foray into Hollywood is exactly what you want out of a Godzilla film: It's a B-movie told with the seriousness and professionalism. It also does so without losing any of the energy or charm that made you fall in love with those old rubber suit movies. It's an actual film about giant monsters and it isn't embarrassed about it. If Pacific Rim hadn't come out last year Godzilla would have been the giant monster movie we've been waiting for.

One of the biggest complaints about the movie-- that Godzilla is held back for so long-- is proof of how well it has been made. Holding back the monster is what you're supposed to do. That's how these things work. Alien does it. Jaws does it. The Thing does it. Pacific Rim didn't do it, but Guillermo del Toro can do whatever he damn well pleases. Godzilla (1998) didn't do it either and look how that turned out. By holding Godzilla back, Edwards firmly places this movie alongside some of the best monster movies of all time. It shows that he knows what he's doing.

By building up the anticipation, it make Godzilla that much more of a mythical figure. It somehow tricks us into thinking that we've never seen something like this before. It makes us wonder when will he show up? What will he do? What exactly is this behemoth capable of? It makes that initial Godzilla scream that much more impactful. To take a sixty year old property, one that even its owners aren't too fond of, and gives it back its mystique.

But, of course, I'm burying the lead: Godzilla clocks in at a mere two hours. That gives the director plenty of time to establish a world before it starts blowing it up. It has a human length. If only for that Godzilla might be the best blockbuster this year.

THOSE PINK WALKING BITS THAT AREN'T GODZILLA. . . YOU KNOW, PEOPLE

As much as Godzilla is about watching cities that didn't do anything wrong in their life getting smashed like your drunk grandpa's vase, it's a movie about people. . . and whether or not these people are going to get smashed. For the most part, the characters that aren't giant monsters are perfectly capable of moving things along.

As far as square-jawed leading men are concerned Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a perfectly acceptable collection of right-angles. While I loathed Savages, he was one of the less loathsome things in the movie. I mean, beyond his hair. But in this movie he has a crew cut, so it's fine. He actually reminds me of Orlando Bloom's performance in Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say neither of them are very good, but at least they've got the good taste not to get in the movie's way.

Elizabeth Olsen also delivers a perfectly fine performance, giving scene an emotional grounding when they need it or accentuating the drama where needed. While I don't buy her as a mother of a five year old for one single second, at least she doesn't look entirely ridiculous.

Where the film's strength lies is in its supporting cast-- a collection of actors either too old, too talented, or too expensive to give the lead to. They elevate every scene. It's a thankless task, but it serves the movie's purposes. It's a better drama for them being wasted.

Right off the top, we have Juliette Binoche who even when collecting a paycheck delivers a performance that is far greater than the length of time she is on screen. Then there is Sally Fields also shows up if only to remind us that Happy Go Lucky has been on our Instant Queue for two years now and that we still haven't watch it.

We also have Bryan Cranston. He's great. We all know this. He's about as underused as the rest of the cast that doesn't have a military haircut. Fortunately, in the few scenes that he has, he acts his ass off. Like Binoche, he isn't on for long, but he makes those moments count.

Then, of course, there is Ken Watanabe (who, like Morgan Freeman, is the kind of actor you patch into a movie if you need a scene to have gravitas). Even in sillier films like The Last Samurai, he's a man who commands your attention and Godzilla is no exception. Even in a room full of military goons, he's the man you're waiting to speak. Every film he appears in, he seems like the perfect choice. Godzilla is no exception.

The best moment in the movie-- that doesn't involve monsters duking it out-- focuses on Watanabe. In it, he and David Strathairn are looking over a seemingly doomed San Francisco, wondering what the hell to do.

There's something beautiful about that little moment. It's about monsters fighting as much as it is about everything but monster fighting. It's one of the few scenes that match up to the promised metaphorical heights that Edwards mentions in interviews and that the original film was built around. It also doesn't make me think about weird 9/11 allegories and that's always a good thing.

EL MONSTRE ES MUYO GORDO

I like the new Godzilla. He looks like Godzilla. That's always a good start for a Godzilla movie.
Keeping in the tradition of other recent franchise reboots, this incarnation of Godzilla is meant to be  realistic take on the the King of Monsters. Or as realistic as a 300+ foot tall lizard is ever going to get.

But the Weta-assisted design actually works. Unlike a lot of CGI, eveven recent CGI, this is a monster that has real weight and impact. As easy as it might be to poke fun at Godzilla's bulk, everything suddenly makes sense when the first move he makes in a fight is a two-handed sumo wrestler slam. Even the sillier bits of the design have a well thought out function. That's always nice to see.

As important as Godzilla is, the mark of a good Godzilla movie is a good villain. King Ghidorah, Biollante, and Mechagodzilla and Charles Barkley are just as significant as the King of the Monsters himself. Fortunately, this time around the film makers got it right. The baddies are smartly designed and have the same kind of heft that Godzilla does.

What's interesting is that they don't just look like bugs that have been scaled up. Instead, they look like living fossils. They look like they are of earth, but that they don't quite belong. They look like they fall somewhere between something at the Natural History Museum and a Pokemon. They're anchored in this world, yet there's something fantastic going on. That's a good place for a kaiju to be.

 
WHAT REMAINS

A lot of the flack being hurled at Godzilla centers around what polite people would call “pacing problems” and what others would call “boring.” Over the years I've backed away from spitting venom at people with whom I disagree,* but it needs to be said: These people are idiots. Godzilla, for all of its smashing, is not a movie made for or by idiots. For all of its special effects Godzilla is a movie about the human beings. Apparently that makes things "boring" now instead of "dramatic."

While I'll agree that the human aspect of the film leaves something to be desired, Gareth Edwards still delivers a rock solid action film. It looks great, it moves along nicely, and it delivers exactly the kind of thrills that you want out of a giant monster movie. It doesn't quite have the depth that some other action movies might have that doesn't mean that it still isn't worth your time and money.

The original Godzilla practically invented a genre. This film does not do that. What it does do is deliver an exciting action film that belongs in the pantheon of monster movies. It's the kind of movie you would love as a kid and unlike a lot of crap that you watch as a kid this movie might actually deserve it. A lot of people are mentioning Steven Speilberg in the same breath as this film. While Godzilla does not hit the highs of those great blockbusters, it is a fun film and a fine start to the blockbuster season. If only more blockbusters could be as insubstantial as this one.

 

ALTERNATIVE OPINIONS:

I'm a fan of Vice and this article is no different. With a headline like that, I can't resist it.

Here's a more coherent review of the film from Rafael Gamboa. Even though I don't agree with it, I went to high school with this guy and he wasn't terrible, so I'm going to be nice. Also, it's really well written.

As always: Kermode is also available.

Since we're at it, why don't we all relive Roger Ebert's amazing review of the 1998 Godzilla.

SIDE NOTE:

My current feeling on the movie is that I think it'll slide into obscurity and only be viewed by the odd Godzilla nerd or kid who is getting into scary movies, but can't quite handle actual scary movies. That is until the sequel, which has already been green lit. As cynical as I sound, I'm kind of excited for what that movie will look like. I'm excited by the idea of Gareth Edwards (or whoever) trying to square Mu or King Ghidorah into this semi-realistic world that they've built. I want to know how they're going to meld Battle of Algiers with Cloverfield.

Someday.

FOOT NOTES:
*Yes, I realize that I complained that Only Lovers Left Alive left me a bit bored, but that also didn't have giant bugs and reptiles smashing things for an hour. Being a bit boring is also a part of that movie's charm.  And, yes, I know that I also complained that The Wind Rises was boring, but fuck The Wind Rises. And another thing, Only Lover Left Alive was two hours of people talking in rooms and that was boring. Godzilla is maybe an hour of people talking in rooms and then it has another hour of monsters smashing shit. What the fuck do you morons want?