Monday, May 19, 2014

BOP Reviews: Godzilla (2014)

When the new Godzilla roars, he freaking roars.

Ever since the debut of the film's astonishingly well-crafted teaser trailer late last year, I had an unexpected surge of excitement running through me - all in anticipation of a movie that, by all accounts, I should have had no interest in. Despite being intrigued by the trailers, I was never one of the many that ran out to see 2013's Pacific Rim, another recent kaiju action movie slugfest that had similarly accredited talent behind it. Not for any particular reason, but merely due to a lack of familiarity or direct association with the genre to appeal to me on a profound level. I hadn't even seen Jurassic Park since I was a toddler. My experience with movies about giant monsters hitting other giant monsters, terrorizing innocent civilians and wrecking everything in their path began and ended with a certain movie in 1998 that I'm not going to talk about, even though you totally know which one it is - it shares this movie's title and little else. But unlike that hilarious blot on cinema history, the trailers for this new Godzilla awakened an inner kaiju fan that I never even knew I had. Something indescribable had taken hold, whether it was the bleak and dead serious scope of the thing, the gorgeous effects and what I liked to call "apocalypse cloud syndrome", or the first glimpse of the big lizard himself and the fact that he now towered over entire modern skyscrapers instead of quaint outskirt villages. Or maybe it was just Bryan Cranston. Yeah, probably Cranston.
"You're goddamn right."
Either way, 'Zilla fever had hit me along with most of the cinema-viewing public, and I couldn't wait to see this movie on opening day. In my excitement, I even went back and, through the magic of Netflix, watched a couple of the movies I'd missed out on to get a feel for what I was in for: specifically, the original American-dubbed version of 1954's Gojira (or "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!"), and one of the subsequent sequels, Godzilla Vs. The Thing (or "Weird-Ass Movie About Tiny Women Singing To Giant Moth Creature"). With those two whetting my appetite for some monster-fueled chaos courtesy of modern special effects, I sat back and waited for my chance to feast eyes on 2014's version of the King of the Monsters. Finally, the day came. But did it live up to the hype? Many critics are torn on that, and I went in fully aware of the consensus. Despite this, I remained determined to see if they were right while not allowing it to cloud my judgement.

And on most accounts, thankfully, they weren't. Put simply, Godzilla is a really good movie. Fantastic, or even the perfect Godzilla movie, like the trailers would have you believe? Maybe not, but there's alot there to still appreciate and admire in a film that clearly tries very hard to make you believe a lizard can fly. Or shoot blue firey atomic breath, to be more accurate. One of the biggest criticisms against the movie, if not the most predominant, is that there isn't enough of the main beast himself to satisfy audiences. That's kind of true and kind of isn't at the same time, as Godzilla's presence is clearly felt from the opening credits and never really lets go - at least, for two of the three acts, both the wraparound first act and the climatic third. You get the sense of awe that surrounds Godzilla even as he's brushed aside as something long-since believed to be dead, with Ken Watanabe's fascination with the monster making it clear that even over fifty years later, he and all who know the truth have waited for the day when the giant behemoth that awakened during the nuclear tests in the South Pacific would return. It's effective, and it really makes his first appearance all the more impressive, knowing that he wasn't played up as a mystery more than an inevitability. We know Godzilla's out there, and so does everyone else. It's just a matter of bringing him to the surface.
On the flipside, there is a major issue that also lends credence towards what most critics and some audiences are saying about his lack of screentime. But not one I really even fully expected until I watched the movie: It isn't that Godzilla doesn't show up fast enough, but rather that when he does, it takes a full act of the movie for him to do much of anything. When he first appears on screen as the camera pans up to his full form and he lets out that legendary roar for the first time, it's jaw-dropping and absolutely stunning. But less than a second later, it cuts away to another scene and we only see what's happening on a television screen. A gigantic monster fight is taking place and we have to see it through snippets of news footage that are quickly abandoned - and not once does it ever cut back. It's definitely a deliberate move on Gareth Edwards' part, as it feels very deliberate, but it's also very frustrating to take into account when you realize that what you want to see is actually happening, but only happening off-screen. It'd almost be less frustrating if Godzilla were completely absent from the movie until he was ready to completely unleash his scaly wrath, because what's given to us feels like a tease. A tease that eventually pays off, mind you, but a tease nonetheless.

Another big criticism that most critics have is the fact that the human element of the film - the story beyond giant lizards and Cloverfield-adjacent crawlers - is a bit lacking and really detracts from the action. Again, that's kind of true and kind of isn't. While certainly not the most original story I've ever seen, I never found myself bored by the events that were taking place with the human characters. Bryan Cranston clearly carries the drama when given a chance, acting leagues above the others and delivering the most memorable performance, but none of the other characters are terrible - one is really just underdeveloped, and that's Ken Watanabe's character. You're given interesting insights into his past through vague hints, but that's about it, and his actions in the movie are somewhat of a question mark. Whenever Godzilla and the other monsters first show up, he seems to almost immediately jump to the conclusion that they should use Godzilla to fight the others. Why? Hell if we know, but Watanabe sure seems fixated on the idea of a kaiju slugfest. Were it a lesser movie and a lesser actor, it'd be laughably out of nowhere. But Watanabe gives his performance enough depth to at least buy into it for the ride. The other actors in the movie are serviceable, particularly Elizabeth Olsen - who does a surprisingly good job at making you forget she looks seventeen and not at all old enough to be the mother of a young son and the wife of a military veteran - but they're not given all that much to do. Aaron Johnson's role, the "lead" role, consists mainly of having him reacting to things and being thrown from inanimate objects. I don't think any other actor would have fared better, to be perfectly honest.

But beyond those problems, and the fact that Cranston's role is severely underplayed to the point of an agonizing "Why the hell was he even in it then?!" reaction, the third act is where things really get going. I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't a little frustrated when the focus wasn't solely on Godzilla chomping the living hell out of one of the M.U.T.O.'s, but c'mon. That's because it's handled so goddamned well. Every single second spent on the monster action itself is nothing short of astonishing, and that's largely because of the fact that Godzilla - for the first time, maybe even since his 1950's debut - lives and breathes on the screen. Every action he takes is meticulously planned out, like his very movements are apart of a grand play in which he enters entirely on mark. When he unleashes his attacks, particularly two iconic ones that fans of the series will immediately lose their minds over seeing play out in a big screen adaptation, you feel the brutality of them and want to cringe almost as nearly as much as you want to cheer. Almost, because you'll be doing alot of cheering. Godzilla is the hero of this movie, and from his very first close-up, you know exactly what his opponents are in for: utter annihilation. It's something to behold, and it immediately reminded me of that feeling I got whenever I watched the first teaser. This was what I'd been excited for, and for what was given, it delivered. When Godzilla roars, he freaking roars.

Is it a perfect movie? No, not at all. And your reaction may vary, just based on the many mixed opinions so far. But personally speaking, by the time I walked out of the theater, I immediately wanted the already announced sequel to be released so that I could experience something like that third act again. Godzilla has been unquestionably, undeniably reborn, and there's no telling where he'll go now, but know this: Whatever giant monster he's facing next, they had better be prepared. Because he's going to mess them and whatever city that's surrounding him up. 

Long live the King.