Sunday, May 18, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade EXTRA TARDY EDITION: GODZILLA (2014)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

LUCA:

Sometimes a movie isn't quite what a trailer makes it out to be. MAN OF STEEL wasn't quite the tale of the last son of Krypton come to inspire mankind to greatness, finding love and acceptance among them, as its expertly cut initial trailers would have you believe. So too is Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA not a grim meditation on apocalyptic annihilation by way of atomic monsters, as the Oppenheimer-narrated teaser seemed to say. Even Bryan Cranson's character's speech about how "this thing will send us back to the stone age" -- a line that got me excited for a movie that would go in depth on the idea that humanity would actually move down a couple notches on the food chain once kaiju appeared -- is actually cobbled together from a few different scenes in the film. GODZILLA 2014 (henceforth G14) has far less lofty ideals than, say, to examine man's propensity for nuclear self-destruction. Mostly, it would like to be a thrill ride. G14 is less GOJIRA than it is JAWS.

Sure, there is some mention of nuclear testing being the cause of all this, and Ken Watanabe's character (delightfully named Serizawa after Akihiko Hirata's eye-patch wearing scientist from the original) references his personal connection to Hiroshima, but commentary is not on the film's mind. Peril and adventure are! Now, unfortunately the movie does not have characters as good or fun as Spielberg's shark thriller. Watanabe does the best with what he has, imbuing Serizawa with a twitchy-eyed madness I'm not quite sure was meant to be intentionally funny, and Bryan Cranston utilizes his brief screentime well enough. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a bland, undefined hero, while Elizabeth Olsen gets to be a worried wife. Nobody is BAD per se, but you'll probably not walk out of the theater quoting any boss lines either.

But hey, there's one guy in there who steals the show without any lines at all -- Gojira! Our favorite pear-shaped atomic dinosaur is, quite astonishingly, the least grumpy and destructive I've ever seen him. His eyes convey pathos and evoke sympathy at several points in the movie. It's the cuddliest I've probably ever seen Big G! This is simply astonishing! This is some pure and simple Showa shit! The movie could not be farther from the film sold to us in trailers. Unlike with MAN OF STEEL, however, I was very pleasantly surprised by this unexpected turn of events. How did YOU leave the theater, Travis?

TRAVIS:

To speak about the larger sense of geekdom these days, with studios readily developing any franchise that’s available, it feels like you never truly have to grow up. Concerning 2014, never in my childhood would I’ve guessed that as an adult I’d indulge in brand new cinematic adventures of Captain America or the Muppets, and I couldn’t even fathom seeing a big budget American Godzilla flick (I mean, I did in 1998 but….) So how did I feel ultimately feel about GODZILLA? I smiled. Of all the reasons and words I’ll prattle on about in this review, I simply smiled. I only have a few experiences in the movie theater with G, and this felt right. Enthralling. Exciting. Godzilla. Though we’ll probably list a few faults, I couldn’t be happier. You’re very correct, Luca, that we’re in for an adventure rather than a somber tale, and I think it’s because Gareth Edwards is the right type of G fan. He acknowledges what G represents as a heavy burden/moral lesson about man’s treatment of nature, yet he also understands that smashing and bashing is just so much FUN. One thing that encouraged me in the prerelease hype is he would cite both the original GOJIRA and the monster mash DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as his favorites. Watching GODZILLA, I completely grasped that balance and duality. As much as I love GOJIRA, its solemnness would wear thin eventually (by movie 3, he’s fighting King Kong). His ties to WWII and the atomic age ground him in reality so that we can accept the silliness of grappling giant condors and mantises. For Edwards, I’m sure GODZILLA was boyhood playtime again, just with bigger toys this time.

Let’s talk about humans shall we, Luca? I agree with your assessments about the cast, and critics especially seem to point out how dull Aaron is. I concur with your conclusion about him: banal but not terrible. He also isn’t helped by Cranston and Juliette Binoche being so strong in the opening scene. They don’t have a lot of screen time (Binoche especially), but they’re such great actors that you immediately understand and empathize with their pathos. In comparison, Aaron does nice yet forgettable work. As far as Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, I’m going to guess that he understood his role as Expository Gravitas Asian in this summer blockbuster and had a lark.

BUT TRAVIS, WHAT DID YOU THINK OF GODZILLA HIMSELF? Loved the big guy since I was little, and I still love him now. The way he fights Muto alongside the army reminds me of his good guy days on his old Hanna Barbera cartoon; the humans struggle with the villain monster all they can until they summon G from the depths to save their asses. No Godzooki in sight though! Awww man, dat radioactive breath! You knew (or at least hoped) it was coming, and both moments were so BAWASS that the audience I was with happily applauded. I’ll probably see better quality films this year, but listen I just saw Godzilla grip open Muto’s mouth and blast blue fire down its goddamn neck and then threw down its disembodied head and roooooaaaaaarrred and it was the best thing I ever saw. You like dat radioactive breath too, Luca?

LUCA:

yeah i was p down for it

One of my favorite things about the movie was the (actually quite Japanese!) feeling of teamwork and respect between the different factions. You'd expect David Strathairn's admiral character to be a big bully blowhard who doesn't want to listen to the PUSSY LIBERAL science types, but he's respectful throughout. He immediately takes to Watanabe's advice. The Navy has ZERO qualms about ESCORTING FUCKING GODZILLA TO SAN FRANCISCO. There's no X-Files style attempts at keeping the cover-up going once the monsters are out, no MIB "weather balloon" explanations for destruction. I liked that! Serizawa's explanation to Aaron about how "there used to be atomic monsters okay", accompanied with a little diagram that reminded me of the "food chain" from Lisa the Vegetarian, cracked me up.

Music! It was too much for me to hope for a reprisal of Ifukube's classic themes, but Alexandre Desplat does kill it. I've been listening to the opening credits (which were amazing, btw) theme for days now. His use of bamboo flutes and Taiko drums is probably quite eye-roll inducing for the Asian movie nerds in the house, but I liked that he even bothered to create an actual (however stereotypical) Asian musical identity for Big G. I'd actually love to know your opinion on that one, Travis! Tiresome, offensive?

I'd love to see a sequel (and if the opening weekend indicates anything, it's that I'm not alone), and I think what would be crucial to a second movie's success is Edwards' continued involvement. Next to Godzilla himself, he's probably the biggest star. His set pieces, his sense of scale, his obvious love of kaiju -- indispensable, I say! In terms of sequel direction, I honestly think King Ghidorah would be an awesome escalation. Build it up like ARMAGEDDON or something, make him be like Galactus come to consume the world. This movie's tone definitely allows for such silly Silver Age grandeur. Whatever they do, they've got my ticket already for sure!

TRAVIS:

I’m already in line for more GODZILLA too! How about some fanboy sequel speculation? The most obvious easter egg/homage in the film is Aaron’s old terrarium labeled “Mothra”, and you also see a poster of different moth species featured prominently in his classroom when the nuclear plant meltdown begins. Will the guardian of Infant Island eventually show up? I imagine those Mothra references are akin to the S.H.I.E.L.D. involvement in the first IRON MAN movie: standalone geeky allusions to the bigger universe that can act as franchise insurance later on. Also don’t forget that Watanabe and Sally Hawkins tell us that Godzilla and other prehistoric creatures (DUN DUN DUHHHHH) fed on radiation after hiding in the Earth’s crust. Could Rodan or Anguirus rise again soon? I like your Ghidorah as Galactus idea, Luca. Hopefully the filmmakers won’t try to “ground” him in reality and turn him into stormy clouds!

I doubt that’ll happen though, because Edwards seems to have the right mindset about kaiju. I’ll admit that I wasn’t crazy about his debut film MONSTERS, but the parts that worked were his handling of the alien “Creatures”. The low budget probably forced him to hide them for most of the movie, yet he could suggest their presence in impressive ways. Distant, unknown sounds become alarming, and an object in the distance stirring about strangely can seem tense and terrifying. He brings those same tricks to GODZILLA, and they work so beautifully powerful. In an age of CG where anything can be brought to life, a ragged creature from the past still awed the audience I sat with. My favorite shot in the movie might be in Hawaii when the army flares fire from the rooftop, only to reflect off the massive body of Godzilla. We get those blockbuster money shots of monsters wrasslin’ in the finale, but all those peeks and glimpses of G and Muto were the important puzzle pieces that illustrated the gorgeous spectacle at the end.

Watching the first GODZILLA trailer last year prompted me to start these reviews with Luca, and it’s a little unbelievable to find myself writing this on its opening weekend months later. During the intervening time, I noticed how positive the prerelease hype was. For hardcore Godzilla fans, it was a dream come true. Geeks in general were ready for the return of a figurehead of sci-fi & horror, and even casual filmgoers seemed welcome to having the ol’ lizard back from their childhood. No one can dispute him as an icon, and now it’s foolish to argue his relevancy. The news broadcast in the final minutes of GODZILLA stated it perfectly: “King of the Monsters”.

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