Friday, May 15, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: GODZILLA (2014) Hype-Free Viewing

TRAVIS:

When we first reviewed Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA upon its release in 2014, I wrote that it was foolish to argue Godzilla's relevance with this triumphant return to US cinema. One year later, the aftermath of the movie's success can still be felt. IDW Comics has been continuing to support their various G titles, and Bandai recently released a brand new video game featuring G, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest of the gang. Right now in Tokyo, Japan, you can spend a night in the recently opened Godzilla hotel featuring themed suites and a towering statue of G peering into the windows! Of course, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are developing GODZILLA 2 for summer 2018, but Toho will also be relaunching G for their own new franchise in his Japanese homeland in 2016. And yet despite all of these accomplishments, the American film itself remains divisive among critics and fans. Some proclaim it a victory for kaiju worldwide while others find it lacking in spite of a few spectacular moments. On the movie's first anniversary, we'll muster our courage and take on GODZILLA to see if it's still the King of the Monsters.

Of all the things that hold up on repeat viewing, the fantastic opening credit sequence is definitely one of the highlights. Those worried that we'd see another long origin story for G should be pleased by the rapid fire montage of images that trace his roots from cave paintings of dinosaurs to tales of mythical sea monsters to classified government footage of G appearing in the 20th century. It's a wonderful encapsulation of his history done in a broad, exciting style. It's also great that even though G is no longer a metaphor for nuclear annihilation in the Legendary franchise that the atomic testing performed by the US is still tied to his past (this time explained as a cover up by the government to kill him). So what is Godzilla if he's been shed of the bomb in this new iteration? Though he's not the gravity defying Showa superhero anymore, he's certainly someone needed for our protection when a threat becomes too large. I think he's more akin to an old samurai, someone who's seen battles and confrontations for most of his life and only takes action when he's direly needed by the powerless. I like that even though he can still put up a good fight that he seems worn out and tired afterwards from years acting as a dominant predator. There may be a lot of mileage behind this version of G, but he's one that I want to follow for more films to come!

Though this current rendition of the character may not have been a problem for audiences, his seemingly short appearance time definitely was! One of the main criticisms against GODZILLA is that Godzilla himself doesn't show up in the majority of the film. In fact, one of the most popular YouTube videos related to GODZILLA actually collects all of G's scenes together and runs a mere eleven minutes compared to the movie's two hour running time. The point seems to be that there's nothing wrong with G; it's just that there's too little of him! However, I think this criticism doesn't actually derive from counting the minutes but from plot focus. In the pre-release marketing, we were being sold a movie that promised apocalyptic disaster from a gigantic monstrosity. Naturally, we assumed that G would be the harbinger of death, and we could guess that those MUTOs we heard about might be tangling up with ol' G. Yet when you examine the plot, it's really the MUTOs that drive most of the action. They cause the nuclear plant accident that widows Bryan Cranston's character and causes him to become a solitary lunatic. They're the threat that the government secretly monitors for years. They're the things that will (as Cranston puts it) “send us right back to the Stone Age” because of their destruction. Pretty much all of the characters except for Ken Watanabe concentrate on how to deal with the MUTOs while Watanabe rambles about G as the one to restore balance to nature (i.e. killing the shit outta some kaiju bugs). In this sense, G really is only a deus ex machina in the story since the humans continually fail to destroy them. Perhaps if G was more integrated into the story (maybe causing the plant meltdown himself) then the criticism of his diminished screen time could've been alleviated. Luca, how was your revisit of big G's return to America?

LUCA:

Well Travis, I’m glad to say that, free from the initial hype, GODZILLA manages to be a thoroughly entertaining movie on its own merits. As you’ve already mentioned, the opening credits are a masterclass in building up hype, be it in production design (oh man, who doesn’t like sinister medieval etchings?), editing and Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful throwback score. Having them end with a literal blast as Godzilla is supposedly defeated by the Bikini Atoll bomb keeps the sense of awe and wonder going apace. The film then segues to 1999, and brings us to the Filipino quarry with its strange finds, followed by the Janjira power plant being attacked – the mystery and tension here are still kept at pretty consistent levels. But alas! Juliette Binoche dies, Bryan Cranston makes that memeface and the movie takes a step back as we jump ahead fifteen years to witness the trials and tribulations of their son, now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. We talked about the boringness of Taylor-Johnson and his in-movie wife Elizabeth Olsen even a year ago, but now as then they didn’t bother me. I mean we can talk about Juliette Binoche getting killed early on and Olsen getting absolutely nothing to do than stare in awe at some monsters sometimes, but this is a problem the movie had a year ago as well.

The death of Bryan Cranston’s character early on (reminiscent of Captain Kirk’s falling off another walkway in STAR TREK: GENERATIONS) is yet another waste of good actors in nothing parts, but at least his absence is somewhat compensated for by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins joining the main story. While the Ford family is inoffensive, their beigeness is only highlighted by Watanabe and Hawkins, the kaiju otaku squad. I don’t know how I could have forgotten the hilarious extent to which these rational scientists praise our man G (“For all intents and purposes… he’s a god…”) and the completely logical solution to all our woes is to let the big radioactive dinosaur fight the flying bug monsters in San Francisco. Again I hope that the sequel focuses on a G-Force team of kooky scientists and military with these two in charge, rather than a bland audience identification character.

Easter egg I didn’t notice the first time: when the 1999 version of blandman goes to show Cranston the lovely banner he made for his birthday, he passes an old-timey Japanese monster movie poster in the style of Showa-Toho… featuring the two MUTOs from this very film! Most kaiju nerds probably noticed the little “Mothra” nametag on the terrarium at the abandoned elementary school, but I feel like this one may have sailed over the heads of many. I mean hell, how meta is that? A movie made about “real-life” monsters that nobody knows about yet. Or is this some clever worldbuilding on the part of Edwards and his screenwriters? Was a certain Japanese movie studio IN ON the existence of these atomic monsters that mess up everything we know about the food chain? Probably not, but hey, let me have this headcanon that nobody will ever bother to counter. Anything that struck you now that didn’t last year, Travis?

TRAVIS:

Watching it on Blu-ray a year later, what struck me most that I hadn't noticed before was Edwards' orchestration of the score and sound effects. No doubt what makes GODZILLA memorable are the monster set pieces, but Edwards is very masterful in what moments need to be underscored with music and when the foley should stand on its own. From what I could observe, Desplat's score is pulled back during moments of discovery and awe. As we search for and await the monsters we take in the silence and perk up when we suddenly hear a noise. Typically the music kicks in when the action gets, yet it still doesn't become more overwhelming than the imagery. The scenes where the music becomes more present than complimentary are the HALO jump (which mixes Ford's breathing with Gyorgy Ligeti's “Requiem”) and Godzilla's triumphant fanfare after his fire breath fatality on the female MUTO.

To talk further about the set pieces, even when viewed at home on TV they remain incredibly exciting to watch. On the Blu-ray special features, Edwards explained that he tried to ground his SFX shots in reality, as though they've been filmed at ground level, on top of a building, or up in a helicopter. To make it even more authentic, he always tried to fit in humans on the screen in those shots so that we understand the immense size and scale of G and the MUTOs. It can be pretentious to call any filmmaker “Spielbergian”, yet I think Edwards really does have that artistic eye for understanding how incredible it can be to watch the fantastic enter our reality in the way that makes Spielberg's work so distinct among popcorn films. As we've said before, the fact this movie still made Godzilla so wondrous and awe-inspiring to see after years of sequels is definitely a credit to Edwards' talent.

What can we expect in the future? Surprisingly, GODZILLA 2 will double down on the returning kaiju by introducing Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah into the mix. The Heisei and Millennium eras slowly integrated those characters into their continuities, so it's kinda funny to see Legendary go DESTROY--I MEAN--INCLUDE ALL MONSTERS and stuff the sequel with them. Heck, if they can recreate the scene from the original GHIDORAH movie where G, Rodan, and Mothra have a civil discussion about friendship, I'm sold. And considering how much Showa adventure there was in the 2014 film, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some modern day equivalent of Toho monster talk. Even if there isn't, with GODZILLA 2 and Toho's reboot coming soon, I'm definitely looking forward to the future of G. Any other thoughts before we dive back into the San Francisco bay, Luca?

LUCA:

I agree that Edwards' doling out of spectacle and monster madness is judiciously done, even though some have come to criticize the Welsh director's reluctance to get to the fireworks factory. In particular, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from the MUTO and Godzilla into a shelter in the nick of time before an unholy kaiju rumble happens outside. As the doors close, we see G and the MUTO run into each other, but as the camera remains with the refugees, we the audience are denied the spectacle. After cutting away from the first MUTO/Zilla fight in Honolulu (admittedly serving the movie's greatest visual gag as little Sam Brody watches it on TV but is told to shut it off by an inattentive Elle), this seems like monster-hiding overkill. It's not an unfair criticism, to be honest! During this rewatch, however, I noticed that the cut away from the monster fight takes us to the cargo plane that is about to drop Ford and the bomb squad into the ruins San Francisco... right amid the fighting monsters. If Edwards had chosen to intercut Elle fleeing with Ford suiting up for the HALO jump, the shelter doors closing wouldn't have felt so anticlimactic. Instead of "aww man, no monster fight AGAIN" maybe we would have felt "phew, Elle is safe, now to plant that bomb!" -- and it all could have been fixed at no additional cost in the editing room using footage that was already shot!

Regarding the Showa stuff, I wouldn't be surprised! I mean, the movie shows us that at after the fight American news stations dub Godzilla KING OF THE MONSTERS and we hear an entire football stadium cheering like crazy for this big fat lizard monster. I guess America loves an underdog! It's funny how everyone cheering for the Godzilla that just destroyed the city comes across as cute and silly in this, whereas everyone cheering for Superman making out with Lois amid the ashes of ten 9/11s in the background has everyone pulling at their collars in discomfort. I guess we cut big G a lotta slack cuz he's just an ole atomic dinosaur that doesn't know any better.

Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah being confirmed makes me very happy, as you might already guess, and I certainly hope that he relationships they had in the old Showa movies will be kept -- Rodan the rowdy brother, Mothra the caring sister, and King Ghidorah the big bully. Hell, I hope they throw in some good ole "guys with sunglasses who are really aliens or maybe ape men" for good measure. C'mon, Legendary, the public will have had three phases of Marvel by that point, they can take it! All in all, GODZILLA '14 pretty much holds up after a year, or at least its flaws have not become so magnified that I had any more problems with it than I had upon initial viewing. You know what they say in Project Monarch, the foremost kaiju experts of all: "Nature has a way... of restoring balance..." What do you mean, that makes no sense in context? Okay yeah I actually meant LET DEM FITEUHHHH

Free movie right here!

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