Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Official Black Owl Review of Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.”

Before we get rolling here, I need to talk a bit about my history with the character of Godzilla; if you don’t believe Godzilla is in fact a character, just click that little ‘x’ in the upper corner and go away, because you don’t need this review.  Godzilla is iconic and indeed a character in his eponymous series of films.  Some of those films, both Japanese and American, have spanned the spectrum from greatness to garbage.

I first discovered Godzilla watching either late night or Sunday afternoon creature features on network television. (Sorry youngsters, back when I was a kid we had three networks, PBS, and radio.  No web video, no interwebz, and not even videotape.)  This was primarily the sixties and seventies film version that was more than a little tongue in cheek, but treated Godzilla with a certain respect and reverence.  The characters treated Godzilla not as a monster, but as a protective force as if he was a manifestation of the Japanese spirit itself.  I didn’t understand.

Then, in the late 70s we got the Godzilla cartoon.  I watched it religiously (along with ‘Battle of the Planets’) and despite Godzuky, added it to my repertoire of appreciating giant monsters.  C’mon, I still sing the theme song, as horrible as the whole thing was. 

Then, in the mid 80s I was Saved.  I want to thank my old and dear friend Will Schwartz who was far more familiar with Japanese pop culture than I was.  When “Godzilla 1985” came out he was sad they had to put Raymond Burr into it.  I mentioned that the 1954 Godzilla had the former Perry Mason as well.  And then he showed me the truth.

Will had a bootleg of the original 1954 “Gojira” from Japan.  No Raymond Burr, just a masterpiece of mid-twentieth century cinema.  I certainly didn’t know that the scenes featuring Burr were edited in to make the movie “palatable” for an American audience, and was not a melodramatic farce about a ridiculous monster.  I learned though that “Gojira” was a solemn examination of mankind’s effects on the world around us, and how nature fights back.  The 1954 “Gojira” was then a parable for nuclear largess (mind you, actually intercut with documentary footage of Hiroshima) and now still stands as an allegory for mankind’s false assumption that we run nature.  Later Will showed me the unedited Japanese version of “Godzilla 1984” (released a year earlier in Japan) and though I will always have a nostalgia for the 60s-70s films, they reflected camp like the 70s’s Bond films as they strayed from “Doctor No” and “From Russian With Love.” 
“Godzilla 1984” started what is known as the “Heisei” series.  For the first time there was a continuity to the series, and the serious feel of 1954 was back.  Indeed, 1984 was set as a direct sequel to 1954 erasing the folly of the rest.  Heisei carries through seven films into 1995 truly creating a mythology and reverence around Godzilla, as if he were a Shinto God of nature indifference to the suffering of man because he—and Japan—would prevail.  In ’95 we get “Godzilla Vs. Destroyah” and ostensibly an end to Godzilla in Japan as Toho sold the rights to Sony Tristar to begin an American series.

Along came Matthew Broderick and Roland Emmerich.  The less said the better.

Toho reclaimed the character with the “Millennium” series but each of these were single stories, adherent only to 1954, but mostly worth a look.  They do get goofier as they go, and it seemed my beloved Gojira was lost again.

And now we have Gareth Edwards. 

I saw his low budget movie “Monsters” and was actually pretty impressed.  He made the phenomenon of giant monsters real to the world he created, and showed how some humans would adapt and others try to force the issue, and I will look you in the eye right now and tell you, I believe “Monsters” with its half-million dollar budget is at least 20 times the movie the $190 million “Pacific Rim” was.  It earned Edwards the right to again try to bring Godzilla to American screens.  It got me in a theater the first week the movie was out. 

And damn am I glad I was.  The short form, spoiler-fee version here is that the 2014 American “Godzilla” is a really good film, and honors its source material better than many of the Japanese films.  It isn’t perfect but it does some truly great things and I think it proves Gareth Edwards is remarkably talented.  I can’t wait to see more from him.  Not perfect, but truly TRULY Godzilla and the King of the Monsters.

From here on out, spoilers will flutter about like Mothra after the Luminous Fairies have sung Mosura no uta. 

I won’t go into story specifics but I will talk about the things that really impressed me with this film.  First and foremost, it is the utter adoration, worship, and respect Edwards gives Godzilla.  Like the Millennium films this movie hints that it is in fact a sequel to the 1954 “Gojira” and that awakened by our use of nuclear power, Godzilla has roamed the seas.  The reason is natural balance.  Godzilla exists as the alpha predator left over from a world ruled by radioactive monsters.  When they absorbed the deadliest of said radiation, the kaiju were forced into the bowels of the Earth to feed from the core’s radiation.  Life as we know it could then evolve and think we were the top of the food chain.  When we re-introduce nuclear power and radiation in such intense forms, nature responds, putting the apex predator in place for the inevitable return to the surface of kaiju who will feed on that radiation.  Godzilla is not a monster, he is a force of nature, an instrument of the universe keeping the planet from being overrun by creatures that would again strip and destroy the surface environment.  He is the coyote to the rabbit, the owl to the mouse.  As Blue Oyster Cult would say, man’s folly has allowed creatures that should be contained to potentially flourish; the control system is Godzilla.  This indifferent reptilian deity inexorably marching toward his foe does not care if a few human die; they are just another small part of the ecosystem, they will replenish their numbers.  The system must be saved.  This Godzilla is the manifestation of natural balance, and in that something of a nature deity.  There’s the reverence inherent to the original character, and it is here in spades. 

Secondly, I love the fact this movie never stops the story so we can then cut away to cutscenes of disaster porn.  The battles between Godzilla and the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are rendered beautifully and epic, but they are never separate from the human perception thereof.  We see it only through those characters who are there and who must survive as nature burns and roils around them.  The last few summers have made me pretty weary of cities getting destroyed (looking at YOU Man of Steel!), yet I never felt fatigue here because the human element was not lost.

I hear complaints about the humans being flat.  Eh, to a degree, but it is not that the humans are flat as characters, it is that they are ineffectual.  The human characters do virtually nothing to affect the outcome of the monsters’ brawling.   That is not an accident of bad writing, it’s the point of the film.  When nature, as a tsunami, climate change, a tornado, or a 400 foot tall kaiju unleashes its energy we are spectators, and our resistance is futile.   The allegory of what we have unleashed and our inability to re-cork that bottle are in full force here, and for me to great effect.  Ford Brody is a cliché because he is every man, he is the best of us; he is completely useless and humbled before nature.

The fourth thing I truly love about this film is the fact this CGI Godzilla is motion capture.  That gives this model weight and flow the iguana-like ‘Zilla from ’98 never had.  It is stunning on film and manages to completely show us Godzilla in a realistic fashion while somehow conveying the natural motion of a man in a suit without making us watch a man stomp through model buildings.  Nicely done.

So, what keeps this film from being the best thing I have seen in decades?  Well, it is the humans.  Not the portrayal per se, but the contrivance that our everyman happens to be at every major event, he happens to find his wife and son at the most dramatic moments, and the three of them happen to live all the way through.  It’s the same gripe I had about the end of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” when Tom Cruise makes it to his wife’s house, and the older son made it too.  It’s the Spielberg ending, when the passing of any member of this family (aside from the gone too soon Bryan Cranston) would have better delivered on the message.  It’s not a deal breaker for me, and I did enjoy and do recommend the film, but more personal consequence would have sat better with me. 

I mention Spielberg, and his influence on Edwards is apparent.  Aside form the double wammy nod of the lead character’s name, we get some famous scenes replayed here: The helicopter in the jungle from “Jurassic Park;” the boat from “Jaws” heading out into the bay; the quarantine zone from “Close Encounters” used to cover up what’s REALLY going on, right down to Bryan Cranston pulling a Richard Dreyfuss and removing his mask to prove the government is lying.  Those moments play well though, to better effect than the same homages paid by JJ Abrams in “Super 8,” a movie I did enjoy. 

“Godzilla” is a victory for the character of Godzilla though, who gets his props here.  It is also a victory for Edwards.  Going from no-budget to huge budget did not stagger him the way it did Neill Blomkamp who followed the amazing “District 9” with the amazingly dull “Elysium.”  I don’t know that “Godzilla” is a better movie than “Monsters” but it certainly is not a sophomore slump, and I am really looking forward to what else Edwards will bring to us.

Once you’ve delivered a God, where do you go from there?

And now, for your viewing pleasure, Shyporn tells us everything you need to know about Godzilla and his friends. (Safe for work)

1 comment:

julio said...

I was also surprised that Cranston died that quickly. I thought he was going to be the character that carried us through the story. But
Butt a few moments later I forgot about him as I refocused on the reason why I went to the theater: GODZILLA. So grabbed another handful of popcorn and kept waiting for his majesty to arrive. As a rule i do not go to theatres, preferring to watch my movies in the comfort of home. But this rule does not apply to two characters: Superman and Godzilla. I asked my family and now I ask you Dan: who would win in a fight between Superman and Godzilla? Or the Hulk vs Hello Kitty (sorry I had to throw that in).