Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Now I'm going to apologize in advance for the fact that this review has a fair amount of spoilers in it, but there's just no way to talk about what the filmmakers did right and wrong in this particular movie without going into plot points.

In many ways, the 2014 remake of Godzilla is a well made movie. It's visually engaging. They picked a great cast. For the most part, the special effects look incredible. Unfortunately, there's quite a few problems lying beneath the surface of this well polished movie, but the greatest problem has to be the plot. "Who even cares about the plot?" you ask. "Aren't people just paying to see a giant lizard wreck a bunch of cities?" If that's your philosophy on monster movies, I'm not going to shoot you down.

However, the problem is that there's hardly any Godzilla in this Godzilla movie.

I don't mean this in the sense that when Godzilla isn't on screen, the rest of the movie is building up suspense for his next imminent attack. I mean that he isn't even the main focus of the movie. He's just a tertiary character. The main focus of the movie, the thing that everybody is trying to figure out how to kill, the thing that threatens the lives of humans everywhere, is a pair of giant insectoid creatures classified as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects, or MUTOs for short.

The MUTOS are only here to do two things: eat radiation, and mate. Naturally, they wreck a path of destruction as they try to do both. It's the MUTOs that the characters are primarily focused on stopping. So then where is Godzilla? Most of the movie he just spends kind of chilling out in the ocean, like an actor waiting in the wings for his cue.

In fact, for much of the movie it's easy to forget you're actually supposed to be watching a Godzilla movie. Much of the dialogue in the movie seems to go like this:

SOLDIER: The MUTOs are destroying everything! What do we do?

GENERAL: Here's a plan to kill them.

SOLDIER: What about that Godzilla thing chilling out in the ocean?

GENERAL: Um... This plan ought to kill him too... Maybe.

This might have actually been a fairly decent monster movie if they had just left Godzilla out of it, but he's in there, in a somewhat awkward manner. Inexplicably, one of the scientists, played by Ken Watanabe, suddenly becomes this film's version of Charlie Day's character from Pacific Rim. You know, the one with the kaiju tattoos who's just a bit too excited about the monsters threatening to extinguish mankind. For no real reason, Watanabe's character concludes that Godzilla is a good guy, and that instead of trying to kill him, everybody should just let him be and he'll kill the MUTOs, because he's their apex predator.

And of course, this is exactly what Godzilla sets out to do once the MUTOs make landfall. I realize that in most Godzilla movies, he iss the hero, saving mankind from other monsters, but in the original movie he was the villain, senselessly causing destruction across Tokyo. If I'm going to see a movie called Godzilla and only Godzilla, not Godzilla vs. MUTO, I expect all of the focus to be on a giant lizard trashing cities. Unfortunately, this film decided to jump the gun and build up the mythology of Godzilla as King of All Monsters, without any proper setup of what Godzilla is, and why he's defending humanity. It's like they made Godzilla 2, without making Godzilla 1, figuring you didn't care enough to see it anyway. Defending humanity is the best way to describe what he does on screen. He doesn't attack the MUTOs like he's their predator. He attacks them like it's the sole thing he was put on earth to do. Again, not much of a reason is given as to why this is.

The other problem with having Godzilla just show up out of nowhere and fight the other monsters is that it kind of makes the rest of the action irrelevant. The climax of the movie involves a team of soldiers trying to get a nuclear warhead out of San Francisco, but once it's clear that Godzilla, not the bomb, is going to kill the MUTOs, the scenes with the soldiers feel like they're part of another movie. I almost felt like somebody was flipping channels between an action movie and an HD remaster of an old Japanese monster movie.

Also, Godzilla's look in this version is a bit disappointing. I know it's sacrilege to say this, but personally I preferred the look from the 1998 version. That version had the visual elements of the original Godzilla, but looked more convincing as a monstrous lizard wrecking a city. The 2014 version remains very faithful to the look of the original Godzilla, but to a fault. All the millions of dollars spent on highly advanced CGI results in a creature that looks, and moves, like a guy in a giant rubber suit.

As for the human characters in the film, they all felt very generic. The film starts out strong, building the characters by setting up their roles in the story through a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant. (The filmmakers were at least tasteful enough to not suggest it was supposed to be Fukushima.) Unfortunately, once the MUTOs show up and start causing havoc, all character development comes to a grinding halt.

The thing is, you need to have strong character development among the human characters to get you to care about the story. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of long, drawn out monster battles and scenes of destruction, and those can be a bit boring after a while if there's nothing to anchor the viewer into the lives of the people caught in the path of destruction. For example, Pacific Rim built up its characters enough that you not only cared about the humans in giant robot suits fighting monsters, but also cared about the people on the streets below. In Cloverfield, all the relationships that are established in the opening party scenes are carried through the movie as a group of friends and family try to get each other out of New York as its being ripped apart.

In this version of Godzilla, because the characters aren't developed well, you don't really care about the humans in the path of destruction. Considering that in the finale, a father, a mother and their son all find themselves in separate parts of the city, all under attack, I couldn't find myself caring much if anything happened to any of them. They felt less like characters and more like extras with extended amounts of dialogue.

That's a shame because, as I said before, the cast in this film is amazing. There's Ken Watanabe, Bryan Crantson, Kick-Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and even Juliette Binoche. Even though they all put in great performances, they all feel under-used as actors.

The 2014 version of Godzilla had the potential to be a great interpretation of the story. From the outset, it looked like the producers intended to make a serious and seemingly plausible take on the monster movie concept. It had all of the elements it needed to do it. The cast was there. The cinematography, sound and music were all right. Aside from the CGI rubber-suit Godzilla, the effects were good too. In spite of this, Godzilla managed to feel like a late night B-movie somehow given the trappings of a major blockbuster. By all means see it, but wait until its available for home viewing.

Or, if you must see it in cinemas, catch a showing where Mystery Science Theater 3000-like heckling is encouraged. There's enough moments of B-movie stupidity going on that it can only add positively to the viewing experience.

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