Sunday, September 28, 2014

Godzilla (Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Disruption Entertainment , 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 2014 Godzilla movie was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose main previous work was a 2010 film called Monsters (not to be confused with Monster, the serial-killer story starring Charlize Theron as real-life murderess Aileen Wuornos, who worked as a prostitute and started murdering her johns) which when Charles and I screened that I wrote was “the sort of movie that’s frustrating because it’s mediocre and could have been great.” This time Edwards had a significantly bigger budget ($160,000,000 instead of $15,000), a brand name that’s been a proven audience draw ever since the original Japanese Godzilla (or, as it was called in its home country, Gojira) came out in 1954 (the release of this one was deliberately timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the first film), a major studio (Warner Bros., which bought the rights to the Godzilla character from the Japanese Toho studio that originally developed it), and two writers other than himself: David Callaham for the story and Max Borenstein for the script. Nonetheless, Edwards’ Godzilla has an interesting family resemblance to Edwards’ Monsters: both films attempt to use classic horror tropes to make oblique comments on current political and social issues (in Monsters it was undocumented immigration, and this time around it’s the overconfidence of human beings and their solid conviction that there can’t be anyone or anything else on this planet that can threaten their supremacy) and both are surprisingly reticent about showing their actual monsters.

The plot of Godzilla gets confusing mainly because of the rapid time shifts — the first third or so of the movie takes place in 1999, the rest in 2014, and male lead Ford Brody is shown as a child in the earlier part of the film before he appears again as a grown young man and is played by someone named Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The part isn’t multidimensional enough to let us know whether he can actually act, but he’s certainly hot enough he’s a lot of fun to look at! After a few film clips supposedly set even earlier, the 1999 sequences begin at a nuclear power plant in Japan where Ford’s father Joe (Bryan Cranston) is working as a consulting engineer when a mysterious accident threatens to cause a meltdown and irradiate the entire area. (This Godzilla sometimes seems to be as deliberate a response to the tsunami that wiped out the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan as the 1954 original was to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) In the film’s most horrific and most emotionally moving sequence, Joe loses his wife (who also works at the plant) when he has to seal a reactor door, thereby saving the lives of the rest of the workforce but dooming her and the party she was with (who meet the cavalier fate of the “Red Shirts” in Star Trek) either to suffocation, radiation sickness or both. Sam remains in Japan and several times is caught sneaking his way onto the former reactor site in his endless quest for answers as to why his wife died. Ford gets shipped off to America, is raised by relatives and ultimately joins the U.S. Army and becomes an Explosive Ordnance Detail (E.O.D.) operator, a job that’s had movie cachet since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture and which has almost instant movie cred since it involves disarming bombs — or attempting to — before they have a chance to explode, and the built-in potential for suspense and thrills in telling stories about people who do that for a living is obvious.

Godzilla seems like several genres mashed together in a way that was once more common than it is: a suspense thriller, a conspiracy film (even the opening credits — and I give Edwards a lot of points for having opening credits instead of just opening his film in medias res, as if we already know from the title on our ticket or the DVD box what film we’re watching and therefore we don’t need a main title — are made to look like top-secret documents from which everything has been redacted except for the names of the people being credited and their job descriptions), a domestic drama and (oh, yes!) bits and pieces of a horror film. It occurred to me that Edwards’ Godzilla has at least one thing in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: both are attempts to re-imagine famous, legendary stories to make fresh social comments about people and their role in the universe, though Edwards and his writers had one major advantage. As much of a cult following surrounds the Godzilla movies, there isn’t a religion built around them; the plot for the original 1954 film doesn’t come from a holy book revered by three of the world’s largest and most important religions (the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and therefore Warner Bros. didn’t have to worry about outraged defenders of the faith denouncing their movie and picketing the theatres that dared to show it. What they did have to deal with was outraged fans of the original Godzilla and its multitudinous sequelae nit-picking the film to death and bitching about how it wasn’t what they were expecting (and which the 1998 reboot — which I’ve never seen — apparently delivered): an up-to-date CGI version of the old Japanese originals in which a guy in a monster suit (two guys in a monster suit, actually; I’ve read that the Japanese Godzilla was really an electromechanical contraption that required two people inside to work it) stomped on balsa-wood models of a major Japanese city.

Instead they got a film that was deeply philosophical about the world and humanity’s proper role in it, a rivalry between Godzilla and two rival monsters (a male-female monster couple who look like more angular versions of pterodactyls) in which — as he did in the later films in the Japanese cycle as well — Godzilla seems not to be threatening humanity but protecting it from the really bad monsters on the other side. The chief complaint against the film on seems to be that Godzilla is on screen for only 10 minutes of its two-hour running time, mainly because even with a huge effects team and a mega-budget to work with, Edwards is still worshiping at the shrine of St. Val Lewton, trying as much as possible to keep from showing the monsters full-figure and in bright light, instead presenting just bits of them in shadow and doing as much of the scaring as possible with sound effects alone. I have profoundly mixed feelings about this Godzilla; I really respect Edwards and his writers, and admire them for trying to make this a genuinely good movie with philosophical and psychological depth instead of just another summer action blockbuster, but and I also admire the laudable attempts to give the characters issues that would make us feel for them emotionally instead of watching them with the lab-rat detachment for which I criticized Monsters (as well as a lot of other modern films!); the loss of Joe Brody’s wife in the early scenes is genuinely chilling and sad, and so is the separation of Ford from his wife and child during the climactic monster attack on San Francisco. But there was a part of me that would rather have been watching a technically more proficient but still delightfully campy modern remake of an old-style Godzilla movie!