Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

It's never easy to right a grievous wrong. Even if said wrong is as trivial as, "Someone made a terrible movie featuring a popular character."

Thus it was always going to be after Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers announced in 2009 that they would be attempting a new American Godzilla movie. Even though it would be hard to do a worse job than the 1998 film, they had to know that they'd end up being judged even harsher if their film fell short of expectations.

A lot has happened in the five years since the film was announced, which I won't be chronicling here. However, every bit of news coming out of the film made it more and more anticipated. Even when designs and scripts leaked, the reaction was excitement because the leaked details were good.

Thus it came to pass that Thursday night I found myself in a packed IMAX theater, filled with people anxiously awaiting the same thing I was: the first Godzilla movie in ten years, and hopefully the first American Godzilla film to get it right.

Did we get what we were hoping for? Short answer: Yes, with a few reservations. Long answer: Well...

We open with archival footage, courtesy a mysterious organization known as "Monarch." In 1954, the American military sets up an H-bomb in the area of Bikini. It turns out that the bomb is part of a trap for a huge, mysterious creature that rises from the ocean just in time for the bomb to detonate.
No living creature could survive a ground zero nuclear blast. This one did.

Flash forward to 1999, in the Philippines. Monarch scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe!) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arrive to investigate a collapsed uranium mine. Inside they find a huge fossil skeleton, and two bizarre egg cases. Well, one egg case--the other is cracked open and there is a huge hole in the side of the mine with a huge trench carved into the island, leading to the ocean. Clearly, the egg cases were not as fossilized as they appear.

Meanwhile, in Janjira, Japan--American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston!) is trying to get his bosses at the Janjira nuclear plant to listen to him. Strange seismic disturbances have been getting closer and closer to the plant and he feels that the plant should be shut down to prevent a catastrophe.

Joe's wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche!), and young son, Ford (C.J. Adams) are trying to plan a surprise for Joe's birthday but he's too busy to notice. So Ford is dropped off at school and Joe and Sandra head to work.

Whatever is causing the seismic disturbances hits the plant while Sandra and a group of inspectors are down near the reactor. A breach forces Joe to close the quarantine doors--just before his wife and her companions reach the door. He can only watch as the blast doors close before she succumbs to radiation poisoning. The disaster isn't over, though. As Ford watches from a distance, the entire plant collapses and Janjira must be evacuated--it's now a dead zone.

15 years later, Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has grown up to be an Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert. He returns home to San Francisco after finishing a tour of duty to reunite with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse, and his young son Sam (Carson Bolde). His reunion is shorter than expected, however. A call comes in from Japan--Joe Brody has been arrested trying to break into the "Q-Zone," formerly known as Janjira.

Elle convinces Ford that, despite the 15 years of bad blood between them, Joe is still his family and needs him. So Ford flies to Japan to bail his father out--only for his father to immediately launch right into his same old conspiracy theories. Only now he's added a new thread--the seismic pattern that preceded the "attack" on Janjira was a form of echolocation being used by some subterranean creature.

Well, despite how easily Joe agrees to give up and go back to San Francisco with Ford, we all know that wouldn't be much of a movie. So Ford ends up being talked into going with his father into the Q-Zone, wearing improvised radiation suits, so they can visit their old house and collect all of Joe's data.

Once inside, Joe notices the feral dogs that run past them seem oddly healthy and uninterested in attacking the two humans that would seem like easy prey to animals desperate for food. Checking his electronic Geiger counter, he finds the rad count zero and pulls the old sci-fi standby--by pulling off his protective headgear. Janjira should be radioactive enough to kill Joe in seconds, but he's completely unaffected.

While salvaging items from their home--watch out for the label on the empty terrarium--Ford notices something is going on at the ruins of the old nuclear plant. Unfortunately, the soldiers that are a part of that something find the two and arrest them, taking them into the ruins and revealing to Ford and Joe that there is what appears to be an enormous chrysalis where the reactors used to be.

See, Monarch has set up a base of operations around the chrysalis of the unknown creature, which was responsible for the destruction of the reactor, in order to find out what makes it tick and how to make it stop ticking. So when Serizawa gets wind of the information Joe has brought with, he goes down to the interrogation cell Joe's being held in just in time to hear Joe explain that the creature in the chrysalis is generating low level Electromagnetic Pulses, and if it's emitting them at a level powerful enough to cause power interruptions while it's dormant--well, just imagine when it wakes up!

Unfortunately, it does just that. Serizawa orders the electrical grid set up to contain the creature, should it awaken, be used to try and kill it. Needless to say, it doesn't work and the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) breaks free and the EMP it sets off destroys all of Monarch's equipment. Worse, almost all of Monarch's staff is slaughtered in the MUTO's escape and Joe is mortally wounded. The MUTO reveals that it has wings and takes flight.

Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn!) and Captain Russell Hampton (Richard T. Jones) of the US Navy are called in to assist in the hunt for the MUTO, but it isn't easy since the creature knocked out any way of tracking it beyond visual contact. Serizawa, being no damn fool, requested the Brodys be brought along to assist in the hunt. Unfortunately, Joe dies and his years of research die with him, leaving Serizawa forced to rely on the son who always dismissed his father as a crackpot. Still, Ford must have absorbed something of his father's rantings in those 15 years, so Serizawa decides to bring Ford up to speed on what Monarch knows.

Millions of years ago, when the world was intensely radioactive, there existed creatures that could feed on this radiation--the MUTO is a member of one of these radiation-eating species. When the radiation faded on the surface, these creatures disappeared into the deepest ocean trenches and caverns of the earth to survive. However, in 1954 the nuclear submarine Nautilus disturbed another one of these radiation-feeders in the ocean depths. The myriad H-bomb tests that followed were really attempts to kill it. They failed.
Serizawa, however, believes that this other creature is no mere monster--and Graham agrees with him. Rather, they believe this "alpha predator" is a force of nature, of the very Earth itself--designed to restore balance. Restoring balance may mean it will emerge from the depths to kill the MUTO, which could cause untold destruction. The alpha predator does not have a scientific name, but Serizawa already knows its name--Godzilla.

Since they shared their intel with Ford, they hope he can return the favor. Well, he does offer that his father felt sure the creature was using echolocation, possibly as an attempt to communicate with something. Quickly, Serizawa and Graham check their data on the MUTO and discover that there was, indeed, a response to one of its calls. That's horrible news, because when they locate where the call was coming from, they realize that it's coming from Nevada. See, the other egg case was declared inert after multiple vivisections and analyses were performed on it--but it was highly radioactive, so the US government took it and did what they do with all such things. They stored it with nuclear warheads and nuclear waste.

If you guessed that is the worst possible place to store a radiation-eating monster, you'd be correct.

So the new MUTO destroys Las Vegas and heads towards California. Comparing the two creatures, it's determined that the new one must be a female and the winged one a male. So that means they can breed.

Word comes of a missing Russian sub near Hawaii. A strike team sent to investigate quickly discovers the sub in the jungle outside Honolulu--and the male MUTO. Attempts to kill it only succeed in pissing it off and its EMP knocks out all the power on the island. As the military struggles to regain visual of the thing, a new bogey is discovered coming from the ocean. Serizawa rushes to the flight deck on the carrier to get a glimpse of his alpha predator, and Godzilla does not disappoint.

The massive beast causes a tsunami as it makes landfall. It completely ignores the military and confronts the male MUTO at the airport. The two battle, destroying more of the city in the process, but the plainly outmatched MUTO quickly flees. Godzilla pursues it, and it quickly becomes clear that all three monsters are converging on San Francisco. Unless something can be done to stop them, the loss of life could be catastrophic.

Already this film has been extremely divisive and it's out less than a week. Many fans feel that they got exactly what they hoped for, while other people (some fans, some not) found it lacking.

Before I address this strange mix of feelings, I find the most curious thing about Godzilla is that it hews extremely close to the spirit of the Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio script I mentioned in my review of the 1998 film. The main difference is wisely dropping the "Godzilla was created by aliens" aspect. However, the fact remains that--despite so much of the promotional material making it out like this was going to be a return to the mood of the original film--this Godzilla is unquestionably the hero. To me, that was extremely welcome: Godzilla as anti-hero and/or villain has been his personality for about the last 30 years. It was getting old.

In order to address the film, I'm going address what I didn't like about it first. Now, I promised myself I wouldn't follow the trend of comparing this film to Pacific Rim. However, I have to address the simple fact that both films make the same disappointing mistake--despite a film full of far more interesting side characters, a bland white guy gets to be the focal point of the whole damn film.

I'm not trying to rag on Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as he at least makes more of an impression than Charlie Hunnam, but he's by far the least interesting character. For my own part, I found Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa the most fascinating human character, but certainly Bryan Cranston lends the character of Joe Brody--who'd be all too easily a scenery-chewing caricature in lesser hands--enough pathos that killing him off so suddenly was a disappointment. Even Elizabeth Olsen is more interesting as "the hero's wife," and I found her criminally ill-used. If you cast a character as a nurse in a giant monster film, the least you could do is cut to her fighting to save people during the destruction of her city--it'd be a perfect compliment to her soldier husband's attempt to save the city in his own way. Instead, once Godzilla and the MUTOs make landfall in San Francisco she becomes little more than a fleeing civilian and then disappears almost completely.

(Had this film reversed their roles, it would have been a much more interesting film--and joined the fine tradition of Godzilla films with badass female soldiers as their leads)

And despite Johnson being the weakest element, his character uses his expertise as an EOD tech to keep himself relevant at every possible point of the film. Except when it comes time to actually show those skills off to defuse a nuke, his response is to just help try and move it to minimum safe distance in a sequence that disappointingly echoes the ending of Legendary Picture's own The Dark Knight Rises. I'd address my disappointment with that sequence further but that would require spoiling more of it than I want to.

Suffice it to say, though, the film made a huge mistake by not having it be Dr. Serizawa's movie, or at least having Serizawa and Joe Brody working together. In the final film, the two never even speak to each other.

Honestly? That is my only true issue with the film. If you've heard anything about the film by now, though, you've heard two specific complaints: that Godzilla is barely in this movie and that what monster action there is focuses too much on the MUTOs instead of Godzilla.

I think it's extremely telling that the people voicing these complaints tend to not be diehard Godzilla fans. Yes, Godzilla does not actually appear until almost the third act and yes the MUTOs are given much more focus. These are all standard for Godzilla movies, however.

No matter how much you tweak Godzilla's back story, we know who he is already. Any new opponent, however, is really going to require some establishing. The MUTOs are fascinating creatures and, while their designs may strike some as too similar to Cloverfield, but I would argue that that is way oversimplifying it. Focusing on them does not bother me at all. If anything, I would have preferred if we got more of a sense that these creatures posed a severe threat to Godzilla--as it stands they're impressive but hardly among the toughest he's ever fought.

As for a lack of Godzilla, once he's shows up around the third act he is a constant presence. He may only have around 30 minutes of screen time, but Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Monster Zero) has ten minutes of Godzilla action and it's still rightly considered a fan favorite. Hell, Godzilla arguably has only slightly less of a presence in this film than in his 1954 debut!

The other complaint I hear is that the film "cuts away" from every single monster fight to show us what the humans are doing. This is, again, a fairly standard trope--even in films like Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, or Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. where the monster fights take up much more of the running time. It is, to be fair, rather jarring that the first fight between Godzilla and the male MUTO builds to the first dramatic reveal of Godzilla--and then cuts away to show Sam and Elle watching highlights of the fight via a TV news report. It's played for laughs and, to me, was a brilliant way to do it. The first fight is, after all, only a brief skirmish and playing it as a tease just makes the big fight at the end more impressive.

Yes, the big fight at the end cuts away several times as well, but honestly this just helps to make it come across as more intense and lengthy without drawing it out--like the repetitive final battle of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. Given that most of the complaints that the movie needed more monster action seem to come mainly from non-fans, I can only assume audiences were expecting something like the hour-long climax of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but completely forgot how boring that hour of solid action became.

Better to leave an audience wanting more than wear out your welcome.

Overall, the tone of the film hearkens back to films like the original War of the Worlds and even Jaws. This is not a bad thing at all. Indeed, I think the tone that it strikes is far better than the dark, grim tone the trailers implied. This is largely a serious film, but it also has a sense of humor and aims to be fun. Rather than the callback to the horror of Godzilla (1954) it was made out to be, it lands more along the lines of Mothra vs. Godzilla with touches of the heroic 1960s and 70s films. This is not the overload of dark and gritty that made Man of Steel so insufferable.

This film wants to make you jump occasionally, but it also wants to make you cheer. And, indeed, the audience at my showing practically did just that when Godzilla first unleashes his atomic breath on the MUTOs, and they applauded as the end credits rolled. So the film definitely succeeded.

Is Godzilla perfect? Absolutely not. The film's focus on the human story is not a mistake, but not ensuring that that human story is actually interesting was. It also could have used a bit more work on its pacing. The film never drags, but it also doesn't feel as smooth as it should. And it really is a bit ridiculous to hire Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, and Ken Watanabe for your film and then give them so little to do.

However, the film more than makes up for that with Alexander Desplat's amazing score, excellent effects, and by delivering one of the most brutal Godzilla fights ever. When I left the theater, accompanied by three companions whom were not even remotely the diehard fan that I am, they all loved it--perhaps even more than I did.

All in all, it was worth the five-year wait and--given it is currently on track to make $90 million in its first weekend alone--I feel safe in saying the King of the Monsters has truly returned.