Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014) - Salvation via Sea Dinosaur

As a lifetime Godzilla fan, I couldn't have been more thrilled by the first teaser for Gareth Edwards' (known for directing 2010's Monsters) revival of the franchise. It's a dark, haunting glimpse at a world devastated by disaster in a way that immediately calls forth memories of the original 1954 Godzilla film; a sombre horror film unflinchingly examining the consequence of the nuclear bomb. It's a brutal minute and a half of footage, voiced by the ghost of J. Robert Oppenheimer as he remembers the hell man unleashed with this technology. The tone was set for a new film, sixty years later, that would attempt to update the war-like horror of 1954's film for the modern era, after decades of Godzilla films that ranged from straight cartoonish fun to campy but serious sci-fi.

It turns out Godzilla 2014 contains no shots from the original Oppenheimer teaser, and the film in fact carries a much lighter, more hopeful tone, in spite of containing a huge amount of devastation. I was initially surprised and disappointed by this; there's an entire monster in the teaser who doesn't exist in the final film, and none of the horrifying shots of human casualties are present in this more sanitary film. That teaser's practically its own standalone short film, and it's a genius one, possibly the best trailer I've ever seen. Once I got over this, I was able to enjoy Godzilla 2014 more; it's a genuinely good, strong installment in the Godzilla franchise. It's nothing like the Oppenheimer teaser, but it doesn't have to be.

King of Monsters

Gareth Edwards' film marks a lot of milestones: Released in 2014, it's been 60 years since the original film's debut. Including the American-made Godzilla 1998, this is the 30th Godzilla film. It's the first Godzilla film in ten years, with the King of Monsters last seen in 2004's insane, manic love-letter by Ryuhei Kitamura, Godzilla: Final Wars. It's the second time a non-Japanese studio's made a Godzilla film, and it's thankfully immeasurably better than Roland Emmerich's attempt in 1998. Edwards' Godzilla is a film that acknowledges a Godzilla event happened in 1954, but isn't a direct sequel to the original film.

Like most Godzilla films, Godzilla 2014 features the King of Monsters fighting it out with other giant monsters, in this film identified as MUTOs, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. In tone with the old Godzilla sequels, this corny name is delivered perfectly straight and tells the audience that this film is entirely unembarrassed by its genre. Aside from a couple Easter eggs, it avoids winking at the audience and embraces its sillier elements instead of shying away from them. 2014 is closest in tone to the Godzilla films ranging from 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster to 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, a ten year period of mostly light-hearted Godzilla films in which the monster appears either as an anti-hero or a pure hero.

The Godzilla of this film has ties to nuclear energy, but he's not an allegory for the atomic bomb, and isn't an angry, vengeful spirit. He's a force of nature, often shown traveling within clouds of wind and rain, walking as a physical embodiment of a hurricane. He's an unstoppable, uncontrollable force that dwarfs any weapon humans can throw at him. Fortunately for humanity, he has no interest in harming them. A tsunami wave that follows his arrival in Hawaii DOES bring horrible destruction, but there's nothing malicious in it; it's just nature walking its course. When flanked by a Navy fleet, Godzilla doesn't swat at the numerous ships, which follow his wake like a pod of dolphins. He mostly ignores them, and when he needs to get around them, he dives underneath rather than plowing through. When walking alongside the Golden Gate Bridge after making landfall in the United States, Godzilla is fired upon by frightened military squad; he groans, shrugs it off, and continues on his way, ignoring the mosquitoes picking at him, lumbering forward, exhausted and grouchy but otherwise surprisingly docile after a long, long swim.

Creatures of Instinct

Apart from Godzilla, the film focuses on two family units: Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a Navy bomb disposal expert returning home to his wife Ellie (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Ford's father is Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), an engineer who was working at a Japanese nuclear plant fifteen years before the film's principle action, who has since dedicated his life to finding out the truth about an disaster that destroyed his plant. The other family unit is a pair of MUTOs that recently woke from thousands of years of hibernation/incubation. I don't believe these MUTOs are given official names in the film. Throughout the story, a male and a female MUTO traverse the globe, desperately seeking each other, destroying human cities that get in their way. The MUTOs feed on radiation and emit an EMP field that disables electronics, leading to some haunting shots of airplanes dropping from the sky. They aren't evil; they're just animals looking for settle down and nest. When the finally find each other, they nuzzle and the male offers the female a snack he'd been carrying. There's a sweetness to the creatures that makes their conflict with humanity and with Godzilla, identified here as an Alpha Predator, pretty sad.

Rounding out the cast is Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), named for the most important human character in the original 1954 film. In that film, Serizawa is the scientist who eventually develops a newer, more horrific weapon capable of annihilating the walking Atmoic Bomb that was Godzilla. Serizawa is essentially stripped of his agency here, and instead serves almost exclusively as a singular Greek chorus, telling the other characters and the audience about what Godzilla is and stating the most surface reading of the film's themes directly. He's less a character and more a semi-omnipotent narrator who knows exactly how we should let the film's conflict play out. I'm a little let down here, since Serizawa is such a powerful, tragic figure in the original film. Reusing the name carries lots of weight, but Watanabe's Serizawa is nowhere in the same league of importance to the film. Watanabe performs well and gives his characters silly but sombre lines an appropriate degree of gravitas, but he's underused. Perhaps his weakness, when contrasted with Serizawa 1954, is a way of saying that now, more than even 60 years ago, man is nothing in the face of nature.

My only other real disappointment with the film is Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody. Like Serizawa, his character is very underused, and would have made a stronger focal character than his son, Ford. The elder Brody loses his wife in the accident that destroys his power plant, leading him into a downward spiral of depression and desperation, sneaking into the quarantine zone around the plant a decade later with a slavish devotion to proving his theories. He's essentially given up any semblance of a life in order to prove himself right and absolve himself of the guilt of his wife's death; he's a nuclear zombie, albeit an overly intelligent one. Cranston sells the character's motivations incredibly well and puts in, by a huge margin, the best performance in the film. His few scenes are quite strong, unlike his son's.

Ford Brody is largely a blank slate, serving often as an audience surrogate character, as he travels from Japan to Hawaii to San Francisco to reunite with his wife and son, following the course of the MUTOs and having plenty of run-ins with them. You're not going to get a more "Made in America" name than Ford, and his surname serves as a reference to Jaws' police chief Martin Brody. Ford's an everyman character who essentially runs through the film driven by an urge to go home and nest/mate, equating his drive directly with the motivations of the MUTOs, probably my favorite realization in the film. I honestly love that. He's not an interesting character in and of himself, but he's got some good themes running through him.

Protector of the Earth

Midway through the film, Ford finds a young Japanese boy in Hawaii who has been separated from his parents. Things go from bad to worse when the male MUTO strikes and the area becomes a warzone; Ford dedicates himself entirely to protecting this total stranger. He protects the kid and takes him to a relief station in search of his family after things are safe. It's a more positive portrayal of a military figure than we normally get in Hollywood films without feeling like propaganda. Ford doesn't fire guns, doesn't drop badass one liners, and doesn't forsake others in need to focus on his own motivations. He's essentially what director Gareth suggests the military SHOULD be, a force that works to disarm violence and protect and organize people in need when disaster strikes. There's no hoo-rah high-fiving here, just a good man doing his job with good, moral conviction.

There's a few layers of protection shown here. Godzilla rises from his ancient slumber to fight off the MUTOs, whose reproduction would pose a threat to the balance of nature. He works as an antibody, formed by the Earth as part of its immune system, triggered by an invasive body. He isn't interested in humans or their machinations, and is only focused on getting rid of a perceived threat so he can go back to bed. It absolves humanity of the guilt it carries in the 1954 film, since here Godzilla is a function of nature and not a monster unleashed by man's mistakes but it's a valid take on the character. The female MUTO, on the other hand, IS unleashed by man digging deep into the Earth where it doesn't belong. However, the human miners are shown from a wonderful bird's eye view as ants climbing up a hill, equating them with animals that just do what animals do, rather than anything malicious. The film goes out of its way to show a world without evil. There are no greedy executives, evil aliens, or military warlords, just various pieces of nature colliding violently.

Ford finding and protecting the lost boy makes him a protector parallel with Godzilla, defending a much smaller being that's essentially defenseless in comparison. To calm him down, Ford gives the boy an action figure he'd been carrying, giving the boy his own small, defenseless object to protect. The film says that the best thing we can do as people is to care for those who need help, and that everyone has the power to protect something. In light of all the destruction on screen, it's a very optimistic look at humanity, even as it acknowledges just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things. Serizawa says, "The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in their control and not the other way around."

Stylistically, this is a gorgeously shot movie, especially its depictions of weather patterns and water. The monsters move wonderfully, the sound design is deep and guttural, and it shows destruction as a horrible, frightening thing. There's nothing celebratory about seeing the monsters crush buildings here, but nothing that condemns them either. Nature is horrifying and relentless, but you can't hate nature for what it does. When I saw the callous destruction of Metropolis in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, I felt revolted (an almost certainly intended reaction from another film focused on the horror of comic book violence). When I saw the damage done to San Francisco here, I felt deeply sad. Even though Godzilla is unambiguously shot as the hero figure in the battle with the MUTOs, I still felt bed for them. This is a film that asks us to have consideration for all living things, even those we are conditioned to hate or fear.

Life Finds a Way

If I were to compare this film to any others, I'd say it's more Spielberg than anything else. There's the obvious Jaws connection, with using Brody as the lead character's name, but there's also a lot of Jurassic Park here. The monsters are shot in an awe inspiring way, scary and beautiful at once, like Jurassic Park's dinosaurs. Godzilla roaring in the rain is a cousin to Jurassic Park's tyrannosaurus reveal, and the male MUTO testing the electric fence that surrounds his pen when we first meet him is a callback to the same scene. The way destruction is shot and the smallness of humanity is reminiscent of Spielberg's take on War of the Worlds. This film definitely feels like Edwards own unique work, but it's very obvious who his biggest influence is.

Though they're entirely different films, it's impossible to not make comparisons to 2013's Pacific Rim. Both films are giant monster movies, but Pacific Rim is a tribute with a billion winks and nudges, with more of a focus on giant robot anime TV shows than Godzilla-style monster movies. Godzilla 2014 contains plenty of nods to older films, but its purpose is not tribute or reverence. It doesn't exist to worship old monster movies the way Pacific Rim worships Giant Robots, but instead to exist alongside them. Godzilla's a far better, more intelligent film with much better film making and a more genuine, earnest style. Pacific Rim is built almost entirely on artifice, and while I had fun watching it the first time, largely disappointed me. Godzilla has some disappointing aspects (Cranston, Watanabe, and Olsen are all underused, especially Olsen whose role never rises above "concerned wife/nurse") but it delivers with great success.

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