Godzilla (2014)recommended viewing

Didn't actually happen
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Gareth Edwards
Starring: 
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
The Setup: 
Reboot of the American Godzilla franchise.
Discussion: 

So perhaps the most amusing thing I've seen thus far in 2014, before this movie started was a tie-in commercial for some car in which Godzilla grabs the car, full of yuppies, and tosses it in his mouth, gags on it, and spits it up. And as this is happening, there is a small disclaimer on the screen that says: "Didn't actually happen." That... how can you top that? I hope it's a joke. Although even if it is, the whole idea of attempting to sway a car-buying decision by saying that Godzilla would spit up your car is a bit of comedy gold in itself.

Anyway, so the new Godzilla! Which has, you will have noticed from the trailers, a serious tone. I went in guardedly hopeful, having absorbed from the reviews that there is rather a shortage of Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, and just hoping they wouldn't mess it up like they did the Roland Emmerich one, and, I am pleased to report, they pretty much knocked it out of the park. I was cynical, even up to the last half hour, but dang it all if they didn't turn in a darn fine film.

Increasing my vexation, my pen, which had already shed its "clip" [Why, Bic, I ask you, why put on decorative "clips" if they are not actually able to be used?] then ran out of ink in the middle of the movie, rendering me unable to jot down notes on the things I liked about this movie... of which there were a lot! I can sort of tell when I movie isn't engaging me when I'm not moved to write anything down about it. Anyway, we open with these credits that appear to undergoing redaction as we watch, showing B&W atomic footage and making it seem like they were actually not testing the bomb, but trying to kill Godzilla even then. Soon we meet Bryan Cranston and wife Juliette Binoche, and their young son, Ford, who will soon display an eerie ability to be present at monster action all throughout his life. They're on their way to the nuclear plant, and Ford goes off to school. Soon there's an accident, and Mom's a goner. The movie takes enough time to let us have Cranston's gripping hope that his wife can make it out, and has a good moment as young Ford looks at the collapsing plant, knowing his parents are in there. Then--15 years later!

Ford is now Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who was the lead of Kick-Ass, true, but was also Vronsky in Anna Karenina! Can you believe that? I couldn't. So I'm willing to give him the benefit of a doubt, only every time you look at him you think "Oh, it's Casey Affleck--oh, it's not." And then you kind of wish it were. Doesn't help that he's the blandest thing in the whole movie. Anyway, he goes home [home from Afghanastan] to Elizabeth Olsen, wife of his child. He's not home more than an hour before he's called that his dad has been arrested--in Japan--and he's going to go pick him up--in JAPAN. You can't just wire bail money? Not when there's BONDING to be done! And rapprochment. Anyway, Dad's now a loon who is not buying this government hoo-ha about earthquakes and whatnot, and he wants to break into the site of the plant. Ford goes along to help out his old man!

Okay, they really win points from me for explicitly tying this sequence into the all too real ["Did actually happen"] Fukushima plant disaster in showing a residential area abandoned and devastated by radiation. That is, the movie is trying to present Godzilla as a nuclear disaster, and they are referencing real nuclear disasters, and also respecting the original intent of Godzilla by keeping nuclear energy front and center. They soon reference the tsunami and are also reverentially keeping the origin in Japan. Anyway, it would soon hap that they have found this thing, and they're going to kill it with radiation, which, as you can guess, only wakes it up, and it turms out to be a giant angry wasp/bat thing.

So this is your first big monster sequence and... they do it right! One thing the movie does well throughout is keep human-sized things in sight, to give us a sense of scale of the creatures. They also take time to build up atmosphere and show visuals that are scary and impressive, like in one moment where the monster hits a wire, the vibration goes up and past Ford, to a tall crane, which comes crashing down, rumbles past Ford again, and falls into the pit, causing Ford to have to avoid the tightening wires. It keeps putting a human in the scene, and also is just impressive and quite realistic, mass-scale and awe-inspiring destruction. Ford hops a ride to Honolulu, and--well, would you BELIEVE where the monster is headed next? It just happens to be there where he is--by contrivance--put in temporary guardianship of a young boy, a sequence so calculated and showing him as such an utterly charming, responsible, good-hearted, down-home aww-shucks American good ol' guy straight out of a National Guard commercial it pretty much made me hate him, and that was it for me and this character. He was just a dead spot to me for the rest of the movie, and every time this character appeared on screen I started to zone out.

So the pterodactyl-thing is rampaging in Honolulu. And then the tide goes out… and there’s a monstrous, inrushing wave… and soon we see the familiar form of Godzilla! And he marches right up to his winged foe! And then—

SPOILERS > > >
We cut away. We FUCKING cut away. And you, on the outside, might be like “Okay, I get it, they’re biding their time, they’re going to have a big confrontation at the end, that’s cool…” while on the inside, you, like me, may be screaming “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!? NO SERIOUSLY—IS THIS SOME SORT OF JOKE?!?” Because I did NOT come to this thing hoping to see some sort of fucking HUMAN DRAMA, okay? We see snippets of the fight—the one we’re missing—on a television the kid is watching, which is played [successfully] for comedy, as Mom gets on him to turn off the TV, not knowing this civilization-changing event is taking place. And that might help you calm down a bit, and you might recall that you saw an interview with the director where he said he’s purposely saving stuff for the end, so as not to give it all away [despite the fact that we’ve had to sit through an hour of fucking human drama to get up to here], and you might say “Okay, I can respect that. But the fight at the end BETTER BE GOOD.”

Anyway, wouldn’t you know, the monsters are headed for San Francisco. And Ford hitches a ride there with the military because… they have a plan. They’re going to lure the big wasps [by now there are two] and Godzilla out to sea with a nuclear weapon [the wasps just love nukes] and nuke the lot in one swoop. Why the monsters want THAT nuke as opposed to the nukes we obviously have on Hawaii, is not clear, but this is an American remake, and god damn it, Godzilla is going to ravage an American city. We also have some helpful exposition that nuclear weapons have gotten many times more powerful than the one we dropped on Hiroshima.

So the other wasp-thing is coming in from the American West, and there’s a good scene where it has destroyed a bridge and the train with the nuke is coming over that bridge, and of course, Ford is RIGHT THERE. It becomes somewhat comical that he is always RIGHT where the monster action is happening, but good as most of it is, it still has to give in to some tropes. Anyway, the movie continues to find ways to be inventive and frightening—if it wasn’t PG-13, they could easily push certain scenes to be genuinely terrifying—and also features nice surprises like looking up to a mountaintop shrouded in mist… then realizing it’s one of the monsters.

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might look like to have a forty-foot wide scrotum pass over your head….

Well it’s all for San Francisco then, where Elizabeth Olsen suddenly whips out an Oscar-caliber speech on the phone about how she’s scared shitless, and the city is being evacuated, and she, surprisingly, entrusts her child to a friend and stays in the city to be reunited with her husband! In most films, the mother MUST ensure the safety of the child and if the husband dies, well, someone else can supply the sperm and money, right? It can all be in the service of personal growth. This is also—I didn’t expect story structure with my monster movie!—a reprisal of young Ford being left alone while his parents went into danger at the beginning. We'll discuss this further.

So the Golden Gate bridge is packed with traffic, including the bus with Elizabeth and Ford’s son, and here’s where there’s another unexpectedly excellent moment—they’re expecting Godzilla, and they look out, and you see the familiar blades on his back… but then a second later, no, those were just clouds, and his blades are coming at us from a different angle. It does nothing but add depth and artistry, but goll-dang it, summer movies are a place where we’re in desperate starvation for some depth and artistry. Godzilla comes, and… the school bus with the kids is saved, while a second later, hundreds of offscreen people die when he tears through the bridge. We’ll come back to why I think this is a relatively humane way to handle this. Anyway, Godzilla approaches the monsters, he emits a mighty roar! They emit a battle shriek in response! And THEN—

We cut away. To watch the thing on TV again. And again I’m screaming “ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING WITH ME!?!? ARE YOUR SERIOUSLY, SERIOUSLY—" But, that is what happens. And then I was like “Man, this ending fight better set the fucking world on fire, because, dimwits, I did NOT come here to see Aaron Taylor-Fucknob’s FUCKING FACE!” After more human character hoo-ha, the beasts finally get it on. It is good, and contains many iconic shots, and it must be said that it delivers that old giant monster movie thrill. The movie shoots a lot of the battle through the windows of buildings, providing a sense of realism and scale. Oh, and there's a good moment when the bat-things' babies are killed, and she emits shrieks of agony, then gets really angry. Which, you have to admit, is more characterization than monsters usually get. And this one avoids the mistake the Emmerich made, which was that Godzilla had no personality. All that said--I could still have used more monster battle than we got. What we got was good, but we could have had more.

As for human drama, the movie sets up a lot of parallels between the two sets of parents. Ford watches his parents go away in the beginning, and only his father comes back. His mother dies. The threads are reinforced with parallel banners each son makes for his father. In the end the son, who looks like young Ford at the beginning, has his parents go away, but in this case is reunited with the mother [note how the focus of the scene is the reuniting of mother and son], which reverses the psychic wound set at the beginning. Now, the bad monster is also a mother, and her offspring are destroyed, and I suspect there is some subtext about how destroying the bad mother allows the good mother to return, but I'm afraid I just haven't had enough coffee.
< < < SPOILERS END

So all in all, quite good--and much better than it needed to be. It has amazing visuals, and a real sense of beauty--like a lovely shot of the gray monsters and smoke punctuated by these red Chinese lanterns. It creates some very clever visual moments. It's characters are... as interesting as they need to be, I suppose, and the human drama is, well, it could be worse. The movie keeps nuclear weapons front and center, in honor of its origins, and Godzilla is also cast as the begrudging protector of mankind. It makes serious reference to Fukushima and the Japanese tsunami. And it has a sense of shape the rising action and lead up to a real climax, as opposed to most movies that have huge climaxes throughout, and thus have nothing to top their action at the end. That said, come on, one more monster battle next time. A mid-movie battle to reward our patience, then a bigger, different one at the end. That won't kill ya.

The other thing I really liked was that the movie had an intelligent, considered perspective on disaster. I wrote a whole essay about how different films treat the deaths of bystanders, or mass deaths, and what effect it can have on the overall film. This one takes the tack of focusing on the people who survive, while making it clear that thousands are dying. You see, for instance, one father spirit his daughter to safety [hotel glass doors WILL withstand thousands of pounds of water pressure], while in the background, hundreds are killed. It is a bit of "let's focus on the positive," but it falls on the side of the humane, as opposed to the poster child for mistreating bystanders, Man of Steel, in which millions of people were apparently killed, but we didnt see a single one of them. That movie also treated it as ultra-awesome to see skyscrapers collapsing--and let's not kid ourselves, it is--but this one casts such things as a DISASTER, which makes it go down a little easier, as opposed to hyping its coolness and ignoring the mass casualties. We see skyscrapers collapse as a necessary part of the battle, but we don't stop to fetishize the destruction in itself. The monsters themselves are also treated as disasters, and instead of mankind trying to kill them, it is widely understood that we are responsible for bringing them about. So it has a thoughtful and humane perspective.

So yeah? What are you waiting for? Get going.

Should you watch it: 

Yup, it's quite good and much better than it needed to be.