Friday, May 16, 2014

[IGH] at the Movies: Godzilla

By BatHobbit


You know what was a great Godzilla movie?

Pacific Rim.

You know what wasn't a great Godzilla movie?


No, I'm not referring to the 1998 film, though that one was pretty awful. I'm talking about the 2014 film that all the ads portray as a "serious take" on the King of Monsters.

If you've seen the trailers and the television ads, you've gotten a sense that the new Godzilla movie is a disaster film, with the titular beast as the force of nature sending the human character scattering to recover. Footage of decimated cities and ravaged tropical landscapes is intercut with Bryan Cranston shouting that it's not a natural disaster and that the public is being lied to. It looks like a pretty gripping epic, but it's not the movie that you'll see if you head to the theater.

First things first, when you title a movie Godzilla, you're creating an expectation that Godzilla is the main force of the film. If he's not in every scene, his presence is still felt everywhere. You deal with preparing for him, and show people picking up the pieces in his wake. He's the element that drives the movie forward. 

However, in Godzilla, the title monster is the most minor of characters.  In the entirety of the movie, Godzilla is only on screen for a total of about 10 minutes. This isn't because Godzilla is the disaster and we're dealing with the fallout. It's because for the entire film Godzilla takes a backseat to a pair of generic monsters, called "MUTO", which look like a hybrid of the Arachnids from Starship Troopers and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal. The MUTO's are the monsters of the film, with Godzilla spending most of the film just swimming (the movie seems to argue that Godzilla has been awake, and just swimming around aimlessly since the 50's).

When Godzilla does manage to get face to face with one of the MUTO's, the film has a terrible penchant for cutting away, and letting the "kaiju" battles happen in the background or entirely off-screen. The few genuine moments of Godzilla being Godzilla are fantastic, and only serve to highlight how infuriating and rude all of the random cutaways are. It is as if the studio decided they wanted to make a kaiju film, then saw Pacific Rim and said "we can't really do monster battles better than that, so let's not try".

Instead of Godzilla destroying the world, or Godzilla punching the children of the Cloverfield
monster, we get to tag along with a group of human characters who are almost entirely uninteresting.  You might think it's impossible for an actor of the caliber of Bryan Cranston to play an uninteresting character, and you'd be right. Bryan Cranston is as fantastic as you would expect, making himself the best thing in the movie. The problem with Cranston, however, is that, despite him being the focus of almost every trailer and television ad, he's only in about 30 minutes of the movie.

With Cranston gone, we're left with Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford Brody, an army bomb technician who's "get home to my wife and son" storyline provides the backbone of the film, and Elizabeth Olsen as Ford's wife Elle, who works as a doctor (or nurse, the movie is never clear) and has nothing to do but wait for the monsters to attack, at which point she gets to run. Neither of these characters is particularly compelling, and each has to be continually handed things to do to pad out the movies running time: Ford is on an airport tram, a kid gets stuck on the train without his parents. Ford gets stuck in a small town, we need a guy to retrofit a nuke to be clockwork. Elle is at a hospital, a blackout happens and… she stands around.

Interspersed with these random bits of business, are forced and inconsequential set pieces  and tacked in scenes featuring supporting characters that could have been cut entirely. Ken Watanabe and David Straithairn, both fine actors, are given absolutely nothing to do but shout off random bits of exposition and keep us updated on where the monsters are geographically. They're both fine in these parts, but these are the types of roles normally reserved for unknowns and day players, not foisted onto award winning actors.

Ultimately all of these problems point back to the singular reason why Godzilla doesn't work. The script is weak, unfocused and lacks any hint of tension. The writer had a few key moments in mind, and then padded them out with an hour and a half of material that could have come from any other movie. There simply isn't any sort of conflict that runs through this film. We know, and are told early on, that the only thing that will stop the MUTO's is Godzilla (Watanabe's character proclaims this numerous times, despite having no actual basis for this knowledge), but we toil on with random military endeavors to stop the monsters that, we've already been told, will not work. From the moment when MUTO is first introduced, the film is literally just killing time until the final monster battle (which is interrupted several times as the humans try to do… things).

Godzilla was supposed to be the film that redeemed the notion that America could make a movie about the King of Monsters. It was the Hollywood's attempt to make up for the universally reviled 1998 film, and start a new franchise for Warner Brothers (who needs one with Harry Potter over, and their DCU films moving at a snail's pace). Instead, it's a movie that fails on almost as many levels as the Emmerich film, but lacks the campy joy that makes that film watchable in a Rifftrax sort of way.

Seriously, if you're thinking about watching Godzilla, just stay home and watch Pacific Rim. Better yet, invite a friend over who hasn't seen Pacific Rim, and introduce them to what this movie could have been. It's a better film, and your friend will thank you for it.

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