Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla


To be honest, there are few things that have been as fascinating to me in my childhood as Godzilla. I have very vivid memories of devouring books about the history of the original Japanese films starring the king of the monsters, and even found myself enjoying the Roland Emmerich version back in 1998. Before people completely revolt against me for this, I have to admit that I was 11 years old when I first saw that movie, and going back to it now has completely turned me against it. Especially in the wake of this film, the '98 version is seriously embarrassing by comparison. It wasn't always a given that the 2014 film of the same name would be good, however, particularly after audiences have been so soured by the property since the last attempt to bring it to the big screen. Not only that, but another massive monster movie was released by Warner Bros less than a year ago (Pacific Rim) which I quite enjoyed. I'll definitely highlight the differences in tone and quality of these two movies as I continue, but first here's a brief introduction.

Fifteen years prior to the events of this film, a massive meltdown occurs at a nuclear power plant, causing the entire facility to collapse in on itself and the whole area to be quarantined. In the present day, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who was working at the plant on the day of its destruction, is convinced that something else was the true cause of the explosion. He recorded highly unusual sonic waves just before the incident that were apparently communicating back and forth, and drags his son Ford along to investigate the deserted section of the island where his records are being kept. They soon realize that no radiation even exists that would justify such an evacuation, and he retrieves his data disks from their old house just as police officers detain the father and son. Taking them back to a new research facility, a similar phenomenon occurs as the day of the disaster when a radiation-fueled cocoon of sorts begins to hatch, unleashing a winged beast who proceeds to destroy the containment and immediately takes flight in search of radioactive nourishment.

That may seem like a lengthy plot intro, but truthfully it only encompasses the first fifteen minutes or so of the story. Needless to say, this is a pretty dense film with a lot of interesting sub-plots and original explanations for the creatures we see. If you haven't seen any trailers or clips of this film before going to the theatre, it will probably be a shock to find out that Godzilla isn't the primary threat in this story. Though humanity is still completely at the mercy of the gigantic lizard, he doesn't appear too intent on attacking humans per se. It's a really interesting concept for the creature, and it actually makes the audience care more about the titular monster. In fact, though he doesn't get a ton of screen time, Godzilla is actually one of the most interesting characters (if one can say that) in the movie.

Though the human characters tend to get overshadowed in films like this, director Gareth Edwards does a fantastic job of focusing on the terror of giant monsters from a human perspective. Most of the destruction and mayhem is shown from their point of view, which makes it a lot easier to get invested in their plight. Having said that, a lot of the credit needs to go to the actors, particularly Bryan Cranston, who does an incredible job bringing out the audience's emotions in the limited time his character is on screen. Elizabeth Olsen also has a great performance as the wife of Ford Brody in what could be a totally throw-away part. She's the main reason we even care about the main character, as her reactions to the extreme circumstances forced upon her are completely relatable. The weak spot in the cast is unfortunately Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Ford, the somewhat bland explosive disposal technician. Though he is fairly integral to the plot, his straight and emotionless delivery tends to underwhelm compared to his fellow cast members.

Now, as for the comparisons with last year's monster movie Pacific Rim, this is taken far more seriously and is more straight forward in its approach to introducing the conflict. While Pacific Rim focuses entirely on interesting ideas that don't entirely pay off as well as pure adrenaline and spectacle, Godzilla seems to be hitting on a more thematic level with parallel relationships between almost all of the characters, both human and otherwise. What I like about this film is that it's more of a reimagining of the original 1954 Japanese film than a remake of the 1998 disaster. It doesn't take a campy approach to the material, and one character's reverence for the massive creature is particularly telling of the tone that's being set. That same character explains later in the film that nature must restore balance when things get out of control, which is what Godzilla is ultimately there to do. This film explores the relationship between mankind and nature in a fascinating way, and whatever failings the human characters may have, I feel the film totally succeeds with the themes it chooses to tackle.

I was really anticipating this film (see my top 14 list here), and though the trailers are intentionally misleading about the plot of the movie, I walked away just wanting to see this film again. There's so much to absorb with Godzilla, both visually and intellectually that one viewing isn't quite enough. Who would have predicted that? It's ultimately one of the better films I've seen this year and I'm excited to see what becomes of this franchise in the future. If you like monster movies, disaster movies, or are a fan of the iconic lizard, I definitely recommend this film. It's heads and tails above the previous incarnation and it pays homage to the classic films that made Godzilla such an icon. I give this film a solid three and a half stars.

GODZILLA is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence