Sean K. Cureton

The King of the Monsters Returns, a Potent Behemoth with Teeth

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on May 24, 2014 at 11:04 am

Theatrical Poster

Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla starts off with a montage sequence not too far removed or dissimilar from the one seen previously in Roland Emmerich’s attempt at the franchise in 1998. Through the compilation of stock footage of nuclear weapons testing, mushroom bombs, and pages of text lifted directly from Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species, Edwards deftly grounds his film within the franchise’s established discourse on the ecological dangers of bio-nuclear warfare, and begins mounting the viewer’s tension as they await the big reveal of the film’s star. Ever since audiences first heard the titular character’s iconic roar during the opening credit sequence of Ishiro Honda’s original of 1954, Godzilla has become a monster movie icon, the go to staple for anyone with a taste for the kaiju cinematic tradition of Japan. Godzilla, who is indeed the King of the Monsters, as the film’s constant meta-fictional media coverage dubs him, is a beauty to behold when he is finally revealed about an hour into the film, gorgeously rendered with CGI and some of the best sound effects engineering of the past few years. And yet, for all of the dramatic build up and technical artistry that went into designing everyone’s favorite kaiju, Edwards’ film feels a little bland, boasting a cast of characters who appear intricate and nuanced at first, but fairly quickly fall away into the background once the film picks up speed, resulting in another big budget summer blockbuster that fails to offer anything new, falling into some of the worst cliches and stereotypes of the film’s pre-established genre.

The film begins in Janjira, Japan, where Joe and Sandra Brody, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, are working in a local Nuclear Testing Laboratory. Inevitably, the lab experiences an accident of such turmoil and violence that Cranston’s character is left a widower, with the emergency at the lab tragically taking the life of his beloved wife in a scene that, for all its overt melodrama, is deeply effecting and poignant. Cut to around twenty years into the future, and Joe’s son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is now a bomb specialist in the US military, and his father has become a conspiracy theorist obsessed with what really happened during the accident at his lab, lo those many years ago. While this initial portion of the film serves to establish its characters and plot trajectory in a way that is refreshingly vibrant, incredibly well paced, and effectively establishes the premise and conceit of the film’s more fantastic elements, it also fails to carry itself beyond the initial set up of the first hour, becoming background noise once Cranston’s character is killed off by one of the first creatures to erupt from the earth. After Cranston’s Joe Brody is killed off, his son is left as the central human protagonist, which would be alright, if it weren’t for the fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is one of the most wooden and bland actors currently working in Hollywood, especially when set side by side with the far superior performance offered from Cranston over the course of the first half of the film; persistently over the second half of the film’s two hour runtime, the viewer is left bored and disinterested with what is happening to Taylor-Johnson’s character, rendering his encounters with Godzilla and his ilk less potentially dangerous, as there is little reason to care all that much whether or not Ford will overcome the odds and emerge victorious by film’s end, the lone man standing amidst the debris of apocalyptic disaster and chaos.

That being said, the rest of the film is quiet brilliant, fantastically gorgeous in its grandiosity, and effectively frightening in its utilization of the kind of implied mass destruction that has become all to familiar and boring in other Hollywood blockbusters of the same sort. When compared to something like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, or even Zack Snyder’s abysmal Superman entry from last year, one of the things that really shines in Gareth Edward’s new film is the minute and exacting attention to the death toll and scale of real world destruction that the film portrays to its audience, using televised news coverage of the events in the film’s fictive narrative in order to offer both instances of unexpected humor and levity, while simultaneously documenting just how catastrophic and horrible the fantasy destruction actually becomes. In any of the one too many Transformers films that have come out over the past eight years, destruction is utilized for pure spectacle, in effect deadening the viewer’s senses and comprehension of just what is supposedly unfolding within the events of each individual installment, resulting in a series of films that are empty and devoid of any value whatsoever, as cold and lifeless as the giant robots that are its staple. In contrast, and much like Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, Edwards’ Godzilla is sympathetic to both its monsters and its victims, never ceasing to shy away from the more terrible aspects of the film’s destructive action sequences, or to exploit the lives of its fictional characters, which alternatively results in sequences of cinematic destruction that are comprehensive and actually shocking. Where Michael Bay’s films are pornographic and detached in their construction, Edwards’ film is rooted in a sort of empathetic realism, which is a more than fitting tribute to Honda’s beloved original, and is sure to make any fan of the Godzilla franchise proud and contented with this new re-vamp of everyone’s favorite kaiju.

Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is decidedly better than Roland Emmerich’s reviled and silly attempt at the franchise in 1998, bringing back the sense of integrity and eco-political dialogue that was so integral to the 1954 original. Where Emmerich’s Godzilla was a harmless mess, Edwards’ Godzilla is a potent behemoth with teeth, offering both affecting melodrama and character development, as well as fully realized computer generated action sequences that are a verifiable wonder to behold, and reward the viewer in a way that is satisfying and well earned. Edwards’ new film might be the first must see film of the summer season, warts and all, well deserving of the IMAX experience in which such a film prototypically demands to be seen, leaving the viewer quaking in their seats with each deafening roar from the film’s namesake and star. While Pacific Rim, from last summer, might have been a little more fun in its send up of the campier aspects of the kaiju genre, Edwards’ film is a brave attempt at something a little grander and more dramatic, even if a lot of that drama doesn’t quiet hold up under the pressure of its supersized theatrics. Edwards’ Godzilla is not a perfect summer blockbuster, but it’s still pretty damn spectacular, and doesn’t lack or hold back when it comes to entertaining its built in audience, making it a fitting inheritor of its King of the Monsters.

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