Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Unless you’ve been living somewhere very, very deep in the ocean, you know that Godzilla has stomped his way into theaters.  Actually, if you do live there, you probably swam for your life when he awakened.  Anyway, the flick is proving to be quite divisive among fans of the longest running franchise in film history.  Some are hailing the first American made Godzilla flick as the best kaiju movie in decades.  That’s right, I said the FIRST American Godzilla.  I don’t know what you were thinking about, but it wasn’t a Godzilla flick.  It just wasn’t.  Arguments will not be tolerated.  Others are saying that the summer tentpole action flick is not a vehicle befitting of the King of the Monsters.  Either way, the time has come once again for nature to point out the folly of men. 

Synopsis:  Two giant monsters (dubbed MUTOs) rise up to destroy stuff.  This awakens Godzilla, and he’s pissed.  Monster mayhem eventually ensues.  ‘Nuff said.  Does anything else really matter?

My biggest fear about an American Godzilla flick was that it would take after Pacific Rim and look like a cartoon.  My hatred for CGI is well documented, and I went into this movie fully expecting a CGI Godzilla to drive me into a frenzy of righteous indignation.    Well, I’m about to say something I have only said in one other review over the last three and a half years… the CGI in this flick looks fantastic.  I would go so far as to say that this is the best computer generated monster that cinema has ever produced.  I will always be a rubber suit kinda guy, but visually this movie absolutely does our favorite gorilla-whale justice; maintaining that classic purposeful grimace and terrible sound.  While I didn’t dig the rather generic design of the MUTOs so much (pretty much just like the Cloverfield monster), they look great as well.  Even the digitally created environments impressed.  Not once while watching it did I cringe at the visual effects, and I can’t remember the last time I could say that about a modern fantasy “blockbuster.”  I also love that Gareth Edwards took a more old-school approach to the action sequences.  Whereas almost all action flicks these days follow that “shake the camera and edit it as quickly as possible” style that makes the Transformers flicks so unwatchable, this flick lets the shots linger, allowing the audience to revel in the sheer majesty of Godzilla’s presence.

Most of the vitriol being thrown at the movie by critics and fans centers around two things, the weakness of the overall story and Godzilla’s lack of screen time.  Those who decry the lameness of the romantic subplot and the uninteresting human element are actually one hundred percent right.  The love story is contrived and eye-rollingly sappy.  With the exception of Bryan Cranston as the kooky scientist with all of the answers who no one will listen to and Ken Watanabe as the scientist there to look distraught, no one is particularly likable.  Ford Brody (really?) is your generic good guy with a tragic past, and Kick-Ass plays him like he’s trying to emote while heavily sedated.  Elizabeth Olsen’s acting is laughably bad as the wife he may or may not make it back to.  Everyone else is just plain unmemorable. 

I ask you, however, is this either surprising or a big problem?  I don’t think so.  When was the last time that the humans in a Godzilla flick presented an engaging, emotional story?  Hell, when was the last time they even mattered?  That’s right, the first one.  People forget that Gojira (as well as its American counterpart for that matter) was more than a monster flick.  In its day, it was considered controversial and somewhat subversive.  It used the story of a rampaging beast to address a lot of subjects that were extremely taboo in Japanese society.  It was dark, intense, and pretty powerful when viewed in context.  Then, when Godzilla himself became hugely popular, the human story became secondary.  They’re just there to deliver a little exposition and run away screaming.  Nothing more than the plate that the action is served up on.  Would it have been nice to have a powerful story with well-drawn characters framing the destruction?  Of course, but I think it’s a bit ridiculous to go in expecting that.  Those that did may have forgotten what kind of movie they bought a ticket for.

The other problem people are having is the lack of Godzilla in Godzilla.  I didn’t time it, but I would estimate that Big G is on screen for about 20 minutes out of the film’s 123.  Sure, I would have liked to see a lot more of the main man, but there are quite a few factors that keep me from sweating the titular monster’s meager screen time.  I get what they were going for and I think it worked.  Godzilla is in the flick just enough for the story they’re telling.  I know, I know, I was expecting a Final Wars style balls-to-the-wall monster romp too.  But it’s more along the lines of the first one and I’m cool with that because when Godzilla IS on screen, it’s magical.  Even when we’re not beholding him in all his glory, those glimpses are enough to make me feel like I did as a kid watching the old flicks on late night TV.  For example, for a while we only see Godzilla’s back as he swims across the Pacific towards the inevitable city-destroying confrontation.  It plays like an action hero’s “someone is gonna get their skull caved in” walk.  You know what’s coming, and it’s gonna be glorious.  Plus, we get some great moments with the MUTOs outside of their interaction with Godzilla.  There is one scene (I won’t give too much away, but it involves a train trestle) that is one of the strongest moments in the flick.  I also have my doubts that those killer visual effects would look nearly as good had the animators had an entire movie’s worth of kaiju footage to contend with as opposed to focusing on keeping fewer scenes looking so bad ass, making it a question of quality over quantity.

My one major issue is that it’s about 15 minutes too long.  I will admit to looking at my watch a couple of times, particularly during the first half, and wondering when business was gonna pick up.  Don’t get me wrong, when it does get going it clicks on all cylinders.  It just takes its sweet time getting there.  Had they paced the expository stories faster, or cut some of it altogether, it would have fixed everything.  No one would be bitching.  The story wouldn’t have time to feel uninspired and the human to Godzilla ratio would be more along the lines of what people were expecting.  It’s fine as it stands, but it seems to me that some tightening up would have made it a stronger flick and delivered something closer to what the people who didn’t dig it seem to have been looking for.

Random Thought #1: I must have reacted loudly to a lingering close up of one of my beloved Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, because people looked at me like I was crazy.  I couldn’t help it.  I love those little guys, and seeing one on an IMAX screen made me one happy Bogey.

Random Thought #2: Speaking of IMAX, see it that way if at all possible.  I’m not normally a big IMAX fan, but if there was ever a movie that demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible it’s this one.

Random Thought #3: Bryan Cranston reminded me a lot of Adam West in this flick for some reason that I can’t put my finger on.

Is this the Godzilla flick that I was expecting?  Nope.  Is it the Godzilla flick I wanted?  Kinda.  Is it a Godzilla flick that I enjoyed the hell out of?  Damn straight.  It got too slow for my tastes here and there, but when Big G showed up, all of that was a distant memory.  I literally found myself, on more than one occasion, cheering at the top of my voice in the theater before I even knew I was doing it.  Outside of that rare, incredible kill in a horror flick, that never happens.  When I looked around, the rest of the crowd was cheering too.  As I said before, I felt like a kid watching this.  As long as you know what kind of movie you’re going into, I think it will have the same effect on you.  Here’s hoping that this is the first of many stateside trips for the terror of Tokyo.  Godzilla proves, once again, that he will always be King of the Monsters.  Long live the King!
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