Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: "Godzilla"

Director: Gareth Edwards
Runtime: 123 minutes

The second that Godzilla's iconic roar blasts out of the speakers, you know that you've just witnessed the glorious rebirth of one of cinema's most famous movie monsters. After decades of silly ups and downs, Gareth Edwards' new reboot knows how to remind us all that Godzilla will always be king. If only the rest of the film were worthy of joining him on the throne. Edwards and co. create some stirring sequences, and they also keep the tone balanced between serious and silly. However, a lackluster protagonist and an uneasy focus on various members of the ensemble proves to be a considerable hurdle that the film is barely able to clear.

Faults and all, though, Edwards deserves credit for his handling of the towering monsters (yes, there's more than just the big guy). Restraint isn't a word that comes to mind when talking about a film involving cities being leveled, but it's rather on point here. Edwards handles the big reveal of Godzilla (Gojira, if you're feeling formal) gradually. This is a summer blockbuster/creature feature operating in the vein of Jaws or Alien, where the buildup, and the gradual flashes are more important that showing something in its full glory. 

To accomplish this, Edwards and DP Seamus McGarvey capture most of the mayhem from the ground level. We get a bit of a tail sliding away, a claw-like arm smashing into the ground, or a glimpse of Godzilla's scaly back. It's an inspired choice, and ensures that we, as viewers, look forward to seeing the monsters, instead of quickly growing bored of them. And when it comes time to let loose, Godzilla steps back just far enough to deliver the ridiculous action the character's legacy promises. 

Of course, in handling most of the action from the ground level, this means we have to pay attention to some humans too. Despite a stacked cast that includes (hi, Juliette Binoche) Bryan Cranston (bye, Juliette Binoche), Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and  David Strathairn the roles aren't terribly interesting or fun to follow. Cranston, at least, has a genuinely compelling emotional core that's effectively set up in the 1999-set prologue. Cranston's character is obviously a stock character (he's the mad man/conspiracy nut who's actually onto something), but the development the film affords his character puts the role far above similar characters. Meanwhile, Watanabe has some fun dispensing loony revisions of atomic history and spouting vague philosophical lines about nature's brutal ability to restore balance.

Everyone else mostly just does their jobs, with the exception being Aaron Taylor Johnson as Cranston's military-trained son. Johnson is also playing a stock character, but his feels totally empty, and even lazy; Charlie Hunnam's role in last year's Pacific Rim looks rich and nuanced in comparison. And, unlike Hunnam, Johnson has no fun characters to play off of. When the story is following Johnson around, the movie becomes a little less interesting, and makes you wish the monsters would hurry up and start causing mayhem again. 

With this human component left half-baked, Godzilla sometimes struggles to engage as it keeps teasing you with the history of the monsters, as well as the mystery of what they're doing now that they've been awakened. Most of the ensemble are also far away from the center of violence, leaving us with only terrified extras to connect with. 

Yet even with the deficiencies in the human roles, Edwards is still able to pull out some powerful visual moments as he keeps you waiting for the big finish. A scene of fighter jets losing power and dropping into San Francisco Bay is smartly used to build the vague sense of dread as the monsters approach. Even better is a freefall sequence that sends Johnson and other soldiers plummeting into the ruins of San Francisco from 30,000 feet. Red tracers streak behind them as they pass through layers of clouds illuminated by raging fires. The mix of painterly wide shots and claustrophobic POV footage is awe-inspiring, and there's not a creature in sight. 

And when the big fights start coming, they are appropriately big and clumsy. Here, Godzilla is a force of balance, meant to wipe out the insect-like creatures attacking human civilization. Yet his role as nature's proxy has no clear regard for human life. In his wrestling matches at the end, the big reptile does his fair share of property damage, all because it's a means to an end (how he's ever going to pay back the city of San Francisco, I have no idea). In between the epic tussles, Edwards finds room to insert moments of satisfying cheesiness. I'll avoid details, but there are certain gloriously over-the-top fight moves that are designed to leave audiences both cheering and laughing. 

Whether or not Warner Brothers decides to pursue a sequel, at the very least they've made an American Godzilla that can stand on its own (as well as erase the memory of the 1998 film). Most of that credit, however, belongs to Mr. Edwards, who has smartly brought the resourcefulness of his indie background to this big-budget extravaganza. The human elements get progressively weaker the further it goes, but Edwards still manages to hold our attention thanks to his inventive ways of never showing more than necessary. Faults and all, when this Godzilla roars, it's pretty damn hard to look at anything else. 

Grade: B-

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