Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Cinema File #350: "Godzilla" Review

As a genre, the Giant Monster Movie has always seemed like it was just on the cusp of mainstream acceptance, at least in the modern age of superheroes and other high concept fair where nerds supposedly dominate all facets of popular culture. On paper it fuses so many trends in today's most successful movies with its large scale disaster scope and science fiction conceit just this side of plausible, but for some reason, up until now at least it has never quite made it over the top. If there was ever going to be a movie to finally cause it to break out, one would have thought Pacific Rim would do the trick, but unfortunately, that one didn't seem to catch on, so now we get another bite at the apple with Godzilla. Helmed by Gareth Edwards, coming off a little scene and low budget independent film with a similar setting called simply Monsters, the love for this material is obvious throughout. Sadly, much like Guillermo del Toro's effort, passion alone isn't enough.

Anyone around in the 90's remembers the last time America tried to tackle this mighty Japanese beast, and few remember it fondly, so the bar was already set pretty low when they announced another U.S. Godzilla movie was in the works. In the age of endless reboots, it was easy to dismiss the news of this production as yet another shameless and soulless cash grab, until the perfect choice for director short of maybe James Cameron or Stephen Spielberg made it one to watch out for. As an avid fan of the original series and a dedicated Japanophile, I for one was skeptical up to the end, but as more and more trailers began to pop up, each more intriguing than the last, I must admit that the little boy in me who grew up on Heisei-era VHS imports from Blockbuster Video eventually overwhelmed by good sense. I mean, this was Godzilla for fuck's sake, and he's not a goddamn Iguana. Clearly they're going to do it right this time, right?

And they do, kind of, well, at least for the 30 minutes or so where it actually constitutes a Godzilla movie. The problem is, this Godzilla movie is considerably longer than that, and the parts without the title character we came to see leave much to be desired. The movie ends up feeling like one giant King Ghidorah-sized cock tease for an amazing third act, and while that third act doesn't disappoint in the slightest, the set up is almost insulting in its attempts to apologize for its premise. This isn't a giant monster movie, it says every time it coyly cuts away from a monster fight to focus on the perspective of fleeing pedestrians, this is a human drama. This isn't the story of a bad ass sea monster coming out of the ocean to do battle against other bad ass monsters, its the story of a man trying to get back to his family amid a global disaster. That you've never heard of this man and couldn't care less about his life when there are fucking giant monsters in the same movie is apparently beside the point.

I'm getting ahead of myself, and honestly I want to focus on the good while its still fresh in my mind, so it doesn't sound like I'm completely condemning this movie without qualification. There are moments in this film that rival any big budget sci-fi action movie in recent memory up to and including the best that Marvel has produced since the first Iron Man. Godzilla's reveal, ironically the movie's King Kong moment, is every bit as startling and impactful as it should be, and when he (finally) gets into gear in the climactic fight, its everything you would want in a Godzilla fight sequence and more. Even scenes spoiled in the trailer made me shiver, like his long roar into the camera, or the paratrooper scene from the very first teaser. The fight proper is as good as any of the action scenes in Pacific Rim, and if only for the iconic nature of it and respect paid to it, maybe better than all of them combined. The monsters may not be in this movie much, but they're more fleshed out as characters than any of the humans, so much so that even the bad ones are sympathetic by the end.

I just wish I could refer to "the fights" rather than just "the fight," because unfortunately there's only the one to write home about in the entire movie. Oh, Godzilla fights monsters throughout (original creations called M.U.T.O.s that look like the bugs from Starship Troopers), we just don't get to see it happen, or at least not to the extent that any true fan would want. We get snippets here and there, always obscured or more often from the point of view of someone without a good vantage point, in a Cloverfield-esque attempt to put the audience in the middle of the action. This is fine and works well up to a point, but once Godzilla is revealed at the first act break, that shit needs to stop, and it doesn't. There's no reason not to see the other fights as up close as the last one, and even the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie knew enough to show the thing we came to see, even if it wasn't how we wanted to see it. The "You Are There" approach is fun at first, but overstays its welcome and just becomes aggravating when you realize you've been walking in the shoes of boring civilians when you could have been walking around in the clawed feet of a super beast the whole time.

I don't exactly blame the director for any of this, as I think there's a larger, cross-cultural problem at work here. This Godzilla is probably the best Godzilla movie that an American movie studio could have possibly produced, and at the same time it illustrates why American movie studios have no business making Godzilla movies at all. Ever. Americans are stupid. They need creative crutches like POV characters who are as stupid as they are to identify with and lead them through the stuff they stupidly don't understand. The notion that they could consider a massive bipedal reptile as the main character of a movie in his own right (as the Japanese can do reflexively) and invest intellectually and emotionally without some human level entry point is akin to laying pearls before swine (also, most of them are fat, smelly, and generally pig-like, but that's just coincidental). Maybe I'm not talking about you specifically; maybe you're one of the exceptions that proves the rule.  But the rules that limit our collective creative enrichment to the lowest common denominator of vacuous morons exist nonetheless, and Godzilla, try as it might, can't overcome the weight of them.

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