Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Imagine if Steven Spielberg directed a Godzilla movie and you're halfway toward imagining the Legendary Godzilla.

After some cool opening credits with music that sounds like a throwback to 1950s sci-fi movies (in a good way), the opening scenes of the movie feel straight out of the '90s, when the prototypes of the huge blockbusters we have today were coming out. For one thing, there are multiple shots lifted straight from Jurassic Park. More broadly, back then, even in bad movies like Independence Day, there was an attempt to establish a feel for the world of the movie, so that when the big events happen they feel impactful, and that's what the early scenes in this movie feel like. That holds on even after the first 'action' scene, where the nuclear power plant in Japan that Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) work at gets destroyed.

The official explanation is that it was an earthquake, but Joe has been monitoring seismic readings and knows there was something else behind it. Of course, no one believes him.

The only other people who know it wasn't an earthquake are Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). Before the incident at the plant, they investigated a cave in the Philippines, where they found the fossilized skeleton of a huge creature, as well as a pair of egg pods, one of which had hatched.

We then flash ahead 15 years to Joe's grown son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who travels to Japan when Joe is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area around the destroyed plant. Even after telling his father he thinks he's crazy, Ford agrees to go in with him for some reason, and this time the both of them get captured.

It turns out the area is not radioactive like it's supposed to be, and an organization called Monarch, which Dr. Serizawa works for, is studying a weird cocoon thing where the plant used to be.

This is where the movie starts to fall apart.

Why do they let the Brodys see the cocoon? They bring in Joe because he used to work there and might know something, but what happens when they let them go? How are they going to keep it covered up? It doesn't seem like they were going to kill them or anything. Maybe they just thought no one would believe them? I don't know.

Anyway, the cocoon hatches and a giant bug pops out and starts destroying everything. Right away, the monster action is underwhelming. It just feels like any other generic CGI-filled movie. The only thing it really gets right is not having the monster move so fast that it loses its sense of scale.

Joe dies from injuries sustained in the attack, and Dr. Serizawa talks to Ford to find out what his father knew. He tells Ford about what the creature is...and, oh boy, is it a ridiculous explanation.

Apparently, millions of years ago, there existed gigantic creatures that fed on radiation. One of them was awakened by the first nuclear submarine back in the '50s and rose from the depths of the ocean. They called it Gojira for some reason (they randomly switch to calling it Godzilla after a while), and tried to kill it with nuclear bombs, but it didn't work. For some reason, Serizawa thinks Godzilla will come to kill the other creature. Something about nature restoring balance and order. He makes up so much stuff up that I wonder if he isn't related to Dr. Hayashida from The Return of Godzilla.

Okay...why have none of the remains of any of these other creatures ever been discovered? There aren't any notable dead areas of prehistory where we haven't found the remains of things from the time. When exactly where these creatures supposed to have lived? Did they naturally grow so huge, or was the radiation to blame? That question is less crucial, but they just gloss over everything and don't actually explain any of it. Even if it was the radiation, does that mean there were 300-foot creatures stomping all around millions of years ago? The MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that hatched from the cocoon creates EMPs, seemingly at will from what we see later. How do the MUTOs know to use them at strategic moments? Why does Serizawa think Godzilla will try to kill the MUTO exactly? If the MUTO is so hungry for radiation, why isn't Godzilla? The nuclear sub is what woke him up in the first place. Is it because of all the bombs they used on him? Did they sate his hunger? Did they make him stronger?

Serizawa learns that Joe discovered the creature was communicating with something else, and they realize the first pod they dissected and left in a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada is going to hatch.

How do they know it's that pod and not another one somewhere else? Or for that matter, that the MUTO is even calling out specifically for that creature? Couldn't it just be calling out to try to find another one? How does it know about that one? How could they have studied the pod and not realize that it could still hatch? How is it still alive? How are any of these creatures still alive? Are they literally the same creatures that were alive millions of years ago? Like, the same individual Godzilla was walking around back then? Or have there been other Godzillas reproducing over the years at the bottom of the ocean? What has Godzilla/the Godzillas at the bottom of the ocean been getting radiation from to survive? They say the MUTOs were preserved somehow, but they were in the same chamber as the fossilized skeleton. How does that work? If these creatures are so hard to kill, why aren't there others still around? How did they evolve to be the way they are in the first place? And if they lived on radiation, how exactly did they consume it? Later we see the MUTOs literally swallowing nuclear missiles--did they just eat lots of radioactive rocks in the past? 

The first MUTO heads to Honolulu, where of course Ford just happens to be, and the train he's on just happens to get attacked by the MUTO. Godzilla shows up, creating that tsunami you saw in the trailers. We see via news footage that the two of them fought and then headed east, and here my disappointment only mounted. We only see brief glimpses of the fight, but already it feels goofy compared to the relatively realistic tone set by the rest of the movie. They just look like a couple of CGI cartoon animals flailing around. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Serizawa arrives at the nuclear disposal facility with a bunch of soldiers. They go inside and open the door to the chamber that held the pod...only to see that the creature has already torn its way out through the wall.

How did they not notice that already? When they open the door, there is a helicopter looking in from the other side of the hole. Wouldn't they have radioed and said, "Hey, uh, the MOFO or whatever already broke out and is heading for Las Vegas." One of the soldier guys even steps out and looks with binoculars and sees the creature walking away. How did they not notice that already? The guy shouldn't even have needed the binoculars, the creature was huge. The way he almost swung the binoculars past it as he looked made me laugh too.

"How did they not notice that already?" was definitely the thought that went through my head the most times during this movie.

Spielberg will often have characters do certain things to maximize the tension in a scene, even if their actions don't make sense logically. Like in Jurassic Park, when Dr. Grant and the kid are scrambling down the tree with the car falling after them. The car isn't that wide--it would be easier and faster to just move sideways out of its path, but where's the tension in that? He sacrifices logic in favor of creating suspense. It doesn't bother people that like to turn their brains off while watching a movie, but it pulls me right out and destroys the integrity of the movie for me.

This movie did something similar, where characters would suddenly realize something they should have noticed way either, sacrificing logic in favor of creating an impactful revelation. It happens at least six hundred times in the movie:

-When Serizawa and the soldiers realize the second MUTO has already broken out.

-When the soldiers notice the submarine on the slope above them in the jungle.

-When the soldiers notice all the burning wreckage going by in the river.

-When the soldiers realize they are standing right next to the leg of one of the MUTOs.

-When Godzilla pops up behind the second MUTO at the end.


They determine that the second MUTO is a female and that the two of them will meet up in San Francisco for some lovin.' Actually, this is an assumption they make, and while it is a logical one, it doesn't really make sense for them to automatically take it as fact and base all their plans around it.

Either way, they plan to lure the MUTOs away with a nuclear warhead and detonate it 20 miles off shore in hopes of killing both them and Godzilla. No thought is given to damage by fallout. Serizawa doesn't believe it will work (more flashbacks to Hayashida and his denouncement of the cadmium missiles in The Return of Godzilla). He wants them to just let Godzilla fix things. Normally in movies like this, when the military doesn't listen to the person who actually knows what they are talking about, you feel like the military comes off as stupid and deserving to have their plans fail. But here, nothing Serizawa says makes any sense.

Why does he think Godzilla will save them? How is letting three giant kaiju duke things out in the middle of a massive city a good idea? Why wouldn't he think Godzilla would just go after all the nuclear stuff himself after killing the MUTOs? If they are all just giant animals, why does he regard one as good and the others as bad? Serizawa must be related to Hayashida to be able to figure out so much from so little.

Ford goes with the soldiers transporting the nuke (by train, because the creatures can radiate EMPs), but of course one of the MUTOs ends up in their path and steals the nuke. There is some more Jurassic Park homage here with the soldiers trying to avoid being seen by the MUTO by not moving.

If the entire point of the nuke is to lure the MUTOs, why move it on a path that will go right next to one? Surely they could have flown it around the EMP's sphere of influence and then armed it? This movie should have been titled Godzilla vs. Logic.

Eventually, Godzilla fights the MUTOs in San Francisco while Ford parachutes in with a team to disarm the stolen nuke, which is now in a MUTO nest. It turns out to be damaged and they can't disarm it, so they have to transport it (on foot) to a boat to get it as far offshore as possible before it explodes. First, Ford blows up the nest. Why Ford? Because he's the main character.

The earlier question about how the creatures consume radiation is relevant here too. They find the nuclear bomb in the middle of the nest, surrounded by eggs. We've seen the MUTOs eat bombs, but how were the babies going to eat it? Do they just need to be near it? If the bombs are releasing enough radiation to keep them alive and attract them in the first place, are all the characters who came in contact with them going to suffer radiation poisoning? Realistically, that question also applies to the creature finding the nuclear plant at the start, and even Godzilla seeking out nuclear reactors in the Heisei and Millennium series--are the monsters that sensitive to radiation, or are these movies really a commentary on the lack of radiation shielding in reactors in Japan? They were using Geiger counters in the cave at the beginning, does that mean the creatures themselves are radioactive? Is everybody who was in the path of these monsters going to be sick/dead in the sequel?

While the queen goes to investigate the explosion at the nest, Godzilla kills the male MUTO, but a building falls on him, incapacitating him.

I haven't mentioned Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). That's because she doesn't really matter to this movie. She is a nurse (in San Francisco of course). We see her talking to Ford on the phone occasionally, we see her cry, we see her send their son off to safety (he ends up on the Golden Gate bridge right as Godzilla gets there of course). And when the building falls on Godzilla, we see her get buried in the rubble. Make no mistake, that might sound important, but its really not.

After face-to-face moments with both Godzilla and the surviving MUTO that echo the '98 Godzilla (the last thing anyone wants to hear), Ford gets to a boat with the nuke, but the female MUTO comes after it. After another face-to-face moment with her (really?), Godzilla pops up literally out of nowhere and kills the MUTO (just like the T. rex at the end of Jurassic Park somehow popping up without any of the characters noticing he was there).

Godzilla stumbles back to shore and collapses. Ford is airlifted out and the bomb goes off offshore. Elle turns up alive (just like that damn kid at the end of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, although her survival isn't as aggravating as that) and is reunited with Ford and their son.

Everyone seems to think Godzilla is dead (even though he seemed perfectly fine when he killed the second MUTO), but he gets up and swims away.

The End.

The movie disappoints on every major front. 

Story-wise, the movie just makes stuff up as it goes along whether it makes sense or not. The explanations for everything probably wouldn't bother me if they weren't trying for such a sense of realism, but it just made for unintentional laughs. It was over the top, like a parody of monster movies. Then there is the way the characters just happen to be in the way of the monsters all the time. The attempt to have some of the characters be important doesn't really work either. Joe didn't know anything Dr. Serizawa shouldn't have figured out already, and once the second pod hatched and Dr. Serizawa told everyone about Godzilla, he didn't know anything more than anyone else either. They were only tangentially important to explaining what was happening, and their explanations usually made no sense anyway. Ford always manages to be in the midst of the monster stuff, but he doesn't have much of an impact on what's happening with the monsters themselves. 

The movie started out promising character-wise. The first fifteen to twenty minutes felt like genuine character development, and the actors did a good job with it. But once the monsters showed up, all that got tossed out the window. Ford is always just kind of there, even when stuff is happening, his wife has nothing to do, Dr. Serizawa just looks dazed and mumbles incoherent nonsense about Godzilla (that scene where he pulls out his father's watch...goes nowhere), his assistant has no point in the entire movie. At least they didn't make Admiral Stenz the stereotypical moron authority figure, but he gets nothing more to do than give a face to the military.

It doesn't help that, despite Ford being the main character and being involved in pretty much every major action scene, the focus often shifts for those scenes to children (or even a dog) that are not actual characters in the movie. The idea behind it isn't a bad one--putting us in the place of a child is a good way to emphasize the enormity of the situation and the helplessness of what it would be like to be there. But those children aren't in the movie for more than a few minutes and so get no development of their own, and we already have main characters in the same situations. If the movie is going to go to the trouble of finding some excuse for the characters to be there, why not focus on them and give them something to do?

Monster-wise, there is nothing interesting here. Obviously, discussing monster designs largely comes down to personal opinion and preference, but to me, the MUTO designs are completely forgettable. It looked like they wanted them to be like giant bugs, but at the same time not just giant bugs, so they gave them spindly, bug-like legs, but with a layer of skin over everything, and with more reptilian heads. They felt to me like more bug-like versions of the Cloverfield monster, and the design of the monster in that movie was already not very interesting. It didn't help that they had no personality to them. They were just creatures going after food. They didn't have any particularly interesting ways of attacking either, basically just prodding at Godzilla over and over.

Godzilla's design isn't much better. Many people have complained that he is too fat, and I would have to agree. I would add that his eyes are too small, and I'm not a fan of his elephant feet. I would have liked an animal that large to have splayed toes to better spread out his weight. 

His breath effect was disappointing too. The introduction of it was interesting, but when he used it the first time, it didn't really seem have an effect on the MUTO. Changing it from a beam was an odd choice too. I never thought I would actually see Godzilla breathe fire in a movie. It took away from the sense of power that comes with a beam that makes things explode. 

And although Serizawa sets Godzilla up as an "alpha predator," and some of the scenes with him try to set him up as some kind of badass, he really doesn't seem much more powerful than the MUTOs. It kind of undercuts what they are trying to do when Godzilla keeps getting knocked around like a small child being tossed back and forth by a pair of bullies.

This is a minor complaint, but Godzilla's roar is exactly the same one you hear in all the trailers. I thought maybe they were saving something closer to the original roar for the movie, but nope. Not that it sounds bad, but it lacks the iconic quality of the original.

Speaking of sound, there was a notable lack of impact to the sound in the movie as a whole. Giant monsters, exploding missiles, falling buildings--these things should be loud and impressive, not things you might not even realize are there if you happen to look down at your popcorn while they are on the screen. Part of this is the fault of having characters not notice things until they are right in front of their faces (it really takes you out of the movie and makes you say "what???" when something that should have been making sounds for the entire scene doesn't start until halfway through). But even when there are explosions and monsters fighting all across the screen, you start to wonder if maybe the acoustics in this world just don't work the same way as ours.

As mentioned earlier, the music started out promising during the opening credits. However, if it had continued in the same '50s style, it wouldn't have been appropriate, and sure enough it changed once the movie got going. Early on, it had a very Bernard Herrmann feel, calling to mind his Mysterious Island score in particular (very cool). But as the movie continued, it kept shifting into different styles, giving a very inconsistent feel and not always fitting what was happening. Sometimes it was still cool, even if it didn't fit, but the awful not-quite-fanfare that played when Godzilla defeated the second MUTO gave me flashbacks to the painful Avengers score, especially the terrible fanfare that accompanies the shot of all of the characters standing in a circle toward the end. At other times it feels like it tries to do what The Dark Knight did, which is to push racing, energetic music through scenes where nothing exciting is happening to give the impression of non-stop action and momentum. I find this extremely annoying, but, unfortunately, that tactic does seem to work on many casual filmgoers. Personally, I would also have liked the classic Godzilla theme somewhere, but it's nowhere to be found.

The persistent, pushing music leads us to what is by far the biggest problem with the movie: once Godzilla shows up, the movie is a flat line. Usually movies like this will build up to monster fights, then have story advancement as they build to the next one. The movement of the story is the build up, with the monster action as the payoff to what is happening. This movie just keeps pushing forward. 

Even if Godzilla isn't always there, the MUTOs are, and scenes that are supposed to be big action scenes just feel like more of the same. When something big happens, like the fight in Hawaii, there is no time taken to explore the consequences of it. The movie just moves on to the next thing. If events have no consequences, then there is no reason to care about the events in the first place. The effect of actions is what drives a story forward and motivates the characters, but in this movie the effects of the monster destruction are never felt.

The movie even gave them a free chance to fix this when Elle was buried in the debris. If she had died, the story would have benefited from it, showing that the monsters are actually affecting things and giving her character a real function in the story other than simply being a reason for Ford to volunteer to go with the team into San Francisco (so he can get back to her). It also would have given Ford a bit more to deal with as a character.

Plus, we had already seen several other children reunited with their parents. Elle dying could have acted as a counterpoint to that, showing that things don't always turn out so well. Seeing such massive disaster scenes where no one seems to die not only makes them feel inconsequential, it feels thoughtless in a world where disasters seem to happen all the time. Instead, they have Elle survive, which adds nothing to the story because she never mattered anyway.

But even after all that, the movie still had an out. If the monster fights were well executed, the movie could at least have still been entertaining. But the fights weren't interesting either. The only two action beats that stuck out as potentially memorable were Godzilla slamming the first MUTO with his tail and using his breath on the second one at the end. But the first one just felt like another part of the fight, not the finishing move it was supposed to be. The second one could have been cool if I wasn't distracted by how stupid it was that Godzilla showed up so suddenly and wondering why he didn't just do that earlier.

Everything else about the monster fights just made me groan. In a movie striving for realism, seeing the monsters fighting like cartoons doesn't work. I half expected to see Godzilla doing somersaults and using karate moves. It was painful.

The trailers teased a serious, realistic take on a kaiju movie, but what we got was a movie that wasn't sure what its own tone was, veering from realistic at the start to moments of pure cheese. It's not as bad as the previous American attempt at a Godzilla movie, and not as bad as some of the Japanese ones, but this new Godzilla is certainly not one that I'll look back on with fond memories.

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