Sunday, May 18, 2014

Strike two: Hollywood takes another swing at making an American Godzilla

There have now been 30 Godzilla movies spanning 60 years, and throughout all that time, the creature's appearance has been fluid, with changes ranging from tweaks to overhauls occurring on an almost movie-by-movie basis. Some of that was practical, of course: The Godzilla suits used to portray the character in his 28 Toho-produced films would go through a lot of wear and tear between the fireworks popping off them, the rubbing against other monster suits during battles and plunging in and out of a huge water tank. Some of the changes were made for aesthetic or storytelling purposes, depending on how a particular filmmaker might want to portray Godzilla. And so the fangs and Godzilla's tiny little ears would come and go. The number of toes or the size and shape of his spines might change. His eyes would get bigger or smaller.

The two most radical changes were made in the two American-made Godzilla films. The infamous 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed one reimagined the so-called King of The Monsters into something much more realistic-looking, a sort of gigantic theropod dinosaur that resembled a huge version of a creature that might have conceivably once walked the Earth, a design reflecting the changing understanding of what dinosaurs might have looked like between 1954 and 1998.

The world so thoroughly rejected that Godzilla that Toho eventually re-named it "Zilla" (Because the filmmakers had taken the "god" out of "Godzilla," you see) for its few later appearances in Godzilla media (2004 film Godzilla: Final Wars, a pair of video games, IDW comic book series Godzilla: Rulers of the Earth). The Godzilla that appears in the new Gareth Edwards-directed film is much closer to the range of Godzillas that have appeared in the later Toho films—a large rubber suit could conceivably be made in its shape and a human actor placed inside it, whereas the sleek, dinosaurian Emmerich monster would have been almost impossible for most actors to effectively play—but it's still a big perplexing deviation for what Godzilla "should" look like.

While the decision to redesign the monster so fully, for filmmakers to make their Godzilla their Godzilla, is understandable, and coming to grips with the new Godzilla's looks is, at least among fans, a ritual not unlike adjusting to a new actor coming in to play James Bond*. So here's the Daniel Craig of Godzillas, a design the studio's PR have worked quite diligently to hide from the world until the movie opened (Perhaps out of embarrassment, but more likely to build anticipation; it is worth noting that they did the same with Godzilla '98's campaign).

Oddly, surprisingly, maybe even shockingly, radically redesigning the title monster was only one of the several mistakes from the last American Godzilla that Edwards and company repeated in their film. In addition to trying to build a more realistic humongous city-stomping, radiation-breathing monster, the film also spends too much concern on biology, focusing on the origins of Godzilla (in the previous film, Godzilla was a marine iguana mutated by radiation from nuclear weapons tests; here it's theorized that he is a prehistoric beast from a time when the Earth was "ten times more radioactive then it is today" that feeds off of radiation) and, peculiarly, the reproductive habits of kaiju (in the previous film, it was Godzilla laying "his" eggs and hatching a brood of raptor-like baby Godzillas; here its his two monstrous opponents laying and hatching their eggs in San Francisco).

To his credit, while Edwards seems to have made some of the same mistakes as Emmerich, the filmmaker he seems to be emulating the most here is Steven Spielberg, perhaps nowhere more noticeably in his Jaws-like (or, more topically, his Alien-like) delay in showing the audience the monster. Edwards teases the hell out of the audience, offering just a blurry glimpse here or a particularly Jaws-like shot of a Godzilla's "fin"—resembling a stony island of stalacmites—cutting through the ocean there.

The problem, however, is that Edwards seems to have learned only the first half of the Spielberg/Ridley Scott Jaws/Alien monster-hiding technique, but not the second. He relentlessly teases Godzilla, reveals him, and then goes back to hiding him immediately (As Laura Hudson put it in her review, "at a certain point in every seduction, the clothes have to come off"). For a Godzilla movie, there is remarkably little Godzilla in this film, often to very frustrating effect.

So, for example, when we first see Godzilla in full, he sort of sneaks up on the first of his foes, and the camera pans up from his feet, over his massive, obese-looking bulk, all the way up to his face, and Godzilla, standing in an appropriately sumo wrestler-like pose, roars in challenge at his foe (Similarly to the visuals, Godzilla's famous roar is always obscured as well; I don't think there was a single instance in which the swelling score didn't rise to interrupt the cry).

Finally, the monsters are gonna fight!

And they do, but Edwards shows that fight on the the news. On a television screen. In the background of a scene of the hero's wife Elizabeth Olsen telling their kid to turn off the TV and go to bed. The other potentially big, exciting set-piece involves one of Godzilla's monster foes rampaging through the Las Vegas strip, wrapping one of its several limbs around the Eiffel Tower reproduction there and twisting it to pieces; that is shown in black and white on a tiny monitor in the back of one of the many military situation rooms that about a quarter of the movie seems to be set in.  Sure, why show a giant monster run amok on the Vegas strip, where there's all that awesomely bizarre architecture to trash, when you could show some bland scientist and army guys reacting to it instead?

Even during the climactic battle between Godzilla and his two foes, Edwards seems leery about ever giving the audience too clear a view of his Godzilla. All of his appearances take place at night, in the dark (the bad guy monsters have black-out causing EMP powers, which is handy  for that), and/or during rainstorms, and/or amid clouds of dust and smoke.
A typical view of Godzilla
In the 1990s, the decade of Spielberg's Jurassic Park and that last American Godzilla, when CGI was still new and costly, they used to set scenes like this under such conditions to help obscure the weakness in the special effects (For a great contrast, see the first appearance of the monster in Joon-ho Bong's 2006 Korean monster flick The Host; it first appears running through a crowded area in broad daylight, a scene made startling for its placement of the alien in such a mundane, everyday, unusual environment for a monster).  Here I'm not sure what the excuse for keeping Godzilla out of a Godzilla movie is.

Far more screentime is devoted to the human characters, all of whom are generic character types cut from an Emmerich-like disaster/apocalypse film. Giving the best performance by far is Bryan Cranston, who plays a nuclear engineer who loses his wife Juliette Binoche in a bizarre, unexplainable accident at a Japanese nuclear plant in 1999, and then spends the next 15 years turning into the movie scientist who seems crazy but is actually right (complete with an apartment in which the walls are completely covered in news clippings and research).
The actual protagonist of the film is handsome but bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the grown-up son of Cranston's character, a generic army guy who loves his family and his country and will do anything to save them.  He journeys from San Francisco to Japan, and, after monsters emerge, he tries desperately to get back to San Francisco, where, coincidence would have it, the three monsters are all going to meet-up for the climax.

Along the way, he meets Ken Watanabe's Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and David Straithairn's Admiral Someone-or-other. Ichiro Serizawa, by the way, is the name of the scientist character in the original, 1954 Gojira that developed the "oxygen destroyer" that ultimately killed the monster. Here, Watanabe's Serizawa is a more passive observer, part of top-secret, international organization "Project Monarch" that once tried to kill Godzilla with atom bombs in 1954, kept one of the other monsters in a heavily-monitored and protected quarantine zone in Japan (a neat, eerie set-up, wherein nature has overtaken the urban environment) and generally covered up the existence of giant monsters for 60 years (The history of Project Monarch sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than the film that was made that mentions it).

Those non-Godzilla monsters, by the way, are huge, vaguely-insectoid creatures Watanabe and company call a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism; not sure why it takes more than 15 years to come up with a name by which to identify this U.T.O., or why Godzilla got a name they didn't). There are two of them, male and female. The male has wings, and was being kept captive in Japan. The female was thought dead and discarded in the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada, until it revives when it learns the male is alive (the Yucca Mountain scene has a beautiful, but really quite amazingly stupid reveal to it, by the way). The larger, Cloverfield-looking female, complete with swaying sack full of eggs, trots off to meet the male MUTO in San Francisco, and Godzilla is on his way as well, to "restore order," as Watanabe's character believes (No reason for his inherent belief in Godzillas noble ability to slay bad monsters is given; I think we're just supposed to take it as an article of faith that all Japanese people inherently respect and revere Godzilla).

The monsters and Taylor-Johnson and a bunch of army guys all convene in a dark, stormy, smoke-filled city for an apocalyptic battle that suggests  the similar passages in Transformers: Dark of The Moon, Battlefield: Los Angeles, War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise version) and, to a much lesser extent, the climaxes of Man of Steel and even The Avengers (And how's that for a summation of a film? "It's like Transformers, but without the Transformers.")

The MUTOs are pretty cool looking, and Godzilla looks...weird and off, but then, we see relatively little of him, and we almost never see his entire body for longer than a frame (the awkward, hunched way he moves and lurches though, it seems like he must be more at home in the water, where we really see him book it—or, at least, we see his spines moving fast. There are no shots of a swimming Godzilla, because, again, why blow the budget of showing cool shots of your title character doing cool shit when you can instead give the viewer another scene of a major American city in ruins, as virtually every third movie this summer will prominently feature?).

There are certainly scenes of eerie beauty and bizarre, fascinating imagery in the film but then, they're basically the scenes you've already seen. As Sean T. Collins tweeted, the sad, moving and beautiful stuff in the trailer is in the movie, but that's it.

Or, as Stephanie Zacharek writes in her excellent Village Voice review:
There are two other great moments in Godzilla: One, when the scientist played by Watanabe—a wonderful actor who's as underused as everyone else is—captivates a roomful of unimaginative military brass with a heartfelt story about the Japanese origins or our nuclear-radiated troublemaker, cappint it off with the unbeatable kicker "We call him Gojira!" In the other, Godzilla uses his super-powered radioactive heat-ray breath to fry a something-or-other whose identity the spoiler police forbid us to reval. You could make a Vine of this moment and charge people $13.50, plus $7.50 for 3D glasses, just to watch it over and over again for two hours.
The film is actually a pretty stitched-together affair, some of its components just as random and ill-fitting as any amateur Vine video. The most interesting and intense scene by far, for me at least, was the opening credits sequence, which tried to visually distill the history of Godzilla and Project Monarch into a brief montage, while using a neat animated "redacting" effect to reveal the names of the people who star in or made the film (Like Watchmen, then, the very best part is the opening credits, after which it's all downhill). There's a mysterious scene of Watanabe on the trail of giant monsters, including finding a titanic fossil. There's the Cranston/Binoche scene, by far the most emotionally effective scene in the film (Damn, that Cranston can cry!). There's the aforemetnioned passage in which Cranston and Taylor-Johnson seek to penetrate the quarantine area.

And then there's the rest of the movie, in which we descend into typical summer blockbuster destruction filmmaking.
Much has been made of the original Gojira as a reaction to the horror of nuclear weapons, created by the one country to have actually suffered from that trauma, and indeed the first handful of Godzilla films and other Toho monster films rather explicitly trade in atomic age anxiety and hopeful prayers for the peace that comes from different peoples and nations working together (In the original Gojira, the monster created by atomic weapons can only be destroyed by an even more deadly weapon, one so dangerous that its creator takes his life during its deployment, so that no one will be able to make another one; in 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla/Godzilla vs. The Thing, the human heroes beg Mothra's nation to forgive them for the harm they've caused with nuclear weapons and other sins of empire, and come to their aid to rescue them from destruction at Godzilla's hands).

This Godzilla film rather disappointingly eschews a point of view. Edwards isn't really interested in the pure poetry of giant monsters, trying to strip them of metaphor to make them real and believable. Godzilla and the MUTOs are prehistoric monsters, reawakened, full-stop. There are feints in the direction of the Fukushima disaster, the 2004 tsunami, global warming and the like, and a reminder that dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima was a shitty thing to do, and that nuclear weapons going off in or around cities is still bad, but Godzilla is himself pretty definitively de-coupled from nuclear weaponry, Edwards and the screenwriters making explicit the fact that Godzilla existed as he does now millions of years before man, let alone nuclear power, and that the A-bomb he was hit with in the fifties didn't hurt—or, notably, strengthen—him.

There might be something in there damning toward nuclear power and/or mining in general—the  MUTOs are awakened by a mining operation, and are only able to return to life because a nuclear power plant is creating enough radioactivity for them to feed off of again—and/or something simplistic along the lines of government secrets are bad, but it's all pretty garbled, and because each event falls so snugly into blockbuster filmmaking building blocks, that looking to any suggestion as some sort of message seems like overreaching.

If there's a cautionary tale in here at all, it's the same one that was told in Godzilla '98—don't make shitty American Godzilla movies, dammit.


It's really too bad that this was as bad as it was, and not just because I blew $9 on a rather unpleasant film-going experience, instead of watching a terrible movie for free on DVD in the comfort of my own home while doing something else, which is how I generally enjoy bad movies, movies about giant monsters and bad movies about giant monsters.

It's too bad because I really wanted this to be good and successful, so they would make more of 'em, because I want to see cool CGI, giant monster fights on a big movie screen. I want to see a new Godzilla vs. King Kong remade/rebooted, damn it (I thought often about Peter Jackson's King Kong remake while watching this; while there are plenty of detractors with plenty of criticism of that film, it is a beautiful example of a filmmaker taking everything he loved about a classic film and extrapolating and expanding on it, giving audiences ten times more of what was cool in the original—you liked when King Kong fought that T Rex? Well, here he is, fighting three of 'em!—and exploring the subtext by dramatizing it as text).

I'd like to see Godzilla fight with and against other Toho monsters in the future.

So I basically thought of this film the same way I did Man of Steel, Amazing Spider-Man,  the Hulk and Fantastic Four movies, all three Transformers movies, the G.I. Joes and Godzilla '98—Well, that was disappointing. I hope they make another one soon.

*Fun fact I learned just ten seconds ago: There have "only" been 25 Bond films, meaning Godzilla's starred in more films than the Bond character. Something tells me that Bond is likely to overtake Godzilla in the next decade or so, based on how this film turned out. 


Jeff McGinley said...

I'm polishing my review for Thursday's post, hitting on many of the same topics and opinions you've listed. But I think I could have worked on it for weeks and never hit on the sheer poetry of:

"If there's a cautionary tale in here at all, it's the same one that was told in Godzilla '98—don't make shitty American Godzilla movies, dammit."

Well spoken, sir.

Pardon me while I go show my daughter 1964's "Mothra Vs Godzilla" to wash the stink of Friday night's premier away.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

Caleb, I often agree with your reviews of movies/comics/etc., but in this case we differ in opinion immensely. As I discuss in my review of Godzilla (

I felt it was an awesome film, and while not perfect still pretty darn good. It seems the populace has agreed with me as the flick has made more money than even the most optimistic predictions thought.

You are of course entitled to not liking the movie, but its so darn good!

Anonymous said...

(1) It's flawed, but there are worse things than to have made the prettiest Godzilla film in memory.

(2) The Mutos are my favorite monster designs in forever. Fuck a bunch of Pacific Rim.

(3) The use of the Kyrie Requiem as incidental flavor to the score in the third reel was a little disconcerting (that music will forever belong to Kubrick's 2001) but it did add a queasily fearful emotional heft to a film that often lacked it.

(4) The best special effect in the film was Cranston. Too bad he played the Crazy Dad archetype.