Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

I rarely see movies in the theaters anymore. I don't like crowds, I don't like having to follow someone else's schedule, and I don't like the prices. In the rare cases when I do go to the theater, it's usually weeks after a film's release when there are less people.

However, I've been a Godzilla fan for about 25 years. And I've been waiting to see this movie since it was officially announced in 2010. When I realized that Godzilla (2014) was going to be released a) on my Friday off and b) when most people are in school or at work, I decided to see a movie on its opening day for the first time in years.

The opening credits consists of footage taken of a highly classified event from 1954. For years the world was convinced that the US Government's activities in the Pacific during that time consisted of extensive nuclear testing intended to prove new bomb designs and to intimidate the Soviet Union. However, brief images of an enormous aquatic creature and an atomic bomb with a hastily painted crossed-out monster on the casing show that a lot more was going on than nuclear brinksmanship.

Fast forward to 1999 where Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) of Project Monarch, the secretive organization that was involved in the 1954 event, is taken deep into a collapsed mine in the Philippines. The elevated radiation levels are suspicious enough, but the enormous fossilized bones and the two cocoons confirm his fears. Although one cocoon is intact and appears to be entirely dormant, the second was obviously breached shortly before its discovery. The freshly dug tunnel leading away from the cocoon puts Project Monarch on high alert.

Whatever was in the cocoon makes a beeline for Janjira, Japan, producing seismic waves that has chief engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) worried about the safety of the nuclear plant where he and his wife (Juliette Binoche) are employed. Soon the reactor has been breached and the plant goes into lockdown, trapping Brody's wife behind a shielded door in a lethally radioactive hallway. As Brody mourns, the ground begins to shake even more violently and the plant collapses into a crater with a roaring sound that's unlike any caused by an earthquake or structural failure. The Brodys' son, Ford (played as an adult by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has the misfortune of seeing the collapse from his schoolroom. Janjira is immediately evacuated and is permanently abandoned.

Fifteen years later, Ford is a US Navy ordnance disposal technician living in San Francisco with his wife and child. Not long after coming off active duty, the US consulate in Japan informs him that his estranged father has been arrested trying to enter the quarantine zone around Janjira. After retrieving his father and returning him to his apartment near the abandoned city, Ford finds articles on the disaster posted all over the walls, as well as an eclectic collection of books; the oddest being a text on the use of echo-location in animals.

The very next day, Ford finds himself entering the quarantine zone with his father under protest. Although the area is supposed to be extremely radioactive, Joe's Geiger counter finds no trace of radiation. The two return to their former home and find Joe's computer disks on which he has recordings of the seismic wave that was detected prior to the disaster. Joe and Ford are captured almost immediately thereafter, but instead of being outright arrested, they're taken to the former site of the nuclear plant where a enormous project is underway. As Joe is being questioned, Dr. Serizawa realizes that they've found one of the only survivors of the Janjira disaster who knows anything about the events that led up to the collapse of the plant. 

Unfortunately for Joe, Ford, and the Monarch team, activity within the huge cocoon growing in the location of the plant's destroyed reactor is reaching its apex. The radiation emitted by the ruined reactor has been completely absorbed by the creature inside, which has been feeding on it for the past 15 years. When it emerges, the insect-like, electromagnetic pulse-emitting Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) immediately destroys the surrounding research facility, unfurls a set of wings, and flies off in search of the MUTO that had been hibernating inside the intact cocoon found in 1999.

With the cat out of the bag, Dr. Serizawa reveals the truth; the newly hatched MUTO is but one example of an ancient creature that lived long before humanity. These creatures fed off of radiation, which was more plentiful on ancient Earth, and became dormant when the background radiation levels dropped off. With the advent of the atomic age, some of these creatures were awakened, one of the first being an enormous reptilian "alpha predator" that Serizawa calls Gojira. Although believed to be destroyed in 1954, Serizawa suspects that it may only be hidden deep in the ocean and that it may be humanity's only hope for eliminating the MUTOs.

Godzilla (which is how everyone but Serizawa pronounces the word) may have been inactive for 60 years, but it doesn't take him long to detect the presence of the MUTO and to track it down to its first stopping place in Hawaii. Unfortunately for Ford, the airport where he's supposed to catch his plane back to San Francisco is where Godzilla and the MUTO will have their first encounter. As is standard for a Godzilla film, the rest of the movie focuses on the ever-increasing futility of humanity's efforts to control the unfolding events.

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The special effects are amazing, the cast is good (especially Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston), and the subject is treated with a seriousness that I hadn't seen outside of a Japanese Godzilla film.

It's the latter item that really sets Godzilla (2014) apart from Godzilla (1998). It was very obvious in the latter film that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich had no respect for Godzilla as a character. The movie features ridiculous characters like "Mayor Ebert" (a painfully obvious parody of Roger Ebert), a buffoonish military represented primarily by a belligerent commander and his stuttering subordinate, protagonists that can't decide if they're in a comedy or a disaster film, and a giant iguana that looks and acts nothing like Toho's creation. The big iguana was such a disappointment for Toho that the 2001 Japanese film Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (I love how literally they translated the title) incorporated the American monster into Godzilla canon by stating that New York had been attacked in 1998 by some creature that the Americans had mistaken for the real Godzilla. By 2004, Godzilla: Final Wars had renamed the American monster "Zilla". When Zilla attacks Sydney, Australia, the real Godzilla promptly knocks him into the Sydney Opera House and apparently kills him with his atomic breath (the 1998 Godzilla's lack of atomic breath was widely panned by Godzilla fans).

By contrast, it's obvious that faithfulness to the source material was foremost on the minds of the makers of the most recent film. Not only does the creature physically resemble Toho's famous monster suits, but the latest Godzilla behaves in an identical manner to his Japanese counterpart. He is more like a force of nature than merely an animal. Although more or less indifferent to humanity, Godzilla is the hero of the film by virtue of opposing another, more destructive monster.

The filmmakers also understand a key principle that Devlin and Emmerich do not; if you want an audience to take something as absurd as a giant radioactive reptile seriously, you need to surround it with realistic people and events. Although the characters aren't continuously dour, there are no comic relief characters in Godzilla. Even better, the director and writers have completely omitted that most annoying of disaster movie elements that I'm certain is taught in Film 101: the completely unnecessary human villain. There is no popularity-seeking mayor endangering the populace, there's no sinister organization trying to maintain its secrets long after the monster is loose, and there's no mad general willing to nuke a populated city to destroy the menace.

Yes, Godzilla does have Project Monarch, but the organization's motives are in nowise sinister, despite Joe Brody's obsession. Once the MUTO hatches, the military steps in and 60 years of secrecy are quickly ended in the interests of warning nearby populations. And yes, there's a strong difference of opinion between Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) and Dr. Serizawa on how the monsters should be dealt with (as usual, nukes are involved). Serizawa believes that Godzilla is 'a force for balance' and that interference is futile. However, the Admiral makes it clear that his interest is in preserving the lives of millions of people. With so much at stake, he simply cannot share Serizawa's faith in an unpredictable force like Godzilla and trust that he won't turn on humanity immediately after dispatching the MUTOs.

Contrary to expectations, Godzilla doesn't use cheap tricks to make the audience side with Serizawa. Admiral Stenz is shown to be sincere in his motives, logical in his conclusions, and conservative in his strategies. The disagreement isn't portrayed as a matter of right versus wrong or scientists versus the military, but as a serious dilemma in which neither side is obviously right or wrong. In other words, Godzilla gives us a more realistic portrayal of human behavior and motivation than so many other movies that aren't about giant radioactive monsters.

If I had one complaint about Godzilla it's that Godzilla himself doesn't get quite enough screentime (the MUTOs get a lot more attention). Like Jaws (1975), the director keeps the monster in the background for much of the film and saves the real monster versus monster action for the very end. But the few appearances we do get are glorious. I love Pacific Rim (2013), but not a single scene in Guillermo del Toro's love letter to kaiju eiga compares to the first time we see Godzilla let loose his iconic roar.

That scene, and at least two more that I won't give away, put such enormous grins on my face that my cheeks hurt for hours afterward.


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