Sunday, June 8, 2014

Godzilla

2014, d. Gareth Edwards

One of my first film experiences was at age 5 or so viewing of King Kong vs. Godzilla at the public library in town I grew up in.  It's one of those indelible experiences that has never left me, and has endeared me to the giant monster (kaiju) genre for a lifetime.  That said, giant monsters were never a huge part of my life... not even my geek life.  I don't remember watching a lot of Godzilla films on weekend afternoons as a kid (when such things would play back then), and I only have the vaguest recollection of the silly cartoon from the early '80's.  I didn't really actively start catching up with the Toho-built world of kaiju and miniature sets being destroyed until my late teens when my local comic book shoppe started stocking cult and B-movie video cassettes, and I was doing time reviewing these many dreadful things.  Godzilla pictures were the natural standout, with a very specific sensibility to them, and a formula that would sustain for generations.  The meaningful intensity of the first film, its atomic warning, gave way to the simple pleasures of rubber-suits-stomping-on-toys.  Still, that first film, the original Gojira, proved very early on that even populist entertainment can have social resonance, carrying a message beneath it's simple pleasures.

The last time Hollywood licensed the character from Toho, it was a disaster, essentially dispensing with everything that made the character great by people who though they could do better (it's a common problem with the Hollywood ego, thinking they know better than what decades of history have proven works).  It may have made tonnes of money (though wildly underperforming to expectations) and fueled a marketing bonanza, but it tainted the name Godzilla for quite some time.  Toho went back to the drawing board with a series of epic kaiju disaster films centered around Godzilla that were decent, owing far more to their roots, though never escaping the slightly camp factor of guy-in-rubber-suit, which suited the fans just fine.

Another American stab at Godzilla I think was rightfully met with wariness by the audience at large and with even more jaded reception from fans.  Was this really necessary?  How good could this possibly be?  The answer to those questions are a resounding, no, it's not at all a necessary film, and the results were freaking fantastic.

Director Gareth Edwards came into Godzilla from his small-budget semi-scripted quiet adventure-drama Monsters (about navigating a world after giant alien creatures hatched on Earth), and many were concerned how he would scale up.  Monsters brilliantly set the stage for this movie, which does bank on a human reaction to the events happening around them, as well as building a lived in world where this sort of giant monster thing feels possible and the impact of it is truly felt.

This is, at its heart, a disaster picture.  It treats these giant creatures as forces of nature which military weapons are almost entirely useless against.  The best we can hope for is being prepared, and getting out of the way.  Dave Callaham's story and Max Borenstein's screenplay very wisely remember that the creatures are the center of the film, and the people involved in the story are all in some way reacting to or actively engaging that center.  There's no romantic sub-plot, and any character dramatics are rightfully overshadowed by the events happening around them.

Edwards' direction is, quite simply, inspired.  So much of the film is from the perspective of us as humans: seeing things happen on the news or on a portable device or security monitor (even if the actual events are happening right before us, only a screen can seem to contain the sheer enormity and provide outside context), watching through the window of a bus or train as the monsters crash through infrastructure, fleeing in terror as Godzilla's emergence from the ocean causes a tsunami, seeing the creature eye-to-eye from the cockpit of a fighter jet... Edwards deliberately doesn't use many wide shots just so that we can rarely ascertain just how big these creatures truly are, while also keeping us grounded in the film's reality and the brutal havoc they create.  When we do get those broad shot, they're so quick, so outside our usual point of view that they are truly awe-inspiring.  From purely a visual storytelling standpoint this is a brilliantly made film.

Beyond that wonderful accomplishment, Borenstein and Edwards create a really interesting origin for the creatures that is simple and logical, and they build a history dating back to the bombs dropping in Japan in World War II that first awakened the creatures.  Since then, a shadow organization devoted to understanding and tracking such kaiju appearances has emerged, but even they are unable to influence the military strategy for how to handle them.  Ken Watanabe is, as always, aces in his role as the head of this org.

The film naturally builds to a big monster battle which is executed perfectly, totally capturing the feel of classic Toho with the spit and polish of tens of millions of dollars of big US studio money.  I cheered numerous time.   Early trailers and posters showing a dramatically up-sized Godzilla had me nervous but the gargantuan scale, it turns out, makes the futility of human intervention even more potent.  The film takes its time building to Godzilla's reveal, and even more time before it gets to the combat stage, but the anticipation and intrigue it creates more than pays off.

Beyond that, the film carries with it an undercurrent, warning not just of our nuclear activities but of how all of humanity's presence on the earth has an effect.  Godzilla is no longer just a warning of the dangers of the atomic age, but a metaphor for nature's violent reaction to our mistreatment of the planet.