Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Grade: 80/B+

Godzilla is a film in which not only do the human characters not matter much, but that it’s essential that they don’t matter much. That’s partly the lineage of the long-running Toho series that’s seen 28 Japanese films, two Americanized versions of Japanese films and one other lousy American remake, most of which feature human characters who are there primarily to keep the plot moving towards the giant monster destruction. But in a film that’s primarily about man’s interference with and insignificance in nature, it feels more purposeful than problematic.

Still, here’s the overview of the human plot: EOD Technician Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is called to Japan, where his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), is arrested for trespassing. Fifteen years earlier, the two lost their mother and wife in a disaster at the nuclear power plant where she and Joe worked. Joe believes that the incident wasn’t the result of an earthquake, as reported, and that the Japanese and American governments are hiding something. They soon find out about a number of prehistoric creatures that feed off of nuclear energy, including Godzilla, a giant lizard that’s as awesome as it is terrifying, and that may not be the destructive force he appears to be.

Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters), who shows an innate understanding of how to build suspense. Plenty of people have cited the influence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park, as Edwards wisely chooses not to show the monsters for the first hour in order to build up the mystery around them. Even when we do first see the monster, we only see bits of him at a time: he’s too overwhelming, too incredible for the eye to take in completely. There’s also signs of a pair of Spielberg’s alien films: War of the Worlds, as in a scene involving a train on fire and a pair of military men who hide as the other monsters, the buglike MUTOs, seek them out; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which similarly showed strange objects and occurrences without immediately explaining their cause and featured a government hiding something for the good of the people…until that became a problem in and of itself.

But Edwards wisely uses these as jumping off points, reimagining and restaging these scenes to tell a new story of man’s futile attempts to control nature. The film doesn’t show these men as monsters: David Strathairn’s military commander isn’t a cardboard villain, but a decent man trying to do whatever he can to prevent massive fatalities, while Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (a name taken from a key figure from the original 1954 film) is quick to let Taylor-Johnson’s character in on what’s going on when it becomes clear that they can’t hide it anymore. Their struggles are tangible, more so than those of nearly any other Godzilla movie: Ford’s need to protect and reunite with his family (Elizabeth Olsen), Serizawa’s fear that another nuclear strike would not only result in another Hiroshima, but fail to stop the beasts; Cranston’s need to find the truth, no matter the cost. The film also stands out in making their lives matter: while the destruction on display is incredible, Edwards makes great pains to show the desire to save lives above all else; it’s not just wanton destruction.

The characters are admittedly stock figures, and it’s true that the film might be greater if a more expressive actor than Taylor-Johnson were in the lead role, or if clearer parallels were drawn between his fatherhood and the disappointment of Cranston’s, or if the great actresses in the cast (Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche) were given a bit more to do. But man has always been a sidebar in the Godzilla series. They need only be good enough, and as played by the likes of Cranston, Watanabe, Binoche and company, they are.

Ultimately, their incapability to deal with the monster in any significant way is the point. From their first appearance, the monsters see the humans as a nuisance at best, and in some cases not at all. It’s telling that in the extraordinary final battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs, humanity can mostly only watch or get out of the way as greater forces battle over the fate of the world. Even the parallel set-piece of Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the military trying to diffuse a nuclear weapon is at best a side journey. When those men dive into a destroyed, ash-ridden cloud that was once a city, Alexandre Desplat’s driving score is replaced by Ligeti’s “Requiem,” which was notably used in the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which space travel goes beyond the astronaut’s control and into the hands of more powerful beings. The message is clear: any human effort here will be secondary. We’ve taken our control of nature as far as it will go. Now we can only hope that the greater forces are on our side.
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1 comment:

  1. Nice review Max. This is proof that Hollywood can actually do a good job on remaking classics and not mess it up. Hopefully I didn't just curse it.