CAPSULE: Kaiju Noir. With the Japanese franchise on the King of the Monsters in hiatus, the Godzilla character is being loaned to Warner Brothers so that Gareth Edwards can make an American Godzilla film. This is a script whose drama is better than Toho’s usual fare, but audiences may find the new film is dark and drab and slow at getting to the fun.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In the American version of the first Godzilla film (titled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS) the camera drifts from the monster’s destruction to show you a woman with two small children sitting at the base of a building. The mother is saying something, but we see only her lips move. In the original Japanese version (titled GOJIRA) the woman is audibly speaking and she is telling the children, “We will be with your father soon.” That is perhaps the most somber scene of a somber monster film, but it was only in the Japanese version. GOJIRA did not pull its punches. But there has been nothing so solemn in a Godzilla film since. The new GODZILLA has a man looking through a window and watching a loved one dying just inches away. After sixty years we finally have a film that is again willing to disturb the audience. This year’s GODZILLA has some strong stuff, but somehow not all that depressing today.
The tone of the new film is uneven. Sadly, there is not so much serious drama all throughout of Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA (2014), but it is there. The original was a reminder to Japan of the tragedies of their then recent war and its nuclear conclusion. This film harkens to those memories, but also has earthquakes at a nuclear plant and a tsunami to bring back more recent memories. As an origin story the screenplay by Max Borenstein is at least returning to the some of the tension and gravity of the original.
Toho’s kaiju (giant monster) films after the first were never prized for their good writing. They often would go seriously funky with props like robotic Godzillas, alien flying saucers, and time travel. One even had a Japanese Indiana Jones character. In a later series (there were three series really) there was a Japanese defense unit called G-Force, commissioned to fight the giant monster who had both a grudge and partiality for Japan. The stories were never very good. They rarely went much beyond excuses to stage kaiju smack-downs.
The Toho studio of Japan has twice opened up its franchise to allow American film companies to make their own Godzilla films. In 1998 they let Roland Emmerich make a Godzilla film, but I believe did not let them use the characteristic Godzilla shape. The result was a poor story married to what fans call G.I.N.O., short for “Godzilla In Name Only.” The result was a film almost nearly good enough to be called mediocre if they had not used the Godzilla name. But they did use the name and real Godzilla fans will never forgive them.
GODZILLA (2014) opens in 1999 when two eggs and a skeleton, all enormous, are found in the Philippines. Shortly thereafter a nuclear plant in Japan is destroyed in an apparent earthquake. This constitutes a large professional and an even greater personal loss for plant supervisor Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston of BREAKING BAD). Fifteen years later Brody, still a haunted man, is still trying to prove that what destroyed the plant was not a natural disaster. Was it a natural disaster? I guess it all comes down to whether or not you consider giant monsters to be natural. Max Borenstein wrote the screenplay based on a story by Dave Callaham. The first reel is a little slow-going and expository, and the real action is saved for the final act.
While the Japanese films are anxious to show their monsters to the audience as soon as possible, director Gareth Edwards is coy about giving us views of his giant creatures. The audience is kept in suspense. Mostly his focus is on the human story. Sadly in GODZILLA the main character is just not very engaging. Edwards’ biggest failing with this reincarnation of Godzilla is that he does not give us a central character we really care about. There were better actors in this film playing more compelling characters and more of the spotlight should have been on them.
Of course, the visuals are as important as the characters. Tonally and visually this is a gray and dark film. I do not remember a single fight that occurs in the daytime. That makes for a darker mood, and it also covers up CGI errors. This is the first Godzilla movie that does not have a man in a Godzilla suit. This film is fully CGI in its monster effects, but the design each of the three monsters are built on human torsos and would probably accommodate a man-in-suit implementation of the monster if need be in sequels to this film.
As for the darkness in the story’s tone, that is probably necessary after September 11 and the film CLOVERFIELD taught the world the dangers of being in proximity to deconstructing buildings. The opening titles take a swing at government secrecy as by redacting parts of the titles even as they appear.
This is only director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film. That does not sound like he would have had much experience with a big budget, but his first film was MONSTERS, a film with economical giant monsters that take a back seat to the story of characters trying to return to the United States from a Mexico ravaged by the presence of aliens. The record of focusing on people and not using a lot of special effect undoubtedly demonstrated that he would be the right person to direct a post-9/11 kaiju film. I rate the new GODZILLA a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Technical note: Godzilla seems to have hands with opposable thumbs. That would be very rare among real dinosaurs. Arguably a Troodon had a rough version of a grasping hand, but not a very effective one. Godzilla does seem to be able to use his hands well.
© 2014 by Mark Leeper
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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