Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Godzilla" (2014)

Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen
Written by Max Borenstein
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Rated PG-13 - Frightening imagery, violence, peril, language
Running Time: 123 Minutes

In 1999, a mysterious discovery is made in a mine in the Phillippines. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) investigates and discovers a massive fossil underground, but also makes another startling discovery: a large spore of some unknown creature, fully intact. But a second spore seems recently hatched, and the larva has disappeared.

Fifteen years later, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads to Japan after learning that his crackpot father Joe (Bryan Cranston) has been arrested trespassing in a nuclear quarantine zone. Joe is convinced that the government is covering something up inside the zone, and claims the proof is inside their old home there.

He manages to convince Ford to help him get into the quarantine zone to find the data he needs, but the two are arrested and brought to the remains of the plant where they're made aware of the truth: The larva that Serizawa was searching for fed on the radiation from the reactor, causing the meltdown. It cocooned itself, feeding on the radioactive remnants, and has been growing ever since.

Now it's hatched, causing death and devastation wherever it goes. But it's not the only problem: The military has been tracking the reappearance of another monster, one called Godzilla. The military wants to kill it, but Serizawa isn't sure they can -- or if they should. He wonders, is Godzilla here to destroy us, or to save us?

Let me be blunt: Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" is chilling, thrilling, gorgeous... and absolutely paper-thin. The most human character in the movie is Bryan Cranston's Joe, a man so overcome with grief over the loss of his wife, which he blames himself for, that he spends the next 15 years trying to reconcile his crazy beliefs over what happened. Everyone else in this movie is a cardboard cutout of a human being.

Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa exists solely to deliver exposition about Godzilla. David Strathairn's Admiral Stenz listens to status reports from his subordinates, then occasionally gives orders. Elizabeth Olsen's Elle is just Ford's supporting wife. Juliette Binoche appears briefly as Ford's mother and Joe's wife, but she's basically just a woman in a refrigerator.

It's an absolute shame that a movie filled with so much gorgeous imagery and thrilling action sequences has to be so devoid of human characters worth a damn. Edwards does his best to make up for the shortcomings in the script, delivering a film that is really fantastic to look at, and is entertaining for it, but is ultimately otherwise disposable.

The script lacks even the fascinating moral dilemma of the original 1954 Japanese film. It completely avoids looking at the consequences of giant monsters wrecking our cities, and pays only lip-service to the fear the people of our world would feel knowing such things actually exist - both things the original film excelled at.

It makes the 2014 "Godzilla" an entertaining, but ultimately frustrating experience. It also puts "Godzilla" atop the ever-growing pile of remakes that squander their potential. I had higher hopes for this one.

Still, Edwards has crafted a great-looking monster movie. He routinely puts the camera at the human level, letting us become a part of the action. We always witness these monster mashes from the perspective of the humans caught nearby, whether it's people trapped in an airport monorail car hurtling toward danger, among snipers on nearby rooftops, a school bus full of children frantically attempting to get past a blockade... or a thrilling first-person parachute sequence.

And, of course, there's Godzilla himself. Edwards holds back showing him to us for quite a while, to great effect. He shrouds the creature as much as possible until just the right moments, when seeing him in all his glory will make just the right impact. For those wondering whether the 'character' will feel like the one fans know and love from decades of appearances in Japanese cinema, worry not - this is the one you'll recognize. If there's one thing Max Borenstein's script gets right, it's that Godzilla isn't just some beast. Godzilla serves a purpose in this film, he's not an animal, and you will love watching him do battle.

Because of Edwards' obvious talents, "Godzilla" succeeds as a piece of blockbuster entertainment. I just wish the film had more meat on the bones of its script.

See Also
Godzilla (1954)
Pacific Rim (2013)