Soldier Man and Family Unit: Godzilla (2014) Review

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Driving home at midnight in the rain. We’ve just left the theatre, and my travel companion tells me that indeed, the main character’s name was “Ford Brody.” Mistake — I nearly drive us off the road.

Ford Brody is just one issue, but he’s a big one. He represents the human element that must always be addressed in a film otherwise about giant monsters smashing each other. In that regard, the new Godzilla is, amazingly, structured almost exactly like any Godzilla or Gamera vs. movie — people talking and going on some spectacularly unexciting adventure for the first three quarters. And there’s always the military’s attempts to stop the monsters. Here, it’s interesting because the human story eventually becomes that, a mission to extract a nuclear bomb, part of a prior anti-G operation. The military deconstruction of the city as seen in Godzilla (1998) takes shape here in a much more thematically relevant way.

It all makes for pretty visuals, grim atmosphere, and an overall tense feel. Planes fly into buildings as jump-scares, not free of 9/11 parallels, and news footage of disaster sites made arenas by monsters are shaky and realistic. Yet there’s something so grey and so tiring about the film, beyond the generic human characters and their nothing story about… family. It’s unbelievable that this film expects us to care about a family by characterizing it with another family — and that family is barely characterized.

There’s so much interesting context to this movie, which itself proves to be mostly uninteresting. Watching the movie at a sold out IMAX screening its first day proper, it was strange to try to gauge audience reaction. It seemed that they were laughing somewhat at the appearances of the monsters, and so I began to assume that this was the Transformers audience. There’s no built-up culture for MUTOs (Godzilla’s enemy), they are what Transformers really are — silly. I think that this Godzilla movie is being screened to people who don’t care about Godzilla so much as they might care about the nerd culture that Godzilla seems to fraternize with on occasion.

The movie itself is a bit weary of its monsters, in Cloverfield mantis and chubby Godzilla. They are background ornamentation for much of its runtime, which for the most part was okay — but it was okay because I was sitting in that packed IMAX theatre, not watching Godzilla Raids Again on my Kindle in private. Godzilla might be a world-renowned icon, but it’s incredibly niche.

Pacific Rim happened — that’s a fact. The standard for live-action giant monster action scenes has raised significantly. Classic Godzilla is still great, but Hollywood isn’t going for that. They need to look at Pacific Rim for what it is, one man’s vision of monsters fighting, and not for what it should’ve been — a moneymaker. But now we come upon the big paradox with an American Godzilla, the real one.

My buddy that night remarked that Pacific Rim was good because power was given to the director, who also co-wrote. Here, with Godzilla, they did what they’re doing for Jurassic World, and what they do for every shitty license they don’t care about — they pluck some festival circuit, independent filmmaker and give them a big studio tentpole like this because they can control them. It’s the complete opposite approach Disney and Marvel have been taking with their Cinematic Universe. Handing control of major franchises over to Joss Whedom, Shane Black, and especially James Gunn is crazy, but they put trust in creative. With Whedon, it paid off. The Avengers was successful because it was good.

As we saw with Pacific Rim, that’s not always how it works. But it’s a surer bet than making a big hit by committee. What works on network TV doesn’t work here — appealing to the widest audience. The farther you go, the wider you go, the more you reduce word-of-mouth. Trust in quality, and trust in quality filmmakers. Edwards had critical success with Monsters, and so he seemed like a good fit for another movie about thoughtful monsters, but he’s out of his element in the Hollywood of the real. And when he’s got a hundred million dollars (the real kaiju) breathing down his neck, he’s a tunnel-visionary by necessity.

The best thing this Godzilla could’ve been, after the 1998 incident, was safe. Boring — inoffensive, generic. It’s crowd-pleasing enough, with the big hit at the end garnering earnest applause from my audience, but this crowd didn’t go home and put on Godzilla vs. Megalon to fall asleep to, in hopes to dream about Jet Jaguar. That crowd will be highly disappointed in this movie’s inclination to cut away from the fighting — at least twice.

Additionally, that’s the crowd that counts. Cater to no audience, but if you must, cater to the diehards, because you ensure that someone will love your product, and you may unlock the hidden geek in others. With this, all you have is a bunch of modern nerds — holdovers from IMAX’s last show, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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The eyes that seem to watch universes collapse

One last fuck-you to 1998 Godzilla was Brody’s blowing up the MUTO eggs. No soldier vs. tiny monster action here.

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5 thoughts on “Soldier Man and Family Unit: Godzilla (2014) Review

  1. I picked this up on Blu-ray when it was released two weeks ago since I never caught it in the theatre. I also picked up the 1998 film, because it was five bucks and I’m an obsessive freak and wanted to fill that particular gap in my collection. (The only reason I don’t have all 30 films is that a few of them simply aren’t available.)

    Watching the 1998 and 2014 versions practically back to back was interesting because of the similarities. The ’98 film has a script that feels like it was written by a chimp, but the opening third or so actually does a pretty good job of tracing Godzilla’s path of destruction to America with nice aerial shots. The latter two thirds of the movie have their missteps and outright fuck-ups, but one nice thing it does is consistently show Godzilla from the perspective of the people on street level, emphasizing his size and making him out to be sort of a glorious creature despite the havoc he wreaks. Both movies also go with the “force of nature” interpretation of Godzilla, showing him as neither good nor evil but just an animal acting on instinct.

    The ’98 movie had me laughing and yelling at the screen for nearly the entire running time because of all the various stupidities, but I was surprised when it was over and I found myself not hating it at all. It’s not a pimple on the ass of the 2014 movie, but for Big Dumb Spectacle, it’s fine. No more than just fine, but that’s better than most people give it.

    As for the 2014 movie, I wish I had more to say about it but I don’t. It’s one of those frustrating movies to write and talk about, because it’s exactly what I expected it to be. The complaints I hear from internet geeks are the same that I hear about literally every Godzilla movie (too much focus on the humans, not enough monster action, same shit different movie) and are hard for me to take seriously. It reminded me of Stoker’s Dracula; the characters can be criticized for being ciphers, but I find it hard to care since all they ever talk about is Dracula. Dracula is still the main character despite his lack of “screen time” (four or five chapters in the book), just like the 2014 Godzilla is all about the greater things happening around the characters rather than the characters themselves. Am I rationalizing bland writing? Maybe, but nobody ever complains about the characters in The Call of Cthulhu being too bland. The story isn’t about them, and they’re never required to do any more than what they end up doing.

    Oh, and I never once wanted to punch any of the characters in the mouth as hard as I could, which is something I can’t say about Pacific Rim.

    Anyway, of all the Godzilla films, I’d certainly put it in the Top 10, maybe the Top 5. The 1954 original is still the best and most powerful, but only a handful really give the 2014 movie any real competition: Mothra vs. Godzilla, Terror of Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla 2000, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, maybe Final Wars for pure entertainment value. I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, though I hope Toho gets back to making them so I won’t have to wait until 2018 for another one.

    1. I felt like Godzilla ’14 committed the gravest sin of any Godzilla movie, which is that it was simply plain. Even Godzilla’s Revenge is notable in some way. But every time I close my eyes and try to remember this movie I see Aaron-Taylor Johnson’s unmoving facial expression and the exceptionally boring MUTOS creature designs. Visual aesthetic, action, and a modicum of emotional engagement — prerequisites for what this should’ve been.

      But after the disaster of Godzilla ’98, this couldn’t have been anything else. It’s good we have the two to compare, because they’re at opposite ends of the universe. 98 is so goddamn stupid, but it is infectious fun.

      The new Godzilla might just irk me because I ended up seeing it twice in close proximity, which is a situation that decimated my feelings on The Dark Knight and Zero Dark Thirty. Goes from ‘okay’ to ‘never again.’

      *sigh*

      But for real man, it’s great to see you around here. I was wondering where you went after the old dreck fiction days

      1. I still check out your stuff, but I so rarely feel like I have a damn thing at all to say. I was going to comment on the RoboCop review but realized that I had nothing of substance to add. (I liked it more than the Total Recall remake. How’s that for a quote that you can put on the DVD cover?) Somewhere lurking inside me I’ve got an essay about how Alien vs. Predator is the third best film in the series and deserves more respect, though I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it out.

        I guess Godzilla ’14 was more memorable for me; so much of it is still fresh in my mind even after two weeks: the MUTO design (which I like, even though it’s basically just Orga from Godzilla 2000 mixed with Rodan and a bit of the Cloverfield monster), the cute little Lady and the Tramp moment between the MUTOs where one feeds a nuclear missile to another, the power plant collapse (Cranston is great there), Godzilla flooding Honolulu and fucking up the airport, the MUTO attack on the train (both of them), Godzilla’s advent in San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge, that fucking beautiful and haunting HALO jump into the city (scored to Ligeti’s Requiem), pretty much everything that happens between Godzilla and the MUTOs in the city, and everything with Ken Watanabe acting like Donald Pleasence with his Big Ominous Speeches.

        Oh, and despite all the fanboy complaining I’ve heard about how the action scenes in the second act always cut away and you only see what’s happening on TV sets in the background, I actually loved that particular choice. It contextualizes these huge events by reminding you that people exist in this world and are being affected by them. And besides, it’s not like every action scene does that; in the third act, they drop the teasing and go all-out with the San Francisco battle.

        It’s certainly one grey-ass movie, and I’m not just talking about the visuals. I won’t argue with anyone who claims that it plays things safe and is too stylistically vanilla for its own good. It certainly stands out less than the crazier Japanese movies in the series, or even the relatively normal ones. But I love the action, I love the actors (not necessarily the characters), and I’m fucking overjoyed to finally get a Godzilla movie that treats the monsters like Lovecraft’s Old Ones. I can’t think of another movie in the series that comes close to making humanity feel so insignificant in comparison to the (excuse to cheesy word I’m about to use) majesty of Godzilla.

        I’m sure I could find plenty of stuff to complain about it if I tried, and maybe I will when I watch it again in the future. I don’t know if I love it, but I really, really like it. I have a crush on it, but I’m not sure if I’m in love with it. And I think I’ll just stop here before I embarrass myself with more silly metaphors.

        (P.S. Goddamn I’m long-winded.)

    2. That is very astute about Lovecraft, that didn’t even occur to me. Ironically, del Toro didn’t do that with the monsters of Pacific Rim, though he was set and ready for At the Mountains of Madness (as we all were). Not that that was necessarily the aim — the majesty was all the robots’…

      HALO jump was good, definitely the best part, but for me, I’d seen that in 3D at IMAX prior; out of context as a preview for a different movie. Still effective, but leading to… nothin’ doin’.

      And I’d love to read an essay defending AVP. Bad as that movie is, it does have some merits — which oughtta be put on the Paul WS Anderson family-of-movies crest.

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