Skip to main content

This alpha predator of yours, doctor, do you really think he has a chance?

Godzilla
(2014)

(SPOILERS) In more ways than one, Godzilla is very much this year’s Pacific Rim.  A movie giant monster-adoring geeks are willing themselves to love, amped up beyond words by the prospect of great leviathans duking it out, but which fails to deliver in some fundamental respects. On a movie-making level Godzilla is the more admirable of the two, taking an almost classical slow-burn approach to the telling, but this ends up ensnaring the picture, making its shortcomings all the more apparent. It is sure to receive many a salutatory gesture for respecting its source material in a way the 1998 Hollywood version never did, but this serious mindedness throws a whole lot of attention on how goofy the whole enterprise is. Most damagingly, the (very valid) Jaws approach of keeping the creatures on the periphery leaves fundamentally uninteresting characters and plotting front and centre, and it’s this that kills the picture for long periods. Godzilla ends up kind of boring.


I’m not really one to get behind the mainstream critics, but the Godzillites seem to have picked up mainly on how slow they all say it is and found their rebuke in “Would you rather it was like Emmerich’s version or (shudder) Transformers”. Which is rather missing the repeated and salient thrust of the complaints; the reason the picture seems slow is that the characters fail to engage. The one character that does (and the trailers are highly misrepresentative in the amount of screen time they suggest for him) is killed off before the first act is over and, when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum left that can’t be filled. The complaints about complaints that the title character takes his time to stride out of oceans and batter through crumbling cityscapes are ones I can get behind more, but this wouldn’t even come up if the human interest worked. In that way, for all the comparisons, Godzilla is completely dissimilar to Jaws. The characters in that movie are the movie; they drive the plot every bit as much as the shark. Here, you can sense the writers tripping over themselves trying to get (insert Etchasketched character here, in this case Ford) from A to B to C, and the result induces interminable subtitles announcing yet another military base and yet another dimwitted conversation between David Strathairn’s admiral and Ken Watanabe’s muto-dino-astute doctor, in which the former asks the latter about the peril they face to vague and ominous response.


Roland Emmerich’s version is roundly and resolutely slated for it’s betrayal of the character, although I wonder how much it would be chastised if he looked like a guy in a suit as here. Like Jonathan Ross (hallowed company, I know), I seem to be one of the few who admit to finding it quite enjoyable; I watched it again last year and, some irritating and obvious characters and plot beats aside, I still can’t find too much to complain about. There’s nothing to get overly excited about either, but it is engaging in that formulaic blockbuster manner at which Emmerich excels (its failure has been much overstated too; it was far too expensive to make a tidy profit, but it was still the third biggest hit of ‘98 worldwide). I’m just not a purist enough, I guess.


To me, Godzilla was always the ‘70s US cartoon. The one with Godzooky and “Up from the depths, 30 stories high, breathing fire he stands in the sky”. The one that saw him battling a new weekly monster over 20 minutes and habitually ended with a coterie of humans congratulating him for graciously saving the day. I watched a few of the founding film series when they were screened on Channel 4 in the late ‘80s – early ‘90s, but couldn’t really take them to my bosom. Perhaps I needed to be of a certain age. And really, I can get only so much enjoyment from seeing giant creatures knocking each other’s tonsils out at the expense of human interest these days. Del Toro attempted to incorporate the people into the giant fisticuff fest in Pacific Rim, but unfortunately his characters outrageously cardboard to a man (and woman). So I guess I’m maladjusted when it comes to monster mash mayhem. I can’t much see the appeal of Transformers, even beyond Michael Bay’s paralytic editing and Shia LeBouef’s LaBoeuf-ness. It’s the same thing, but with robots. Only King Kong (not Peter Jackson’s) really succeeds but then it has a much stronger backbone, and it isn’t, the occasional interlude aside, about a great big dust-up. I’m not saying it’s impossible to successfully integrate the elements, but 90% of the time it will fall back on the thinly sketched specimens of humanity sitting back while a couple of great plodders get down to business. And so it is here.


Dave Callahan (The Expendables!) is credited with the story and Max Borenstein (the, er, delayed The Seventh Son) with the screenplay. But also over-stewing the pudding are David Goyer (why not, he manages to get his undistinguished paws on most Legendary Pictures properties) Drew Pearce and Frank Darabont (both of whom are solid talents, so presumably their lack of credit suggests they didn’t have enough influence). Together, they opt to go down the route of Godzilla the defender of the natural order and balance, as opposed to the metaphor of nuclear Armageddon of the first movie (you know, the nasty monster; which is where Emmerich took his cues, knowing, as an adept if wholly predictable storyteller, that it guaranteed greater peril and predicament). The only problem is, it’s an utterly daffy idea for a movie that takes itself as morbidly seriously as this one. In some respects these confounding antithetical elements are perversely appealing, in the same way monsters in suits are reimagined as expensive CGI monsters in CGI suits. You admire the balls in envisaging Godzilla this unadjusted way, but that doesn’t make it work as a piece of cinema or encourage narrative suspension of disbelief.


And it is disconcerting, the way Godzilla stomps about as if he’s a blown up baby dressed in an oversize romper suit. The MUTO (the movie doesn’t have many laughs, but the best is the explanation of the acronym as “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism… except that it’s airborne”), meanwhile, is commendably abstract, with the crazy dislocated joints of one of those costumed carnival stilt walkers. It’s definitely the strangest looking creation you’re likely to see in a mainstream blockbuster, where creature design generally conforms to anodyne templates. But you’re left wondering “How, what, why?” when everything else is played for real. As for their monster-on-monster confrontations, Edwards lays on some brutal WWF slamdowns for the big lizard but when push comes to shove the kills prove to be both amusing (some grievous thwacking tail action) and uproariously ultra-violent (puking blue fire down a MUTO’s throat, then tearing its head off, is so batty you have to love it – but again, this kind of off-the-leash sense of fun comes out of nowhere in the context of the picture as a whole).


The nuclear nightmare origins are retained from the original iteration, and we have a special new creature that feeds off radiation as a result of its origins in a period when the world was many times more radioactive than now (which in a way rather lessens the whole nuclear threat idea; don’t worry, it was once perfectly normal to be full of radiation). The MUTOs are the ideal solution to the world’s nuclear waste problem, so it’s a shame the duo have to be killed off (and their spawn; as with the Emmerich movie, the third act revolves around the threat of the menace breeding). The archive footage device is over-familiar now, but it’s nevertheless appealing the way Gareth Edwards retrofits the Bikini Atoll tests with the current menace (this idea was reportedly at the director’s behest, so people should probably follow his instincts more, or he should get involved enough for a story credit). The redacted opening credits are also a great place-setter for the presumed tone of the picture. The problem is, as successfully mythologising as this is, it falls down when the plot kicks in and the awe subsides. The narrative is so literal, no manner of strange, majestic, apocalyptic visuals than can make the overall piece resonate.


Which is a shame, as post-Fukushima the nuclear nightmare is as relevant in our consciousnesses to an extent it hasn’t been since the Cold War era. But it’s squandered with a movie reality version of the dangers of the split atom. The opening sequence is superb, and grips the emotions in a way the rest of the Godzilla sorely lacks. Bryan Cranston, a physicist at a Japanese nuclear plant, is forced to watch wife Juliette Binoche succumb to a lethal dose of radiation when the something he has been monitoring causes a massive breach of the reactor core. This is stirring stuff, but almost immediately spoiled by the sight of the entire facility, huge chimneys and all, collapsing in on itself (viewed from the vantage of young son Ford’s school – later to be Aaron Taylor Johnson).


And then we cut to 15 years later, so all that devastating radiation unleashed in the immediate aftermath (I know, I know, the MUTO absorbs it all, but not straight away, right?) has caused no ill-effects on Cranston and Son? In an Emmerich movie (2012, for example) that would be fine hyperactive bollocks and par-for-the-course, but Edwards desperately wants you to find verisimilitude in his world.  There’s a curious disconnect generally with the nuclear age Edwards and co. are playing with. The military, being idiots (and yet also the heroes, as embodied by our naval leading man) want to give the MUTOs a super-dose of an enormously powerful atom bomb to chew on. Of course, plans go awry and it becomes necessary to defuse the damn thing. But it never happens. Instead, as with The Dark Knight Rises, it is transported away to explode “harmlessly” at sea. It gets to the saturation level where one has to wonder if this is some kind of covert propaganda; radiation is only a problem in massive doses and even then its okay it won’t be a problem unless you are locked up with it; and don’t worry about all that nasty waste, something will come along eventually to suck it all up (let’s commission a few more plants, eh? Future generations can worry about it if we don’t figure out a solution).


The other unappetising aspect of all this is the preponderance of military personnel and hardware. Sure, they may not be able to defeat the menace without the help of a Japanese monster, and they have the help of a wise Japanese man (although not so wise that he doesn’t need the help of a soon-to-exit Bryan Cranston), but they’re resolute and dependable, never less than defenders of the nation. There’s little other perspective and it becomes entirely tiresome, no matter how well staged individual scenes are (and most are superbly staged). It doesn’t have to be this way; just look at Cameron’s Aliens for an engaging portrayal of grunts (no offence). As it is, Broderick et al in Emmerich’s take are many times more appealing, without even being especially appealing.


The biggest mistake Edwards makes, or at least his writers make, is killing off Cranston. It’s not just that he brings the requisite conviction and Heisenberg energy to the resolutely unmemorable dialogue that besieges the picture; he has presence. (Sally Hawkins, so good in Blue Jasmine, also makes an impression in as an exposition-friendly sidekick to Watanabe.) Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a good actor, and he’s a very pretty fellow, but at current reckoning he’s a character player not a charisma monkey. He’s as good or bad as the writing he’s given to work with (well, bad would be overstating it but non-descript is about right). Poorly catered for as he is, and he’s on screen most of the time Godzilla isn’t, the writers constantly strain themselves finding something for Ford to get busy at on his mission to get home, handily fetching him up in the right place at the right time for some dramatic shenanigans with a MUTO or Gojira, poor Elizabeth Olsen fares even worse. Perhaps the actors’ prettiness is inversely proportional to how meaty their role is, as Olsen is even pretty than her on-screen husband. And she has absolutely nothing memorable to do, apart from luminesce before the camera.


I feel a bit bad about laying into Godzilla, because it really is a beautifully made movie. Joe Wright’s regular DP Seamus McGarvey ladles on the familiar desaturated green-grey wash, but there’s something more here. Edwards allows his movie to breath. There isn’t the feeling of over-editing (Bob Ducsay worked on Stephen Sommers movies, so perhaps he going extreme Cold Turkey) that afflicts the modern blockbuster. If only Edwards had content to work with too, this might have been a classic. I rated Edwards’ first, micro-budget feature Monsters, which managed a similar air of ambient foreboding. The impressively realised creatures there were also sidelined, with a front-and-centre but subdued love story that I found quite affecting. I know others found this element weak swill; if so God knows what they will make of Godzilla, where there isn’t a single merit-worthy characterisation.


Edwards mounts sequences with consummate skill; I just wished I cared about them. The HALO drop set piece, set to Gyorgy Ligett’s Requiem (better known for it’s appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is breathtaking, the jumpers’ descent lit up as red flares against a grey, crumbling city. The overgrown urban landscape seen in the first act’s quarantine zone is a masterpiece of production design, and recalls both Monsters (both have gasmasks in common besides giant beasties) and I Am Legend. A sequence in which a little girl looks out to sea, the waves turning to a tsunami initiated by the arrival of Godzilla, recalls the opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in the way it endangers the little ones. Except that, unlike Spielberg, Edwards doesn’t pull his punches. There’s no suggestion the child escapes the tidal forces. Elsewhere, the director appears to be summoning the spirit of John McTiernan as camera tracks in on the mud encrusted motionless body of Ford. And there’s a nice moment – well, there had to be one, didn’t there? – when Ford and the giant lizard make eye contact on a smoke-shrouded street. There’s none of glossy emotioneering of Bay’s LeBoeouf and his Bumblebee buddy, but it’s still a moment where the only impact is how wonderfully adorned it is. Likewise, the newfound hero status of Godzilla amongst humanity is confirmed via a huge video screen announces it is so; this the kind of really barrel-scraping, intrusive “tell-don’t-show” that adorned the (much less forgivably) TV commentary climax to Spider-Man 3.


The recurring theme developing in big movies this year seems to be hugely talented filmmakers coming unstuck with under-developed screenplays (ah, ‘twas ever the case). It blighted Aronofsky’s Noah, and now it sabotages Edward’s first bash in the big leagues (I might add Transcendence to that list, but I’m dubious Pfister could have made great things of even a great script). And then there’s the waste of a talented cast; the downside to the gradual exit of the movie star vehicle is that good solid actors aren’t able to fill a gap in character substance. Borenstein and Callaham have their work cut out for them trying to sustain the Godzilla narrative, so perhaps it’s little wonder there’s no time left to make us care. Gareth Edwards is going to make a terrific big budget movie at some point; maybe next time.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.