best of 2014, Movies, Reviews, science fiction

Best of 2014 – Godzilla

And in my last blog post of 2014 (this time 4 realz, I promises) I want to revisit another of my 2014 highlights that ended up being squeezed out of my year end top 10, Gareth Edwards’ magnificent mega-budget revival of Godzilla. By this time you have either seem the movie or will be well aware of the plot details that necessitated the follow public service announcement at the time of release. But it’s New Year’s Eve and I have chores, so I can’t be bothered re-writing the thing.

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To be clear, there is no way to discuss GODZILLA sensibly that will not take a brief detour into spoiler city. If this bothers you, please feel free to use the exit before we begin our ascent. Please observe the fasten seat-belts sign and be aware that smoking is not permitted on this flight… unless you are Godzilla, in which case you can do as you like.

Following a credits sequence that in time honoured monster movie tradition showcases a great deal of (presumably) once redacted nuclear test footage, Godzilla begins in the Philippines in 1999 as two scientists, Prof. Serizawa and Dr. Graham (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) are called to investigate a subterranean cavern unwittingly opened by mining. Inside is a vast skeleton and two ominous egg sacks, one intact and one hatched. If you are thinking, well why didn’t the company conduct some reflection seismology of the area, then GET A LIFE! THIS IS GODZILLA.

From here we move to mainland Japan where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is too distracted by work to notice his son Ford’s efforts to wish him happy birthday. Brody and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are nuclear scientists working at a power station. Disturbed by reports of strange seismic activity, Joe attempts to shut down the plant before it is hit by what appears to be an earthquake.

Fifteen years later and Ford has grown up to be a Military bomb disposal expert in the shape of a buffed up Aaron Taylor-Johnson. No sooner has Ford returned home on leave to San Francisco and his own wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and child, than he is forced to fly to Japan because his now conspiracy obsessed Dad has been arrested poking around the exclusion zone around the site of the disaster. Joe drags his unwilling son into the quarantined area where they find none of the lethal radiation that should have rendered the area uninhabitable. They do find a lot of activity going down in the ruins of the plant, which now has a large egg sack siting in the middle of the reactor.

It has been more or less revealed by soundtrack track listings, toy lines, and later trailers but it still deserves a SPOILER WARNING before I mention that what inevitably emerges from the egg is not a lizard but a huge moth-like creature dubbed MUTO (Massive Unexplained Terrestrial Organism. Not to be confused with Muta, a minor Roman deity). The reason there is no radiation in the wake of the reactor breach is that this creature consumes it and quickly sets off on a rampage of destruction chasing tasty ICBMs to snack on.

So where is Godzilla in all of this? Well the Muta seems to be both the natural prey and a parasite of the vast prehistoric creature whose remains were found at the start of the movie. Now that the voracious monster is on the loose it has roused the dormant beast. Remember the nuclear bomb tests in the credits? In a neat bit of retrofitting those were actually attempts to kill the monster. This sets the stage for a true clash of the titans in which humanity are as ants crawling over a battle-ground.

Eyebrows were raised when the job of resurrecting the ailing King of the Monsters went to the relatively green British director Gareth Edwards. With a background in special effects, Edwards had invested a redundancy payment in an expensive camera with which he and a few mates shot a semi-improvised travelogue in Latin America before persuading producers to invest a few hundred thousand dollars to add special effects. This became the film Monsters, a small indie hit that showcased a clearly well developed visual style. Many (fools) complained of false advertising as the film held back its grubbly money shots in favour of foregrounding an intimate romance storyline. One of the great achievements of Godzilla is just how much it feels like a movie by the guy who made Monsters.

This time around Edwards has vast resources at his disposal. But rather than dazzle with an immediate barrage of Kiaju mayhem the director shows remarkable restraint. He has the best CGI that money can buy to play with, but the director treats it as though it is a fritzing mechanical shark. Godzilla is exquisitely teased. While the Muta is revealed relatively early (although still late for a modern popcorn muncher), the titular creature is revealed slowly. Once on a visit to New York, I spent a fifteen minutes trying to find the Empire State Building, only to realise I was standing next to it the whole time. The building is so huge it becomes invisible from street level. Edwards conception of Godzilla plays with scale. Even viewed on the BFI’s enormous IMAX screen in Waterloo, the creature is so large that it can initially only be seen in segments. Too huge for the largest screen in Britain to contain.

With breath taking audacity Edward’s tea bags the audience with his atomic balls and just as Godzilla finally squares up to the Muta and the bell rings for round one of an epic biff up the director literally slams a doors in the audiences’ faces.

The picture does deliver a truly epic spectacle, but some will still moan that the is not enough Godzilla in Godzilla. I say pfft, there is the perfect amount. This film redraws the creature as a living embodiment of the terrifying power of nature rather than a man-made mutant. As Wantanbe’s character remarks with awe it is in almost all respects a god, a monolithic living deity and the only sensible course of action is to get out of its way.

As the visuals ramp up in intensity the human stories do become a little lost. Despite the fact that almost half the names on the poster belong to excellent female character actors, they take a back seat to the male characters. This is especially disappointing in the key relationship between Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. Ford spends most of the movie trying to get back to his wife and child, but Olsen’s story looks like the chief victim of a ruthless edit to keep the movie’s running time at the two hour mark. This does mean the film is expertly paced, and the long slow build up demands that the second half move at a clip, but I suspect there is at least ten minutes of stuff with Olsen waiting for a director’s cut Blu Ray (NB there wasn’t, but I still await the double dip uber-Kaiju edition).

No doubt the studio would not allow it, but how interesting it might have been to switch the genders of the principle roles. Taylor-Johnson is fine, but why not have a mother in the military trying to get back to her husband and son. Also Cranston and Binoche could easily have switched parts.

The film is closer to the original 1954 Ishirō Honda film Godzilla (aka Gojira) than the increasingly campy series that followed. Honda’s film was a dark grappling with the legacy of World War Two and the spectre of the atom bomb. This new version is respectful to the original, but also brings in the monster smack-down element of the later Godzilla vs whoever sequels, something completely missing from the last US remake. I also got a Spielberg feel in places – there is a sequence that was clearly references War of the Worlds (not a film I actually like) – even if doesn’t have the grip on its human drama that Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even Jurassic Park had.

However the recent film that it most resembles is World War Z, it similarly contrives a loose plot that is really an excuse to get its leading man across the globe to a series of set-pieces, it has a similar vast scale and the action scenes mix horror, suspense and spectacle to great effect. Unlike WWZ, Godzilla does not decide to reframe the monster in the style of a small scale BBC sci-fi series on the seventies in its last act. A film it does not resemble in anything but the most superficial level is Pacific Rim, that was a hyper-caffeinated Saturday morning cartoon, this is basically Earthquake, with a monsters playing the part of the natural disaster.

Along with the great effects work, fine lensing by Seamus McGarvey, and brilliant sound design, Alexandre Desplat’s thunderous score is suitable massive and emphatic. Known for his subtle scores for films like Philomena, The King’s Speech and Zero Dark Thirty, this provides him with the opportunity to unleash his inner Wagner.

While its human dimension may get a little lost in the bombast, Godzilla is especially refreshing in that it is a spectacle movie that unlike Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel (merely the most egregious example) feels that massive destruction and loss of life are bad things.

This review was first published on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk

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