Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) Is Crushingly Average

Will it ever be enough?

The question that rang through my mind thirty minutes into Legendary Pictures' grand leap into the world of classic kaiju. Edwards' first major studio release, featuring TOHO's grand reptile winds up being less a narrative on our current world, and rather indicative of a studio system hobbled by legacy. This is in no way out to belittle what indeed appears onscreen, but for a piece designed to reintroduce the King Of The Monsters to a new generation, it does very little to impress beyond mild expectations. Worse yet, it plays as a half-baked allegory for more recent events in a way that never comes to any fruition. Outside of focusing on by-the-numbers, personality-deficient americans, the film never finds itself out of second gear. While it is much closer in aim to the G films of decades past, the end result is the equivalent of tasting a bottle of the most expensive water imaginable, and being unable to distinguish it from tap.

Beginning in 1999, a Japanese nuclear plant's US supervisor (Bryan Cranston) becomes a widower after strange seismic activity seems to herald a disaster, rendering what remains of the facility and the surrounding plant town as quarantined. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Philippines, a research team led by Professor Serizawa(Ken Watanabe) have just stumbled upon an unearthed and fossilized giant skeleton, along with a pair of massive egg pods(with one freshly opened). In the years after the incident, Joseph Brody(Cranston) has become something of an obsessed man, convinced that the public story regarding the plant incident is pure cover for something else. Having just recently been arrested back in Japan near the quarantine zone, Brody's now grown son, Ford (now an explosive ordinance disposal expert in the US Navy, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tasked with heading overseas to retrieve him. Only daddy Brody's ravings about a cover-up turn out to be true, and something horrific and HUGE is being watched over at the old nuclear facility grounds. It is here, that both parties are brought together due to a now unstoppable threat to humankind.

And perhaps there is only one force of nature capable of ending the terror.

So, yes..Despite the ad campaign that front-loaded often harrowing scenes of destruction and even human casualties, this is more a collective homage to fifty years of TOHO's once-great-nightmare-turned signature superhero. And perhaps it needs to be said up front that for all that will be typed here regarding the film, it is also great leaps beyond the 1998 Roland Emmerich film. Without resorting to nearly as much disinterest in the source material as that film, what remains is something more akin to playing the needle perhaps a little louder than necessary. The groove Edwards' finds himself in, is largely due to both Max Borenstein's underwhelming script, and his own inability to lend the film a sense of dramatic pacing. (This is not the first time. His previous, the indie surprise, MONSTERS, suffers from falling into a comfort zone with characterization, not playing enough with the elements at hand.)  Everything that seems to happen onscreen is often borne out of utility rather than by character, and as such we spend too much time coasting through the film. And even though the story goes out of its way to build up toward our first look at Gojira in all his glory, the impact is largely diminished due to a severe lack of dramatic tension. Matters just happen, and this happens with great efficiency throughout.

Also not delivered as advertised, is the performance of Cranston who ends up merely being a story leaping point, rather than the central character. His casting almost feels stunt-y considering what we're left with. Taylor-Johnson is never given any real meat as the young Brody. And his family is granted even less. With Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, Ford's doctor wife, and Carson Bolde as his young son, we are merely given the semblance of a contemporary family caught in the middle of this avalanching crisis. One could argue that many a human character in a Godzilla film has been perfunctory to the monster on monster action, but to see these characters be less than simple ciphers in such a large production is a little disheartening. It even goes so far as to make the entire affair feel small, and lacking in any sense of real awe.

Think of it. A Godzilla film of this size and potential magnitude, it barely registers.

On the surface, Edwards' piece does dish out some terrific images, and the final battle royale between King G and the insectoid MUTO creatures is fun on an artistic level. Alexandre Dusplat's effective orchestral score is relatively memorable. But for all the talk of this being a Godzilla piece with greater emphasis on the humans at ground level, it all rings terribly distant and hollow. This was a golden opportunity to make a film equivalent to the original Ishiro Honda classic. An environmental horror tale. An emotionally stirring hymn to civilization's hubris in the face of nature, delivered with heartfelt potency. A chance to place us at the heart of a truly difficult dilemma concerning the fate of the world, and science's role in it. But all we get is a middle of the road redux, lacking in horror, character, or even fun. If there is anything thematic to glean from all of this, is that the piece lands on the idea that nature settles its own issues. Problems arise when we are never given enough illustration of this point, nor enough evidence aside from the expected destruction to back up this mode of thinking. Even Watanabe's portrayal of Serizawa is never given enough coverage for us to see his ideas as having any kind of greater merit. While the surface is at times captivating, there seems to be very little percolation beneath it.

About the only genuine response evoked by the film (outside of the occasional cheer for our hero) was during a gag when young Brody's little son exclaims that the monster battle happening on the news is that of "dinosaurs". That's a very real, and wonderful piece of humor that resembled what a real film can do when breaking a sweat. But far too often, this one feels like a series of occasional sprints. And for all the respect it pays to the past, and to Yoshimitsu Banno's original IMAX 3D concept from over a decade ago, there is something that simply doesn't work about forcing American characters into such a mythology. In a post-Pacific Rim world, we should be much better than this.

So, I ask again..Will it ever be enough?

One would like to say yes. But perhaps we need to wait another fifteen years?

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