Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla / *** (PG-13)

Ford Brody: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Elle Brody: Elizabeth Olsen
Dr. Ichiro Serizawa: Ken Watanabe
Vivienne Graham: Sally Hawkins
Admiral William Stenz: David Strathairn
Captain Hampton Russell: Richard T. Jones
Joe Brody: Bryan Cranston
Sandra Brody: Juliette Binoche

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham. Based on the “Godzilla” film property of the Toho Company. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence).

Kaiju is a Japanese word that translates to “strange creature.” For many years it has also referred to a very specialized subgenre of movies that involve giant monsters doing battle with the human race and each other. The low budget films of the Toho Company, which spawned the Godzilla series of movies, popularized this subgenre with audiences. Recent Hollywood entries into this subgenre include “Cloverfield” and “Pacific Rim”. Now, Warner Bros. has released “Godzilla”, the third Godzilla film released by a Hollywood studio, and the best U.S. effort to bring the giant green lizard to the big screen to date.

Like 1998’s version by Roland Emmerich, the new “Godzilla” takes a big budget approach to the material, opting for a more realistic looking CGI based creature as opposed to the rubber suits used in the movies that popularized the Kaiju phenomenon from across the Pacific. Unlike Emmerich’s movie, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Max Borenstein and David Callaham pay much more homage to the Toho Godzilla movies, which surprisingly makes for a much more effective narrative and interesting story.

Edwards begins his movie with a credit sequence that shows us old archival military footage of nuclear testing in the Pacific overlaid by credits that depict the practice of redacting information from written communications. Eventually the testing footage reveals that they are not actually testing weapons, but using them against a very large creature in the ocean. This sequence cleverly works CGI footage into the very famous Pacific Proving Grounds footage taken at the Marshall Islands.

Then we move forward to what seems to be modern day. Two scientists arrive at a mining facility where an accident has led to the discovery of something hidden beneath the Earth’s surface. The mining facility and the large collapse of a mass expanse of earth is a definitive reference to the 1956 Toho movie “Rodan”, a pivotal entry into the Kaiju films in leading to their ultimate popularity. This sequence also has echoes of Steven Spielberg’s 90s film “Jurassic Park”.

Then we meet the Brody family, American nuclear engineers living in Japan with their young son, Ford, working at a nuclear power plant. The father, Joe, has been monitoring some disturbing seismic data, which eventually culminates into what seems to be a meltdown incident. This brings to mind the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear meltdowns caused by it at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Joe, however, doesn’t believe the event is truly seismological; and fifteen years later, he’s still trying to expose a cover up.

In that time, Ford has moved back to the United States, settling with a family of his own in San Francisco. He’s a military bomb disposal expert, so he is not often home, leaving his son to some of same isolation he felt as a child, while his wife, Elle, worries about his safety. During his first night on leave in some time he receives a call that his father has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantined zone of his old power plant. Ford flies to Japan to bring his father home, but both find Joe might not be so crazy after all.

The director is no stranger to this Kaiju style material. Edwards made a big splash with his 2010 low budget sci-fi flick “Monsters”, which imagined a future in which Earth had been invaded by giant aliens that had taken over large portions of the Americas. In that film he masterfully teased the audience with the palpable presence of the aliens while denying us many actual glimpses of the beasts. Here he does just as good a job establishing the strange nature of Godzilla and other Kaiju, creating a build up to a couple of wonderful reveals.

That’s right. Godzilla is not the only giant beast to be found in this movie, and consider that your spoiler warning, because it would be difficult to discuss much more about the film without revealing a little about the nature of these beasts. Edwards and his screenwriters have masterfully integrated some the Toho Company’s signature elements to their Kaiju pictures with some new material to create genuine mystery about these beasts and make them almost impossible for our great military forces to defeat.

One species—referred to as MUTO by the U.S. military—creates an EMP, extinguishing any electronics located within its immediate radius. This makes fighting them rather problematic. He reincorporates the nuclear aspect from the original “Gojira” in 1954 in several ways. First there is the Pacific Proving Grounds footage, which was the original inspiration for that first Godzilla movie. There is also our current dependence on nuclear power. The way the screenwriters use our modern move toward nuclear energy to explain the disappearance and reemergence of the Kaiju is rather inspired. The MUTO feeds off nuclear energy, making large metropolitan populations near power plants and nuclear armaments prime targets for them. I like how they’ve flipped the nuclear role from being what created these creatures to what feeds them.

The filmmakers also pay homage to the original Toho films in the way they cast Godzilla’s role in the proceedings. He is not merely a threat to mankind, but also our savior in doing battle with other Kaiju threats. They bring back Godzilla’s electrical breath as well in a way that Kaiju fans will see coming before others. Not only have the themes of the Godzilla universe been returned, but also many of its more fan favorite details.

“Godzilla” is far from a perfect movie. The are several logistical holes and some frayed elements in the storytelling, but it is the best looking Godzilla movie ever made. It also is made with skill and artistry, not something that can be attributed to many Godzilla movies. Can it really be said about any before this? Edwards uses his ability to convey mystery and awe to produce a nice popcorn summer blockbuster here, and possibly finally parlay a Hollywood take on Godzilla into a successful U.S. franchise. 


Catherine said...

I agree with your 3 star rating. The movie was entertaining and provided a great back story for those unfamiliar with the Godzilla franchise. It also gave the crowd several laughs. Maybe that's because the crowd was from a military community and it's ridiculous for a Naval EOD officer to also be HALO qualified. That being said, it was worth seeing in 3D and I have no regrets!

Andrew Wells said...

Yeah, Hollywood has a history of getting the military laughingly wrong. You've seen "Top Gun", right?