Review: Godzilla (2014)

Impressive visuals and a careful rationing of its titular character (marked here by the wake of his destruction, rather than his actual monstrous presence) make Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” a successful and entertaining franchise reboot.

Considering the outsized reputation of Gojira, Japan’s resident city-stomping reptile, on American pop culture, we’ve been treated to a hopelessly muddled impression of him on this side of the Pacific. Between the Hanna-Barbera animated TV show, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster of a disaster movie, and untold thousands of advertisements, comics and MST3K episodes, Godzilla’s iconic appearance has come not to stand for much except imminent mass destruction – or an incoming car commercial. Although, one wonders what more we could or should expect from a giant, inhuman monster whose very name is a bastardization.

Gareth Edwards’ new take on the legendary Godzilla turns out to be that rare thing: a necessary franchise reboot, one that clarifies and renews its property’s purpose, not just financially but creatively. Too many characters these days are foisted upon us in the name of brand extension and rights management (I’m looking at whatever it is you think you’re doing with Spider-Man, Sony); and while I would never be so delusional as to claim that Legendary and Warner Bros. only have the best interest of the atomic lizard at heart, this “Godzilla” at least is allowed to have a reason to exist besides that cash cash money. There is a visual and directorial personality to this film lacking from a lot of contemporary popcorn fare – even, if I may dare to suggest it, all of Marvel’s Phase 2 projects to date.

The personality in question is, of course, that of Edwards, who was given the reigns to “Godzilla” after making only one previous feature, 2010’s indie sci-fi drama “Monsters.” While that effort had its own issues (heavy-handed politics, under-drawn characters) – its stronger elements have survived the big-budget transfer: the integration of alien and fantastic creatures into a credible modern world, a narrative that defies several expected plot beats, and most importantly, a beautifully expressed sense of scale. Reputedly, the Godzilla we see here is the biggest version of the King of Monsters ever, at least by the calculations of measuring a man in a rubber suit against a model of Tokyo; but even if we didn’t have the numbers to back it up, this would certainly feel like the most massive Godzilla ever, simply because of the way Edwards chooses to handle his camera.

While other action films tend to blow smoke up the ass of humanity, glorifying the ability of a few buff individuals or even an army to save, change, or even destroy the world (depending on the circumstance, perhaps all three at once), “Godzilla” is determined to put us in our place. The human perspective is rendered powerless and largely inconsequential in the face of forces far beyond our control. For the vast majority of the film, Edwards steadfastly shoots from ground level, literally dwarfing his characters (and the audience) with his towering digital behemoths. Catching glimpses of a spiked tail here, a scaled arm there, we are not allowed the broad, establishing shots that usually give viewers omniscience in these kinds of cinematic situations – we are not the gods here, and it’s not exactly a comforting feeling.

The belittling of mankind doesn’t apply to “Godzilla” just in a physical or visual sense, either. Audiences have been and will most likely continue to be frustrated by the narrative path of the film’s human characters: a stoic, largely vacant bomb technician (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his generically concerned wife (Elizabeth Olsen), and his forlorn and paranoid father (Bryan Cranston). Along with a few overwhelmed scientists (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) and a barking general (David Strathairn), they are largely cookie-cutter figures, and the film does all but completely drop their concerns about an hour into the film, when the destruction and rampages begin in earnest; but I considered this to be part of the overall strategy of “Godzilla.” Much as I adore “Casablanca,” its concluding declaration that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” never felt entirely sincere, coming as it does at the end of a melodrama charged through with political symbolism; a film like “Godzilla” goes a lot further in suggesting just how insignificant those petty human problems really are in the grand scheme of things.

These nods to natural balance and the destructive threat of climate change are an interesting spin on the Godzilla mythos, originally forged out of 1950’s fears of atomic energy. But don’t let me cloud you into thinking “Godzilla” is some great tragedy of human hubris – whatever social subtext there is to Edwards’ film, it’s ultimately still in service of a sketchy, often nonsensical genre piece. Appreciative though I may be that some actual thought clearly went into this film, it’s unlikely to actually inspire further thought in its viewers. Its pleasures remain almost purely visceral; you’ll find precious few opportunities to exercise anything resembling empathy. Even if the point is for the protagonists to remain inconsequential, Max Borenstein’s screenplay remains a draft or two away from the lean machine it could be: a number of clunky moments of dialogue and clichéd details could’ve been easily excised, with Elizabeth Olsen’s character in particular woefully underserved. And while I appreciated Edwards’ desire, in a world of over-bloated CGI spectacles, to keep the terrific climax, well, climactic, he pulls the same bait-and-switch technique once too often earlier in the film to avoid peaking early.

But, like “Pacific Rim,” Legendary/Warner’s monster-film-du-jour of last summer, “Godzilla” sets itself apart with a bit of visual flair and the sense that it was constructed by an actual (tiny, insignificant, soon-to-be-crushed-by-a-tidal-wave) human being rather than just a group-thinking machine. Or, at least, the actual human being was pushing the buttons on the group-thinking machine.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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