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Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (Release Date: 5-16-2014)

        "It's a Godzilla movie; you think they'll do anything that really surprises you?"

        A friend of mine asked me this very question a couple of days before my long-anticipated date with pop culture's most famous enormous lizard. At the time, the quandary was met with a semi-sneer; I'd spent too long looking forward to Hollywood's latest Giant Monster Movie (a film genre for which I have always fallen, and will continue to fall) to let measured skepticism infiltrate my outlook. Of course the scaly beast could catch me off-guard! Hadn't they already with that stunning teaser trailer (Is that really György Ligeti’s Requiem? Like, from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You guys went there?!?), and the magnetic, haunting ad campaign that's been all over my TV for the last couple months? Surely this was more than your average Summer blockbuster, right?

        Well... yes and no.

        It certainly aspires to be, laying out an elaborate, globe-trotting plot that relegates the big guy almost exclusively to the film's second hour, a choice that dominated the flick's pre-release chatter. Hopping decades and jetting across seas, we learn of a government cover-up with historical trappings (too clever to spoil here), meet two pairs of scientists (first Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, then Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) on vastly different paths toward the same eerie truth, and, finally, are introduced to Cranston and Binoche's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy officer with expertise in the field of diffusing explosives. It's an admirable approach, focusing in on the characters and plot mechanics before showing off your surround sound, but Max Borenstein's screenplay simply isn't as involving as it thinks it is. Stuffed to the brim with plotting, exposition, and movement, the barrage of information becomes exhausting for two extremely important reasons: because it's tough to focus on a semi-intricate story-line when we all know it'll eventually boil down to WWE with monsters, and because human-level stories need interesting humans, a precious commodity for which this film is absolutely starved.

        It's certainly not the fault of the thespians, the ridiculous wealth of acting talent listed above bolstered by the likes of David Strathairn and Elizabeth Olsen. For those counting at home, this seven-pack of actors can lay claim to a Best Actress Oscar win (Binoche) and 4 additional nominations (Watanabe, Hawkins, Strathairn, and Binoche again), not to mention Cranston's three Emmy victories for Breaking Bad. They toil about with clunky dialogue and faceless characters, Cranston resorting to a slight variation of Walter White, while Taylor-Johnson explores new lows of just how charm-and-charisma-free a leading man can be. All three women on hand are egregiously underused, their presence proving more distracting than anything, like watching a great basketball player stand around in the corner waiting motionlessly for someone to pass the rock. Watanabe probably fares best because he's allowed to embrace the schlock most fully, cast in a hilariously stereotypical role that appears hearteningly self-aware on more than one occasion.

      And then comes the monster mash. Godzilla is only director Gareth Edwards' sophomore feature, and what he lacks in actor rapport and character development he more than make up for in the spectacle department. The effects here are nearly seamless, certain moments of destruction landing with far more force than your average 'let's knock down some buildings' tent-pole action flick (see: every single major studio release between the months of May and August). He's also smart enough to learn from his elders: his 'zilla owes more than a little Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, both Ridley Scott and James Cameron's diverging takes on the Alien universe, and everything Speilberg. His carefully calibrated mix of awe and horror (not to mention rampant imagery near-plagiarism) harkens directly back to Jurassic Park, all while his choice to reveal only so much of a beast, thereby allowing the viewer to image the rest of its expanse, is straight out of Jaws. That's not to say the guy always goes easy on the gas, the last 20 minutes or so largely forgoing the visual trickery of what came before, preferring a full-blown melee wherein the film's namesake is finally seen in his entirety. It's thrilling stuff, bolstered by the filmmakers' choice to retain the 'rubber-suit' shape and design of the city-smashing reptile instead of taking a stab at something more 'modern.' It meets the eyes somewhat clumsily at first, but proves strangely charming by the time the credits roll, all while bringing a whole new meaning to the term 'thunder thighs.' It all works like gangbusters, though it's not difficult to image how the film could have been bettered by peppering some of these big blow-outs in through-out the first act, rather than cramming them all into the latter half.

        So, yes, the post-halftime pyrotechnics ensure that Godzilla slots safely in the above-average category, but the film's whole still served to sadden me about the general state of modern blockbusters. Simply put, this is a better version of a head-spinningly familiar tale, one for which audiences seem to harbor an unquenchable thirst. Last week, I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that is at once unmistakably inferior to this one, yet readily comparable on a nuts-and-bolts level. Both feature award winning actors visibly questioning their life choices, uninteresting conspiracy theories, impressive effects, sidelined females, propulsive scores, and about an hour of exposition followed by about an hour of cities being leveled. It's not enough that all of these movies contain similar themes and agendas; they're even built the same way, following trusted blueprints down to the minute, eradicating any small chance of genuine shock or revelation. We're quickly moving into a place where 'event movies' can only be judged on execution, as the content is so constantly identical, a land where the 'better film' is simply the one with the least plot holes, and who blowed stuff up the best. Sorry to go all jaded old man on you, but a superior version of the same movie is still the same movie.

Grade: B

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