Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

I was rather hopeful about this second Hollywood attempt to make a Godzilla movie given how much I enjoyed director Gareth Edwards’s fantastic Monsters. But then, Edwards wouldn’t have been the first director who had a hard time going from low budget cinema to mainstream blockbusters, and that’s before all the inevitable troubles of making a studio movie are taken into account.

Fortunately, this US Godzilla is at least as good as optimism could could convince one to hope for, doing very little wrong in the difficult job of making a blockbuster kaiju film. Because I am like that, let’s start off with the film’s downsides, namely the script’s – understandable – insistence on keeping its protagonist Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) close to nearly every central development in the plot, going through quite a few contrivances to get him there. I know, it’s meant to provide dramatic unity and give that part of the audience always in need of having somebody to “identify” with their due, but I honestly think you could have achieved the same goal with half a dozen characters taking on smaller individual roles in the tapestry of what’s going on; perhaps even characters of different gender and skin colour? It doesn’t exactly help that Taylor-Johnson seems to be another one of these extremely bland young male actors the last few years have brought up in Hollywood, all pretty indistinguishable from one another, serviceable actors, yet rather vacuous presences; which to me seems particularly ironic in a generation that has so many extremely talented actresses yet still too often finds little for them to do. Which neatly fits into the film’s next problem, namely that Godzilla has fuck all for Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) to do.

Still, having said all this, it’s surprising how well Godzilla works in practice, its heavy emphasis on the human side of the story not feeling distracting – or as artificial and Hollywood-like – at all, and while I’m not really happy with concentrating all the humanity on one bland guy who just happens to be the son of the not-so crazy Bryan Cranston character, as well as a military bomb disarming expert, as well as the father of a family that just happens to live exactly in the monsters’ way, the film executes this problematic idea as good as humanly possible. Mostly, I think, because a lot of the reaction to the monsters we see from Brody (very much standing in for the way the film sees its monsters) is awe, a mixture of wonder and fear Edwards already managed to evoke – for much less money and on a more private level – quite wonderfully in Monsters. Awe seems to me the only proper feeling towards the sort of forces of Nature the monsters here are, accepting the beauty and the horror as different sides of the same coin.

I think it is this sense of awe in its treatment of its kaiju that grants this Godzilla its sense of gravitas, its characters witnessing occurrences they are barely able to comprehend, the attempts to resolve the situation through the rules and regulations that already don’t help in normal human existence (when in doubt, nuke it) bound to fail and possibly to make the situation worse. The film would be nearly Lovecraftian if you look at it from that angle, if not for the moments when the film insists – and that’s Hollywood to you – that human actions do matter, at least when it comes to inadvertently helping out Godzilla with a distraction. Of course, there’s a degree of irony in the fact that what’s a distraction to the film’s monsters is not done to distract them by the film’s characters, and that a desperate heroic deed by a human is only ever a short distraction for a monster/nature/whatever you want it to stand for.

Another thing Godzilla does that works out as a plus for it against what you’d expect (or well, against what I would have expected) is how coy it is about showing its monsters at work before the final grand – which it truly is - throw-down, the film only ever showing bits and pieces of what’s going on literally above characters’ heads, yet never looking away from the destruction caused, nor its aftermath. Edwards uses this technique not to deny his audience the big destruction set-pieces it came to see but rather to put the monster action in the right perspective, which is to say, put the audience in the perspective of ants staring at a mountain, an effect not even Shusuke Kaneko in his classic Gamera trilogy strove for quite this hard.

So, despite my misgivings, I found myself quite riveted by Godzilla, enjoying – if you can call it that – its moments of awe and carnage, appreciating its philosophical level (there’s also some obvious political allegory here, if you prefer that sort of thing), and ending up convinced this is not just a US Godzilla better than the last attempt but one that can see eye to eye with many of the better kaiju eiga.

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