Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Movie review: New "Godzilla" has great monster but a sluggish pace

Poster courtesy Rotten Tomatoes.
     "Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out....Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood....Nothing on earth is its equal--a creature without fear."
     Those words from the book of Job (narrated by God Himself) described a mythical creature called only Leviathan. But if the beginning of Gareth Edwards' new Godzilla is any indication, the titular beast could almost be the same thing.
     This new Godzilla begins with a cool montage of images ranging from cave drawings of dinosaurs to medieval depictions of dragons to actual footage of the atomic tests in the Marshall Islands with the Big G himself digitally added in. It then follows Drs. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigating radioactivity in a giant chasm in the Philippines in 1999 and discovering that something big has awakened and dug its' way out to the ocean. We then cut to Janjira, Japan, and follow the Brody family as Joe and Sandra prepare for another day at the nuclear plant while their son, Ford, goes to school. Seismic activity has been rocking the plant for some time, enough to worry Joe and send Sandra down to the core to investigate. Of course, he comes to regret this decision as that seismic activity has been gradually getting closer to the plant, rocking it more violently, so much so that Joe is forced to seal off the core after radiation leaks out...trapping his wife down there. It's one of the best scenes in the movies, thanks to the strong acting from Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     Cut to 15 years later, and Joe and his son, Ford (played here by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), have gone very different ways: Ford joined the Navy as an explosive ordinance disposal officer, had a son, Sam, with his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olson), and moved on with his life. Not so for poor Joe. Unable to move past the Janjira incident, he's devoted himself to finding out what really caused the plant destruction and has become one of those conspiracy theorists nobody wants to listen to--even his son can't stand him. But blood runs thicker than water, as after Joe trespasses in the quarantine zone of Janjira, Ford flies to break him out...and pretty soon, the both of them are trespassing together and eventually arrested and taken to the deserted plant site.
     Or not-so-deserted, after all. Turns out there is no radiation in Janjira, and the same Drs. Serizawa and Graham have been studying the true cause of the destruction (wait for it)...a massive unidentified terrestrial organism, or MUTO for short.
     Yep, it isn't actually caused by the King of the Monsters. In fact, the actual Godzilla doesn't make a full appearance until an hour into the film. And on one hand, that's partly to Gareth Edwards' credit. Cranston has said in interviews that Edwards' method is similar to Steven Spielberg's Jaws: The movie has a slow buildup to the actual entrance of the monster so that when it does, its presence is much more terrifying.
     And here, Godzilla is a force to be reckoned with. More like a force of nature. At one point, Dr. Serizawa explains that Gojira (the original Japanese name for Godzilla) is an Alpha-Predator that was at the food chain during Earth's primordial years--essentially, a god among monsters. Indeed, it's an apt description; Godzilla dominates the screen whenever he shows up. His steps crack the earth when he walks, his tail strikes like a lightning bolt, and his classic roar will shake the screen with his explosive power. Being in awe of the King of the Monsters has never felt so satisfying.
Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins. Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

     On the other hand, sometimes the slow burn doesn't work out so well. Because the director is taking his time before showing the monsters, there has to be some other action going between each appearance to hold viewers' interest. But what action is going turns out to be either Dr. Serizawa explaining the creatures' behavior, the Navy (the head of which played by a cool David Strathairn) formulating their next plan to stop the creatures, or scenes of Elle who is patiently waiting for Brody. Many of these segments wind up feeling more tedious and boring than actually interesting after a while and bog up the movie's pace. In fact, the whole movie feels a bit long; if they cut off 15 or 20 minutes of the exposition (while still hiding Godzilla, mind you), the film would probably have felt much smoother.
     The characters are also really one-dimensional and don't receive a lot of development (but then, this is a monster movie). Fortunately, the cast alleviates these problems somewhat. Cranston, Binoche, and Strathairn are great and exude a lot of personality for whatever time they're given. Watanabe delivers some cool lines really well and is otherwise cool on the screen, and would be even more so if he didn't have the shell-shocked veteran look on his face most of the time. However, he's a lot better than the lead, Taylor-Johnson, who is barely emotive and has the same expression on his face almost the whole way through. Never mind most of the cast has ruined their pants at seeing the kaiju. At least Olsen is a little more interesting and can pull off a great look of terror. (On a side note, why are good female actors like Olsen, Binoche, and Sally Hawkins relegated to really minor roles? Seems like a waste of talent.)
Elizabeth Oslen. Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     The film has a wonderful musical score by Alexandre Desplat that ranges from despairing to outright victorious, and it's a delight every single time. The scenes are also well-shot, particularly the Navy's HALO jump into the city, which looks some descent into an apocalypse.
     Godzilla really tries to be two movies: a compelling human drama and a destroy-all-things monster movie. Unfortunately, the writing and some of the acting fail to make both excel at the same time. But I tended to forget those missteps any and every time Godzilla lumbered onto center stage.
     "If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!"

Final rating: 7 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Gareth Edwards. Writer: Max Borenstein. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston.


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