Friday, May 23, 2014 12:06 PM
On the Viewer - Godzilla (2014)
 by Fëanor

There's nothing like a good giant monster movie. Godzilla is of course the most famous of the breed, and hails from Japan, where he's the star of a popular franchise. Hollywood, never one to sit by while there's money to be made, tried to make the story its own pretty much immediately, releasing a version of the original 1954 film with a completely new subplot starring American actors inserted into it. Many years later, in 1998, a wholly American reboot of the franchise was attempted, and the result was an awful, nonsensical disaster. But sixteen years have passed since then, and Hollywood decided to try to adopt the Japanese monster again, this time with director Gareth Edwards at the helm, and Dave Callaham and Max Borenstein sharing writing duties. I'm happy to report that this attempt has been a success. Godzilla is that rare and precious beast: an exciting monster movie that's also actually a good film.

The movie succeeds where others of its type have failed by taking its time and helping us get to know the tiny people who are going to be running around under the monsters' feet before actually introducing the monsters. (And yes, spoiler alert, there's not just one monster!) But don't worry, plenty of weird and exciting stuff starts happening pretty much right away. We open on Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his partner Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arriving at a mine where a cave-in has occurred. The disaster has revealed a hidden cave where they discover an impossibly huge and ancient skeleton, and something worse: evidence that the things that killed that tremendous monster might still be alive.

Then our perspective jumps to Japan where an American named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are worried about strange seismic activity that could seriously endanger the nuclear power plant where they work. We soon see that their fears are well founded, but the cause of the seismic activity remains a mystery. A dozen years later, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has tried to put the tragedy behind him, but Joe cannot. He's obsessed with what happened at the power plant and convinced that whatever happened then will happen again, and soon, if something isn't done about it. He drags his son away from his own family - a little boy named Sam (Carson Bolde) and a doctor named Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) - to help him sneak into the quarantine zone around the old plant and find the information he needs to prove his theory correct. But they both end up finding a lot more than they bargained for.

"That's all very well," you're probably saying, "but what about the giant monsters! Are they... cool?" Yes, yes they are. The creatures are literally breath-taking, the special effects stunning. I saw the movie in 3D IMAX, and I can't recommend the experience enough. Multiple times I found myself actually almost hyperventilating as I became enveloped in the titanic action. Not only that, the imagery in this film is horrifically beautiful and awesome in the old, jaw-dropping sense of the word. Occasionally the movie will pull back to give you a bird's eye view of the destruction and chaos, but more often it wisely sticks you right in the middle of things, sharing the perspective of the people on the ground, running for their lives. It's thrilling.

There are two levels to the atmospheric terror that the film produces. The first level is a kind of existential one which you feel when you realize that these gigantic beasts take no more notice of humans than we do of insects. Sure, they're destroying our cities and our lives, but that's purely coincidental. Those big buildings and crowds just happen to be in the way as they're going about their own, completely unrelated, instinctual, giant animal business. They couldn't be less interested in us and our entire civilization. Even scarier, the humans in the film only once succeed in actually affecting the monsters at all. So when the next level of terror kicks in, and the monsters actually do notice people - even at one point becoming aware of our main character as an adversary and staring straight into his eyes - it's a whole new kind of terrifying.

Another thing the movie does well is to eschew dialog and allow the viewer to work out what's going on purely from the images on the screen. Sure, there are some of those classic monster movie scenes where the scientist explains to the military guys (David Strathairn and Richard T. Jones) or the main character what's going on and why the monsters are doing what they're doing. But mercifully not many.

The acting is also a lot better than you might expect from a Godzilla movie. Elizabeth Olsen really makes you feel how it's tearing her apart to send her child off to what she hopes is safety. Bryan Cranston might get a tad melodramatic at times, but after all, his character is going through some pretty melodramatic stuff. Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford isn't a particularly complex character, but he's easy to sympathize with and understand.

But one thing I really didn't understand about the movie was why Sally Hawkins' character was treated the way she was. The IMDb page for the movie lists the character's name as Vivienne Graham, but if her name was said aloud during the movie, I don't remember it. She has a good amount of dialog, and is clearly knowledgeable and smart, but she's rarely spoken to herself, or given much respect. Almost all the other characters direct their questions and comments to her partner, Dr. Serizawa, despite the fact that most of the time all he does is stand around looking concerned. It was a puzzling dynamic that really stood out to me, and I couldn't work out what the point of it was, unless it was meant to be a subtle commentary on sexism in the military and in STEM fields.

This is not to say that Dr. Serizawa's character is completely without merit. The scene where he shows the Admiral his grandfather's watch is particularly moving.

Godzilla is also treated in an interesting way in the film, as an almost mystical force. It seems apparent that he doesn't attack the other creatures out of a desire for food, but rather, as Serizawa says, out of a need to "restore balance."

As I was driving home from the movie, I imagined any moment some enormous, prehistoric thing might loom out of the clouds ahead of me and begin stomping down the street, shattering my conception of the world. It gave me a cold, delicious shiver deep down in my guts.
Tagged (?): Godzilla (Not), Kaiju (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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