Thursday, May 22, 2014

Godzilla (2014) – Review

Review: Godzilla is visually striking and features a few very compelling moments, but overall is quite disappointing, pulled down by a fairly terrible script. The film is about engineer Joe Brody and his family. Joe works at a nuclear power plant in Japan that melts down due to a presumed natural disaster, killing Joe’s wife. Fifteen years later, Joe is still searching for answers, believing that the plant meltdown is being covered up and that something else entirely is responsible. Meanwhile, Joe’s son Ford has moved on from the tragedy and has his own family in San Francisco. Ford must come to Japan, however, after his father is arrested trespassing on the site of the old plant. Joe convinces Ford to come with him one last time to search the site for answers. Once there, they discover something profoundly terrifying. This is a film about a giant monster after all.

Godzilla is very polarizing for me (the film, not the character). On one hand, I found it to be mesmerizing aesthetically, often thrilling me with its fantastic visual spectacles and the best score of 2014 so far. But on the other hand, the characters and script are just plain awful. Sadly, despite very impressive visuals, this is just not a good film.

Director Gareth Edwards seems poised to deliver a classic monster movie, delaying Godzilla for most of the film’s first two acts, seemingly instead to focus on building strong characters.  The problem is that his characters are paper thin and their emotional exchanges are laughably clichéd and contrived. The scenes involving the human characters are mostly unwatchable, especially when they attempt to convey some sort of emotional exchange. Edwards never takes the time to give his characters any real character attributes or character-centric moments to involve the audience on a deeper emotional level; they are all hollow shells that just blankly say poorly written lines of dialog. The audience could care less about any of these human characters. They are essentially pointless; and yet, they take up most of the screen time. Thus, Edwards structuring the film to delay Godzilla’s appearance for a large chunk ends up hurting the film overall as the first half plays very slowly (due to the lousy characters).

It is as if Edwards devoted all his time and effort into making sure the visuals and the action involving Godzilla worked, forgetting that for the film to exist outside of being just pure spectacle he also needs strong characters at its core that the audience can care about and invest in, which in turn allows the drama and action the play bigger. Clearly, the human characters were an afterthought, only included at the last minute with little effort taken because someone told him he could not have a film without human characters (pure speculation).

But even with all that said, Edwards gets the visuals completely right. Once Godzilla gets involved and the action ramps up, the film actually becomes fairly interesting, as the viewer is thrilled by the pure ambiance created by the smoky, overcast, dark, foreboding cinematography and the brilliant thunderous and sort of spooky score. The atmosphere created is wonderful. And then Edwards introduces the monster and is able to pull off the epic imagery with panache.

After being bewildered by just how bad the characters are in the film, I found myself entranced by the film, enchanted by the striking images and atmosphere Edwards employs in the second half. The characters themselves are still pointless, utterly, but the visuals take over carrying the film.

At the end, one might even call the film satisfying – but that is completely dependent on one’s expectations for what the film should be or aspire to be. For those looking for something that is pure spectacle featuring a massive monster engaging in grand terror and destruction then this film will probably work quite well, as essentially that is all it does well. For those, however, looking for a complete narrative film with strong characters, Godzilla will be a letdown. Again, even with its tremendous visuals, it is just not a good movie. But, and this is its saving grace, it does entertain once it gets going.

On a side note, Edwards seems to be highly influenced by Steven Spielberg. There are a number of moments that feel like they are carbon copies of similar moments across Spielberg’s films. Particularly, Edwards utilizes “The Spielberg Face”, especially when it comes to using children to employ the dramatic device; though, I will say that Edwards uses it much less effectively. Even worse, Godzilla ultimately feels like a remake of Jurassic Park, mirroring many scenes and thematic and stylistic elements (but with far weaker characters). Everything somewhat shamefully copies everything else in filmmaking generally, but I kept thinking that the two paralleled each other very closely throughout, as if I were watching a updated version with slightly better visual effects.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Gareth Edwards has made two feature films, both of which focus on large monsters making landfall engaging in carnage and creating dread among human inhabiting the areas. His first film Monsters somewhat feels like it could be a sequel to this Godzilla film, as Godzilla introduces monsters to the human world, while Monsters is about humans living in a world also inhabited by monsters. They are similar in many ways, but what sets them apart is that Monsters feature reasonably good characters while Godzilla has terribly underwritten characters, and thus its seems as if Edwards has taken a step backwards as a filmmaker. But that said, I look forward to seeing what he does with Godzilla 2, as again his visuals were rather good.

The wonderful aesthetics are thanks to the collaborations with the great group Edwards worked with on the film. Composer Alexandre Desplat delivers a phenomenal score given the genre and style of the film (here is the full score; it is honestly far better than the film it is in). It has a great chilling power to it, often sounding as if it were written for a horror thriller or ghost story. It is spooky and very fun; and, I like the Japanese influences and accents as well. I will be surprised if it is not among my three favorite scores of the year when all is said and done (Desplat already gave us the fantastic The Grand Budapest Hotel score earlier this year as well, which I also loved). Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography perfectly sets the mood working in dark and gloomy tones. There is a scene in which paratroopers deploy through the clouds which is just visually astonishing and kind of beautiful. Owen Paterson’s production design does a good job grounding the film in reality, even though it often feels ridiculous (the sheer spectacle of watching Godzilla traipse through a city is kind of just as hilarious as it is mesmerizing). Designing sets that feel and look obliterated must have been fun. Overall, the film being as good as it is in moments (not overall) is thanks in large part to the work of these three.

It is hard to say that any of the actors are good in Godzilla as it is not really true, but it is not their fault. The script is one of the poorest of this year so far. They do their best. David Strathairn plays a typical military man type, while Juliette Binoche plays Joe’s wife who has the tough task of making the audience feel something (unsuccessfully) by dying in the first five to ten minutes of the film. Ken Watanabe plays a scientist who just wants to see Godzilla flourish, while Sally Hawkins plays another scientist who follows his lead completely (neither serves any purpose except maybe for some exposition). Bryan Cranston plays Joe, a crazy person who is vindicated while also wearing a horrifically terrible wig. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Ford, a military man who is fed up with his father being a crazy person. Ford finds Joe being obsessed by the tragedy that claimed the life of his wife (because that seems unreasonable), believing that it is being covered up, annoyingly tiresome, as he has moved on. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and like Ford she too has no personality or character whatsoever. These actors have all been very good in other things, but here with Godzilla they are basically being paid to kill screen time until Godzilla shows up (as presumably the budget could not pay for two hours of Godzilla smashing stuff) with little care given to actually creating fully realized characters of any kind.

Summary & score: Godzilla is everything one could hope for in terms of being a grand monster movie. There is just one hitch; it is not a very good film in every other regard. 6/10

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