Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New movie review: Godzilla

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as U.S. Navy Lt. Ford Brody, catches his first glimpse of one of the monsters in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.

Ken Watanabe. Bryan Cranston. Juliette Binoche. David Strathairn. Elizabeth Olsen. Sally Hawkins. Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It is an A-list cast up and down the line. One simply wishes it had been given more to do. Instead, Godzilla asks these talented people to look stunned and dispense pseudoscience dialogue that is so ludicrous it almost makes you forget you are watching the latest entry in the “serious blockbuster” canon.

There have been serious blockbusters for as long as there have been blockbusters, but the most recent crop traces its lineage to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. These are morality tales about humankind’s inhumanity or its shabby treatment of nature or any other broadly defined, vaguely threatening concept. Many of these films are very good, laudable for their ability to astound the senses and engage the mind. Godzilla is not of their ilk – failing on the latter front and proving a mixed bag on the former.

One wishes not to be too harsh on this movie because it at least tries to create a knowing dialogue about science and nature, and director Gareth Edwards treats his viewers as intelligent, thinking people, whereas so many of these films ask you to leave your brain with the ticket-taker. These are admirable qualities, but at $12-15 for a movie ticket, more if you are seeing this in IMAX 3D, it does an audience no good to grade on a curve.

Edwards clearly is a talented director with an eye for unique visuals and, in the early going at least, a well-defined sense of authorship. Once the movie gets into its second and third acts, however, he falls into the trap these effects-laden films so often set: an over-reliance on set pieces in place of a story.

Name a world disaster in the last 15 years or so, and there is a good chance you will find an homage to it in this film. The inciting incident is meant as a stand-in for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there is a monster-caused tsunami reminiscent of the devastating Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, and at least once, a plane hits a building behind a character at such an angle as to evoke the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using real-world events to inform your action picture -- and the trope has been well employed throughout the lifespan of cinema – but it would have been nice for Edwards to put a more distinctive directorial stamp on these moments rather than asking historical associations to do the heavy lifting.

Where the enterprise falls apart, though, is on the page. Movie-goers are savvy people. They basically know what to expect from a big-budget monster movie. The Godzilla movies in particular have a rich cultural and political heritage, dating back to the 1954 original. At their best, these movies are almost always about the destruction of nature and more specifically the dangers of a nuclear society.

In the wake of Fukushima, an environmental message about the need for scientific caution and restraint is a welcome one, but when it comes to the science of monster movies, less is more. Instead, screenwriter Max Borenstein bogs down the early scenes by piling on expository dialogue that asks us to believe the creatures depicted are the result of a chain of improbable events and not plot convenience. As a general rule, it is best not to nitpick the science of these movies, and the problem here stems not from the science talk so much as from the time it takes away from building real characters.

Johnson plays Ford Brody, whose name is a possible homage to the protagonists of the Jaws films, and Edwards has stated his portrayal of Godzilla was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the shark. Brody survived a Japanese nuclear plant disaster as a child. His father, who worked at he plant, is played by Cranston, in a yeoman performance. The elder Brody believes the meltdown was the result of something more nefarious than an earthquake.

Watanabe and Hawkins play scientists who are part of an apparently international coalition devoted to covering up what lies at the heart of the disaster and studying it. Watanabe is good, but the material he is given is not. Hawkins is criminally underused, as is Olsen as Johnson’s wife, and Binoche makes little more than a cameo as Cranston’s wife. This shunting of the female characters is problematic and sadly emblematic of the genre, but it might be more troublesome if any of the male characters were given anything much better. They are not.

For much of the second and third act, Brody, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, wanders from one destructive scene to the next in such a way that it seems the monsters may be following him. Scientists and high-ranking military officials try to figure out what to do as one major city after another comes under attack, though San Francisco gets the worst of it. For years, critics have complained New York City was suffering unfairly as the primary target for cinematic destruction, but add this to the new Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films, as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, and San Francisco may be making a comeback as blockbuster whipping boy.

At one point, a scientist offers this solution: Let the monsters fight it out themselves. It sounds like fanboy service as defense strategy, and as the buildings tumble, the movie collapses under the weight of its own unsustainable premise. If you want big action and big monsters, that is what you are going to get. If you want an intelligent, fully immersive e+xperience, look elsewhere.

See it? No.

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