Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Godzilla" review: The king has returned to us

I don't remember if I put "Godzilla" at #1 or #2 on my top 5 most anticipated movies of 2014 list. Either way, it was at the top. Having been a fan of the big guy pretty much my entire life, I've seen pretty much everything starring Godzilla. I even liked the atrocious Roland Emmerich remake that came out in the late 90s because I was a 7-year-old at the time who didn't know any better. I still respect that sense of nostalgia that the movie gives me, but in hindsight, it was a steaming pile of radioactive crap that stinks worse than anything the titular character could probably ... defecate. So when they announced a reboot of the remake, I was cautiously excited. But still excited because dammit, it's Godzilla!

I wasn't too excited when they revealed production details. The director was this dude Gareth Edwards who I've never even heard of up until now. The actors weren't cast until last year, but now that I've seen the movie, none of that matters. Forget that Gareth is a director with one very low budget indie film to his name. I honestly could have given less of a shit if another actor other than Heisenberg aka Bryan Cranston was cast. It's about the monster. And folks, they got this one right.

If you're at all familiar with the Godzilla character, especially the original 1954 movie, the plot shouldn't be too complicated. I mean, this isn't exactly "Inception" we're dealing with here. Giant monster awakens, destroys city, goes back to the ocean, repeat. The only difference here in either a bit of homage or continuity screwing, they decided to tie "Godzilla" to its earlier predecessor. Only at the beginning of the movie I think they woke him up with nuclear testing then tried to kill him with more nuclear testing. Or something along those lines. The logic of trying to kill something radioactive with more radiation makes less sense than the actual plot point.

So then we fast forward to the late 90s when Heisenberg is working at a Japanese nuclear plant (on a side note, I took 2 years of Japanese in college, and Cranston's Japanese spoken lines actually are not bad for a non-native speaker here). He's some sort of head honcho, and under his watch the plant gets destroyed by an earthquake, and his wife dies. Then he goes crazy, but not in a Walter White sort of way. Or at least everyone, including his US Navy EOD tech son thinks so. Only he's not because it wasn't an earthquake. It was a completely new monster called a MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism). Long story short, it awakens because some dumbass decided to build a nuclear power plant on top of the resting place of a creature that feeds off radiation. He then decides to go get laid. And then somehow Godzilla wakes up as well and decides that he has the MUTO munchies, and our plot kicks off from there.

The biggest difference between this and its late 90s predecessor is the treatment of the source material. As much as "Independence Day" was a mega-hit, it was still a B-movie at its heart. Sure, you can call "Godzilla" a B-movie as well, but only after he was turned from scary-as-hell atomic bomb metaphor into a Saturday morning cartoon-type hero. When Emmerich made "Godzilla" in the late 90s, well, I'd say he probably got drunk and made the movie after watching "Jurassic Park" one too many times because that's what it ended up like. A cheap ripoff of a sci fi classic. Gareth Edwards on the other hand seems to have nothing but utmost reverence for the source material. Although it has a monster fight in the spirit of the campier outings, "Godzilla" in terms of overall tone is much closer to the 1954 original. It's dark, serious and a metaphor for the arrogance of mankind and the destructive power of nature. Ironically, the whole dark metaphor thing was what Godzilla was originally intended for. In that sense, you can argue that "Godzilla" is the "Batman Begins" of its franchise in the sense that it's taking a character who was originally intended to be dark and serious and returning him to those roots, after way too many campy cheesefests. In fact, news broke today that they're already at work on a sequel. So then it could become the "Dark Knight saga" of its franchise and return. I'm OK with that.

The acting was ... about as good as you expect in a movie about giant monsters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is passable but not spectacular as the leading man. Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do much other than provide occasional eye candy and gaze meaningfully at the camera. The clear standouts are Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, and even between those two Cranston stands out more. Ken Watanabe isn't given much to do other than play the part of the really philosophical sounding Asian dude (I'm Asian in real life so I reserve the right to make stereotype comments). Cranston's performance, while somewhat brief, is very reminiscent of his best moments in "Breaking Bad." It's a good anchor for the rest of the film. But at the end of the day, an anchor is a small part of the ship. Crucial, but small.

The most praise goes to the way the monster battles are handled. To those expecting "Pacific Rim"-styled action, well, this is not really that. As I said earlier, "Godzilla" has more in common with 1954's "Gojira" than any other movie in terms of its tone. The monster battle does happen, and when it does, it's executed perfectly. But it's not totally what the movie's about. Most people probably have never seen the original, and in it I think Godzilla himself only had like 17 minutes of screen time. And up until the monster battle, Godzilla himself is treated like the shark from "Jaws." He's more of a presence. And it works very well here. If he were to be revealed early on and paraded around for the whole 2 hours, the movie itself wouldn't have been as satisfying. But as with "Jaws," once the titular monster is revealed, you'll shit your pants because the build-up was damn well worth it.

So to sum everything up, "Godzilla" for me hits all the right notes and restores a character from campy cartoon hero to the unstoppable force of nature he was always meant to be. It's not "Pacific Rim," so don't go in expecting that. Otherwise ...

9.5 out of 10

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