Sunday, 18 May 2014
Godzilla (2014 Film Review)
The issue when approaching Godzilla is that it's a semi-decent film with a long laundry list of problems. While it has many obvious and very easy to spot issues which should have been ironed out of a script in the first draft, it still manages to present just enough to keep you going. In many respects it's similar to watching Lost back in the day. For all the utter crap, lack of answers and sheer refusal to actually provide anything of worth, there was just enough good elements there to keep you watching until the last disappointing scene. While Godzilla is certainly more entertaining than Lost, it's not exactly hard on the brain cells either.
Following a 1999 disaster in which he loses his wife, nuclear power plant supervisor Joe Brody has become obsessed with the quarantine zone surrounding his previous workplace. Convinced by the unusual readings and information from that day that it was no mere earthquake, he has continually tried to infiltrate the zone and sneak back to his house. Fifteen years later, when his latest attempt ends him in jail, his son is roped into finally helping him try and silence the ghosts of the past. In their attempt, they only discover that entirely new relics of a by-gone age are lurking close by...
Now, here's the biggest problem with this description and the promotional campaign. Joe is set up to be the protagonist and has the most interesting backstory, and Bryan Cranston has the acting chops to make the best use of the role. The film promptly kills him off before the first act is done, barely after we see the monster for the first time. Instead his son Ford is set up as our hero, and despite Aaron Taylor-Johnson's best efforts he's definitely a much weaker protagonist.
This weakness is in part due to two things. The first being the lack of background to the story, and the second being that much of the human drama comes across as overly cliched or borderline cheesy at times. Nearly every time it truly succeeds, beyond some admittedly well handled moments of dialogue, it's only through the efforts of the actors. Even ignoring that, it effectively means that the story is starting over once again, showing a family's life but in a far weaker manner than before.
The repetition of this element and apparent disconnect between characters rather than basic reintegration and re-use of major plot elements is something which plagues the whole film. Behind Cranston, Ken Watanabe is easily the most talented actor in a named role but isn't given much to do after a certain point. Actually, it's after that point that a lot of the problems begin to appear. The first half to three-quarters of an hour is easily some of the best the film has. You rarely see the monster, it builds up tension, develops the characters and adds a great sense of mystery. Even with it's flaws, you can clearly tell it's still going somewhere.
Then the film just seems to start spinning its wheels right after the monster disappears into the stratosphere and it doesn't stop. You can tell things are happening, but there's this constant sense of the film repeatedly restarting without much progress; as if act one is only leading into another act one rather than act two.
Perhaps the biggest issue which causes this is how the film actually treats the monsters in question. In nearly every case you barely see them, and the film seems to be intentionally trying to avoid most of the action surrounding them. This is likely due to the influence of Gareth Edwards with his previous film, Monsters, and it just doesn't work here.
This isn't a case of Jaws where you constantly have hints of the monster to build up tension until they are fully revealed, as they are showing in the full very early on.
It's not like Troll Hunter where big scenes are evenly spaced out and the main focus is on world building either, as most of what we know of the monsters is only present for one or two scenes.
It's not like Pacific Rim either, where there's a big bang right at the start, lots of world building and then the entire third act is spent focusing upon the fighting.
Instead the film feels as if it's wasting time.
Here's an honest example of how the first major fight goes, right after Godzilla has been fully revealed in his full glory to audiences. You see things take place from a human perspective as one rampaging foe sees the King of Monsters, they size up one another to fight and prepare to brawl. The film then immediately cuts from that to a kid watching a news report about it and declaring it's cool, with only fleeting glimpses of the punch-up shown. Yes, that happens more than a few times. It's only in the last ten minutes or so we actually see the kaiju fighting one another, and even then the focus of the film is squarely placed upon a group of human soldiers dealing with a problem.
The actual fight in question is also a sticking point. While it's admittedly epic it highlights two other problems in the film. The first is that the film seems stuck between two interpretations of Godzilla.
The first is the walking disaster area which annihilates everything in his path and the humans need to try and halt him, with the focus of the film being on the human military and scientists trying to stop him. This seemed to be what the film was following with the focus on humans, but then it veered directly into the other territory at every chance.
The one where a Godzilla film as "versus" in the title, and beefs up a big monster for the giant fire snorting lizard to fight against. The very thing the film keeps advertising and avoiding.
You see the problem here, it feels like the director is trying to focus on two targets at once and ultimately achieved neither.
Still, what does the film get right?
Well, firstly there's how spectacular the film looks. Gareth Edwards definitely has an eye for big cinematic moments and there's rarely anything shot wrong in the film. Despite their problematic focus and story issues, there's no sequence which suffers at all from poor shots or gimmicks of lens-flare or shaky-cam. Better yet, there's a metric ton of fantastic monster moments (admittedly emphasis upon the moments bit) which were reserved as big jaw dropping rather than being used as trailer fodder. The actual fight itself (though admittedly highlighting just who Pacific Rim did everything right with its neon city colours) is fantastically brutal and has the monsters pounding the hell out of one another, ending in a finisher worthy of Mortal Kombat.
The new monsters besides Godzilla look fantastic, brilliantly brought to life via expensive CGI and seem genuinely evil at times. This is in contrast to the King of Monsters himself, who has actually been given a few expressive facial ticks and interesting alterations to his own design. Most of which involve turning him back into the monster we saw in the original 1954, and adding elements atop that basic structure.
The American military is used extensively throughout the film, often being seen to shadow Godzilla or make efforts to try and slow down the more violent monsters. While they're shown in a heroic light with plenty of visual hardware on display, Edwards doesn't fall into the Michael Bay trap of having them kill the monsters. They're visibly outgunned but there's a definite degree of professionalism to how they approach their foes. Though admittedly they do have the habit of using M 16s on monsters which can shrug off heavy ordinance.
The acting, as before, is well rounded and there's never a time when someone bad seems to be showing up. Much like Man of Steel, you have very talented people walking in for bit roles and brief sections which help give their roles a bit of added credence. There's obvious talent on display, and it usually helps to give a bit more dimension to their character, especially in the case of Watanabe.
There is a good film in here, but much like so many previous flicks potential for real substance is let down thanks to a lacklustre story. This film needed better oversight from someone who knew what they were doing, just to ensure that there was a much clearer vision behind this. It's still a film worth getting on DVD despite all these problems, but i'd honestly suggest waiting a while until you can get it relatively cheap. Until then, go watch Pacific Rim or Troll Hunter again, or better yet find a copy of Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla 2, and be thankful it's at least better than Monsters.