Friday 16 May 2014

Godzilla 3D ( aka Gojira 2014 aka Godzilla 2014)

Aphid And Goliath

Godzilla 3D 
(aka Gojira 2014 aka Godzilla 2014)
2014 USA/Japan
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Big, giant sized spoilers breathing fiery destruction in your face... although, to be fair, it’s a movie about big monsters. How spoilerish could it be.

When I saw Gareth Edwards first feature, Monsters, four years ago (reviewed here), I noted that I quite liked it but the last act left me unfulfilled. I wanted to see a giant monster carnage fight sequence at the end and, since it was shot on a very lean budget, I’m guessing money would have been one of the deciding factors as to why that didn’t happen? Either way, that’s not a problem when it comes to this movie because the director has graduated from his original Monsters to a feature involving the original King Of The Monsters... so this film does seem like a bit of a natural evolution for him, thematically, and it’s been released just in time for The Big G’s 60th anniversary... which is nice (although I would have preferred to see a Toho film, in some ways).

I don’t remember what age I first saw the original 1954 version of Godzilla but it must have been sometime around when I first saw King Kong on television. I would have been about 4 years old so around about 1972 I would guess. Actually, the story of my original encounter with King Kong, very late at night, is a nice one for me but I’ll save that for another review, I think. All I remember about the original Godzilla is that, when I later saw the third film from the original first wave (The Shōwa Series) of the three waves (Shōwa, Heisei and Millennium series) of Japanese films about the character, King Kong Vs Godzilla, when I was about 5 or so, I was stoked to see the two giant monsters fight.

Of course, in the first four films or so of the Shōwa cycle, Godzilla was still pretty much a villain or, to be more precise, an uncontrollable beast that people needed to clearly defend themselves from and stop at any cost. By the time we got to the next few films in this first cycle, Godzilla had pretty much been subtly transformed and recast as Japan’s avenger and guardian, coming out to fight against whatever giant monsters were out to stomp Tokyo and its neighbours.

Now this is kind of relevant here because Gareth Edward’s new take on the legend is actually not really a reboot of the 1954 version. In fact it acknowledges the 1954 version without paying too many respects to the creation and legacy of the character in any great way. The film’s occasional stabs of postmodern homage lie in the date he was first spotted (1954), the name Serizawa, given to Ken Watanabe’s character but seemingly nothing to do with the original character from the 1954 film, plus occasional visual or typographic references to Mothra and other kaiju eiga elements thrown up in parts of the frames. There’s one more big piece of homage in the design of the title character... but I’ll get back to that later. What the director does do, however, is reestablish the role of Godzilla as an avenging guardian to the world, coming out of retirement to fight a world under attack by giant monsters who, in this movie, take the form of oversized aphid-like creatures who are swallowing radioactive devices like losenges, to feed and reproduce from.

If the plot sounds silly, well... it really is.

The story in itself is fine, tonally,  in terms of the history of the character... but I did have a lot of trouble with the dialogue in certain places when it comes to dealing with the fantastical elements of the story. They have some great actors in this movie, you see. The main leads, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (as a husband and wife in this one, after playing brother and sister as Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, reviewed here, and coming soon in the same roles in the 2015 movie, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron), are both more than fine in their performances and give the movie some likable characters to get behind. However, there are some real heavy weight, long respected actors here like the aforementioned Ken Watanabe, alongside Juliet Binoche, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins and, though the director uses little character sketches for each of these, and other action “sequence characters” (I’ll get to that in a minute)... it has to be said they’re mostly just standing around wasted in this film and the lines they have to deliver, for a lot of the time, are absolutely preposterous. It’s strange because, although the story itself is quite silly, it does work as a credible whole within both the world they create for this movie and also as something which isn’t out of place in keeping with the sensibilities of some of the Toho movies... but the dialogue itself is terrible. So that was kinda bizarre... I felt.

That’s about the only real weakness of the film, other than a couple of personal preferences, that I could find. In other words... I was thoroughly entertained by this movie and a lot of that, I suspect, is to do with the director’s approach to the material. Judging from this film, Edwards has two really potent signature elements which seem to work really well here...

One is a philosophy of always leading you into something else with a little revelation. While the director doesn’t eschew establishing shots, he does tend to leave them in the dust at several points and, instead, starts from things being revealed in close up and then going wide. For instance, while looking for something in a storage facility in the Nevada desert, a storeroom door is opened and just a bright light is revealed. We then cut and pull back so we can see that the storeroom has a big hole in the other side of the room where “something big” has broken out into the surrounding desert. A very similar kind of reveal happens when some firemen go into a room in a suite in a hotel, only to find that the other side of the room is missing and opens out into the city landscape, where an aphid style monster has ripped through half the suite.

It’s a really interesting way of shooting things and the director persists with this kind of “reveal detail” in either large or small scale occurrences throughout the picture. But not only that... he also uses exactly the same technique in reverse a couple of times. For instance, we are just about to glimpse one of the first proper shots of Godzilla with one of the insect-like monsters getting “into it” with some killer combat moves in long shot... when a safety door is shut in front of it and the screen goes to darkness for a half a second before cutting to another point in the story. There are a few moments like this and it’s a good way of whetting your appetite for the main bout a little later.

So yeah, reveals are this director’s thing... at least on this movie. But there’s something else he does too.

I noticed that for the scenes of carnage, a lot of the time the director will focus on a few characters that are entirely incidental to the story and are only around for, pretty much, the action sequence they are in. He makes you care about specific humans, caught in the turmoil of having giant monster action in their close proximity, and he follows these minor throwaway characters throughout their specific scene. It sounds like it shouldn’t work because you don’t have time to get involved with, basically, “star extras”... but he does it really well and, somehow, manages to pull it off beautifully. I really felt for the bus driver in the bridge sequence, for instance, even though I knew I wouldn’t see him again after that scene was over. The director uses this kind of “acquire a character for a short time and then jettison” approach all the way through and makes it really work... I applaud him for that.

My only grumble with that, of course, is that some of the other actors, like Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn, could really have done with having their characters expanded a little more, I felt. Giving them a little more purpose would have helped a bit... as would ageing some of the actors and actresses for the fifteen year time jump near the start of the movie. Strange that some of them look more or less the same in 2014 as hey did in the sequences set in 1999... at least, that’s how it struck me.

What else? Well you have Godzilla him/herself (don’t even go there... I am not getting into that whole Gojira gender argument, thanks very much).

One of the problems... on of the many problems... with the previous US outing in 1998 was the fact that Godzilla was all CGI and didn’t look anything like any of the classic Toho incarnations of the character (no wonder the Japanese incarnation whipped the US version’s backside in just a few seconds in the last of the Japanese movies, to date, Godzilla: Final Wars). The fact that pretty much every Toho Godzilla movie shot in any decade of the characters monstrous career has featured men dressed in suits stomping on miniature sets as the sole way of portraying the character has given them a look and feel that G-Fans love. If it looks too much more functional than something that could be done with the “man in suit” approach, then it was going to turn a lot of people off. Luckily, the version of Godzilla in this movie is very respectful to the look and design of the original (and the many different, evolving suits over the years, during the course of 30 movies). It looks like the man in suit has come to life and we get a much more expressive version of the classic look we know and love... and yes, you will feel sympathy for this version of Godzilla and you will be rooting for him to get the upper hand on his opponents as they gang up on him...

Which leads me nicely into the choreography of those battle scenes.

As I said before, the director holds back and teases you, showing you through the eyes of the various human characters who will take up our attention in the foreground of a shot while things are happening in the distance (a similar tactic was taken in the movie Cloverfield, although that was a more natural thing to do because it was shot as first person footage). Towards the end, though, he stops teasing and you get some full-on giant monster wrestling. This doesn’t really deteriorate into one of those fights where Godzilla and other various kaiju start throwing rocks or bits of buildings at each other... which is okay for the intensity of this one actually. It’s up close and personal with The Big G and the aphids getting in each others faces.

Also, the writers use the classic fight dramatics which tend to go down well in these kinds of movies. Godzilla comes in and beats up the bad guys. Then the bad guys, or in this case “bad loving guy gal monster couple who want to hatch their eggs and destroy the world”, team up on Godzilla and do him some damage, thus invoking audience sympathy and concern for our big, scaly reptilian... um... thing. Then Godzilla gathers up his/her last remaining strength and gives one big final push and beats the living daylight out of the enemies... finally bringing in one of the old, key favourite weapons in, frankly, the most brutal and satisfying way I’ve ever seen Godzilla use it, to be honest. If you’re a fan of the character then you’ll know just what I’m talking about but, if not, then all I can say is the way I worded the spoiler warning at the top of this article was definitely a tip off to the killing blow, so to speak, in this film.

Another interesting thing, and I’m not sure if many of the audience would have noticed it at the time, is the echo of the main human protagonist, who happens to be a bomb defuser in the army, in the title character. It’s brought home visually by linking two scenes. There are a couple of completely preposterous moments in this movie when human characters you thought must have died... didn’t. It’s a big leap of the imagination in two particular places but one of these, when you think you are looking at a burn victim, is actually our human hero who is laying on the ground recovering, covered in thick dust. There’s a similar scene near the end of this one when you think Godzilla has sacrificed himself for humanity once too often and has died for our sins (the character actually dies a few times in the Japanese films... including the 1954 original). However, it turns out Godzilla's just unconscious and also covered in dust and scarring, which is kind of a nice touch, I thought.

One more thing I should address here is the music, of course. One of the first teaser trailers for this film featured one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti, on the soundtrack. Surprisingly, the music from that teaser is used in the corresponding scene in the movie proper... which is not something I was expecting. Now I love Godzilla scores and have all the soundtracks to these movies, mostly in the form of the six hugely, wallet munching Japanese boxed sets of the entires scores (and bonus tracks) which were released at irregular intervals over a 5 or 6 year period in commemoration of the character’s 50th anniversary. So I know the various classic Godzilla films provided by a number of composers, especially those by the Masaru Sato (who worked with Kurosawa a lot) and, the man who injected the series with three classic themes for the character (just on his very first outing) and who also invented the distinctive roar... Akira Ifikube.

Now I wasn’t in any way worried about this score because I knew it was being composed by Alexandre Desplat, one of my favourite contemporary film composers. I knew this guy could do a good parody of Ifikube if he wanted to but, in all honesty, I don’t hear a heck of a lot of Ifikube’s influence, and certainly none of his famous themes in this score. In fact, the end title musical suite that Michael Giacchino composed for the aforementioned Cloverfield is about as good a classic Godzilla parody score as you’re going to get. Desplat, it seems to me, hasn’t payed enough homage in his score and, I know some people say that he has but, honestly, I just can’t hear much more than the faintest influence in this.

That being said, though, Desplat’s score is nothing, if not appropriate to the visuals on screen and the rhythm of the editing and, once you resign yourself to the fact that nobody thought it was a good idea to pay the rights to use some of Ifikube’s original themes, you’ll probably realise that it’s still a fantastic, kick ass score and it works very well away from the movie too, as a straight listen. The score CD arrived in the post a couple of days before the UK release date of the movie so I had a chance to lower my expectations in terms of postmodernistic musical jokes on this one and realise that, once again, Alexandre Desplat has turned in a damn fine score in a year which includes, so far, his outstanding work for both The Grand Budapest Hotel (reviewed here) and The Monuments Men (reviewed here).

And there you have it. This movie has great acting coupled with clunky dialogue. You will find your powers of being able to suspend disbelief in some of the expository speeches a little hard to maintain but the action is pretty solid and the direction is interesting and noteworthy. If you’re a lover of Godzilla movies in general... it’s way better than the previous US effort and, possibly, better than some of the later Toho originals. If The Big G is not someone you’re familiar with but you like ridiculous action sequences anyway... then you might also want to check this movie out. It’s a mostly good Godzilla flick with a lot of heart... and that’s quite an achievement in the modern, US blockbuster movie stakes these days. Stomp along to your local cinema and take a look.

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