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Zaki's Review: Godzilla (2014)

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Legendary Pictures' big-budget reboot Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards and released by Warner Bros., arrives amidst a barrage of pre-release buzz that can't help but call to mind the previous attempt by a Hollywood studio to translate this quintessentially Japanese of celluloid icons to the American cinematic vernacular. That film, from Sony-Tristar and Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, arrived exactly 16 years ago next week as the summer season's preordained champion. I was there opening night, popcorn in hand, brain thoroughly washed by the mountainous onslaught of hype leading up to opening night, fully expecting the greatest blockbuster of all time.

It wasn't. In fact, my clearest memory from that day isn't of the film itself, but of feeling so non-plussed afterwards that I went into the theater parking lot and took my first (and only) drag from a cigarette, ever. That's right, I needed to ingest a carcinogen just to make the bad feeling go away. In the decade-and-a-half since then, Sony's misfire has become so synonymous with Hollywood's propensity for empty calorie excess that it's a wonder the whole brand wasn't rendered as radioactive as the title character. I actually re-watched it a few days ago for the first time since that nicotine-tinged night, and time has truly done nothing to salve that wound.

Given all that, it's kind of a miracle that we're even talking about another American take on Godzilla while the many-pronged failure of the Sony model is still fresh in so many of our memories. But hey, in this age of the insta-reboot, 16 years is practically an eternity, and studios have rarely been ones to let a perfectly presentable IP die on the vine. And so as soon as the rights reverted back to their originators at Toho Inc., they were snaked up by Legendary Pictures for a new try that spares no expense bringing a more faithful telling to the screen. And while Edwards (making his blockbuster debut after earning his indie stripes on 2010's Monsters) improves on Emmerich by every objective measure, his adaptation is still hobbled by a different set of stylistic and storytelling choices that keep it just short of greatness.

Starting out with a 15-years-ago prologue, we're introduced to Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody, an American who is managing a nuclear reactor in Tokyo, where a mysterious meltdown occurs, leaving Brody's wife (Juliette Binoche) dead and the surrounding areas uninhabitable. From there, we jump to the present, with Brody's son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) returning to his family in San Francisco after a tour doing the Hurt Locker thing with the military. Brody the younger is soon summoned to Japan to retrieve his father, who's been arrested due to his sneaking into the supposedly irradiated area around the former nuclear facility, and once father and son are reunited, they find themselves drawn into a global conspiracy that encompasses several countries and several monsters of varying dispositions.

To its credit, the film does its level best to fix some of the Sony version's most egregious flaws. For one, there's no try at reinventing the wheel with how this most iconic of movie monsters looks. This is unmistakably the same Godzilla that several generations of viewers have come of age with over the past 60 (!!) years. Also, unlike the Sony misfire, this film wisely sets up our title monster as an anti-hero, earning our sympathies by pitting him against two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) with EMP powers, who pose an even greater threat to our continued existence than a giant, radiation-breathing dinosaur. Also, the effects are truly spectacular. Again, unlike the Sony version, you're never lifted right out of the experience thanks to dodgy computer graphics.

Okay, so that's the good. Let's talk about where things fall apart a bit. By definition, Godzilla is a force of nature. He shows up, he wreaks havoc, he leaves. That's his m.o. whether you're talking about movies, cartoon shows, or comic books. He can't really have an "arc," per se, anymore than we'd expect internal conflict for the tornado in Twister. As such, much of our rooting interest in any story of this kind has to come at least partly from our connection to the (relatively) little people milling around in the general vicinity of the monster-on-monster carnage. Thus, if we aren't given living, breathing characters to share stakes with, we don't feel an investment in the larger struggle. You think they're on the right track via Cranston as the elder Brody.

In a way, Cranston's presence here feels a lot like Raymond Burr's appearance in the 1956 Americanized version of the original 1954 Gojira (its title transmogrified to Godzilla, King of the Monsters by the time it crossed the Pacific). Even inserted after the fact, with his character by necessity not really having any direct impact on the action, Burr's mere presence seemed to promise audiences a degree of gravitas. It's sort of the same thing here. However, to the film's detriment, Brody's desperate quest to prove what actually happened at the plant, and the father-son redemption story that goes with it, are ditched entirely once the MUTOs make their big appearance about forty minutes in, leaving the Cranston character behind and Johnston as our ostensible lead.

While I have no problem with Johnson as an actor, and he's fine here, it just seems like a rather sizable misstep on the filmmakers' part not to get more use out of the considerable weightiness Cranston offers. Beyond that, we also have Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, Ford's long-suffering wife, whose role is mainly to look at TV screens with varied looks of concern on her face. Further uppibg the gravitas-factor in the cast are David Straithairn as Admiral Stenz and Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa, both of whose job is primarily to ladle out heaping spoonfuls of backstory and exposition, which is where they started to lose me. After an absolutely crackerjack opening act, the middle section gets bogged down in anticipation of the plot finally getting moving.

A further frustration is Edwards' tendency to cut around the action. More than once, we get the build-up to the long-in-coming Godzilla-on-MUTO action, and then we cut away to said brawl playing out on the television in the background of a separate scene. Once, it's cute. More than that, maddening. By the time we finally get to the IMAX-sized monster mashing we paid for (with my current home in the San Francisco Bay Area taking quite the pasting), we've had little to no time to form any rooting interest in Godzilla himself beyond the fact that he's who we paid our admission to see. As such, we're following characters we don't really care about as they move in and around situations we don't really see, leading up to a somewhat abrupt ending they don't really have involvement in.

So much of the primal appeal of Godzilla (the character) comes from how the concept first emerged as a meditation on and reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than a decade old at the time of the original movie's release. That unavoidable real world context imbued the proceedings with a seriousness that helps it overcome, even today, the cheesy guy-in-rubber-suit schlock factor. I can't speak to the multitudinous sequels, most of which I haven't seen, but certainly that's what makes the original "important" still. Edwards pays lipservice to that lineage via an exchange between Watanabe and Straithairn that invokes Hiroshima, but it feels curiously detached from the story around it, like they don't quite know how to pay it off.

Another thought that occurred to me as I watched was that, for a project that's openly intended to launch a new series, I wonder if there's enough here to lure new audiences back into theaters for round two. I mean, we basically get the blueprint here: Bad monster(s) show up. Good monster shows up. Fighting ensues. City goes down. Bad monster goes down. Good monster recedes into the ocean. Wash, rinse, repeat. I'm not sure how much they can really vary from that, and given the franchise hopes Legendary has pinned to this pic, I'm wondering if there's anywhere to go from here (and yes, I say that fully cognizant of the fact that there are twenty-nine flicks before this one).

For what it's worth, I didn't leave the theater after the 2014 Godzilla desperately needing a cigarette. Also, the more time that passes from my initial screening, the less I focus on the pacing and logic issues, and the more my mind lingers on certain powerful images and set pieces, which certainly speaks to Edwards' accomplishment. Heck, the giant wave that signals Godzilla's landfall in Hawaii is practically worth the ticket price alone, and it's great to see a CGI Godzilla who actually looks and acts like Godzilla, radiation breath and all. Even so, despite the obvious affection and attention to detail that Edwards lavishes on his subject matter, it feels like we're still just short of a truly great Godzilla. Maybe next time. B