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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Fine but where's the fun?!


Gareth Edwards' feature directorial debut Monsters was a flawed but undoubtedly impressive monster movie that played like an indie film but looked like a huge Hollywood blockbuster. Most astoundingly, not only was it made on a shoe-string budget, its fantastic monster effects were created on his home computer. With that kind of calling card to his name, it's hardly surprising that Hollywood came a-knocking with an opportunity for Edwards to direct the latest update of the MacDaddy of all monster movies: Godzilla. The wildly increased budget and all-star cast, however, has proven to be both a boon and a bane to this incredibly talented young director.

The good stuff first - and there's a lot of it. Edwards' keen directorial vision and attention to detail is very much on full display here as Godzilla is simply an incredible film to look at. The monster designs are beautifully thought out and are neither generic, nor overly complicated and Edwards captures the sheer scale of these titans perfectly, as they dwarf everything around them. Plus, Edwards and his undoubtedly huge special effects team also give these creatures a sense of physicality and weight that is often sorely lacking in CG-heavy effects films. The film also simply looks beautiful as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers) doesn't even let the constant night-setting distract from some real visual razzle-dazzle. It even makes some impressively layered use of its 3D effects on occasion!

Unfortunately, while Godzilla is a technical marvel and is absolutely worth seeing on that level alone - as a piece of narrative cinema, though, it's ultimately a hugely unsatisfying disappointment. The story itself is obviously very straight forward with plenty of scientific - and quasi-scientific - jargon thrown in for fun as it really is basically about Godzilla fighting a bunch of other, more malevolent beasts. It does nod often to the atomic-age origins of Godzilla and it does vaguely gesture towards the idea of human arrogance vs. nature but it is, at heart, a movie about monsters beating up other monsters - often to admittedly very enjoyable effect.

It would, of course, be nice if the film did more than gesture towards the allegorical aspects of the Godzilla mythology but there's nothing implicitly wrong with it being little more than a fun b-movie. The problem though is that the film entirely forgets that it is a b-movie as it has an oppressively serious tone running through it that feels utterly unearned. It also entirely wastes an a-list cast who are stuck with paper-thin characterization and the sense that even though the film keeps returning to them, it doesn't really want to be there. Bryan Cranston is largely an exception to this as his small but crucial role is obviously well acted and is also the only memorable role here - which makes the crappy material that the likes of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe have to content with, look all the more embarrassing. Olsen and Taylor-Johnson are especially under-served as our POV human characters. The film's constant switching between different characters and barely there plotlines also gives the whole thing a severely disjointed and uncohesive feel.

Again, it's biggest problem though, is its utter lack of fun. There's an omnipresent darkness to the film that doesn't fit its b-movie roots at all and only serves as a constant reminder to just how under-developed the drama actually is. It also desperately needed a sense of humour as screenwriters, Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, have turned in a script that is entirely lacking in any wit, jokes or a general sense of its own ridiculousness. Many have compared the tone to Nolan's Batman trilogy and the comparison is sadly as apt as it is obvious but a) that tone actually fit the Dark Knight trilogy and b) even at its grimmest, Nolan's Batman movies still had a sense of humour. And, yes, two hours is far too long for a b-movie with this little plot.  

For all its flaw though, this latest reboot of Godzilla is obviously thousands of times better than the train-wreck that was the 1998 version and it certainly delivers on the monsters themselves. It also certainly doesn't take away from just how talented a filmmaker Gareth Edwards clearly is - I just hope he brings back a bit more humanity to whatever he does next.

I also should point out that though it comes nowhere near to the greatness of the true king of all monster movies, Jurassic Park, Godzilla (2014) also suffers greatly in comparison to last year's Pacific Rim. Godzilla may boast infinitely better acting and has rather less embarrassingly naff moments but, in terms of sheer enjoyment, it simply doesn't come even remotely close to the dementedly stupid fun of Del Torro's largely underrated fightin' monsters movie.


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