A ROARING BEAST?
The first few weeks of this column have been very literary minded. So this week, we are going to change it up and go to the movies. My fellow columnist here, C. Raymond Pechonick, is going to attack kaiju with a vengeance, but I wanted to put down some thoughts on, for me, one of the more anticipated movies of 2014, the new GODZILLA. This was originally meant to run on another site when the movie premiered, but ended up sitting in my box for the past few months. Now that the film is out on DVD, it seems a good time to revisit.
The most enduring gift I received for my high school graduation was a two foot tall Godzilla. Not very articulate, the arms, the legs, the tail, they move. But that’s it. I have a feeling my parents bought it in the Toy District downtown, not in Little Tokyo. It’s not Toho approved merchandize, that’s for sure. But it’s still around some 25 years later, staring at me off the shelf. Reminding me of my kaiju youth. Of Channel 5 Labor Day and Memorial Day marathons of Godzilla films interspersed with Jonny Sokko and Gamera.
So it’s appropriate somehow that I saw the new GODZILLA over the Memorial Day weekend. In an age when monster movie marathons are largely self-generated, and too that I was reminded of a toy monster from my youth, because I came into this new GODZILLA holding on to those memories, that youthful exuberance. Tempered by a new appreciation of the original 1954 GOJIRA which has become available over the past few years in editions from both Toho and Criterion, I was hoping for a giant monster masterpiece. Sadly, be it the script of Max Borenstein, or the direction by Gareth Edwards, the movie ultimately failed to engage. The main issue was the schizophrenic nature of the film, as it veered from monster sequences to character pieces with little sinew to bind them together. I was left wanting either a) more Godzilla, or b) a lot less Godzilla. It is a delicate balance; the original GOJIRA plays hard to get with its monster appearances while neatly developing the Serizawa/Ogata/Emiko triangle and involving the audience in the angst Serizawa overwhelming him through own perceived destructive nature. The dramatic sequences are akin to those of director Ishiro Honda’s good friend Akira Kurosawa. And when Godzilla strikes, he strikes hard and spellbindingly. Honda neatly walks that line of man and monster. In 2014 the character development is placed primarily on Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is finely developed, and then killed off almost immediately. If you had seen the trailer, you had seen 80% of his performance in the film. And none of the main character, Ford Brody, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), made it to the trailer at all. One of the better pieces of bait and switch, in this age of showing so much of the film in a trailer. Here we had the exact opposite. And really, Ford is only there to look vaguely handsome and do vaguely heroic things. There is no depth to the characterization. Or even any depth to his actions. The Serizawa of the original is burdened with real meaning to his actions. Here, Ford is rather the dues ex machine, the right man at the right moment, always appearing on the scene just when needed. The Serizawa of this film (a largely wasted Ken Watanabe) doesn’t fare any better.
Worse, the film plays coy with its namesake monster. In the original GOJIRA, Honda builds up tension with his glimpses of Godzilla only to overwhelm the viewer with the destruction of Tokyo sequence of that film. Edwards attempts to follow this pattern, tantalizing with jarring half-seen attacks, glimpses of Godzilla, but the final destruction of San Francisco here is bald and banal. There is more tension in most episodes of ULTRAMAN, and, more damning, the cross-cutting to the emoting Ford, attempting to parallel monster and man, is much more effective there. Where that comes naturally from the development in just a half hour show, here at the end of a two hour film seems tacked on and forced. It’s painful to watch this Godzilla “bond” with Ford.
Which is not to say the film didn’t have its moments. Alexandre Desplat’s music works very well, better than a lot of the visual effects. There is a particularly amazing scene of just waving Japanese paper lanterns, the lilt of the music … and then Godzilla. It’s not Akira Ifkube’s masterful march, but it is effective, and affecting. It improves several sequences in the film. The revamped Godzilla creature design is great, definitely a lot better than most of the giant monsters we have seen lately. I do miss the kaiju man in a suit effects, but this grew on me. Ultimately however, I found myself wanting so much more from this GODZILLA than I received.