Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Review: Spoiler-free, except for one

Let me spoil one moment of Godzilla to let you know what the movie is actually like.
About an hour in, Godzilla finally gets out of the water and roars for the camera. He faces down a winged kaiju at an airport, what's suggested to be an ancient predator of his kind. The military is down; the humans are helpless. Flames swell and it's clear only Godzilla can stop this.

The movie immediately cuts to the hero's living room, where his son watches a news channel showing Godzilla and the winged kaiju throwing each other around for a few seconds. The kid yells, "Mommy, Mommy, dinosaurs!"

The guy sitting behind me snorted. I laughed. The rest of the room was awkwardly quiet, especially as the movie then depicted the monsters going separate ways. We missed the fight, we missed what made them split up, and we immediately go back to humans talking.

I don't feel this is much of a spoiler because it's a trick the movie pulls at least five more times. It's as though they didn't have the budget to make a giant monster movie and so went to every length to avoid it, giving you glimpses of struggle from the corner of the screen, or multiple times, shrunken visions on TV sets. During its climactic battle, the movie cannot wait to cut away from the giants in favor of Navy men trying to get into the city, steal a nuclear warhead, and then escape the city.

Godzilla gets tackled? Cut to the humans.

Godzilla slams a kaiju through a skyscraper? Cut to the humans.

I was rooting for them to die so that we could stop checking in on them.

And we cut to the wrong humans. Prominently featured in trailers and commercials, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are shouldered out of the way for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an ordnance expert and Cranston's character's son. He is not just a cipher, but an uncharismatic one who constantly requires excuses to keep around. He's at one set-piece because of his dad, then another on his way to the airport, and so-on. While the humans tend to suck in Godzilla movies, it's not often you get two great actors who are already in it and then shunted.

So the movie becomes more frustrating than anything. Its new kaiju are interesting, and up to something crazy, and pose different threats to Godzilla. One is winged and nimble, where the other is more of a hulk. There's an excitement to seeing a throwdown, and so the movie did the build-up well enough, if it took far too long to get there. It's no Jurassic Park in its build, but it's adequate. The problem becomes that it's nowhere near Jurassic Park's league when it finally lets us see the creatures. The T-Rex is supposed to show up and dominate the scene, not be interspersed with talking head sequences with mission command, reporters and nurses, all of whom exist to tell you the thing you're not seeing is scary and important. That's when the movie starts getting goofy.

For a movie that was billed as intense, it wobbles between drab and cheesy. At one point Watanabe gives a nuke-happy admiral his father's watch – it stopped the day he died in Hiroshima. Get it? But shortly thereafter, Godzilla saves a school bus. I'm still not sure if he did it on purpose; it was goofy enough that I laughed. The movie is occasionally dumb, but not campy like the Godzilla franchise you expect.

We get multiple shots of casualties lying around like human set design, and also multiple sight-gags. This movie absolutely loves people being unaware something enormous is right next to them, including the hero's wife not hearing an airplane crashing until it explodes behind her, and a specialist team checking a waste dump and missing that a 500-foot monster was eating there. It never reconciles its tone, right to the end, when it flashes a headline that literally dropped my jaw.

I could complain about its ill-fitted soundtrack and the number of Asians it enjoys killing, but why bother? After more than twenty films, and one failed American film to study, it managed to be the Godzilla movie that didn't know it was supposed to be about Godzilla. The great hope is that we get that rumored Pacific Rim/Godzilla crossover, and thus get this beast into Guillermo Del Toro's hands. Somebody else, please take a shot.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Waiting for God(zilla)

We're days away from the worldwide release of Godzilla. If you've read this blog for long then you know I cherish giant monsters. They're splendid metaphors for natural disasters and even more splendid excuses for giant fight scenes. I've been watching kaiju movies since elementary school and even today, at least once a year, will watch Cinemassacre's entire series retrospective on Godzilla. It's probably my favorite thing on Youtube for how unabashedly the narrator, who seemingly hates everything else, loves that series.

How do you hide this guy for an hour of film?
The hype cycle started early for this adaptation, and so we're getting different attempts for media attention now. Director Gareth Edwards explained to early journalist audiences that Godzilla wouldn't show up too much to build anticipation. He likened it to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, who isn't on screen for that long.  

This worried me for a few reasons. Firstly, there are over twenty Godzilla movies. Even if you've missed all the shots of this Godzilla, we all pretty much know what he looks like. You can't surprise us the way Steven Spielberg did with Stan Winston's revolutionary puppets and CGI

And furthermore, as a teen I didn't run out of the cinema babbling about how cool it was that the movie hid the T-Rex for the first hour. The impression was that once the creature showed up, the movie had amazing payoffs for using it. You want your director to pitch how cool his ideas are for Godzilla when he throws off the cloak of shadow, not an emphasis on the cloak. As my friend Randall Nichols put it, Jurassic Park wasn't called "T-Rex." It was a feature of that movie, sure, but it wasn't what was promised on every poster, so they had more leeway. The second and third Jurassic Parks couldn't afford to be as coy.

Somehow, even with the questionable press and negative reviews showing up, I've calmed. Early reviews are trickling in, with critics going back and forth on there being too much of the humans (nooo), the humans being too uninteresting (a Godzilla fan has to swallow that), and the movie being too preoccupied with its titans (that's the God-damned point).
I've had the healthy realization that I don't need this movie to be great. Sure, I want it to be – I'm going to pay to see it. But I've watched the trailers so often that the collected runtime is greater than that of the average movie, and I've enjoyed them outside of a pure hype cycle. I've actually gotten a movie's worth of enjoyment already, which is a strange thing to realize, and if I were more Marxist, this consumerist positive-drip would scare me. Now in my thirties, I'm just grateful for entertainment where I can find it. This takes some of the edge off of fears of another American Godzilla screw-up.

Maybe they'll still enrage me by having the non-Watanabe, non-Cranston humans talk too much.

That lithe classic Godzilla.
By the way: for a laugh, read about Japanese fans fat-shaming our new thicker Godzilla.

By the way 2*: negative reviews and bad reviews are not the same thing.

Time Magazine has an example of a negative review here, taking a pick-axe to the film with some thought. 

Forbes has a bad review I won't bother linking; it has little to say and spends several paragraphs repeating itself. It even has some choice errors, like when some buggy algorithm links a stock quote to an actor's name: 

Which is what you get when you ask stock merchants for reviews of giant monster movies. The conflation of "negative" and "bad" reviews has occurred more as authors become more public about their consumption of reviews. It can be excruciating to read an angry review of your work, and I've been lucky that the few anthologies I've been in have had enthusiastic responses. That'll be fixed, though, when I start publishing these novels I'm working on. If I'm lucky enough to catch on, somebody will hate everything I like. That's the life of an author who makes it.

I'm already a little adjusted to having someone hate everything I like. I mean, I'm a Gigan fan.

 *or, By The Way Raids Again
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