Long Live the King – Godzilla (2014)

Posted: May 15, 2014 by John U. Millar in Godzilla, Kaiju, Movies
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In 1954 Toho Studios unleashed Gojira upon an unsuspecting populace, causing widespread devastation to countless bank accounts. In 1998 Tristar took this intellectual property and placed it in the incapable hands of Roland Emmerich, who stripped the character of every relevant trait and produced the most expensive Jurassic Park rip-off to date. This travesty caused Toho to spring into damage control mode and bring Godzilla out of hiatus early in the far more entertaining Godzilla 2000, producing a superior movie in under twelve months. I am very happy to report that Toho need not perform such emergency surgery in the wake of Legendary’s Gareth Edwards-helmed remake. This is a well-made, faithful and engrossing kaiju film, worthy of a place in that hallowed pantheon. Spoilers abound below the fold. You have been duly warned; please do not ruin this for yourself.

Jaws has a lot to answer for in the realm of the monster flick. The highly successful malfunction that resulted in nail-biting slow-burn tension has taught us that the titular beast cannot appear in whole until at least the second act, and this rule Godzilla duly follows. The result, from my highly disinterested and unbiased perspective, is one of the best reveals in cinematic history: the King of the Monsters towering into view, shaking both scenery and audience with his furious bellow. CGI has been very good to the Big G, and he both looks better than ever and is capable of feats once only conceivable with the strategic and often unsuccessful use of wire-work and stop motion animation. This appears to be a real, organic creature that breathes, feels and truly lives. Updating the famous roar is a daunting task, as no living creature sounds like an abused double-bass, and yet they have achieved a synthesis of the natural and the nostalgic. This is not to say that realism has entirely taken over. To say the least, ambient radiation as a food source is not particularly convincing. This fantastic undertone is not a true criticism, as only through this can the most tragic amputation from Emmerich’s folly be included: the mighty atomic ray. Given the grounded tone of the movie, I was half-expecting that this would again be excised. And then through the thick dust that was once San Francisco, a white-blue glow began to emanate from the spines on Godzilla’s tail, travelling the length of his dorsal plates and culminating in a beautiful beam of terrible destruction. There ought to be no shame in a grown man admitting to squealing when exposed to a colossal nuclear reptile and his throat-mounted doom cannon.

It is perfectly acceptable practice to find an atrocious example of some medium and do exactly the opposite. When their monster lacks any special powers and can be killed by conventional weapons, yours should be as powerful and as invincible as is possible. When their characters behave as though they just landed here and spend their screen-time uselessly jabbering, your human leads ought to be relatable and three-dimensional, and portrayed by actors equal to the task. When their creature attacks New York, yours stays firmly in the Pacific Ocean, going no further west than Nevada. The result of this conscious contrarianism is a very solid film that, while it shatters no boundaries, soars high above the lowest common denominator. The entire cast does a stellar job. Despite a minor misstep in the remade Total Recall, Bryan Cranstonproves again that he is much more than merely the most beleaguered  faither in sitcom history. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, while strongly resembling a muscle-bound Elijah Wood, demonstrates that he is a young talent to watch, easily bearing the whole weight of a major blockbuster after the shocking but completely appropriate first act death of Cranston. Finally, Ken Watanabe pays great homage to his characters lineage – he is named for Akihiko Hirata’s Dr. Serizawa, vanquisher of the original Godzilla. Seasoned kaiju veterans will know that monsters often play second fiddle to the human protagonists, and in this case the ratio is slightly skewed in the favour of homo sapiens, but a full hour of gigantic monsters throwing down would become inevitably tedious. In this case a strong story easily carries the film and grips the entire audience, even those of us awaiting the arrival of Godzilla with all the patience and restraint of an unmedicated four year-old. Forced to be critical, it must be admitted that the movie contains more than a few clichés. A workaholic father who can’t find time for his son. A soldier with a young family forced back into service before his time. The Statue of Liberty destroyed in a disaster film, though in a dramatic twist it is the scale model in Las Vegas that takes the hit. As stated, this is not a perfect movie, but its flaws pale into insignificance in the face of its triumphs.

When Edwards was quoted as saying that this Godzilla would rely more heavily upon an important issue other than nuclear weapons, I felt a sharp stab of concern. The series has been known for its environmental and pacifistic lessons, often delivered with all the subtlety of a crumbling landmark. Happily this was a fear without foundation and the film contains nothing of the ubiquitous condescension of the likes of The Day After Tomorrow. Even fellow Legendary kaiju flick Pacific Rim found room for a leaden environmental message. There are certainly shades of an anti-nuclear warning, as it is precisely our harnessing of the power of the atom for energy and war that allows the return of the film’s enormous insectoid antagonists, the M.U.T.O.s. In a single instance Serizawa pleads with the military not to resort to the nuclear option, but his objection is subtle, measured and rather justified coming from a man who carries the stopped watch that his father bore through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The ideal balance is struck and the audience is treated as a thinking entity, both reasonable and adult. This is even illustrated in the use of location labels during scene changes. While obscure locations like Lone Pine, California are presented with their state designations, we are expected to know that Tokyo is in Japan.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time, though Godzilla gets pretty close. Long-time obsessives will find a movie that can proudly stand with the best of the franchise, feeling simultaneously comfortable and daring. Incidentally, keep your eyes peeled for a butterfly tank bearing the prominent name-tag ‘Mothra’. Newcomers will be treated to a crash course in Godzilla’s mechanics and history, as well as a stunning practical demonstration of how exactly this monarchic monster is supposed to be. This is no simplified Star Trek reboot, but a quality entry in the most enduring franchise in cinema history. Even allowing for my rampant fanboyism, it stands as the best film I have seen this year. I am delighted to report that sixty years on, Godzilla’s throne is assuredly secure.

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  1. […] Originally posted at Podzilla! The King of the Podcasts blog on 15 May 2014. […]

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