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Godzilla (2014)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. Olsen & Johnson Meet Godzilla"
4 stars

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself watching the original Japanese version of the 1954 classic "Godzilla"--the uncut edition without any of the scenes shot later with Raymond Burr that were added in for its American iteration--and was once again struck by just how dark and serious-minded of a film it was. When people think of the Godzilla films as a whole, they generally think of the gaudy goofiness of the subsequent films in the series that found the giant lizard alternately wreaking havoc on Japan or defending it from an array of bizarre creatures (including the likes of MechaGodzilla, the Smog Monster and King Kong) with the aid of his ponderous size and weight, his atomic breath and an array of highly dubious special effects. However, that original film was both a monster movie and a highly effective metaphor for the potential damages that unchecked scientific advances, especially in the field of nuclear research, could inflict upon nature from a country still reeling from the literal and metaphorical fallout of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier. Although the basic premise may sound silly, the film approaches it in a serious manner that is the furthest thing from camp and as a result, it still maintains a real sense of dramatic power more than 60 years after its debut in a way that very few films of its type have ever come close to achieving.

Now, ten years after his last screen appearance in "Godzilla: Final Wars," the beast is back in "Godzilla," a big-budget American remake presumably designed to relaunch the franchise for a brand-new audience. In theory, this would seem to be a no-brainer but anyone attempting to do such a thing would at some point have to deal with two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The first is the still-lingering stench of "Godzilla," the hugely expensive 1998 American remake from Roland Emmerich, his follow-up to the international blockbuster "Independence Day," that was a monumental botch that suffered from an inconsistent tone that veered between the serious and silly, an uninspired creature design and an avalanche of bigger-is-better advance hype that was so overblown that most potential viewers were sick of the entire thing long before it actually arrived in theaters. (Although not the colossal financial flop that it is now remembered as being, it made far less than expected and plans for sequels were quickly scrapped, along with co-star Maria Pitillo's career.) The second is that the cinematic monster mash already received such a thorough updating a few years ago via "Cloverfield," a film that was a Godzilla movie in all but name, and again last year with Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" that another film of its sort ran the risk of coming across as little more than an afterthought.

If this new "Godzilla" does anything right--and it does a lot of things right--it is the way that it somehow manages to restore a certain degree of surprise and mystery to the franchise after all this time. Even if they have never seen a Godzilla film before, most audiences will have enough awareness of what such a thing normally entails to walk into the theatre with a certain set of preconceived notions of what they can expect to see. This time around, instead of simply giving audiences a string of barely connected scenes of wanton destruction virtually interchangeable from any other disaster spectacle, as was the case with the Emmerich version, this "Godzilla" plays with those conventions in ways that manage to pay homage to the history of the series while at the same time reinventing them in new and interesting ways. The resulting film is a startlingly effective and refreshingly camp-free spectacle that is arguably the best and most consistent Godzilla film since the first one and while it is way too early to proclaim it to be the best of this summer's would-be blockbusters, its surprisingly high level of quality (combined with the relatively unpromising nature of its competition) ensures it a place of prominence when that conversation eventually comes up.

The film kicks off with a 1999-set prologue in which a couple of scientists, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), arrive at a remote island in the Philippines where a cave has been accidentally unearthed containing a spectacular find--the remains of an enormous and mysterious creature with what appears to be two egg sacs attached, one already burst and one intact that is quickly sent off to a secret facility near Las Vegas for further study. Meanwhile, in Japan, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), an American nuclear plant supervisor living there with his wife/co-worker Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and young son Ford, is trying to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious tremors that appear to be getting closer and closer but without the fixed center of a conventional earthquake. Without giving things away, things go south very quickly and the plant and many of its workers are killed in the ensuing destruction.

Fifteen years later, the now-grown Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a soldier who has just returned from active duty to his own wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and child in San Francisco, has barely settled in when he gets word that his father, who has been trying to get to the bottom of what really happened at the nuclear plant and why it has been covered up, has been arrested once again for trespassing in restricted areas. After bailing him out, Joe convinces Ford to accompany him to their former home, located in an area under quarantine since the incident, to retrieve some computer discs that will help him prove his theories. However, when they arrive, they realize that there is no contamination but before they can get out, they are grabbed by government forces and brought to the nuclear plant. There, they are informed by Serizawa and Graham that there is somethingthere that is sucking up tremendous amounts of energy and appears ready to break loose.

You may think that you can pretty much figure out everything that is going to happen from this point on--I know that I certainly did--but it is at this point that "Godzilla" starts to spring a number of surprises that I wouldn't dream of hinting at. The screenplay by Max Borenstein is pretty impressive in the way that it messes with viewer expectations while still remaining true to the genre as a whole. At first, the adrenaline junkies in the audience may be miffed due to the decision to take a slow burn approach to the material rather than immediately launching into the chaos but it is a take that makes for a far more interesting experience in the long run because of the way that it invests the material with a real sense of mystery and intrigue that it might not have had otherwise. This sense of the unexpected continues throughout the remainder of the film in the way that it adds enough twists to the familiar to keep things interesting, including at least one major one that aided in no small part by the fact that this is that rare summer blockbuster whose secrets have not all been revealed in advance by the coming attractions previews.

"Godzilla" was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose only previous feature film was a fairly nifty and extremely low-budget genre item from a couple of years ago called, appropriately enough, "Monsters." When his hiring was announced, it raised no small amount of eyebrows amongst those who questioned whether he could handle working on a project of this size and scope, especially in the wake of the utter hash that former indie filmmaker Marc Webb has made of the recent Spider-Man films, but he turns out to have been an inspired choice based on his work here. Instead of just handing the action beats over completely to the CGI technicians so that they can overwhelm viewers with razzle-dazzle, he has imposed a couple of nifty directorial flourishes to make them stand out from other films of its type. Instead of presenting the carnage in ridiculously extended detail, he instead utilizes an intriguing off-kilter style that deploys unusual camera angles and a complex sound design to better help convey the chaos and confusion attendant with a giant prehistoric creature stomping through major metropolitan areas. Speaking of Godzilla, he is given an interesting depiction as well--instead of the slick and soulless CGI creation of the Emmerich film, the visual effects artists have figured out a way to give the beast a slightly jerky and off-beat form of movement that serves as a winking reminder of the days when he was played by a portly guy in an ill-fitting suit and not by a series of 1's and 0's.

The only place where this "Godzilla" falters comes in regards to its human cast. No doubt inspired by the decision to hire the likes of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman for the first "Superman" film as a way of signaling to the world that this was a serious movie and not just kiddie matinee fodder, the producers have hired a top-notch cast virtually across the board--even the stern military leader is played by the ever-stalwart David Strathairn--so that they can lend an additional sense of gravitas to the proceedings with their mere presence. They do that but the film fails to recompense them by giving them characters of any complexity to play for the most part. This is especially evident in regards to the women--having had the taste and foresight to hire three of the most exciting actresses working these days in Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche, the filmmakers cannot come up with a single good scene for any of them. On the other end of the gender scale, Bryan Cranston manages to bring a real sense of pathos to his part but sadly disappears from view once he has fulfilled his dramatic purpose while Ken Watanabe knows exactly what he is supposed to do--nod sagely at fantastic events and invoke the holy name of Godzilla for the first time--and has some fun with the material. However, as the closest thing that the story has to a lead (at least of the non-atomic variety), Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whom you have already forgotten from his appearances in the "Kick-Ass" movies, is a monumental load who wanders through the proceedings looking like an actor who has wandered onto the wrong movie set and is afraid to ask anyone where he is supposed to bel

Of course, criticizing a Godzilla movie for its lack of human characterization is about as logical as going to the Indy 500 and griping about the noise and how everyone is exceeding the speed limit. Once you get beyond that--and to be fair, the performances are pretty much on par with most blockbusters of late--"Godzilla" is a strong, muscular entertainment that is far better than it has any right to be. It takes a familiar property, messes around with in fascinating ways and then assumes that audiences will be willing to follow it into these uncharted territories. Whether they are willing to do that is the big question mark--the early reviews have suggested a deep split between those who love and those who hate what it does--but the fact that it takes these risks at all is a bit of a relief. If all blockbusters of this sort were only a fraction as interesting and/or inventive as this one, the summer movie season would once again something to anticipate instead of dread.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24460&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/15/14 12:02:37
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User Comments

5/10/19 PUMP UP THE JAM Too Boring, Dark, Out of focus, A failed Monsters Film. 2 stars
7/21/17 Chaz Walter A worthy addition to the series. I loved it, saw in twice in theaters. 5 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell godzilla should have gotten more screen time but not bad alot better the godawful 1998 vers 4 stars
12/25/14 KingNeutron Overall direction was pretty bad, but I did like monsters & the ending 3 stars
11/24/14 DeNitra it was ok 3 stars
11/18/14 MVC underrated! though a bit of a cloverfield rip-off 4 stars
11/15/14 eddie lydecker Roland Emerichs 1998 version was a much better movie. 1 stars
10/23/14 sweetgrrl1972 Maybe the next Godzilla movie will actually have Godzilla in it.. 1 stars
10/01/14 mr.mike First third good, then Big D is right on the money. 3 stars
8/31/14 Langano Refreshing take on the franchise, 4 stars
8/23/14 thejmw bigd is right. and bob dog too. only 20 min in 2 stars
6/03/14 The Big D Long, tedious, and boring--cinematographer needed to turn up the brightness! 1 stars
5/23/14 Koitus Disappointed in Godzilla's screen time... 2 stars
5/21/14 Toni Peluso Only complaint MORE Godzilla! 4 stars
5/18/14 Darkstar Loved it! Finally Godzilla done right. 5 stars
5/17/14 Bob Dog Plodding instead of stomping. 1 stars
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  16-May-2014 (PG-13)
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