Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: 'Godzilla' is back on the case and that is awesome

Releasing a movie about giant monsters stomping their way through the world’s major cities on the weekend of my birthday? Well gosh, that’s just about the best present a guy could ask for.
                I’m happy to report I won’t be needing a gift receipt as this latest incarnation of “Godzilla,” which was directed by Gareth Edwards off of a script from Max Borenstein, is a quite enjoyable entry into the 60 year-old (!) franchise.
                At the center of the chaos is Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a guy with a tough name and a tougher job: He disposes of bombs for the US Navy. When he was but a small boy with a tough name, his mother (Juliette Binoche) was killed in an meltdown at the Japanese nuclear power plant where both she and Ford’s father, Joe, (Bryan Cranston) worked.
                 Joe becomes obsessed with the idea that it was no accident that killed his wife and that the company that owned the plant is covering something up.
                Eventually, Joe gets busted trying to sneak into the still-quarantined area around the plant to search for clues. This forces now-adult Ford to leave his own wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their little boy behind and go get his father out of jail.
                Of course, Joe immediately goes right back into the quarantine zone – which is mysteriously not very radioactive – dragging Ford along for the ride and this time they both get caught.
                They’re taken to the old plant where they meet a scientist who’s been studying strange phenomena taking place at the plant and beyond for years, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). While there, Joe’s fears are confirmed: The company has been covering something up and whatever that something is, it’s about to wake up.
                From that point we do the usual monster movie stuff. Cities are destroyed, Ford struggles to get home to his wife and kid, the military hopes to nuke their problems away while Dr. Serizawa, who carries around a watch his father gave him which stopped during the Hiroshima blast, pleads for alternatives.
                I’m hesitant to get into much more detail than that because, at least to me, “Godzilla” has a few surprises up its gigantic sleeves and that’s a rare thing to pull off in today’s spoiler-loving world.
                So moving away from the story, the obvious question going in to “Godzilla” was, will it be better than last year’s “Pacific Rim” – a movie that so lovingly paid tribute to Godzilla and his giant beastly friends from yesteryear?
                Well, as good as this take on “Godzilla” is, it doesn’t quite manage to surpass “Pacific Rim.”
                Part of the reason, and part of the problem with “Godzilla,” is there’s just the teeniest, tiniest bit of giant monster fatigue coming so soon the heels of “Pacific Rim.” There’s a decent amount of crossover between the two movies in theme, look and action and so something that may have been a ten last year, maybe it’s down to an eight or nine this time around.
                There’s one scene in particular in “Godzilla” where something, not saying what, takes flight. It’s still awesome, but the exact same thing happened last year in “Pacific Rim” and when I saw it then, I was downright giddy.
                 “Godzilla” also takes time to get going. The movie wisely takes care of some of its origin story in the opening credits, but there’s still a dizzying amount world-building to do, which results in a few too many time and location jumps.
                Things slow down again a bit in the second act, when the script seems to be stalling for time until it can get to its spectacular third act. For example: During one attack, Ford briefly gets a small Asian boy to take care of, but once it’s not really paid off in any meaningful way.
                “Godzilla” also has an unexpectedly quirky sense of humor that required some getting used to. This includes things like toying with the audience by teasing huge battles, but then cutting to a shot of someone watching the action taking place on a TV or paying homage to its B-movie roots by playing fast and loose with logic. There’s a lot of “Now how did no one notice that!?” moments. But once I got on board with what the movie was doing, things picked up.
                Outside of those minor grievances, the movie is a ton a fun.      
Director Gareth Edwards puts together some truly incredible shots, such as a group of paratroopers dropping into San Francisco almost right on top of Godzilla. There’s also an oddly poetic and pretty shot where a battle-worn Godzilla collapses on a street, makes eye contact with an equally battle-worn Ford for a second or two before the big monster is slowly enveloped in dust and smoke.                    
The cast is an embarrassment of riches, but the highlight is Watanabe, who is given the task of standing in for an entire generation of overwhelmed yet steely-eyed and determined Japanese scientists in monster movies.  
He really shines when he’s criticizing the arrogance of humans or speculating in nearly religious tones about the true purpose of Godzilla.
                The movie’s final showdown in San Francisco is just a glorious symphony of destruction and chaos. It’s everything you could want from a monster movie. When Godzilla finally uncorks his radioactive breath, my audience actually applauded. It’s been a little bit since I was in a theater where one scene earned that kind of reaction.
We see more of Godzilla the creature in this movie than the trailers let on, but it works because the visual effects are across the board top notch. His look in more in tune with the classic sort of taller, chunky, stub-nosed Godzilla of the past than the longer, sleeker version we saw in America’s last effort, 1998’s disappointing “Godzilla.”
                Even though I’m still coming down off of a “Pacific Rim” high, I’m exactly the audience for this movie. I ate up almost everything it served and enjoyed the hell out of it.
                But you don’t have to be a Godzilla or even a monster movie fan to enjoy it. This movie expends a ton of energy weaving human stories around the giant monster attacks, not focusing on the attacks themselves.  It’s not until the third act that a giant fight really is given center stage.
                So that gives us a good deal of time to concern ourselves with human drama, some oddball but fun humor, an unanticipated amount of honest-to-god tension, and some smaller action scenes.
                The movie gets a solid B rating from me. The rewatchability may be hindered by the laggy middle portion, but all criticisms aside, the movie is absolutely a worthy successor to the six decades (!) of films that preceded it.     

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