GODZILLA!!! Quick! RUN! Go see it today!!! Oh, and see it in Imax. And don’t be even one second late. Seriously: The opening seconds left the Imax audience in a giggle fit.
On first look, several aspects of the film may seem awkward – poorly executed, even. Stiff acting and sparse dialogue seem to define most of the film. Out of context, it’s odd. This is made worse by Bryan Cranston’s absolutely over the top performance as an unhinged scientist and family man who’s lost everything . His performance is out of place in the film, though it’s the fault of pedestrian camerawork and staging. Distorted lenses, exaggerated colors, garbled sound – these things could misdirect a suggestion that he’s truly unstable, or at least convey how everyone perceives him. Amplify that paranoia. Instead, the rest of the cast pose reservedly and glance blankly – deer In headlights. Ken Watanabe has maybe 5 lines in the whole movie, David Strathairn gives his most understated performance to date, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson rolls his eyes, or run, jumps, or dives heroically. Actually, a lot of people run. Everyone runs. A lot.
Don’t judge just yet. There’s a larger reason this works, despite the film’s sometimes well camouflaged, formulaic underpinnings. Think back to the original film. Aside from Japanese cultural norms, the scientists in Godzilla (1954) would stand facing forward and speak in monotone, calmly expositing facts and details. Frightened crowds would grimace and flee. And, 1950’s public understanding of science, and particularly of nuclear fission, was near non-existant. As a consequence, Cranston’s moronic nuclear power plant PHD question, “are we at full function?” suddenly seems clever. It’s an homage. Ken Watanabe seems the wise philosopher. And, Taylor-Johnson is shutting up and getting out of the way, so we can feast our eyes on glorious, wonton kaiju destruction. (Did I just? Wonton. Oh, yes I did.)
Ultimately, that effort to refry everything that made the original so umami B-movie delicious subverts Cranston’s lone-wolf protagonist in the first act of this film. Both are great, but not together. Raymond Burr’s role as observer spliced into the original Japanese hit proved more successful by not contrasting with the Japanese production, or interfering as the action unfolds. Cranston as pseudo-science spouting lab-tech, however, fits right in – right down to the cheesy computer printout graph which, when duplicated in the 15-years-later second act, tells the audience exactly what’s about to happen. In the second and third acts here, Taylor-Johnson picks up the mantle and weaves us through the various populations and storylines, until ultimately getting out of our way as we finally get to the center of all that gooey kaiju goodness. Also, watch for many nods to other films, including the kids on a bus on a bridge scene (Dark Knight Rises), the flaming vehicle (horse, car, motorcycle) coming from the darkness scene, the beasty contained by high-tension wires (Jurassic Park), and the lingering shot of the dense fog when suddenly a scary monster jumps out of it scene (The Mist, or any period thriller set in London at night). Finally, looking more closely at those formulaic underpinnings, a familiar theme comes into sharp focus: it parallels the original Godzilla from 1954.
More than a character, or even a franchise, Godzilla’s a worldwide phenomenon. Warner Brothers knows this, as demonstrated by the extra attention paid to marketing artwork, such as the diverse variety of poster art available. Each poster acknowledges a theme unique from the others, but all relevant to Godzilla mythos. The first, the Japanese flag contrasted against Godzilla (exclusive to IMAX); the second, Mondo’s art-deco radiation and smoke forming Godzilla; the third, epic devastation left in Godzilla’s wake; and the forth, a gonzo industro/Godzilla fusion thing, because, Godzilla. There are many more.
Subtle nods to the franchise are littered throughout. In particular, take note of names and symbols on signs and labels, especially the fish tank in Joe Ford’s old house when they break into the quarantine zone. Respect for canon is unlikely to offend longtime fans. Contemporary satire adds more fun, for the more worldly viewer. Some may recognize the film’s lampooning Japanese fast-food sushi restaurants (aka: Sushi-go-rounds, or sushi trains in Australia.) Also, think of stomping cockroaches.
Godzilla‘s soundtrack similarly reflects its retro construction. Much like thrillers and disaster films from the 50’s and 60’s, and early Spielberg fantasies, fluttering flutes, quivering violins, and plaintive choral wailing, along with full symphonic works resembling Gershwin or Sousa enhance emotional punch. Some musical elements are lifted wholesale from that era, such as the haunting coral music during the film’s High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump scene, repurposing the 1968 film
2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Requiem,” composed by GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti. Godzilla’s original score fills much of the aural space. Composed by the currently very hot Alexandre Desplat, a full symphony with double the usual strings and horns blast the beast’s personal theme song. Unlike the distractingly bad music from the otherwise very good The Amazing Spider-man 2, music and effects in this film are consistently exceptional.
Technically, the film is near flawless. The CGI monsters are as good as anything on screen these days. 3D continues it’s seemingly daily improvements, and sweeping cityscapes and even close quarters meetings have tremendous depth and scale. You may find yourself leaning to see around the person in front of you, only to realize you’re in the front row, and those people are soldiers on screen. The visuals here become significantly more sophisticated, allowing viewers to feel as if they’re embedded with the troops. They take this technique one step further, incorporating another modern norm, the first person shooter point of view. We’re treated to phenomenal immersion during the HALO jumpers’ descent through clouds, down into the city, and finally up close and personal with Godzilla, from the claustrophobic view behind a jumper’s mask.
An excellent example of the film’s many, superbly composed sequences,the HALO jump looks almost painterly. Blue and red always contrast well, made even more effective by use of mostly darker hues with sparse bright highlights. Light blue sky peeks through the clouds, complimenting the bright red dots from the flares. The red smoke trails at sharp angles convey dynamism, enhanced further by the silhouetted figures’ outstretched arms. The unnatural stillness of that scene unsettles, particularly as the jumper imagery evokes our innate sense of dynamic objects, such as shooting stars or downhill skiers, while dark clouds always portend a nearing storm.
Ultimately, fans of the franchise want to see Godzilla, especially stomping things, and want to feel that anthropomorphic personality emanating. When it finally happens, Godzilla brings the heart, and the hurt. The MUTOs chomp down on ICBMs, blazing a path of destruction across the globe, while even without a rubber suit, Godzilla’s body mechanics seem jauntily human, with a determination that’s almost maternal. The final showdown nearly parodies a Mortal Kombat ‘Fatality’ maneuver, delivering everything Roland Emmerich’s 1998 critical reject missed.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, noted for his accomplished indie sci-fi hit Monsters (2010), Godzilla clocks in at a 2 hours, 4 minutes – the upper limit for maximum enjoyment with this sort of film. Nominations for technical and sound achievements should be expected come awards season.
It’s been 16 years since the last North American Godzilla tentpole. There can be no doubt that with pent up demand for a gone too long property, returning with all the style and flair expected, this will be the 60th year anniversary present fans have been waiting for.
Materials copyright 2014, Warner Bros.