As a kid, I spent a lot of time at the movies. Heck, as an adult, I spend a lot of time at the movies. But I digress. Because of these hours spent in front of a flickering screen, I have fond memories of many silver screen icons. James Bond is a favorite and because I grew up during the Roger Moore era, he is MY James Bond, although I agree Sean Connery is the best. I also love a good scary film, good being the keyword. When a horror film takes obscene pleasure in sharing every gory detail, the filmmakers are robbing the viewer of a necessary element to make these films truly scary. Leave something for the viewer to interpret and their imagination will come up with something far better than the director can. I grew up watching films like “Psycho”, “The Haunting” and the original “Halloween”, so these films will always be better. I also grew up with Ray Harryhausen films, so when a new version of one of these films is made for the sole reason to use computer-generated effects in place of his meticulously crafted work, it leaves me cold. And I watched a lot of cheesy monster films. “Godzilla” films are a favorite, the cheesier the better. And they got pretty bad before the series ended.
I am also an outspoken critic of all of the unnecessary remakes Hollywood perpetuates on us. Why remake a classic? You aren’t going to improve on the original. It is a CLASSIC for a reason. There is no way anyone will make Hitchcock’s “Psycho” better, yet they try, and fail. Buster Keaton’s “Seven Chances”? Try. Fail. Why open yourself up to unfavorable criticism? If you absolutely have to tell the story, make some minor changes and rename it. This is how the majority of films are made anyway.
The “Godzilla” films are not classics because of their quality. They are classics because millions of kids revel in their cheesiness. Then, when they grow up, they have fond memories of the experience. Much like my fond memories of watching Roger Moore as James Bond. So, the “Godzilla” movies seem more ripe for a remake; better special effects and other filmmaking tools can only improve it. Right? But even here, you run the risk of alienating all of the grown men who reveled in the cheesiosity of these films as a kid. If your remake is too good, you will upset the people who still expect to see Godzilla portrayed by a guy stomping around in a rubber suit.
Even though I love the originals, I am ready for a good remake. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 edition, featuring Matthew Broderick, held some promise. But it failed.
Last year, Guillermo del Toro made “Pacific Rim” combining many elements of the monster films with elements of the Giant Robot genre. It was AWESOME, but it didn’t do great business, giving Warner Bros. some pause. The new “Godzilla” was already in the works, scheduled for release this summer.
They didn’t need to worry. “Godzilla (2014)” had one of the largest opening weekends of the year, surpassing “Spider Man 2” and “Captain America 2”.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, the new “Godzilla” combines great special effects with better-than-average human performances and an involving story to become what will be one of the better films of the summer.
Edwards earned attention by creating an extremely low-budget monster film called, well, “Monsters” in 2010. The acclaim this film earned brought him to the attention of the producers of ‘Godzilla”. Naturally, they decided to let a guy whose previous film cost $800,000 direct a film that probably cost between $150 and $200 million. Makes sense, right? No wonder Hollywood studios are always in such dire straits. But in this case, it does work. Edwards brings a fine eye to the human characters and their dialogue, giving it a more realistic bent. There are still far too many instances of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor Johnson staring pensively into the distance. Or of Elisabeth Olsen running from the fighting monsters only to reach safety in a BART station just as they roll over the street level buildings. And there are still moments of dialogue guaranteed to make people laugh – at one point, Watanabe watches Godzilla and other monsters fight. An army official asks him what they should do. “Let them fight” is his reply. Yes, they will destroy most of downtown San Francisco, but let them fight anyway. But based on the originals and the Emmerich remake, both of these could have been so much worse.
The best part of the film is the gojira. Edwards spends a lot of screen time before we actually see any monsters, helping to build the anticipation and tension. We see evidence of them, of their destruction, but it is a while before we see one of the MUTOs, large radioactively mutated organisms. And it is even longer before we see Godzilla. This is how all of the best monster films build anticipation and make the creature even more scary. When we don’t see the creature in full, only get hints of them, our mind begins to fill in the blanks and make the creature even scarier. Love it or like it, the recent “Cloverfield” did this, and did it well, revealing the monster-in any true detail very late in the film. For a good 80 minutes, we only see the destruction the beast causes in New York as the human characters flee from it. In “Godzilla”, the beast isn’t seen in full for a while, which also allows us more time to figure out, along with the humans, what he is trying to accomplish.
Also, because we first see the MUTOs, we spend time figuring out what they are up to before we even see Godzilla. Edwards is doing two things here, building our anticipation and giving a little nod to the many “Godzilla” sequels, “Godzilla vs. Mothra” and the like. This isn’t just about Godzilla, it is about Godzilla battling other huge, radioactive beasts.
And when he does show up, and we see him in his full glory, it is pretty awesome. The first roar? Scary. Both are reminiscent of the first appearance of the T-Rex in “Jurassic Park”. But Godzilla is bigger, a lot bigger, and much scarier.
I don’t think any director intentionally sets out to create a film with less interesting human performances, but because of all of the stuff going on, it is extremely difficult to get realistic performances out of the humans. They seem too much like crackpots and crackpots don’t seem realistic.
The film opens with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”, “Inception”) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”, “Happy-Go-Lucky”) investigating a mining accident in the Philippines. Much of the time, Watanabe stares into space, thinking about what terrible thing could have caused this destruction while Hawkins chatters on about the similarities between this and that. Then, a few years later, in Japan, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), head to the nuclear plant he runs and she provides maintenance for. They have been receiving reports of tremors and Cranston (in a spoof-worthy toupee) begins to yell at his subordinates about shutting it down. An accident leads them to evacuate. Flash forward fourteen years and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Kick-Ass”) has returned home to Elle (Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, the upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) and their son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Ford quickly receives a call and learns his father has been arrested for trespassing on the old nuclear plant site in Japan. Ford travels to Japan and bails his father out before helping him travel back to the quarantined city in which they lived. Before you can say MUTO, Ford is thrust into the hunt for the nuclear enhanced beasts and ends up in San Francisco just as Godzilla and the MUTOs battle it out.
The acting in “Godzilla (2014)” is better than you might expect. Cranston, in particular, manages to wrench a lot of emotion out of his character and we really feel like we get to know him and what motivates him to uncover the truth. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, taking a page from the ‘Summer Blockbuster Hero Handbook’, keeps thrusting his character back into the action, realizing Ford can help in this fight. He doesn’t have a lot to say, again, pulled from the hero handbook and performances of people like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenneger, but he is always willing to join the fight.
The other actors are less successful, because they have less to do.
And a film like “Godzilla (2014)” willo never be able to completely escape it’s origins. This means that the dialogue will occasionally be overwrought and maybe even laughable. Thankfully, Edwards and his screenwriter Max Borenstein (the upcoming “Seventh Son”, which I thought has already been released) manage to avoid a lot of this. But if it were completely gone, would the film be as good? A certain number of ticket-buyers expect this type of thing. When one of the original “Godzilla” films you grew up with has Godzilla looking at the camera and sighing, you expect a certain amount of cheesiness in any update. At one point, someone asks Watanabe’s character what they should do, because three nuclear enhanced giant beasts are about to fight in downtown San Francisco, causing even more wreckage and havoc. His reply? “Let them fight….” Then, he almost seems to settle in for the show.
And you, dear reader, should also settle in for the show.