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Working at a nuclear power plant has several built-in hazards. That’s a given. You’ve got your coolant tanks, your plutonium rods, those baggy zip-up jumpsuits that are simply not good for flattering the figure, the underground tremors that awaken sleeping massive unidentified terrestrial organisms, the control panels . . . wait, what? Massive unidentified terrestrial organisms you say? Yes. See, back in the 1950s, an undersea explosion triggered the appearance of a gigantic prehistoric creature and a few of his pals, or rather enemies. And since then, governments have been keeping their identities a secret, which has got to be the greatest cover up since the so-called “moon landing.” That was a hoax, right? Moving on.
Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an American working as a supervisor at the Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan. His wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) is a technician there as well and they have a big problem. That tremor we mentioned? Well, it might have cracked the reactor, so obviously, people have got to go down there and check it out. It’s up to Sandra, so off she goes with her team and well, you can guess what happens. They seal the reactor, come straight back and it’s hugs and kisses for everyone. Actually they all die in a horrible gaseous plume of irradiated muck just before the plant collapses into a pile of smoldering rubble. Joe lives though.
Once again, governments try to hide the truth. That tremor was an earthquake and it caused a massive nuclear accident, they say. They close up the neighborhood, send everyone packing and tell the folks to move on with their lives. Everyone does, except Joe. He spends the next fifteen years trying to get back into the quarantined area and find out just what the heck went wrong. He develops a bit of a reputation. They call him crazy, a conspiracy nutcase, and a guy in a really bad wig. Well, all except that last one. But it is a bad wig. Seriously. Anyway, he has a son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and guess what? He works for the United States armed forces as a Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, which honestly, won’t at all come in handy later when a Navy explosives ordinance officer is desperately needed. That was sarcasm. It totally comes in handy.
If you’re reading this review and wondering, geesh, when are they gonna finally mention the damned monster the movie is named after, then WELCOME! You are now experiencing what every single member of the movie-watching audience felt while sitting in the theater starting at the screen. “It’s got to happen soon, right? I mean, it’s right there in the title. Godzilla. He’s definitely gonna show up.” Well quit your belly-achin’ because by jingo, the big guy does eventually make a cameo. And he looks great after all these years. Truly. Sure, he’s put on a few pounds, but give ’em a break. He’s been loungin’ around the ocean floor for like 60-plus years. You know how many calories are in a school of tuna? (We assume he eats tuna.) When he does come ashore, he’s quite a sight, and for a moment, you forget about the price of the ticket and Joe’s awful wig. But then . . . Ford comes back, and there’s a lot of screaming and things going boom, and more Ford, and then Joe, well, dies, because why not continue to kill off the best actors in your cast before the first act is over?
While the effects are astonishing and Godzilla is a treat to see for the limited time he’s on screen, the rest of this film is just plain dull. The opening fails to set up any real mystery and the only characters with more depth than the pages they were written on are Joe’s wife, played by the criminally underused Elizabeth Olsen and Joe, played by the immeasurably talented Bryan Cranston (we’re practicing our descriptive writing). Cranston’s delivery is expectedly dramatic but seems doubly so when compared to the shallow, near catatonic offerings by the typically good Aaron Taylor-Johnson, David Strathairn, and the ever so disappointing turn out from Ken Watanabe, one of favorite actors. As an origin story, Godzilla does little more than whet the appetite for something better, but does give hope for the inevitable sequel. Director Gareth Edwards is a skilled artist and created a minor masterpiece in the 2010 film Monsters, which, as we mentioned in our score cut of that film, surely served as the audition tape for making this one. We’ll give him a pass on this based on his previous work and hope that he can find himself a story and some descent characters for the next one. No doubt anything that shares the screen with Godzilla is gonna pale in comparison, but without some humanity in all of this, there’s no reason to care about the monster.
Scene Setup: There is no other scene that can be That Moment In if isn’t the first time Godzilla makes an appearance. Yes, Joe’s emotional tantrum concerning his desire to get the truth is pretty heavy stuff, but it’s not why we came to the show. Walter White as a nuclear physicist isn’t compelling enough. Give us the beast! And while we have seen a glimpse of it 53 minutes in as its night time tsunami-inducing entrance in Hawaii is pretty intense, it’s not until it comes ashore in San Francisco at the 1 hour 25 minute mark when we see it in daylight. It’s thrilling.
This ain’t Haruo Nakajima in a rubber suit. And it isn’t a CGI abomination laying eggs all over Madison Square Garden. This thing seems like it could be real. Okay, no it can’t. But hey, it’s the movies. Let’s sit back and watch this magnificently rendered Kaiju do its thing in downtown San Francisco.
But we must quibble. Why must we quibble? Because as startling good as Godzilla and the two MUTO monsters are in battle, there is crushing disappointment with nearly everything else under their feet. We’re not doubting that the work put into designing the creatures and the devastation they cause is of the highest quality. As a theater experience, it the stuff of dreams. So we wonder how the creators of such fine work could be so far off the mark with the story and the characters propelling it forward? Take this moment as Godzilla comes upon the Golden Gate Bridge. Why, why must we have a busload of kids to focus on? Why is the driver gonna try and drive through the ever increasing number of army-types filling up the gaps? Wouldn’t every single driver on the bridge be doing the same thing? Do we really need children in the mix to remind us of how horrifying a monster Godzilla’s size would be? And how many times do we have to stop the action to get that slow pan in of some slack-jawed gawker seeing the beast for the first time? But as we said: quibbles. This is all about Godzilla. When it emerges from the water and strides around the bridge, it’s pulse-pounding, heart tingling movie magic. Let’s watch:
Godzilla has always been campy. That’s what’s made it fun for so many years. Pure, unadulterated movie sci-fi fantasy. Even director Roland Emmerich, in retelling the story for the 1998 US film, Godzilla, starring Matthew Broderick, went campy. Problem was, by that time, people wanted more. With the current trend in films leaning toward gritty and dark, the time was perfect for a realistic look at the possibility of giant monsters roaming the earth. Furthermore, special effects technology has made it ever so possible. What’s cool about this is where Godzilla originated from. The Japanese icon is itself the most famous of the genre, part of the classic Tokusatsu entertainment series of special effects laden live-action films and television dramas that feature the now classic use of men in rubber suits rampaging through scaled cities. The term literally means “special filming.” While Godzilla–originally Gojira by combing the Japanese words for gorilla and whale (eluding to his power, size and underwater home)–has maintained a certain look, save for the previously mentioned misstep in 1998, it has generally been a rather amusing fusion of reptile and well, we’re not exactly sure. But it’s freakin’ cool. The large bulbous eyes and awkwardly small head are signature characteristics of the monster and have been major design feature since its inception.
With this modern take, the creators kept close to the classic design and yet gave it a unique look that has a much more organic feel. It being CGI, the monster moves more like well, a monster should, rather than a guy in a costume trying to keep from toppling over. Not that that wasn’t appealing all by itself. Godzilla now is a behemoth larger than any iteration before and because so, can cause a lot more damage, which apparently is still why some people go to see these kinds of movies. Back in the fifties it was a guy karate-chopping plaster cast sets and now its CGI physics destruction engines leveling entire cities. The first has always been fun because it had that sense of imagination; we knew it was the luckiest guy on the planet dressed as a walking lizard wrecking the place. In the latest Godzilla, it’s also a lot of fun, but as is often the case with this current string of catastrophe films, from Man of Steel to Star Trek: Into Darkness, the scope of human loss is staggering, and with realism set to 11, it’s hard to enjoy the chaos while the idea of thousands of innocents are obliterated.
Still, this is not the real problem with this Godzilla. We’re actually fine with the monster not showing up until the end. It worked for Spielberg and his great white shark, it works well here too (and don’t think we didn’t notice the nod to that film, with Joe and Ford having the last name Brody). It’s just that no monster flick is going to have any power if the people it is threatening are not the least bit worth caring about. Joe, who should have had the satisfaction of seeing the beast and being a part of the action is killed off simply so we can see a young, good looking actor take the lead. It was truly the worst decision the makers could have made, especially with the time put into setting up his backstory. It felt cheap and robbed us of two things: a) Joe’s further breakdown into obsession with revenge and then perhaps turn around as he takes up the fight for protection of the animal and b) more Bryan Cranston! Why promote the guy in all the trailers and then drop him less than a third of the way in? Worse, Ford is utterly unlikable. Devoid of emotion and about as charismatic as an unsharpened number 2 pencil, he simply can’t make us give a darn about anything he does.
Honestly, we don’t like being down on movies. We try to find the best in any film. It’s the central focus of the site, but sometimes, when the potential is so very high and the expectation even higher, it’s crushing when things don’t work out. To justify that, here’s a random list of rants of things that left us scratching our heads:
And to be positive, here’s a list of things they got absolutely right:
Back in the day, a good Godzilla movie was a great way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon. Laughing at the monsters and their wild battles is still a good time. The new Godzilla has a different agenda, and that isn’t necessarily bad. There is a lot to like about the film, especially the monster itself. The sequel is already under way and there is sure to be more monster mayhem in the works before it devolves into eventual parody. While the film leaves a small impression but it ultimately fails, and remains mostly forgettable. There’s a certain rush to seeing the Kaiju fight it out, and perhaps what we consider to be one of the worst lines in the movie is just the opposite. “Let them fight.” Indeed.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham(story) (as David Callaham)
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston