Elegantly updates the King of All Monsters for the 21st century in ways that have moved with the global zeitgeist. But Hollywood’s tedious myopia means the movie as a whole isn’t quite so beautiful.
I’m “biast” (con): I’m increasingly leery of reboots
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It’s been 60 years since Ishirô Honda unleashed Godzilla, his cinematic metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons — and how they had already ravaged Japan — upon the world. As timescales for reboots go, two generations sounds about right. (We’re going to pretend that 1998 did not happen.) And 2014’s simply, elegantly titled Godzilla goes about updating the King of All Monsters for the 21st century in ways that work beautifully and have moved in tandem with the global zeitgeist. On the flip side, however, Hollywood’s tedious myopia means the movie as a whole isn’t quite so beautiful, and that’s a problem. But it only prevents this from approaching masterpiece status, and not from keeping it from B-movie fabulousness made more glorious by a blockbuster budget that delivers some of the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring science-fiction vistas lately. No guys in rubber suits here.
Instead of nukes, global warming is the bugaboo behind today’s monster. Oh, no one speaks the phrase “climate change,” but that’s what this Godzilla is all about: a natural world that is so utterly oblivious to us, even as we blunder about indiscriminately and mindlessly making a mess of it, that it doesn’t even notice us as it is destroying our coastal cities, our nuclear power plants, our beautiful infrastructure. We are as gnats to nature… and that should scare us more than any made-up monster ever could. There’s a slyness in how the script — by near-unknown Max Borenstein, with a story assist from Dave Callaham (The Expendables) — sneaks up on its metaphor: it sucks up to us, letting us feel superior to what looks like head-smackingly stupid stuff we’re seeing onscreen, and then it slaps us to remind us that we’re not as smart as we think we are and that, yeah, the brainiacs have thought of that thing you thought of, too.
See, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe: Inception, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) works with a secret research group that has been studying Godzilla since the 1950s, when all those nuke “tests” in the Pacific were actually attempts to kill a creature (after, presumably, waking it up) that long predates the evolutionary arrival of homo sapiens on the planet. And now, Serizawa is overseeing a project at a destroyed Japanese nuclear power plant — sort of like Japan’s Chernobyl, only worse, with echoes of 2011’s Fukushima disaster, only way worse — where they’ve got some sort of… cocoon, or egg, or, well, it’s nasty and enormous and clearly not something we should be poking with a stick. Plus it’s sucking up all the radiation that should make this otherwise abandoned city lethal, for one thing, and that cannot be good. “Why don’t they just kill it?” you find yourself wondering (in between the geeky desire to get closer, of course).
Turns out, Serizawa is way ahead of us. To no avail. And he’s the expert here.
The less you know about what happens next, the better. I found my jaw dropping more than once, in between nerdy giggles of delighted awe. Director Gareth Edwards — who wowed us with his indie wonder Monsters, which he made for about $3.50 — clearly loves him some Spielberg, and without being slavishly imitative, he invokes both Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind here. Not in any way that you can quite pin down: it’s not that he’s swiping plot points or visuals, but a sense of wonder and — perhaps more importantly — that sense of “I knew capital-T They were hiding something!” Edwards himself hides more than he reveals, with the major monster action happening at night or in the rain, or enshrouded in dust and smoke and fog: he knows there’s far more geeky titillation in letting our imaginations do as much work as the CGI is doing.
The only real disappointment in the film is the humans. There’s little fresh in them, and it’s only the charms of the cast that elevate them just a little bit above the cardboard. Any of the three major characters here, the ones who drive the plot — Bryan Cranston’s (Cold Comes the Night, Argo) nuclear engineer, who was at the power plant on the day it was destroyed, turned monster conspiracy theorist; Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass 2, Nowhere Boy) as his soldier son; and Watanabe as the monster scientist — could have easily switched places with the women who thanklessly support them: respectively, Juliette Binoche’s (A Thousand Times Good Night, Cosmopolis) nuclear scientist-slash-good wife, Elizabeth Olsen’s (Red Lights, Martha Marcy May Marlene) nurse-slash-good wife, and Sally Hawkins’ (The Double, Great Expectations) monster scientist (and not-wife, as far as we can see). There’s no guarantee, of course, that giving any of these significant monster-battling roles to a woman would have made the human drama any more intriguing, but perhaps the teensy bit of thinking out of the boys’ box that would have required might have jarred one of the two male screenwriters into coming up with human dynamics that we haven’t seen played out endlessly before.
Still. There’s good stuff here. Not just in the cool monster FX but in the attitude that underlies it. “I guess we’re monster hunters now,” a random anonymous soldier says as he’s being deployed into the film’s climactic battle. I like the idea that all the cool military hardware on display here is being repurposed for something that does not involve killing other human beings. Of course, it’s being repurposed in an attempt to restore a balance to nature to that we unbalanced in the first place… and it’s a rebalancing that might be beyond us. Godzilla doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for humanity on the whole, but what’s really scary is that even when it looks rather kindly on Godzilla, Godzilla still doesn’t even seem to see us at all.
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• Godzilla vs. Kong movie review: whole earth monster catalog (#HBO)