Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla, In Review

When I was a kid, I loved Godzilla. I would check out books from the Boise Public Library that were essentially bestiaries of Godzilla's kaiju brethren. I devoured Marc Cerasini's wonderful series of Godzilla novels. I watched as many of the films as our local Blockbuster had on its shelves, which wasn't a lot, and I even liked the 1998 American remake with Matthew Broderick.
I was young. I didn't know better.
I had a falling out with this particular fandom right around 1999 or 2000, but even still, when I saw trailers for the current American Godzilla reboot, I got goosebumps. It looked like they were doing everything right that the 1998 version did wrong: they stayed pretty faithful to Godzilla's traditional look, they got his roar right (a surprisingly big issue, believe me), and the cinematography looked very classy to boot. Learning that Bryan Cranston was going to star was just a cherry on top of a deliciously destructive sundae.


Ah, Bryan Cranston. Thanks to Breaking Bad, he's one of my favorite actors, and I hope one day to see him in a movie that uses him well. Sadly, this was not that movie.

Don't get me wrong, he's great with what he's given, and his character is interesting to follow...until he dies literally a quarter of the way through the movie. It turns out the star of the film is actually English actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Cranston's character's son. Yes, that's right, the protagonist is Kickass.
Picture this, but with less mask. Also, waaay more neck muscle.
Though brief, Cranston's presence in the film does serve an invaluable role for the audience, as he is an unwitting barometer indicating exactly when the movie turns completely stupid. Trust me; the second you see Bryan Cranston wearing a fleece vest, know that things are going downhill.

Right up until its climactic scenes, the movie makes the fatal mistake of assuming that we, the audience who paid for a Godzilla movie, are actually here to see the incredible adventures of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a conveniently employed soldier who just happens to be in the right place at the right time to see some giant, three or four times, in completely different locations. Marvel! as he helps a kid who gets separated from his parents on a subway! Be amazed! as he walks on some train tracks with a flashlight! Wonder! as he talks to an endless stream of nameless soldiers spouting exposition!

Finally, as the climax looms, the movie decides that maybe we should we should have a Godzilla scene, you know? It's important to know, though, that in this movie, Godzilla is the good guy. While there is some wanton destruction, that mostly comes from two insect-like monsters known as Muto. The movie doesn't really explain why Godzilla is a good guy, either; we hear Ken Watanabe (because of course he's in this too) say that it's because nature finds a balance, which explains precisely nothing.

Anyway, Mean Green trades blows with the two bad beasts in the streets of San Francisco before finishing them with surprisingly satisfying finishing moves. When watching this part of the movie, and especially the very end where it looks like Godzilla has succumbed to his battle wounds until he wakes up and returns to the sea, I made the most bizarre realization of this entire movie: he, Godzilla, the giant monster, was being used as a Christ figure. I mean, sure, the franchise in the 60s and 70s certainly saw Godzilla turn into a friendly monster, but almost all of the 'serious' Godzilla movies involve him as a nearly-unstoppable symbol of the devastation caused by nuclear weaponry, and him as a good guy is generally only found in the goofier parts of his oeuvre. Portraying him instead as a messianic stand-in is a bold, if strange, move to make. Though to be honest, the New Testament would be pretty awesome if it included stories of Jesus shooting blue fire out of mouth. (Something else to look for when watching this part of the movie: a scene where--I kid you not--a world-weary Godzilla makes eye contact with our human hero with a total "I'm getting too old for this @$%&" look on his scaly face.)
Pictured: Godzilla
All that is not to say that this movie is entirely unenjoyable. The first act has some interesting moments, mostly involving Bryan Cranston, and the scenes of Godzilla actually fighting (once the movie gets around to them, of course) are fun and are put together well enough. Also, I was entirely serious when I said that the way he dispatches each of the bad guys is rewarding. The movie has some great set-pieces, too: the overgrown abandoned city in the first act is incredible, and the HALO jump scene was a great combination of beautiful visuals and haunting music that should have had a much better payoff. 

However, these are all-too-brief glimpses of the much better Godzilla movie that was, tragically, smashed to pieces by the titan of stupidity that formed the final product.