Sunday, May 18, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

The poster for Godzilla features the namesake monster rising a thousand feet above the skyline of San Francisco, which for the umpteenth time in the movies is being destroyed, rather spectacularly.  The poster is missing something, though.  If it really wanted to accurately depict the movie, it would have featured those little boxes from disaster movie posters.

You know the boxes.  Roger Ebert described them perfectly in his famous glossary of movie terms. "Useful rule-of-thumb about movie advertisements that have a row of little boxes across the bottom … Automatically avoid such films."

I don't think you should automatically avoid Godzilla, though I'm not so sure the friends I went with would agree with me.  Godzilla stars Bryan Cranston as The Nuclear Scientist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as The Soldier, Ken Watanabe as The Monster Scientist, Sally Hemmings as The Other Monster Scientist and so forth.  Now, as you can see, these character descriptions aren't nearly as compelling as, for instance, "Paul Newman as The Architect," "Stella Stevens as The Hooker," "Dean Martin as The Pilot" or "Ava Gardner as The Spurned Wife Who Is Only Seven Years Younger Than Her Father."  But I suppose they'll do.

Godzilla follows much the same pattern as the great guilty-pleasure disaster movies of the 1970s.  We're introduced to a number of characters, including the one who knows what all the warning signs mean.  Of course, no one listens to him, and (spoiler alert) he's going to die before the end of the third reel just before the real action gets going.

Those warning signs, in the case of Godzilla, are some weird seismic activity and odd electro-magnetic pulses that lead to the destruction of a nuclear-power plant in Japan.  Fifteen years later … it's all happening again.  The Scientist is the father of The Soldier, and together they meet The Monster Scientist and The Other Monster Scientist just before the big revelation, which I hope you'll realize is not a Spoiler Alert since you are, after all, interested in seeing a movie called Godzilla.  Guess what?  Godzilla is about to make an appearance.

But it turns out that Godzilla is only one of three monsters in Godzilla, and before he shows up there are a couple of other creepy dragon-like creatures that start wreaking havoc across the globe.  Well, at least the United States.  Godzilla is really focused on the United States, even though there are, numerically speaking, more opportunities for these radiation-munching beasties to get their nuclear fixes in Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.  Aw, who cares about such things?  Those countries don't have San Francisco and Las Vegas to tear apart.

For about an hour, or half of its running time, Godzilla explains how and why these monsters came to be, even providing a questionable backstory that gives an alternate version of why so many nuclear "tests" were conducted in the South Pacific.

There are lots of scenes of male characters doing macho things and female characters looking alarmed.  The dialogue tends to lean toward lines like, "Current projections indicate they're heading toward the West Coast of the United States," while helpful on-screen graphics show the West Coast of the United States.

For reasons that are rather too complex to explain, one monster gets to tear the Vegas Strip to shreds, while the three of them converge on San Francisco.  I'd like to go on record here and now as asking filmmakers to stop destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.  It's not interesting anymore.

The visual effects in Godzilla are pretty good, especially when the monsters start stomping all over the place.  Sometimes, they seem intentionally cheesy, like they're recalling hand-drawn matte paintings and are daring us to think they look a little silly.  That's OK.

What's less OK is how many shots of the wreckage and destruction are deeply, directly informed by footage of the Sept. 11 attacks.  Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when cities got destroyed on screen, we saw lots of buildings fall over or crumble, and they all seemed a little fake, which was good.  Since then, visual-effects artists show billowing plumes of cement dust heading straight for the crowds who are running toward the camera.  The effect, to me at least, is a constant reminder of the very real pain and terror we experienced on that day.

I think the way Godzilla levels San Francisco bothered me a little less than, say, Star Trek plowing enormous spaceships into the City By the Bay, or The Avengers bringing down skyscrapers in Manhattan primarily because Godzilla is recalling the movies that inspired it.  Back then, of course, a man in a monster suit stepped on balsa-wood buildings and held toy trains in his hand, and nothing about it seemed real, though it was spectacular in its way.

Godzilla, for all of its verisimilitude, is not quite as spectacular.  It's so over-the-top and relentless in a three-way monster battle that seems to take forever that it becomes a little boring after a while.

Back in the 1950s, the first Godzilla movies were showing audiences things they had never seen.  It was the same with the capsizing boat, the bombed airliner, the massive earthquake and the burning building in the 1970s.  The makers of those films seemed like giddy kids experimenting with things no one had ever done.

Godzilla is showing us more of the same.  If it feels like we've seen this a hundred times before, it's because we have.  The CGI becomes a little ho-hum, despite its massive scale, especially since the human characters (such as they are) become relegated quite literally to the background.  In its final 30 minutes, Godzilla barely remembers to show us the wide-mouthed reactions on their faces.  It's all about monster-versus-monster.

All in all, Godzilla delivers exactly what it promises, no more and no less. Despite the ultra-serious, reverential tone it takes to its source material, Godzilla is mostly enjoyable as trashy camp.  It's an entirely stupid movie, rendered with great love and care.  That old master of disaster himself, Irwin Allen, would probably have been proud.  And he would have found a way to slip in a side story about a hooker, a crooked cop and a guy who just lost his job.  Something like that could, I think, have made Godzilla even better.  I would have had someone to root for other than the big monster, who (Not Actually a Spoiler Alert) wins in the end.  He had to.  There's got to be a sequel.

I can see the poster now: God2illa.  I hope they remember to include the little boxes.

Viewed May 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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