Friday, May 16, 2014

Oh, God(zilla)

Last night, I went to see the new Godzilla movie. There were a half dozen in my group, with a fairly wide range of expectations: from enthusiastically expectant of giant monster violence (stoked by a life-long love of Godzilla), to me, just cautiously hopeful that something Bryan Cranston signed on to might be at least pretty good. All of us left disappointed, the Godzilla fans most of all. There was universal agreement that last year's Pacific Rim was a more entertaining movie. (And I thought that was average at best.)

There are three major flaws with this new incarnation of the King of Monsters. First, the movie spends its first act establishing the wrong character. There's a fairly interesting "15 years ago" opening that introduces Bryan Cranston's character, a man whose family is ripped apart in a monster-caused disaster that is covered up. It leaves him broken and empty of anything but the desire to expose the truth, and actually does a really good job of setting up a character with personal stakes to follow through the large-scale chaos to follow. Except the movie doesn't follow him. By the end of the first act, the narrative has been handed off to his son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a comparatively personality-free military character who just happens to be anywhere and everywhere in the world where the action occurs.

Second, the movie manufactures a tremendous amount of unnecessary jeopardy. One could debate whether any additional problems even belong in the film at all when you have giant city-destroying monsters on the rampage, but it would be nice at least if any further complications aren't directly caused by the characters themselves. There's a staggering amount of stupidity on parade here, from voluntarily separating a family just so their reunion becomes a question, to setting up a literal ticking clock only so that the characters will be later forced to unset it. Indeed, with only one exception in the entire film, events would reach a better conclusion if nobody did anything. And needless to say, characters who perpetually only make things worse belong in a comedy, not a disaster movie.

Third, the movie tries way too hard for scientific credibility, and trips all over itself in the process. Godzilla has never been a particularly sophisticated premise. "Radiation makes giant monsters. Just go with us on this." That's the bargain. The movie tries to explain things too hard, often using concepts that can't possibly work the way they're being described. For example, does anyone think that echo location could work from halfway around the world, no matter how big a thing is? Can anyone come up with a reason why a creature drawn to radiation would travel thousands of miles east, heading straight for Hawaii and San Francisco? Worst of all is the principle "scientist" character, who dispenses with the scientific method after only minutes of initial exposition, to embrace a decidedly unscientific religiosity about Godzilla.

Honestly, as the end credits rolled, I didn't think I'd disliked the movie that much. It was just another vapid summer blockbuster. But then I heard my friends who I'd assumed would have enjoyed it, tearing into it. And then I went to place the movie on my Flickchart, and was surprised at just how low it ended up. In the end, I feel a bit like I'm being generous to give this incarnation of Godzilla a D+. It's better than the last attempt starring Matthew Broderick, but not by a lot. And that's not saying much anyway.

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