Godzilla, like our inner self run amok and gone berserk, just needs a warm mug of cocoa and a good hug. Ethan Gilsdorf on Hollywood's latest rendering of the kaiju classic.
Do we need another Godzilla?
Do we need more scenes of this primordial, wailing, rubber-suited monster interfacing badly with humankind? Need we witness the ongoing struggles of this beast, as he battles other implausible creatures, as they all wreck our cities like piles of blocks and HO-scale train sets?
In short, we do. Yes we do.
2014 is a giant year for pop culture. The Mac computer turned 30. D&D turned 40. Dr. Who celebrated the Big 5-0, while the Beatles also invaded U.S. shores five decades ago. This year, our beloved Godzilla, also hit a milestone, springing to radioactive life 60 years ago.
It all began in 1954, when Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka channeled his nation’s fears about atomic power into a wild thing sacking Tokyo. In Japanese, the creature is called “Gojira,” a combination of the words for “gorilla” and “whale.” Some 29 Godzilla movies have since arrived, some American, but mostly made in Japan.
Now comes number 30, from British director Gareth Edwards, here to remind us that our need to enact fantasies and nightmares about domination by monsters is as strong as ever.
This new chapter in the series, plainly named Godzilla, feels like another step in an elaborate, multi-million-dollar, decades-long ritual or magical rite to exorcise our fears. What are we afraid of? That we are not alone. That something sleeps beneath us, either deep in the core of the earth or under our seas. We can’t expel the nagging thought that the world’s fate may not be in our hands after all. The WWF-like smack down of towering kaiju, "strange creatures” who don’t understand English and go by names like Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, and Rodan, might decide our Armageddon.
Edwards also made the 2010 indie hit Monsters, a giant beast movie in the guise of an alien-attack thriller. So you can see why Hollywood entrusted him to a bigger budgeted sandbox to reboot the franchise. But the gamble comes with risks. The last American version, the 1998 version directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) was roundly criticized by hardcore Godzilla fans. Actually, it pissed them off.
This 2014 installment begins smartly enough. The title sequence alone is an editing masterpiece. Against archival graphics of Darwin’s evolutionary tree, and movie clips depicting atomic bomb testing and early Godzilla sightings, “censored” white-outs of bogus classified data appear, in and around the names of cast and crew. The montage brings the franchise back to its roots, and also hints at a twist on the Godzilla creation story: those atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean didn't cause Godzilla, they were efforts to eradicate him. All this sows the seeds of conspiracy, while wisely bringing up-to-speed any newcomers to the Godzilla/monster movie franchise. (For more history, see Ryan Harvey’s exhaustive report over on BlackGate.com, which takes you from the series’ origins in the 1950s, through its “Golden Age” of the 1960s, and across its various ups (Mothra vs. Godzilla, 1962; Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, 1995) and downs (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973) as well as his take on Emmerich's “American Tragedy” which, he says, “has zero connection to any version of Godzilla.”)
From that tour-de-force title sequence, we then are then dropped in a remote mine in the Philippines. It’s 1999, and two scientists, led by Ken Watanabe (Inception), examine a mysterious fossilized skeleton deep in the earth. As they explore the oozing relic in their spacesuits, the set-piece of mummified bones becomes a weirdly prescient and appropriate homage to the late H.R. Giger, the great visual designer of Alien and other sci-fi/horror masterpieces, who passed away this week. The team explores inside the radioactive belly of this whale or beast, only to learn that something has escaped.
Jump now to Tokyo, where nuclear plant scientist Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) suspects the weird tremors he’s been detecting aren’t earthquakes. Perhaps they’re connected to something feeding on his plant’s reactors, something his employer is covering up? Might that connect back to the Filipino mine? After some drama relating to the reactor, we take a quantum leap to the present, where the rest of the movie takes place.
Cranston’s son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, from Kick-Ass) is now all grown up, a do-gooder family man and military bomb-defuser. Ford has steeled himself against the past, a tragedy that involved his mother, Juliette Binoche (The English Patient). Cranston is trapped by it. Even though he’s a nut job stuck in his mourning, thanks to Zip disks, those 15-year old technological artifacts of late ‘90s, Cranston plays a role in uncovering the cover-up. A contrived plot coincidence brings father and son together, back in Tokyo, conveniently just as the first monster comes to life. The biped with four spiked, spider-like legs, is quickly given the militaristic moniker M.U.T.O, or "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.” The military, personified by admiral David Straithairn, wants to use nukes, and of course the scientists protest.
"The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in our control," says Watanabe, the wise voice of reason. "And not the other way around." Turns out there’s more than one MUTO, and one is trying the find the other. A third monster is listening. “We call him Godzilla,” says Watanabe, who carries his father's pocket watch that stopped when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. “He’s hunting.”
The monsters are on the move. Ergo, the military is on the move, too.
Before long, we’re treated to cavalcades of planes, train, automobiles, helicopters, battleships, aircraft carriers and F-35 jets. Trains carry ICBMs and monorails ferry tourists. The monsters circle the ring of fire. The armed forces follow them, flitting about the Pacific Rim, from Japan to Hawaii to San Francisco (and even Las Vegas), and their top brass rolling dice in some high stakes game of Risk. Back home in San Fran, Ford’s civilian wife Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) gets to utter funny lines like “It’s not the end of the world.” As the news covers the ruination of another casino, she scolds their son for watching too much TV. These cutaways and subplots do an OK job anchoring the film and moving it forward, but of course, it’s all about the beasts.
Godzilla is a tightly-designed thrill ride. The kaiju genre faithful should be able check off “yep, yep, yep” on their tally of giant monster movie musts. Shrewdly, Edwards makes us wait to finally see our beloved thunder lizard who, at 355 feet tall, is apparently the movies’ largest Godzilla ever. Indeed, a whole half a movie passes before we get a good shot of him. But when we do, the bang is worth the wait; during the screening I attended, the audience let out a roar worthy of Godzilla’s deafening clamor. They also howled in delight when he unleashed his secret weapon. “Godzilla is here restore balance,” declare Watanabe at a climactic moment. “Let them fight!”
Fans will appreciate that this Gojira is no sinewy, T-Rex meets Jurassic Park velociraptor. He’s back to his old, lumbering form. Reportedly, the F/X team (including Jim Rygiel, who worked on The Lord of the Rings, and John Dykstra, who dates back to the original Star Wars) was inspired by the original Japanese designs of effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya. The new team even includes Executive Producer Yoshimitsu Banno, the veteran filmmaker best known for Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The effects are big, and effective. Naturally, they take on nearly every natural and unnatural disaster imaginable: from a tsunami, intense military operations, the destruction of cities, and the arrival of FEMA, to what you’re paying for, lots of monster battles.
The filmmakers do their best to get us on board with the stories of the human characters and their efforts to control the monsters. Will the little boy be reunited with his parents? Will Ford deactivate the bomb? Or will the bomb have a happy ending? But it’s the monster plot that matters. We're rooting for the Big Guys, not the little ants who scurry around his feet. As the critters rampage through San Francisco, their jagged silhouettes shadowing the Golden Gate Bridge (How many times must Hollywood destroy the Golden Gate Bridge?) and darkening the Transamerica Pyramid, we realize they aren't at home here. Our hearts swell. We care about their fates. Arriving at the smog-filled, debris-strewn end --- and possible end of the world --- it's Godzilla we’re worried about, not Mom and Dad and Son. We want to know, how will he survive? Will he find a way to win? Godzilla becomes our inner self, run amok and gone berserk. But our collective, primal and destructive id needs comfort. When the freak-out is over, Godzilla just needs a warm mug of cocoa and a good hug.
After the smoke has cleared, perhaps some balance of power has been restored. Godzilla has served his purpose. We humans pause to look at our ruined cities with, we hope, renewed appreciation.
Then we look across our calm seas, to the horizon, for Gojira, our gorilla-whale, to return --- and that sequel, too, surely on the way like a tidal wave, just as soon as one can be made.
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