Thursday, June 13, 2019

Big, Bad Godzilla

Most folks who know me know I'm a lifelong Godzilla/daikaiju freak. Ever since I saw the American version of the original Godzilla (the "first" Godzilla - King of the Monsters), starring Raymond Burr, back in the very early 1960s, my love affair with giant monsters has been nothing less than passionate. And since junior high school, I have been one of the official Japanese Giants guys — the founding member, as a matter of fact, since I originated Japanese Giants, the magazine, in 1974. Of course, it was the Showa-era films (19541984) that I fell in love with way back when, but even with the later Heisei- and then Millennium-era films, my youthful enthusiasm has hardly waned. I suppose no one would be much surprised to learn that my all-time favorite movie is Toho's original 1954 Godzilla. I'd go so far as to call it the best monster movie ever made — yes, surpassing even King Kong — and one the best all-around films ever made. So you may wish to take whatever I have to say about the new Godzilla with that background in mind.

The 2014 Godzilla, the precursor to this film, had its moments. While I appreciated the idea that Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) were once the dominant creatures on Earth, that concept received little development. This film expands on those origins, bestowing the name "Titans" to these assorted giants that sprang from our prehistoric times. A subplot using the Hollow Earth theory explains how some of the monsters remained in hiding and/or traveled about the earth undetected. In this film, instead of just Godzilla and two MUTOs, we have a whole menagerie—Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and numerous minor non-Toho daikaiju bearing names such as Behemoth, Abaddon, Scylla, and others with roots in various mythologies.

So, to the big honking monster fan in me, it would seem we have the seeds of a monstrously entertaining filum.

But then again....

Make no mistake. The monsters are impressive. The designs for Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah hearken back to their early, classic Toho incarnations. Well, not so much Mothra, whose design more closely resembles her appearance in Toho's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah - All-Out Giant Monster Attack (a.k.a. GMK, 2001). Regardless, for the most part, the monsters look great, and the audio-visual effects convey incredible size and power. It pays to see the action on the big screen. Sadly, of the monsters, Godzilla's design is the least satisfying. With a huge lower body that tapers to a tiny, wedge-shaped head, I get the feeling the designers wanted to make Godzilla resemble a walking mountain or something such. It didn't work so well. He looks more like a big reptilian pinhead with forward-arching, scaly gorilla arms. He's still more akin to our familiar Godzilla than the critter in TriStar's 1998 stinker, but far, FAR inferior to Toho's finest, such as the 1954 original, and the designs from 1962 (King Kong vs. Godzilla), 1963 (Mothra vs. Godzilla), 1968 (Destroy All Monsters), 1989 (Godzilla vs. Biollante), 1999 (Godzilla Millennium), and numerous others. Now, while I don't poo-poo CGI daikaiju, I have a special affinity for Godzilla's "suit-mation" origins, not to mention the exceptional miniature work of the early films. A man in a suit isn't likely to work for today's audiences, but more closely patterning the iconic figure after those superior designs would have made Godzilla himself far more palatable. I actually loved Godzilla's appearance in 2016's Shin Godzilla, if not so much the movie itself. The creature retained enough of its classic lines to be recognizable, yet... it appeared off... a little wrong... yet still, clearly, a monstrous, wicked, impressive Godzilla. I'd take that design any day over Legendary's big walking wedge.
In this film, Godzilla's most outstanding appearance is his first (apart from a partial shot of him during a brief flashback at the very beginning). In this reveal, he swims slowly toward an underwater window, with the audience's perspective the same as the characters'. With fins flashing and eyes glowing, Godzilla is engaged in "intimidation tactics," according to one of the characters. Indeed. No other shot of Godzilla comes close to the majestic power he displays in this slow, menacing approach. This is Godzilla as he deserves to be presented.

Similarly, the "births" of King Ghidorah and Rodan show these monsters at their finest. With a nod to GMK, King Ghidorah is entombed in ice beneath the earth, and its emergence is another high point in the film. Its three heads weave forward on snakelike necks, and in bat-like fashion it uses the clawed tips of its wings to help propel it along the ground. Happily, as it was in the beginning, King Ghidorah's origin is extraterrestrial, making it a distinctly a bad Titan. In a nice tribute to one of our favorite daikaiju films, Ghidorah is first referred to as Monster Zero. Rodan, in acknowledgement of his cinematic roots, bursts from the summit of a volcano, and his flight creates that famous shock wave that destroys structures and sends human bodies flying. An aerial view of Rodan's shadow passing over the earth vividly brings to mind his advent in the original Rodan - The Flying Monster (1957). Rodan's design fairly closely resembles the 1957 original, and it's easily his best screen appearance since that film.
Bear McCreary's musical score makes an effective aural backdrop for the movie. I have admired many of McCreary's scores, and Godzilla may be my favorite. In places, McCreary interpolates Akira Ifukube's famous Godzilla theme, as well as a gorgeous, lush interpretation of Yuji Koseki's Mothra theme. Least appealing, music-wise, is McCreary's interpretation of Blue Oyster Cult's Godzilla, which cranks up as the end credits begin. I have a grudging appreciation of the original BoC song, but including it in this movie... well... it's pure cheese, and we really didn't need that again. Segueing from that, however, is McCreary's closing symphonic suite, which makes sitting through the final credits worth it. (There is a post-credit teaser scene, though I wouldn't consider it necessarily worth waiting for.)
Kyle Chandler as Dr. Mark Russell

So, in the audio and visual departments, we have tons of material to appreciate. But on their own, none of these elements actually make a movie. The movie is a package. And in the overall, unfortunately, the Godzilla package doesn't exactly deliver. While the film boasts a capable cast, including Kyle Chandler, Ken Watanabe, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Charles Dance, Zhang Ziyi, Bradley Whitford, and others, the script leaves more than a little to be desired, and the direction and editing is often so frenetic that the result is as stomach-churning as Cloverfield (which, due to its cinematography, I will never willingly suffer through again). I've seen Godzilla twice now, and on my first viewing, my brain locked onto the fact that every shot flashed by so quickly I began to feel dizzy. (The next day, I suffered a migraine, and I wonder whether the jumpy cinematography had something to do with it.) Quite involuntarily, I began counting the length of each individual shot, and the longest one lasted 11 seconds, most running only two to six seconds. Though the whole movie. Dizzying.
Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa

Storywise, plot elements rush up, swat you in the face, and then scurry away with reckless abandon. Hollow Earth Theory? Check. Wow, before we know it, we're inside the earth, some shit happens, and then, well, that was that. What a momentous theme and one that an entire script could be built around. Alas, no. Oxygen Destroyer? Apparently, unlike the original Dr. Serizawa's world- and history-changing device — for which he gave his life, to keep his invention from falling into the wrong hands — here, the military just happens to have one. So they set it off, and it does a number on Godzilla. But suddenly, oh, no... setting it off was a bad idea because this leaves King Ghidorah unchallenged, and King Ghidorah, the all-powerful space monster, has set about terraforming the earth to suit its own preferences (which is a fine enough idea and is presented in spectacular fashion). Then, in a turnabout that seems drawn from 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (NOT a favorite), our protags decide to use a nuclear bomb to revive Godzilla. In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, nuclear radiation is used to create monsters as casually as water is to create sea monkeys (that reference may date me; Google unfamiliar terms). This sets up a scene so that Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) can sacrifice himself and revive Godzilla. The scene may be Watanabe's shining moment — he brings believable gravitas to his character. This scene this leads to Godzilla being revived but on the verge of meltdown, a la Godzilla vs. Destroyer (1995). Needless to say, Godzilla doesn't melt down.
Zhang Ziyi as Dr. Chen

Sadly, despite these worthy tributes to earlier entries in Godzilla's ongoing saga, the movie is fraught with so many Hollywood tropes they become as dizzying as the cinematography. Top to bottom, from snappy-but-not-snappy dialogue, to deliberate lulls that culminate in an all-too-expected "shocks," to characters outrunning massive explosions and all-engulfing flames, to that goddamn dysfunctional family that needs to be reunited — which I never fucking want to see again, ever, thank you very much — the film throws in every Hollywood disaster-action-adventure-monster-film cliche that can be crammed into 2 hours and 12 minutes.
Millie Bobby Brown as Madison Russell, Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell
Stepping beyond the bounds of the motion picture itself, one of the most galling arguments I keep hearing from the film's defenders is that you don't go to a Godzilla movie expecting anything better than the best monster scene. "In the movies of old, the story and people scenes were largely crap, so it's perfectly okay for the story and people scenes in this one to be crap." No, no, no, and NO. So many of the early Godzilla films had colorful, fantastic, oftentimes whimsical stories, not necessarily geared to American audiences. They had top-flight casts, innovative effects (certainly for their day), brilliant scores, masterful cinematography. But Japanese sensibilities and ours oftentimes do not quite overlap. Never was this more clearly illustrated to me than when, back in my Chicago days of the 1980s, we Japanese Giants Guys hosted any number of Japanese guests, some who were fans, some who were actually affiliated with Toho and other Japanese studios. In talking with them, I often marveled at the differences in what we saw in these movies, what we loved, what we disliked. Any movie, any creative work, is subject to criticism, of dissection, of approval, and/or disapproval. Because one isn't enamored of a particular movie, or aspects of it, he or she is not automatically a hater. God, what facile and imbecilic term so often applied to people who simply are not blind followers of fad or fashion. Too often, disagreeing with the masses of "lovers" is tantamount to personally insulting them and challenging them to duel. Foolishness is what that is.

Now, I like lots of bad movies. With them, I have no illusions that I'm looking at, or should expect, great art. With Godzilla, I did hope for, if not expect, a movie that did not necessarily adhere to every convention for a Hollywood blockbuster, down to the letter. Now, I did not hate this movie; but believe you me, I know some who did, and they can spell out their every reason for it. And that's perfectly all right. Just as it's perfectly all right for you to love this flick far more than me. But to dismiss out of hand any legitimate criticism of a beloved property, that's the purview of the ignorant, spoiled fan. Don't be one of those.

As I trust one may infer from the above, Godzilla has its redeeming qualities. When it comes out on BluRay, I expect I'll pick it up. Parts of this movie warrant watching over again; yes, the monster scenes. However, even if I should rate the critters four or five, in the overall, I can't give Godzilla - King of the Monsters more than two out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Martinis. If you give it five great big ones, or zero. That's your perogative, and more power to you.
The birth of Mothra
The Monarch command ship facing off with King Ghidorah
Godzilla on the verge of meltdown

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