The Rebirth of a Symbol [Godzilla / Review]

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I was six years old when I saw Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla in 1998; it was the first movie I ever got to watch in a movie theater. My parents took us because I was obsessed with dinosaurs since watching Jurassic Park two years prior. As flawed of a movie as it is, it ended up being a film that I’ll always keep with me because of what it meant to my childhood. It was two years later with the release of Godzilla 2000 that I was introduced to the mythical beast himself, and it’s been ten years since Toho’s last entry to the Godzilla franchise; I’ve been waiting since then for the next Godzilla. I’ve been following movie blogs for years now, like I do for any film I anticipate, and I still remember looking at the Legendary Pictures’ leaked concept art for their Godzilla reboot back in 2010. In a way, it’s fitting that this is the first review I’m ever even writing for a film.

Right off at the opening credits sequence, we’re engaged with the screen as the names of the main cast and crew stylistically appear with marked out typography; the man behind the visuals here is Kyle Cooper, and upon learning that I wasn’t surprised at all that I caught myself catching the eerie similarities it shared with the opening sequence to David Fincher’s Se7en.

The first few scenes of the film serve as a buildup that brings back memories of classic Spielberg blockbusters; right after the title of the film fades, we’re looking at hills blanketed in green. A helicopter flies overhead, and lands in a desolate, rocky valley past the trees. The camera closes in on a man stationed at the site, ready to greet Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanbe) as he steps out of the helicopter. Immediately, if the helicopter passing through the hills of the Philippines didn’t do it already, I was reminded of the opening scenes in Jurassic Park; at the site of the amber mining expedition stood the lawyer in the same exact stance, waiting to greet the workers coming from a raft in the lake. Godzilla’s director, Gareth Edwards, is a young man without any prior Hollywood experience, and he brought in some heavy inspiration from names like Steven Spielberg; many of the scenes he shoots in this film are respectful, if not conscious, homages to the films that he and many of us have grown up with.

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It didn’t just stop at nostalgic similarities, either. In an age of filmmaking where summer blockbusters are constantly loud and kinetic, Gareth Edwards brought back a feeling of tension that’s largely absent from much of what we watch in theaters today. Godzilla‘s entire first forty-five minutes are devoted to a buildup, and the suspense felt from it is one that keeps us anxious to see the titular monster for the first time ever, but at the same time keeps us engaged enough in the narrative that leads to it. If there’s any one sequence that perfectly illustrates the kind of suspense Godzilla built itself on, it’s the moments leading to the spiked monster breaching the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of a city evacuation. The noise and panic of people trying to escape, military forces desperately trying to pull themselves together in an environment of confused chatter, the loudness of children on a school bus distracting its driver from trying to find a way out safe – all of it is silenced as a deep roar is heard from beneath the water under the bridge. For what seems like an eternity, things are quiet. Birds begin to fly away, and a tail emerges from the surface of the sea, pushing away armed warships like float toys. The driver of the bus wipes away the mist on his window, in disbelief of what he’s seeing in front of him; the same look etched onto his face that Ian Malcolm had as he watched a tyrannosaurus rex rip into the tire of a flipped Ford Explorer.

There was a build-up. When it came down to Godzilla’s role in the film, the suspense was the most prevalent aspect of it. Before we witness the destruction caused by the monsters in the film, we’re given a moment to just stare; along with the civilians in the film, we get a moment to look at them in wonder. Ultimately, Godzilla is on-screen for about twenty-to thirty minutes of the film’s 2-hour running length; compared to the presence of dinosaurs clocking in at 15 minutes of Jurassic Park‘s running time, Godzilla proves that even by today’s standards, less can still mean more.

That being said, the film had its glaring weaknesses, all present when the monster isn’t on-screen. And while they didn’t really damage the experience from my end, they can easily get on others’ nerves. When the first teaser footage for the movie was leaked, footage that was intended for viewing only at 2012’s Comic-Con, we were shown scenes of absolute despair. Bodies lay around the outside of a derailed train while the camera hovered above them like they were ants. A voice clip of Robert Oppenheimer served as the soundtrack, speaking remorsefully about the destruction he brought forth with his work in the Manhattan project. For the first time since 1954, we were shown a take on Godzilla that took us back to the symbol it stood for: a punishment and a reminder to humanity. The disappointment I felt most from the movie itself was that it seemed to lack the bleakness its trailers originally portrayed. The deaths were definitely prevalent; images of bodies lined up in half-open bags, normal everyday people being swallowed by tidal waves on the street – but I never felt any of it. There wasn’t one scene at all that even invoke the emotions of the nursing room sequence in the original 1954 Gojira, a scene that could have gone hand in hand with Edwards’ iteration.

The biggest flaw in the film is that it gave us moments to look in awe and wonder at Godzilla himself, but never at the destruction he truly caused.

We never got a moment to stop and breathe with the people whose lives were destroyed by the destruction of the three monsters. We rarely got the chance to connect with the main characters themselves. We learn about the pasts of people like Joe Brody and Dr. Serizawa, and then we never get a shot at really connecting with what we’re given. Normally, human elements in a monster flick are something I don’t give attention to, and enjoy the movie for what it is; the problem here is that the human element in Godzilla is a major part of the story, and it should have been better for how important it’s supposed to be. With the number of times Gareth and the crew have emphasized on how character-driven this film is, its script was something that could have been improved on. Bryan Cranston puts up a stellar performance for the time he gets in the movie; Elizabeth Olsen was a surprise for me in how convincing she was in the role that she played; and Aaron Johnson, who’s received quite a bit of critique, does marginally fine with what he’s given to portray. The faults here didn’t lie in the acting; they came from the script itself. Ultimately, by the time I reached the climax of the film, I forgot about everything else. Despite the flaws in the narrative of the film itself, the spectacle we’re given comes with the right amount of suspense and tension. Godzilla is a film that manages to surround its plot around 300-foot monsters wrestling each other while leveling the cities around them, and at the same time retains a discipline from knowing its limits and keeping its kinetic energy from being overdone or underused.

I want to mention one more thing I loved about this film: the score. There’s not really a way for me to describe it, but the music of this movie felt just as classic as the direction. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been listening to too much Hans Zimmer and Trent Reznor in my free time; I don’t know if it could have been the fact that it reminded me so much of Alexandre Desplat’s work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The soundtrack to this film is something I still can’t stop listening to, and it complemented the movie nearly perfectly.

All in all, believe the IMAX hype around this one: Godzilla is gigantic. It’s the biggest incarnation of the beast yet, and it’s got a budget to back it up. $160 million and the fate of a franchise beloved for sixty years now was handed to a director with a resume comprising only one indie film, and it ended up being one of the best decisions I think Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have ever made. I can already rank it as one of my absolute favorite monster flicks, second only to Jurassic Park; the many homages the director subtly gives to the classics only made me happier to experience a film like that on the big screen one more time. The dude is an absolute nerd, and he doesn’t even attempt to hide it in this film. With how he handled the script he was given, and with how he executed a project bigger than what most experienced directors work with, Gareth Edwards gets only absolute praise from my end. 8.5/10

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