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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Godzilla


Sounds have a very distinct effect on our lives, even if we don't realize it.  Some sounds, even if they have not been heard in some time, can immediately evoke a flood of memories and nostalgia once heard again.  For many, the sound of Godzilla's roar is one of those sounds. For this reviewer, hearing that roar brings back memories of time spent watching worn out VHS tapes of Terror of MechaGodzilla and pretending to be giant monsters with my brother in the living room floor, crushing paper bag buildings under our feet.  First stomping his way onto movie screens in 1954, Godzilla immediately worked his way into the hearts of many around the globe, and, after a decade long absence, Godzilla has finally returned to the big screen. This movie marks the second American remake of the original Gojira.  But don't worry; this one is significantly different from the abysmal 1998 Matthew Broderick starring film.

The story for this iteration is not one we haven't seen before, particularly in this genre.  After an incident in 1999 causes the shut down of a nuclear power plant in Japan, American Soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) begins to lose touch with his father (Bryan Cranston) due his continued conspiracy theories surrounding the event.  15 years later, two giant creatures given the name MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) hatch.  Military forces scramble to find a way to stop the creatures, causing Ford and his family to find themselves in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. As the MUTO make their way through the United States, the only thing which can seemingly stop the monsters is a force of nature in the form of a certain giant lizard.

Despite the giant monsters being this film's draw, there is a human element present (as there always has been in this series), which is only made interesting by the few capable actors in this ensemble. Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe make the biggest impressions. As Joe Brody, Cranston gives an emotionally charged performance that is actually quite moving in places.  Watanabe is easily the most memorable of the human characters, playing Dr. Serizawa, a man who has been hunting Godzilla for some time.Though his role is mostly exposition-laced, Watanabe's acting is strong.  Although the film would love for you to enjoy Elizabeth Olsen's performance as Brody's wife back home in San Francisco, her character is used so sparingly that she is forgotten until her next brief appearance.

The only real weak link in this movie is the performance given by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Not an actor known for his honed technique, Johnson gives a performance so robotic you almost wonder if he is the one added with digital effects, not Godzilla.  For a man who goes through as much trauma and skirts by so much danger through this film, he acts bored by everything that surrounds him, even when being chased by a train that has been set ablaze.

But the human performances are not why you go see Godzilla. When the time comes for the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) to arrive and for the big man himself to show up, that is when the film is orchestrated to perfection.  Scale is important in these movies, and this is a film delivered on a scale truly only worthy of your local IMAX screen.  Godzilla's spikes look like icebergs as they sail through the San Francisco Bay.  Godzilla's design is a blend of original and new that is a chill-inducing sight to behold.  Don't go into this film expecting that gorgeous view from the outset, though. Gareth Edwards makes the brilliant decision to hold off on a full reveal of the King of the Monsters until audience anticipation is at its absolute highest. This will surely induce a lot of cheers from the crowd.

Once this film launches into one of its many action set pieces, it is easy to forget that this is only Edwards' second film.  Everything is executed so pitch-perfectly on the action front that one would expect we had a seasoned veteran behind the camera.  This, along with the obvious influence of films such as Jurassic Park and Jaws are perhaps why comparisons to Spielberg are being thrown Edwards' way.  

One of the most brilliant choices from Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer's, perspective is that we never get many direct shots of Godzilla or the MUTO, even when they are fighting. Views of the creatures are seen through windows, goggles, binoculars, and a plethora of other devices.  This helps to raise the action and the tension to incredible levels, making the sheer scale of the destruction around the camera feel all the more realistic.

Fans coming in wanting to see some big kaiju fights will not be disappointed.  Godzilla and the MUTO get into some real brawls with Man of Steel levels of destruction (although, this time, fans cannot say it was unwarranted).  Although it is easy to have faith that our protagonist Godzilla will make it out of the fights, Edwards does a good job of giving the MUTO the upper hand more than once.  At times, Godzilla's age shows, with the fight seeming too much for him. This leads to perhaps the only terrible shot involving the beast, one where he looks into the eyes of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as if to say, "Why, Aaron Johnson?  Why is this happening to me?"  But then we see a certain blue tail appear mid-fight, and the crowd erupts into a roar of cheers and applause.

Godzilla is not a perfect movie when it comes to its script, but, let's be honest, that's not why you're going to go see this (Though to be fair, the script is certainly better than what we saw with Amazing Spider-man 2 as much more thought is put into the origins/motivations of the characters, for one). This is a movie with protagonists that you can mostly care about, but is over-shadowed by a series of action set pieces that are some of the most visually engaging we have seen this year.  Godzilla brings back the King of the Monsters in a big way, and it will be hard for even the most die hard fan to leave disappointed.  Grab yourself a big bucket of popcorn and prepare for one of the most entertaining movies of the summer.  You would even be okay seeing this one in 3D.

I give it an A-

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