Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla: Radioactive waste

Godzilla (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, creature violence and civilian casualties

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.16.14

The good stuff, up front:

Fairness demands that I acknowledge visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel and production designer Owen Paterson, who have done a superb job with this film’s monster mayhem. As also was the case with last year’s Pacific Rim, the massive sense of scale is handled quite persuasively, and Northern California audiences will get a kick out of seeing familiar San Francisco landmarks flattened like pancakes.

When Godzilla trails a winged, radiation-chomping MUTO (Massive Unidentified
Terrestrial Organism) to San Francisco, you just know the Golden Gate Bridge
will be toast!
Additionally, our dino-sized star is granted a quite distinctive personality.


If mankind as a whole behaved as inanely as the cretins in this narrative, the monsters would deserve to win.

Writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham have concocted a truly absurd premise, and their dialogue sparks unintentional laughter at every turn. This is purple, afternoon-soap melodrama at its absolute worst, and matters aren’t helped by director Gareth Edwards’ insistence that his actors deliver all their lines with the sort of clipped, wooden stoicism we associate with stuff that routinely got skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

OK, let’s assume — for the sake of argument — that Edwards & Co. deliberately tried to imitate the hilariously grave tone of the post-atomic sci-fi flicks back in the 1950s. That would suggest we treat this update of Godzilla as high camp: the sort of romp that becomes entertaining precisely because it IS so solemnly sincere.

Except that this clearly wasn’t Edwards’ intention, given how he has insisted, in pre-publicity interviews, that Hollywood hasn’t delivered enough “serious takes on giant-monster movies.” Hate to tell you, Gareth, but you’ve not improved that situation.

So, maybe he’s so clumsy that he didn’t realize he was trying for camp. That still doesn’t work, because the aforementioned mayhem includes multitudes of civilian fatalities, with some folks perishing quite horribly. Edwards goes for the same death-by-apocalyptic spectacle that made previous doomsday popcorn flicks such as 2012 and last summer’s Man of Steel so unsettling.

Some films of this nature have begun to display a level of gleeful, kid-like callousness that evokes images of little boys pulling the wings off flies. Just as hard-core torture porn flicks such as Saw have turned complex evisceration into a spectator sport, these mainstream action flicks have upped the ante so much that (for example) the stomping of innocent bystanders becomes a pinball-style laugh line.

Which is ironic, because — for the most part — we care more about these innocent bystanders, than the tight-lipped blank slates who pose as this story’s protagonists. Not one of these so-called stars plays anything approximating a real character; they’re all one-dimensional archetypes ... and quite stupid ones, at that.

The title credits unfold over a montage that hearkens back to the post-WWII years, and events that subtly re-cast what led to Japanese director Ishirô Honda’s 1954 “documentary” about the original Godzilla. (And you thought all our atomic bomb explosions were mere tests? Tsk-tsk.)

Flash-forward to 1999, as secretive scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate an odd event at a collapsed mine in the Philippines: a cave that resembles something left over from the pod chamber in 1979’s Alien. Our shadowy government wonks find themselves looking at the fossilized, highly radioactive remains of something very large, and quite old.

Something that might have left some part of itself to gestate ... a part that may have departed quite recently, in search of a fresh food source.

Elsewhere, at the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant near Tokyo, American nuclear scientists Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), are troubled by an increasing series of tremors that don’t seem earthquake-related, but nonetheless are increasing in strength. Their young son, Ford (CJ Adams), is at a nearby school when catastrophe strikes; he watches in horror as the plant crumbles into oblivion, its staff fleeing in panic.

(Given the horrific spring 2011 earthquake that wreaked such havoc and crippled Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, many viewers — here and abroad — likely will find this sequence quite disturbing.)

Events flash-forward again, now to the present day, long after the zone surrounding the former Janjira plant has been placed under a Chernobyl-style quarantine. Joe doesn’t believe it, and has spent the intervening years obsessing over what actually happened that day, and whether fresher events suggest an impending reprisal.

Joe’s son Ford has grown into a strapping Naval officer (now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who specializes in disarming bombs, and has his own family: wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and 4-year-old Sam (Carson Bolde). Having just returned to their San Francisco home after completing a military tour, Ford is dismayed to be summoned to Japan, to bail his father out of jail, for trespassing in the Janjira zone.

That visit proves instructive in many ways, not least because Joe and Ford finally encounter Serizawa and Graham, who seem to have been up to some government-sanctioned no good at the former power plant.

This is roughly the point where discerning viewers will eye each other skeptically. In the annals of Truly Dumb Ideas, the notion of “investigating” a clearly dangerous whatzit in this manner, for well over a decade, ranks right up there with stepping on a third rail to find out if you’d get a little tingle.

All heck predictably breaks loose, unleashing what top-flight American Naval commander — David Strathairn, as Admiral Stenz — dubs a (ahem) Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO for short. Then, rather unexpectedly, the carnage-inducing MUTO’s presence also prompts the arrival of something equally large and ferocious: the ever-lovin’ prehistoric behemoth we all know and love as The Big G.

It must be remembered, following this creature’s aforementioned 1954 debut, that Godzilla quickly became a global savior in dozens of film sequels, protecting Earth from an increasingly hilarious cycle of menaces such as Gigan, Biollante, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and — honestly, I’m not making this up — Hedorah, the Smog Monster.

All of which explains the somber Serizawa’s decades-long search for what he has termed Earth’s “alpha predator,” and the role Nature has given it, on our planet.

Unfortunately, despite his obvious earnestness, Serizawa may be this film’s silliest character (a hard call, with so much competition). Edwards shamefully wastes Watanabe, a truly fine actor who does nothing but wander from one scene to the next, his mouth forever hanging open, glazed expression on his face, mumbling dire, fortune cookie pronouncements and looking like a grandfatherly escapee from a frathouse stoner party.

Actually, though, Strathairn gets the worst dialogue: another highly skilled actor forced to spout ridiculous lines that must have made him shake his head, between scenes.

Hawkins’ Graham is no better; she follows Serizawa everywhere, like a lost puppy dog, looking stricken and occasionally spouting utter nonsense. Her character serves no useful purpose, and seems to have been inserted solely to prevent Elizabeth Olson and Juliette Binoche from being the only females of consequence.

Cranston fares a bit better, bringing his experience as the increasingly unhinged Walter White (TV’s Breaking Bad) to this role of an anguished scientist who goes off the rails because nobody will believe him. Olson and Binoche hit their marks as loyal wives and doting mothers; little else distinguishes them.

Once the story kicks into gear, Taylor-Johnson emerges as the ground-level hero, a role he handles respectably well. Genre fans who remember him as the geeky Dave Lizewski in the Kick-Ass franchise will be surprised by how persuasively he has bulked up here; he makes a stalwart soldier, as the only character who seems to comprehend the true gravity of these escalating events.

He’s also present for the film’s more suspenseful moments, which tend to be (refreshingly) smaller and quieter: a nail-biting, late-night reconnaissance stroll along a railroad bridge, to determine if the track is clear; the impromptu responsibility for a little boy separated from his parents, who comes to peril under unexpected circumstances.

During these scenes, Edwards displays some actual directorial talent. Most of the rest of the time ... not so much. With only one previous big-screen film to his credit — 2010’s little-seen Monsters — I’m frankly amazed he was entrusted with a project of this magnitude. He simply isn’t a very good judge of pacing or atmosphere, and he clearly has no skill at drawing credible performances from his cast.

Director Guillermo del Toro had the wisdom to make the monster-hunting in last year’s Pacific Rim an international affair: a logical decision, when the entire planet is in peril. Edwards and his writers skipped that notion, instead leaving their new Godzilla an entirely American affair, even to the extent that U.S. overseers control all activities at the Janjira plant.

I guess, since these massive critters only threaten Hawaii, Las Vegas and San Francisco, the rest of the world is content to let us stew in our own monster-laden juice.

Certainly we’d deserve such a fate. Once the critters start laying waste to San Francisco, we get a scene of high-rise office workers happily plugging away at their desks, apparently oblivious to the ear-splitting carnage taking place mere blocks away, until the MUTO reduces them to so much brick and dust. I think we call this “Darwin in action.”

I still recall how critics and Godzilla fans alike sharpened their claws and filleted director Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake, months before that film opened to disapproving or outright hostile reviews. Granted, it was a big, dumb monster movie, but at least Emmerich and longtime partner Dean Devlin knew how to keep the tone light and entertaining; their movie isn’t nearly as bad as its woeful reputation suggests.

More to the point, it feels like Shakespeare, compared to this one.

Movie summers often are characterized according to a given year’s opening volley. Let’s hope this Godzilla isn't an indication of what’s to come, because — if so — it’s gonna be a long and disappointing four months.

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