by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Co. released director Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, an apocalyptic reflection about the dawning of the Atomic Age and the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla certainly didn’t shy away from delivering extended sequences of earth-shaking destruction, but the devastation was measured against absorbing human drama that made the film all the more eternal. In the wake of its release, Godzilla sparked “Kaiju” (Japanese for “giant monster”) fever around the world, leaving audiences with a hankering for more monster mayhem. In 1998, after multiple sequels that grew increasingly campy in quality, director Roland Emmerich decided to revive the king of monsters for American audiences, but the results proved disastrous and sent Godzilla sulking into the deepest depths of the Pacific for sixteen long years. After years of rumors and speculation about a new Godzilla movie in the works, we finally have director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, an old-fashioned blockbuster in the vein of early science-fiction creature features. Taking its sweet time to work up to the monster smashing and bashing, Godzilla 2014 goes the route of Honda’s ’54 original and injects both emotional weight and jittery nuclear paranoia right into the film’s heart. It’s an admiral attempt from a director whose only other directing credit is a low-budget indie movie from 2010 called Monsters. Despite some flailing human drama and more than a few avoidable clichés, Godzilla 2014 is an exhilarating rush that brings the legendary beast back to the silver screen with must-see style.
Godzilla 2014 begins in 1999 in Janjira, Japan, with nuclear physicist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) discovering strange seismic readings surrounding the nuclear power plant he works for. Despite Joe’s warnings to his superiors, work continues as usual at the plant, but when a tremor causes an explosion, the plant crumbles into ruin and sparks a mass exodus from the area. In all the chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandra (played by Juliette Binoche), is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation and is killed. In present day, Joe remains in Japan, convinced that the government is hiding something about that terrible day. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), diffuses bombs for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son. Upon returning home from a tour of duty, Ford is called to Japan to bail Joe out of jail for trespassing in the quarantine zone. Joe presents Ford with startling new information that suggests that the government has indeed been covering something up. The two travel back to Janjira to do a bit more snooping and collect some of Joe’s old data, but local authorities discover them and take them into custody. Joe and Ford are brought to the ruined nuclear plant, which is housing an egg-like sack that is emitting the same seismic readings Joe picked up on in 1999. After the egg hatches and produces a giant winged creature, the Brody’s team up with two scientists, Dr. Serizawa (played by Ken Wantanabe) and Dr. Graham (played by Sally Hawkins), and the military to track the monster down and kill it. As the military rushes to stop the creature before it can claim more lives, another similar beast is discovered in the Nevada desert. With military strikes proving useless against the creatures, only one hope remains to restore order—Godzilla.
For fans of old-fashion summer blockbusters and classic drive-in monster movies, Edwards’ Godzilla is a gift from the cinematic gods. The opening hour puts most of its emphasis on character development and exposition, teasing us from the opening credits with tiny little glimpses of the title beast. Of course, that isn’t to say that the opening hour of Godzilla is completely monster free. As the film’s promotional campaign has stomped on, it’s become increasingly clear that Godzilla isn’t the only beast turning cities to pebbles. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein pit Godzilla against not one, but two eight-legged terrors nicknamed MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. The MUTOs are truly something to behold, and it is best not to reveal all of their secrets here, but just know that these critters are capable of some major carnage. To up the horror level, Edwards cleverly masks the MUTOs before really allowing us a good glimpse of them in broad daylight. The first time we see a MUTO, its concealed in flashing emergency lights as it fights its way out of a containment cage. From there, they are largely left in the dark, with helicopter spotlights and fiery wreckage illuminating their intimidating frame. It’s extreme effective and it keeps us strung along, always wanting just a little bit more of them. Keeping his monsters concealed also allows Edwards room to really deliver a grand finale that is the very definition of incredible.
While the first hour of Godzilla is a bit slower than most mainstream audience members may be used to, Edwards understands why we plunked down our hard earned money for a seat in the theater. The film’s special effects are worth the price of admission alone, as there are some truly epic set pieces that will blow you into the lobby of the theater. The first encounter between one of the MUTOs and Godzilla is something that will give you a sharp chill of excitement, especially as Godzilla belts out a might roar that shakes your every organ. The rest of the encounter plays out mostly on television screens, but it still looks might impressive even at a distance. Some of the other awe-inducing set pieces include Godzilla’s watery arrival that leaves the streets of Honolulu flooded, a devastated Las Vegas that was briefly glimpsed in the trailer, a fiery train track encounter between a group of soldiers and one hungry MUTO, and a terrifying showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge that leaves soldiers gaping in horror at jets tumbling out of the overcast skies. Considering that this is Edwards’ first foray into multi-million dollar blockbuster territory, he handles it like a professional and he uses the moments as wicked teases for a final act that stomps the puny human dramatics. I won’t reveal much about the final royal rumble, but know that it is everything a monster movie aficionado could possibly hope for. It’s a cinematic achievement that truly makes you feel like you’re in the action, darting between the feet of warring gods who are determined to rip each other to ribbons.
As early reviews of Godzilla have poured in, much has been made about the scripts one-dimensional characters and the phoned-in performances from some respectable names. Leading the pack is Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, who really isn’t given much screen time. He gets a small window to show off that explosive temper his fans have come to know and love, but he also gives Godzilla some misty-eyed heartbreak that leaves you wishing there was more of him. Taylor-Johnson is second in command as Ford, a formulaic action hero who manages to make it out of every single life-threatening moment with a bit of mud on his face, a slight limp, and a bloody nick on his forehead. Together, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson make an appealing on-screen duo, but their partnership is short lived. Olsen is passable as Elle, Ford’s pretty wife who is simply asked to hug her son close, worry about Ford, push a hospital stretcher around, and run in fright from an advancing Godzilla. Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa mostly stands around in amazement of the death and destruction around him, but he is entertaining as he ominously explains Godzilla’s backstory and suggests that the monsters should duke it out. Sally Hawkins is wasted in the background role of Dr. Graham, a character who mostly dashes around after Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz, the cookie-cutter military man in charge of nuking the rampaging abominations into ash.
The biggest question surrounding Edwards’ Godzilla is whether or not American audiences are ready to embrace these towering monsters again. Last year’s Pacific Rim—which was director Guillermo del Toro’s giddy comic book tribute to Toho’s line of legendary kaiju—suggested that they might not be, as it opened to low numbers despite critical acclaim. While Godzilla’s marketing campaign has sparked mysterious intrigue, it stands as a reinvention that remains fiercely loyal to the shadowy agony and radioactive paranoia of the original. Does this Godzilla come with the same complexity and depth as Honda’s original? Well, it re-establishes the big guy’s atomic roots, and it dares to echo recent tragedies such as nuclear meltdowns, earthquakes, and tsunamis. There’s no doubt that this Godzilla is thought provoking, even when it transitions into drive-in mayhem in the second act. As far as Toho’s most loyal fans go, some may be disappointed by the lack of screen time Godzilla receives, but I truly think it works, especially when we look back at Atomic Age classics that concealed their monsters until it was absolutely necessary to show them off. In addition, monster fans will also get a big kick out of the subtle tributes to other Toho Kaiju. (Check out the name of Wantanabe’s character!) Overall, while the character drama may not be especially noteworthy, Godzilla 2014 stands proudly as an extraordinarily grand piece of monster movie making. It is guaranteed to wow audience members of all ages, and send off those with a soft spot for classic monster movies with a nostalgic adrenaline rush.
by Steve Habrat
It is hard to believe that British director Gareth Edwards’ ultra low budget science fiction film Monsters cost only around $500,000 to make. Just take a look at the crisp cinematography, the dreamy score, and charred special effects and you will be absolutely staggered that he made so much out of so little. Edwards masks the low budget by turning Monsters into a character drama, one that only uses the alien invasion as a political backdrop for his two main characters. Heavily critical of the tense American views on immigration and illegal aliens, Monsters is a sharp jab at how some American citizens view our neighbors to the south. That being said, I more than believe that Monsters has its heart in the right place, exploring the idea that we fear what we don’t understand, but I wish Monsters wouldn’t have been so heavy handed with this message, taking advantage of every opportunity to point out what it is attempting to do. I also wish that Edwards had added a bit more action to the film. I enjoyed traveling with these characters and seeing all the nifty little touches along the way but I feel Monsters would have benefitted from a little more action. I say this because the night-vision shootout in the opening moments leaves the viewer shaken, battered, and wanting a hell of a lot more.
At the beginning of Monsters, we are told that a NASA deep-space probe crashed near the United States-Mexico border. In the wake of its crash, alien life forms begin to appear, causing the U.S. and Mexican armed forces to attempt to contain the infected area. The U.S. quickly puts up a massive wall to keep the towering creatures from crossing over onto American soil. Meanwhile, in San José, a young American photojournalist named Andrew (Played by Scoot McNairy) is asked by a wealthy employer to escort his daughter back into America. Andrew reluctantly accepts the offer and sets out to find the beautiful Samantha (Played by Whitney Able). The two strike up a friendship over the course of their journey, Andrew beginning to fall for Samantha, who also happens to be engaged. After getting mugged and loosing their passports, Andrew makes a shaky arrangement to have Samantha escorted to the American wall but the journey will take them through the infected zone and put their lives at risk. Or so they have been led to believe.
Monsters makes the wise choice to make the viewer feel like a tourist on Mexican soil, allowing us to wander around with the characters and take in the local culture. We are shown how difficult it is for these individuals who face constant attacks by the creatures. We see Mexican civilians mourning their losses while America offers little to no aid to the Mexican armed forces. It is this raw emotion that really takes its toll on the viewer and makes Monsters such an emotional journey. Electronic musician John Hopkins’ soaring score, at once dreamily inquisitive, intimate, and romantic, compliments partially destroyed cities and moist eyes of the mourners. It was also interesting to watch how the Mexican civilians have routed their daily lives around the constant problems with the extraterrestrial beings. I was hooked on Edwards’ camera bobbing around and showing me street signs that warn those who travel down that road to have a gas mask handy and indicating that we are near an infected zone. The eeriest is a gigantic sign that indicates just how enormous the infected area is, our heroes silently absorbing their risky situation.
Since the film has such a low budget, Edwards is forced to rely on his main protagonists to drive the film. They need to be convincing and engaging or else the film will loose us, as it can only go so far with the visitors-in-a-foreign-land approach. McNairy and Able do have a spark and it isn’t hard to see that the film is swerving into romantic territory. McNairy’s Andrew desperately tries to keep things as casual as possible, always trying to break the awkward tension between him and Samantha. Able’s Samantha is battling an inner conflict, trying to repress her growing feelings for Andrew, who bottles up a secret of his own. Together they face tense situations that never amount to much of anything, a close-encounter here and a false alarm there, Andrew always quick to whip out his camera and attempt to document what they are seeing. Only once do things really get deadly for the duo, but it is brief and we only really see the gruesome aftermath of what has panned out. I’m all for the subtle approach but I’d like to see why we are all so terrified of these creatures. All we ever really see them do it wander into a city here or pick up a car there, which adds a layer of minor disappointment to the road trip that is Monsters.
For a film that lacks a big Hollywood price tag, Edwards does an incredible job with the special effects, which were said to have been accomplished on his laptop. His aliens are a sight to behold and I’m reluctant to reveal too much about them, as they are one of the only real sources of mystery in the film. Things get very apocalyptic when the duo finally sets foot on American soil, a sequence that offers another minor surprise. As I said, Monsters is too ready to explain itself away to the viewer, refusing to keep its politics ambiguous. It’s not hard to decipher the message of the film if you’ve been filled in on the plot so I feel it was unnecessary to have the characters explain things further to us. For its handful of flaws, Monsters is still an above average science fiction drama, one with likable characters and lovely use of location (wait for the sequence where Andrew and Samantha spend the night at an Aztec pyramid). I just wish Edwards wouldn’t have shied away from tossing us around a little bit more. Monsters would be so much better if you were still recovering from it the next day.
Monsters is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.