Leapin’ lizard!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What rough beast, its hour come round yet again, slouches toward the multiplex to be reborn? It’s everyone’s old pal Godzilla—welcome back, buddy! First onscreen in 1954′s film of the same name, the title terror is back in a $150-million production directed by Gareth Edwards that tries to rescue everyone’s favorite giant lizard from decades of brand dilution, camp references and 1998′s disastrous Hollywood revision. The best thing about this new Godzilla is that it spares no expense or effort to deliver big, burly IMAX-ified action. Godzilla and diverse other radioactive giant creatures feud, flail at and fight each other and lay waste to huge cities as part of their combat here, and it’s all amazingly shot. The worst thing about this new Godzilla is how that’s the best thing about it.

Don’t misunderstand me: for thrills and spills and rock-’em, sock-’em monster-fighting action, this is a must-see. Director Edwards (of Monsters) and his technical crew combine motion-capture, 3D and megaformat filmmaking to convey the clash and struggle of fascinating beasts, and the net result is embarrassingly enjoyable urban destruction and action. This iteration has technical prowess and computing power that the early franchise efforts by Toho Studios could only dream of with their stomp-able miniatures and man-in-suit effects; but by upping the effects without paying attention to the affect, Godzilla gains majesty and loses meaning.

The 1954 Godzilla, no matter its flaws, was a terrifying allegory of nuclear fear gone mad, unimaginable destruction unleashed by scientific “progress” and the arrogance that the primal forces of the universe were ours to control. You can laugh at the original all you want, but it was a powerful, exciting metaphor for a not-so-brave new world of anxieties and terrors unleashed by the decision to use the A-bomb at Hiroshima; this new film feels like a powerful, exciting metaphor for how much we like monster movies. There’s destruction in it, but no darkness; power, but no purpose; bulk, but no gravity. The film has, as they say, no spurs to prick the sides of its intent, besides its ambition.

But what sides! The new-school Godzilla is a majestic, massive beast with bulk and power in every step; using motion-capture and good judgment, Edwards and his effects team make a film that’s quantum leaps above and beyond the silly, Power-Rangers-on-steroids shallowness of the hard-to-endure Pacific Rim. But the plot’s turns and happenings are more narrated and intoned (by Ken Watanabe) than they are actually explained or proven; it often feels like the film is operating from a cheat sheet, finding all the right answers while failing to show us the actual work it takes to arrive at those answers.

The human actors are good-to-adequate. Bryan Cranston gives good mad scientist; Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are present to give a human sense of scale and progress to the proceedings. But when the camera has to switch from emotive close-ups to god’s-eye-view panoramas of grappling leviathans, something’s going to get lost in transition, and the actors suffer for it. Screenwriter Max Borenstein (Seventh Son) has given us a movie informed by the hypnotic rhythms and easy rules of modern big-budget screenwriting, not the nightmare jolts and uneasy ideas one might hope for. As Godzilla faces down two long-gestating monsters who feast on radiation and devastate all in their wake, the sight feels more like a particularly high-gloss videogame than it does an apocalyptic struggle with the world in the balance, more like Monday Night RAW than the opening of the seven seals.

If there’s a bright light here, it’s Edwards, whose first film Monsters was made for less than $100,000 while still delivering strange sights, actual characters and a sense of something going on under all the trappings. He has an infinitely bigger budget here, and while that comes with some liberties and more than a few obligations, it does not ensnare him as disastrously as it has other directors who’ve made the same leap. There are a few uninspired moments—a shot that multiplies the scale of a similar shot in Jaws with a fraction of the same impact, a pulsating, literally and figuratively transparent egg-sac that evokes both Cameron’s Aliens and Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 take on the material—and that mars the movie, too.

The original Godzilla turned our greatest fears into uneasy entertainment; the most uneasy thing about this new film is how eager it is to simply entertain in hope of a legacy of sequels.

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