Tuesday, December 30, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla (2014)

America gives Godzilla another try.

The 2014 American take on Godzilla from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures happened due to the determination of filmmaker Yoshimitsu Banno, director of the 1971 Godzilla film Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah), to work with the King of the Monsters again. In 2004, Banno made a deal with Godzilla's Japanese home Toho Studios that would allow him to make a short Godzilla film in IMAX 3D. Banno's story featured Godzilla battling a strange monster called Deathla, which had similarities to Hedorah, from the Argentina/Brazil border all the way into North America, the fight ending in either New York City or Las Vegas.

As the project was developed over the years, with others coming on board to give their creative input, it began to change. It grew from a short to feature length. And it ran into money troubles. It was taken to Legendary Pictures, the production company behind such films as Trick 'r Treat, 300, The Hangover, Watchmen, and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, in hopes that they would save it from falling apart.

Legendary Pictures took the project on. Although Banno retains an executive producer credit on the finished film, development started over from the ground up. David Callaham provided an intial draft that was then worked on by Black List-honored writer Max Borenstein, with uncredited polishes from David S. Goyer, Drew Pearce, and Frank Darabont. Visual effects artist turned director Gareth Edwards had gotten a lot of attention for his 2010 giant monster movie Monsters, which he made on a budget less than $500,000, and he landed the job of bringing Godzilla back to the big screen after a 10 year absence in a film that would also be an attempt to prove that an American studio could do Godzilla justice after the disappointing 1998 TriStar Godzilla.

The title sequence of the film gives some back story on Legendary's version of Godzilla, with newspaper clippings, official reports, and stock footage telling us of missing or destroyed submarines, sightings of a creature, the resulting formation of a multinational coalition called Monarch, the detonation of an atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1954 as an attempt to kill this giant creature. Throughout the sequence, we get glimpses of the monster that's causing so much trouble, and it's obviously Godzilla. His spines breaking the surface of the ocean as he swims along. Godzilla begins to rise from the sea 2 minutes into the film, we almost get a reveal of him right then... and then the atomic blast wipes him from our vision.

Monarch still exists in 1999, when they're involved with the investigation of a mining accident in the Philippines. Doctor Ishiro Serizawa (named after Godzilla '54 director Ishirō Honda and that film's hero) arrives with his assistant Vivienne Graham to find that around forty miners and the equipment they were going to be using to dig down to a radiation pocket in hopes of finding a uranium deposit have been lost when the ground collapsed into a cavern below.

Within the radiation-filled cavern is the fossil of some kind of massive beast and a perfectly preserved spore. There's another spore that appears to have hatched... And a trail of ragged earth that leads from the cavern to the ocean.

Unexplained, patterned tremors leading from the Philippines to Janjira, Japan has Joe Brody, an American who works as supervisor at the Janjira nuclear power plant, concerned that the reactor will have to be shut down, an idea which the company higher-ups are not keen on. Joe is so stressed out over this situation that he's neglecting his family and even forgot that it's his own birthday.

Joe's wife Sandra works at the plant with him, and he sends her, along with other technicians, into the bowels of the plant to make sure the tremors readings aren't just being caused by faulty sensors. While Sandra and her team are in the tunnels of level five, a tremor hits the plant hard, causing a reactor breach. Filling with radiation, level five has to be sealed off. Sandra and the technicians are lost.

Through a window at the school he attends, Joe and Sandra's young son Ford witnesses the power plant collapsing.

Fifteen years later, Ford is serving in the U.S. Navy and is returning home to San Francisco after a fourteen month deployment, looking to spend some quality time with his wife Elle and young son Sam. As he's putting Sam to bed on his first night back home, Ford's son asks him, "Are you still gonna be here tomorrow?" Ford answers, "Yeah." But he won't be.

Ford and Elle are getting frisky when they're interrupted by a phone call. Joe is in Japan and has been arrested for trespassing in the Janjira quarantine zone. He has spent the last fifteen years obsessing over the destruction of the power plant, seeking to find the truth of what happened there. This has driven a wedge between Joe and Ford, but Ford still rushes to Japan to help his father out.

Picking Joe up from jail, Ford finds that his father is seeking answers with an increased fervor now because frequency monitors he has had set up near where the plant used to stand are picking up the same readings as he was seeing before the tragedy occurred. He wants to go into the quarantine zone, to their old house, and get his old data so he can show officials how the frequency readings match up. There is some kind of mysterious "thing" alive in the quarantine zone, and it is "talking".

Ford reluctantly joins his father on a trip into the quarantine zone, where they find that their gas masks and makeshift hazmat suits aren't necessary. The area is clean of radiation. After stopping by their old house and getting what Joe needs, they see from a distance that there is a lot of activity around the power plant site. Lights, helicopters, personnel.

They get a very close look at what's going on when armed guards show up and take them into custody, bringing them to the plant site. In the midst of it all is some kind of large, glowing cocoon. This is the reason for the quarantine zone. It's this thing that destroyed the plant.

Within minutes of Joe being questioned and warning everyone who's listening - which includes Serizawa and Graham - that history is about to repeat itself, the cocoon emits an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out the system of the people studying it. A kaiju called a MUTO or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism then emerges from the cocoon and wreaks havoc on the plant site as it escapes.

Joe sees the creature that caused the reactor leak that killed his wife. And then the platform he's standing on collapses. Ford witnesses what happens to his father, then he sees the MUTO take flight. Joe clings to life until the following morning, but passes away with Ford at his side while being medevaced.

Monarch's scientific operation becomes a military search and destroy operation, with the U.S. Navy attempting to track the MUTO across the Pacific despite its EMP energy messing with radars and satellites.

Since Joe is dead, Serizawa and Graham talk to Ford to see if he has any information that will help them in the search, but they end up being the ones who deliver exposition. They tell Ford all about an ancient alpha predator called Gojira or Godzilla, who was discovered in 1954 when American nuclear submarine USS Nautilus reached the lower depths and accidentally stirred him up to the surface.

Godzilla is a creature from a time millions of years in the past, when the Earth was ten times more radioactive than it is today and lifeforms fed on the radiation. As surface radiation levels subsided, the creatures were driven into the depths of the ocean, where they could absorb the radiation they needed from the planet's core. All those nuclear bomb detonations in the '50s weren't tests, they were attempts to kill Godzilla.

The fossil found in the Philippines was a creature like Godzilla that had been killed by parasitic spores. One of those spores hatched, releasing the MUTO, which burrowed to the nearest source of radiation. The Janjira power plant. It fed on the radiation there for fifteen years, growing within its cocoon. Monarch was afraid to destroy the cocoon, fearing that would release the radiation it had absorbed.

All Ford has to offer in return is his father's belief that the frequency patterns showed the MUTO talking. Was something responding?

Serizawa is convinced that if the military is unable to locate and destroy the MUTO, nature will balance things out on its own. Godzilla will return to do battle with the creature.

Ford is released from custody to catch a flight to San Francisco out of the Honolulu airport. While he's trying to get to his gate, the military finds a missing Russian nuclear submarine in the jungle on Oahu. The MUTO is there, feeding on its radiation.

As the military attempts to engage the creature, it moves on... To the Honolulu airport, where it smashes the elevated train rails and causes more trouble for Ford.

Meanwhile, something else is approaching the island, swimming through the Pacific. Something so large that it creates a tsunami that smashes into Honolulu as it reaches Oahu. Godzilla rises from the sea and heads for the airport.

Godzilla is first presented just through shots of his massive body. His spines. His tail. His side. His feet. 57 minutes into the film, the camera pans up his body, to his face, and he lets out a roar.

Godzilla is a CG creation in this movie, but unlike the total re-design he got for the 1998 TriStar film, here his design is close to his classic Toho suitmation look. 550 feet long, 355 feet tall, this iteration of Godzilla is very reptilian looking and extremely bulky. Martial artist T.J. Storm did the motion capture performance for Godzilla, and the production consulted with motion capture master Andy Serkis to help them properly bring the monsters to life.

Godzilla and the MUTO face off in Honolulu, but just as they're about to do battle, the film cuts away. In San Francisco, Sam gets glimpses of the monster fight that devastates Honolulu on a news report, and those glimpses are all the audience is given of the fight, too.

With this moment, Godzilla '14 began to deeply annoy me. Gareth Edwards wanted to toy with the audience's anticipation levels, he wanted to hold off on Godzilla action for as long as possible so the viewer would be dying to see it by the time he finally let them watch it. This approach frustrates me. Seeing Godzilla is the entire reason we're watching a movie called Godzilla, so give us Godzilla. We've had a slow build up to this reveal, we're an hour into the movie already, let us watch some action.

At the end of the fight we didn't see, the MUTO took flight again, headed east, and Godzilla dove into the sea to swim after it. The monsters are on a course that will take them right to the San Francisco area... where their paths will converge with that of a third monster that has entered the picture. As it turns out, the male MUTO was sending out a mating call to a female of its species, the creature that was within the second spore found in the Philippines.

That spore was vivisected, studied for years, deemed to be dormant and then discarded in a nuclear waste disposal facility in the Nevada desert. Now it has hatched, a larger, wingless MUTO emerging from within and heading for San Francisco, destroying Las Vegas on its way.

Military forces follow Godzilla across the Pacific, and since Ford is unable to get a commercial flight, with the Honolulu airport being destroyed and all, he catches a ride with the Navy. His ride ends in Lone Pine, California, where his plane has to land because it's within EMP range of the flying MUTO.

The military's plan to deal with the three monsters is to lure them twenty miles off the coast of San Francisco, where a nuclear warhead will be detonated on a boat. The hope is that the sheer force of the blast will kill them, just like the atomic blasts in the '50s were supposed to kill Godzilla. Serizawa disagrees with this plan, believing the monsters should just be allowed to fight it out, but he's assured that today's bombs make the '50s bombs look like firecrackers.

The Minuteman ICBM warheads for the bait and bomb plan are transported from Lone Pine to San Francisco by train, and since Ford works in explosive ordnance disposal, he knows a whole lot about bombs, and is thus able to talk himself onto the train mission. Before the train gets rolling, Ford finally gets in contact with Elle after they've been playing phone tag for most of the movie.

The train trip doesn't go well. The female MUTO doesn't wait around for the warheads to reach San Francisco, she meets them en route and destroys the train while snacking on the radiation. Only Ford and one warhead survive the MUTO's attack. They're both taken to San Francisco by air.

As the monsters near the city, San Francisco prepares for disaster. Elle is a nurse at an SF hospital where the patients are being evacuated to shelters. She sends Sam to a shelter outside of the city with a co-worker, but chooses to stay behind in the area of the hospital herself because she knows Ford is coming to find her.

The bus carrying Sam is crossing the Golden Gate Bridge when Godzilla emerges from the sea right beside it. Military forces on the scene open fire on Goji, which appears to just make him angry. To get away from their pesky gunfire, he smashes through the bridge and continues on his way.

The warhead is activated in San Francisco Bay, with an old school analog timer set to detonate it in 90 minutes. This immediately proves to have been a terrible idea when the winged MUTO drops out of the sky, snatches the warhead, and carries it into downtown San Fran to deliver it to the female as a gift that will be the centerpiece of the nest they proceed to build. If the bomb blows up there, 100,000 civilians will be caught in the blast.

Ford is recruited into a team that performs a HALO jump into the city to locate the warhead and either disarm it or get it onto a boat that will motor it out into the bay.

Elle finally sees monsters for herself when Godzilla shows up down the street from her. As the winged MUTO flies in to take on the alpha predator, Elle enters a shelter. Its blast doors close just as the kaiju collide, giving Edwards a reason to cut away from the action again. 90 minutes into the movie and he still wants us to wait. This is infuriating.

Night falls as Ford and the rest of the bomb team make their HALO jump into the city, passing the monsters on their way down. As the military men handle the warhead issue, infiltrating the MUTO nest, blowing up the glowing eggs within, and hustling the warhead to a boat, the kaiju do battle around them. Finally, we are privy to some monster-on-monster fighting action, now that the creatures are shrouded in darkness.

Godzilla and the MUTOs pummel each other and smash each other through buildings. Eventually Godzilla's spines begin to glow and he unleashes his atomic breath. The fighting we can (sort of) see is packed within 16 minutes of running time, and most of those minutes are focused on the human characters dealing with the bomb. Godzilla destroys the MUTOs, finishing off the female with an awesome move that made me want to cheer when I saw him do basically the same thing in Godzilla 2000.

Following the rather unimpressive fight, Godzilla collapses from exhaustion and is presumed dead. Ford gets the warhead out to sea, where it detonates safely.

The next morning, Ford, Sam, and Elle are reunited. More importantly, Godzilla gets back on his feet and wades into the sea a victorious hero heralded as the savior of the city, the king of the monsters.

Godzilla 2014 has a commendable respect for the history of the franchise and the character of Godzilla, but Gareth Edwards' anticipation-building approach doesn't work for me because I don't feel the pay-off is worth it. There's not enough to the final MUTO/Godzilla San Francisco battle to make me okay with the fact that the film cuts away from the previous action.

I was sorely disappointed with Godzilla '14 during my theatrical viewing of it. Waiting for Goji to show up, I felt like Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. "Eventually you do plan to have Godzilla in your Godzilla movie, right?" I even briefly nodded off during the wait. As it turns out, the answer was yes, there is Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but just a little bit of him. I didn't stopwatch his screen time, but IMDb trivia says he's on screen for just 8 minutes, and that certainly sounds accurate to me.

I like the cast. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, it's a great ensemble. But nobody aside from Serizawa makes an impression, and he stands out as cool because he's always hyping Godzilla. Ford and Elle barely register as characters, they're more like viewer stand-ins who are there for us to witness the action through... But we don't actually witness the action! We just hang out with these people.

Godzilla 2014 is sort of maddening to me, because it's well made and a fine Godzilla story at its core, it's just presented in a style that I find very irritating. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a satisfying one.

It was a huge success, however. A sequel was announced soon after its opening weekend, set for a June 8, 2018 release with Max Borenstein returning to write the screenplay and Gareth Edwards back in the director's chair. My hope is that they will make the sequel in a much more exciting, action-packed style that will allow Godzilla to be on screen for a lot more than 8 minutes.

Before Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. can get their Godzilla 2 to theatres, there will be a new Toho Godzilla movie to watch. The studio recently announced that they are developing a Godzilla film that will go into production in 2015, and may be released next year as well.

The Godzilla franchise is 60 years old, but it shows no sign of stopping. It's like its star: it goes dormant for a while from time to time, but it always comes back eventually. Godzilla will always return as long as the world needs him.

1 comment:

  1. I was soooooooo disappointed in this movie. I'm actually surprised that the big guy had as many as 8 minutes of screen time. Of that 8, and I'm estimating here, about one and a half actually showed him doing something. Might not have been so bad if all the characters didn't suck, but of course, they did.