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Godzilla (2014)

A Yawn 60 Years in the Making

After Pacific Rim came out last summer, I wondered if there would be any steam left in pop culture's already questionable affection for giant-monster disaster porn by the time Gareth Edwards' take on Godzilla rolled around. Judging by Warner Brothers' just-green-lit sequel (fueled by an impressive opening-weekend haul), I'd say we haven't seen the last of these scaly, personality-free CGI creations who treat cities like sandboxes. For better or worse, Godzilla and his ilk are here to stay.

Put me in the "worse" camp. I know, I'm not supposed to judge summer movies on the merits of actual art, and who am I to tell your inner child not to be pants-wettingly ecstatic that "they" finally got Godzilla's roar "right"? And on and on and on.

Look, if you're okay with spending two hours and between eight and nineteen dollars on something you've literally seen dozens of times in your movie-going life, I won't pretend that anything I write will prevent another multiplex version of Groundhog Day. I am not interested in you because you are not interesting.

But as an artist and a film critic, I'll assume that at least some of the people behind this motion picture would be offended if I described what they'd spent months laboring over as "an utterly generic but effective product whose revenue-generating mass appeal is a triumph of marketing prowess, and has little to do with the quality of the filmmaking, storytelling, or performances."

And yet here I am, about to launch into a spoilerific review of a movie that's not worth seeing. That's right, I recommend that you avoid the new Godzilla at all costs. It offers nothing new and fumbles even the simple act of bundling time-tested entertainment clichés on its way to being an excruciatingly boring two-plus hours.

One of the main reasons we cherish 1954's Godzilla is because Ishiro Honda didn't just direct a giant-monster movie: it was a bold commentary on the nuclear age that offered a real-world warning in the form of a man in a giant, rubber creature suit. In creating weapons that offended nature, mankind stirred nature's wrath and had to sacrifice a bit of itself to avoid extinction. Like the best science fiction, Godzilla tickled both mind and gut.

Fast forward sixty years to Max Borenstein's screenplay, which wants to be about many things and winds up being about nothing. His story is too schizophrenic to be sensible, with entry-level allusions to 9/11 Truther conspiracies and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster; call-backs to classics, such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Stand By Me, 2001, and the first two Alien films (without a hint of the spark that made them magical); and art-house pretensions regarding his main characters' relationships that don't belong in any movie. There's far too much to unravel in a single review, so I'll go with the most egregious contributors to Godzilla's utter lack of a reason to exist.

1. Bryan Cranston Bites it Thirty Minutes In. A handful of us who take movies seriously looked at the Godzilla trailer and thought, "Wow. That looks really average. But, hey, Breaking Bad is awesome, so maybe Cranston will make it at least watchable." Unfortunately, his character (whom Borenstein had the balls to name "Brody") spends his limited screen time crying, yelling, and generally acting like one of the "scientists" from Prometheus. All of the actor's Emmy-winning versatility is undone by a wretched hairpiece and the desire, yet again, to capture the gravitas of Star Trek 2009's prologue--without taking the time to earn the audience's tears. Also, he dies hours after surviving a bridge collapse that should have killed him, making his death unexpected in a silly way, rather than a tragic one.

2. Nobody Else is Worth Watching. So, the trailers roped me in with the promise of Bryan Cranston, and now I'm left with...Aaron Taylor-Johnson? Set aside the mental-math wormhole of figuring out how the eight-year-old kid we meet in 1999 is the twenty-three-year-old with the five-year-old son we pick up with in 2014 (and that this little boy is now central to the story, except when he isn't). The biggest issue is that, in this role, Johnson has all the presence and range of Tobey Maguire impersonating Keanu Reeves.*

Taylor-Johnson is saddled with the thankless bomb-expert role, and spends the movie fighting his way out of harrowing situations so he can get back to his family--situations that we in the audience have no doubt he'll escape with nary a smudge on his roshy cheeks (mostly because we've seen all these scenarios before, as well as this very framing device). It's also unclear what, precisely, he's fighting for--a race of robots? Judging from the Ambien-assisted performances of co-stars Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, and Richard T. Jones, the world of Godzilla 2014 is populated by self-serious mutterers and whimperers who apparently learned social etiquette from Christopher Nolan movies.

3. There is No Character Conflict. The one way in which Edwards and Borenstein differentiate Godzilla from its contemporaries in blockbusterdom is by not including a villain in their story. It's a fine idea, if you're aiming strictly at the disaster-movie crowd; after all, the unstoppable, unreasoning force of nature has proven a thrilling cinematic antagonist in films as varied as Twister and The Mist. But if the marquee monster doesn't show up to fight until the last twenty minutes--and if the preceding hour-forty is built around government cover-ups and possible corporate malfeasance--there'd damn well better be a different kind of man-in-suit getting his or her comeuppance at the hands of the righteous hero. Instead, we have a gaggle of creased-brow good guys looking sternly at reports, monitors, and each other (mostly, I'm guessing, in awe that they got paid so much to do so little).

4. Nodzilla. Remember how nobody liked Superman Returns because the only thing the "Man of Steel" did in that movie was lift things? The new Godzilla is kinda like that: after making a triumphant entrance by popping out of the Pacific ocean, the giant, irradiated lizard spends forty minutes diving under aircraft carriers and ducking under bridges while swimming towards its enemies--a pair of horny bug-birds called M.U.T.O.s. In fairness, Godzilla's finishing move is quite spectacular, but the brief and poorly edited climactic battle (indeed, the film's only real battle) leading up to it is another of those cute evolutionary steps that digital effects artists will look back on thirty years hence and giggle, "Oh, right! That was back when we had to cover our asses by staging all our fight scenes at night, in the rain!"

5. Hugzilla. Because studio executives don't think (rightly or wrongly) that mass audiences would accept the death of their marquee monster (especially in the context of a potential franchise) the 1954 ending is abandoned in favor of a no-stakes, bullshit cop-out. After nuking (or hydrogen-ing) San Francisco,** Godzilla wakes up and walks into the ocean, stepping gently over the expressway and roaring triumphantly at a city he has decided is full of his new best friends. Gone is the noble scientist taking out himself and the monster in the name of protecting humanity; instead, we have a mindless, rampaging hero who just wants to go for a leisurely dip. If you're having trouble grasping my point, try mentally removing Watanabe's character from the film completely (it's easy to do) and wonder what you might think about Godzilla without the gut-instinct/philosophical motives he projects onto this newly discovered, wholly non-communicative creature.

Like Man of Steel, the citizens of Godzilla's San Francisco are unfazed at the very end. Sure, we get plenty of visual references to 9/11, complete with walls of "missing" flyers and a shot of a sleeping Godzilla that looks uncannily like a famous piece of twisted wreckage. But the untold number of dead, displaced, and unaccounted for civilians aren't foremost on the minds of a people whose beautiful city has been turned to rubble. They're too busy feting the perpetrator of this horrific violence as some bizarre protector against...something worse?

It's sad that people's response to criticism of summer blockbusters is, commonly, "I don't go to these movies expecting deep characters or profound thoughts." That's a cop-out, and yet another excuse for studios to treat these films as products first and art maybe thirtieth. Think about the movies that excited you growing up, movies that blew open your imagination and made you believe in the unbelievable: E.T., Jurassic Park, Star Wars. Hell, even Independence Day made the destruction of cities a tragic spectacle that had to be set right--instead of the highly anticipated outcome.

If the point of Godzilla is to revel in destruction and human misery, you can have it. With advances in modern digital storytelling, the novelty and charm of watching costumed creatures knocking over model sets is gone. In its place are real-to-life disasters indistinguishable from archival news footage (monsters and super-men aside, of course). Ironically, the further the movie biz advances in technology, the further it falls back in character development--as if the Uncanny Valley is the goal instead of the challenge. Too often, we're saddled with either cartoons or cardboard, perfunctory movie stars who show up because, well, someone has to provide scale in the frame and a face for the poster collage. There may be a way to make a fun movie from these ingredients, but Edwards and company don't have the recipe.

*Which he did once, in a Saturday Night Live Jeopardy! sketch.

**I honestly don't recall what was in that bomb. Either way, I seriously doubt rescue crews would be on the scene mere hours afterwards. I mean, who are they trying to rescue at that point? I guess I shouldn't be surprised at the decisions of a movie-government that sends kids on field trips the day after two skyscraper-sized monsters demolish Las Vegas.