When I think of Godzilla, I think of burning hot Saturday afternoons in the summer, sitting in front of the family’s new color TV and watching the only thing worth watching on the three channels available to us. I was a kid and that was our first color TV. Even then I could tell that most of those movies were not the pinnacle of filmmaking art but I didn’t care. Giant monsters were destroying Tokyo and that was cool. I loved the scenes where people were fleeing in panic down city streets, dodging debris and trying not to get crushed by the giant claws of the monster. There is something compelling about that drama, even if the characterization is about an inch deep. I imagine every baby boomer has a similar memory.
In these latter days it is hard to believe that Hollywood can recreate that long ago vibe, even though it certainly can make a better film. Previous attempts to make new Godzilla movies are met with skepticism. There is the 1998 version with Matthew Broderick that is reviled in fanboy circles and a few other stabs. You could even add last summer’s Pacific Rim to that list. Cloverfield is an exception because it emphasizes the characters.
Can director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham succeed where many have failed?
In this version, Godzilla is a closely guarded international secret. In the fifties several attempts were made to kill the beast with nuclear weapons. They failed because Godzilla is a holdout from an earlier era when lifeforms fed off of radiation. The explosions were covered up by calling them nuclear tests. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, played by the great Ken Watanabe, is a scientist for an international organization that studies Godzilla. In 1999 another beast from the high radiation era emerges from the remains of a Godzilla-like creature buried in the Philippines. It heads straight to the nearest source of radiation, a Japanese nuclear power plant run by American engineer Joe Brody, played by Brian Cranston. The plant melts down and Brody loses his wife, played by Juliette Binoche. The government story is that this was a simple accident, causing a meltdown, but Brody suspects that it was something else and spends the next fifteen years trying to prove it. His son, Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, only has fuzzy memories of that incident. Now he’s a bomb disposal expert for the army with a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and a young child of his own. He’s trying to move on with his life. When his father gets arrested in Japan for trying to get to their old house near the plant in a quarantined neighborhood, Ford has to travel there to bail the old man out. They both get more than they bargained for and it becomes a long hard trip home for Ford.
The characterization in this one is about two inches deep. It’s not Shakespeare but it’ll do for a monster movie. Also the plot doesn’t really stand up to close inspection but there are cool visuals of monsters destroying cities so who really cares? These things always have ecological themes or they make statements about nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of talk about how nature restores balance and stuff, which doesn’t really resonate in the face of climate change and should have been tweaked. But you don’t go to these things for profundity.
In other words Godzilla is a good enough summer movie to get a pass.


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