Saturday, 24 May 2014

[This review contains SPOILERS. Sorry, I just had to vent. I’ve posted a non-spoiler version here.]

I treated myself to a post-big-university-deadline screening of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla yesterday. The one-word version of my review follows: GRAAARGH.

That’s both an impression of the titular lizard, who is fucking cool, and a roar of frustration at the crap storyline surrounding the human characters.

Here’s the longer review:

I love Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. I really do. It’s a fantastic sci-fi film, a very personal, intimate romance, against the backdrop of an alien-infested South America. And Edwards literally did all the VFX in his bedroom. With this superb debut in mind, I was thrilled that the director had been picked up to take on the cinematic icon that is Godzilla. Surely his take on the scaly kaiju would be way superior to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster.

Indeed, in many ways, it is.

Edwards clearly has a great reverence for the original Godzilla tale, a reflection of the Japanese post-war fear of nuclear power, and this is reflected heavily in his film. There’s a great credits sequence harking back to this era, using real footage of nuclear tests and a bit of CGI to craft this Godzilla’s backstory. Then we’re in 1999, where an accident at a Japanese nuclear plant leaves Bryan Cranston without a wife and lets a MUTO (equally-giant enemies for Godzilla to wallop) out into the world. Zip to the present day, and the MUTOs are heading towards America – but Godzilla’s on their trail.

The way the action plays out is, in many ways, blockbuster filmmaking done right. So many films give the game away by revealing the monster too early, but Edwards builds up tension Jaws-style by really making Godzilla’s presence felt long before we see him – a company established to search for him, a dog running away from a tidal wave he’s inadvertently caused – and then revealing him piece by piece – a foot stomping across a city street, a spine sticking from the sea. By the time we finally see the massive bastard in full, we know he means business – and he doesn’t disappoint; the action sequences are thrilling, with an awesomely cinematic sense of scale and danger.

That’s not to reduce Godzilla to a device for action – he is himself a great character, and there’s something very sad about him which the animators have really got right – he’s the last of his race, the guardian of humanity, and he genuinely seems to care about us – but he’s just too damn big and clumsy and can’t help squashing people. Sniff.

The problem with the film, however, is the human characters, whose personal stories need to be engaging in order to justify the scale of the action.

The first act sets up a very good story. Walter White (not actually the character’s name but meh) is distraught by the death of his wife to the point that he becomes obsessive about working out what caused the accident and neglects his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). After Walter gets arrested for trespassing, Ford has to leave his own family to bail his father out, only to get dragged into Walter’s conspiracy theories and find out that he was right, the government are hiding something related to giant fuck-off monsters.

So, what happens next? A father-son bonding story framed by the monster hunting adventure, in which Walter comes to realise his errors and encourage Ford, who’s come to admire his father’s strengths, to be a better father himself? That would have been a good way to continue the story. It practically writes itself. But no.

As soon as Ford realises that there is indeed something shady going on, Walter immediately dies. It’s not even a dramatic or emotional death. He falls off a bridge, gets carried away in a helicopter, and next we see him, is being zipped up in a body bag.

So we’ve lost the best actor in the film, but hey, this death can become the motivation for the rest of Ford’s story, right? Well, again, no. Walter is barely mentioned again and Ford doesn’t seem at all sad about his loss, not even bothering to pick up the family photo which Walter cherished, just leaving it to get in the way of Professor Ken Watanabe’s important scientific documents. Ford’s story arc for the rest of the film is an entirely generic case of wanting to make sure his wife and son are safe and also wanting to stop monsters destroying America. Without the father-son story, he is an entirely dull character – killing Cranston way too early is a tragic mistake.

Speaking of dull, generic characters, Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is, well, she’s Ford’s wife. That’s it. She cares for her son, she worries about her husband, she stays behind in San Francisco not really doing much so she can be re-united with him, she somehow doesn’t get stomped on or set on fire. It’s a big shame that the female lead gets such a stereotypical and sketchily-plotted role.

So, on a character level, the film really does fall apart in the second half. Nevertheless, it does have a lot of very exciting, well-paced action, giant monsters bashing the shit out of each other, and that bit with the dog. It’s a big improvement on Emmerich’s version, and I can’t wait to see what Gareth Edwards does next, whether that be a return to the world of kaiju or something in a galaxy far, far away…


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