Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla


GODZILLA:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, directed by Gareth Edwards (123 min.)

It's hard to believe a summer blockbuster could pull off what the new Godzilla pulls off.  Here is a large summer monster movie that is surprising from start to finish in so many ways, that is patient, that is slow burning, and an action tentpole picture that earns its thrills when they do come.  It is too easy to throw scene after scene of destruction on the screen and assault audiences with noise and fireballs, and director Gareth Edwards had the perfect vehicle for such a noisy barrage.  However, Edwards, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, decided restraint was the proper way to approach this rebirth of the King of Monsters.  The result of their calm, calculated re-imagining is a breath of fresh air.

2014 is the sixtieth birthday of Godzilla, and his makeover comes with a new story and new life.  The film opens in the Phillipines in 1999 where a mining dig has uncovered strange fossils.  Something has escaped, crossed the island, and disappeared into the sea.  This all much to the chagrin of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe).  Meanwhile, in a small Japanese village surrounding a nuclear power plant, we meet Joe and Sandra Brody, married scientists played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.  Joe and Sandra live near the plant with their young son, Ford, and there seems to be some dangerous tremors causing a disturbance at the plant.  There is a horrible tragedy, and the film jumps forward to the present day.

The Japanese village has been shut off, quarantined, deemed uninhabitable due to the radiation from the disaster.  Ford has grown up to be a Naval Officer and is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olson).  Meanwhile, Joe Brody has never been able to move past the disaster in 1999 and swears government conspiracy.  Ford gets a call at his home in San Francisco informing him that Joe has been arrested sneaking back into the Japanese village to try and get some important disks from his old home.  Reluctantly, Ford flies to Japan to free his dad and is subsequently pulled headfirst into the plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace.  Joe's cries for justice reach the ears of Dr. Serizawa, who believes Joe might have some important information about what actually destroyed the power plant in '99.  Turns out, as well all knew, Joe's conspiracies were correct.  The disaster wasn't an earthquake, but it wasn't Godzilla either.

I won't spoil any more plot points but I will say Godzilla is a surprising thriller in several areas.  The appearance of the King of Monsters is more than an hour into this two-hour film, but the anticipation has been earned.  There is mystery at the core of the picture, and it builds upon dread and impending doom so that when we first see Godzilla it is not just another CGI money shot, but a well-earned, awe-inspiring moment.  Edwards understands the effectiveness of patience and the power of making audiences wait to see what they've come to see.  He is borrowing straight from the Jaws playbook, and it works.  Even when Godzilla flashes his destructive brilliance in Frisco - in surprising ways - the battle scenes are not long and loud and they don't move a million miles per hour.  They are all encompassing, but brief, and this addition by subtraction makes the whole thing feel satisfying.  These scenes in the film's climax, where we really get the first extended looks at Godzilla, are the antithesis of the climactic moments in Man of Steel.

The performances here all feel like performances that don't belong in a Godzilla film, where hokey dialogue and bad acting became status quo.  Cranston delivers a dedicated, weighty performance as Joe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's stiffness seems to work well with his Ford character.  Olsen and Watanabe serve their purpose to the picture, but Godzilla revolves around the work of father and son.  Godzilla is a solid summer blockbuster, but not really in any ways I expected.  The cinematography is elegant, the screenplay is smart, the direction sound, and the monster himself is given a fresh rebirth on his sixtieth birthday.

B+