Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)
Dir. Gareth Edwards

3.5 out of 5

When thinking about "forces of nature," we generally don't include animal life as part of that list.  This may be attributable to the fact that - at least in this geological age - we are the dominant species on the planet, capable of our own great acts of destruction.  The hubris of humankind and its frequent scientific and industrial overreach has been a key element of the Godzilla film series since its inception.  The latest version of Godzilla, directed by British dynamo Gareth Edwards, takes a different view by changing the role of humans from catalysts to reactants.  Instead of the unintended consequences of our immense technological power, it shows us the naked horror of our biological powerlessness.  And instead of chastising our arrogance, it asks us to ponder our place in the terrestrial order and our lucky evolutionary timing.  

This apostate view nonetheless feels entirely appropriate, given the lengthy set-up that places human fallibility at the center of a crisis, albeit in a less pernicious form: the well-meaning scientist.  The first two we meet, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), are summoned to the Philippines to examine two radioactive pods - one hatched, one still intact - unearthed by a mining expedition.  Meanwhile in Japan, American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) oversees the operation of a nuclear power plant alongside his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche).  Despite their credentials, however, they have very little influence on the events to come.  Whatever was awakened in the Philippines causes a seismic event in Japan, demolishing Joe’s power plant and turning the surrounding area into a government quarantine zone.

Fifteen years later, the truth about the nuclear "accident" is still being covered up, and a distraught and angry Joe is trespassing into the disaster area to find out what really happened.  His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnston), now an ordnance technician (read: explosives expert) in the U.S. Navy, bails his father out of jail, but he barely makes it back to Joe's apartment before agreeing to assist Dad in his quixotic mission.  Here, the kaiju plot begins in earnest, and not necessarily in the way that the audience is led to expect.  Credit Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein for finding creative ways to delay Godzilla's direct influence on the story while meting out enough information to keep the film's momentum going.  (Without getting too much into spoiler territory, it takes almost an hour for the big guy to appear, and when he does, he's equally a major threat and an unlikely ally to the human characters.)

Within the structure of a good man vs. nature conflict, the humans should come across as somewhat impotent.  Godzilla does its job too well in this regard, marginalizing its characters to the point where it seems to lose interest in most of them.  The movie treats people as objects of either expository or emotional expediency, whether it's Serizawa and Graham popping up occasionally to proffer scientific dialogue, or Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) obliviously ignoring the danger, then remaining inside it with no real sense of agency.  Godzilla is a creature feature through and through.  It has an uncommon interest in the animal nature of the titular monster.  Though it is guided by instinct, it has some of those same ineffable "human" qualities that we so often see in beloved pets and other animals; I swear, there's even a handful of moments when Godzilla looks downright plaintive.  You'd never expect a movie like this to encourage a genuine, unforced emotional attachment to something that could so easily crush us, but there you go.  

In its own funny way, Godzilla compares to Pacific Rim as a sideways environmental parable, though a much less optimistic one.  Witnessing Godzilla's power is simultaneously awe-inspiring and depressing.  (Fans of disaster porn take note - there's a thrilling variety of ruination in this one, rendered with a surprising moodiness by cinematographer Sheamus McGarvey.)  It's one thing to marvel at a monster this mighty; it's another to realize that we could never replicate it, much less stop it.  Humankind may often see itself in battle with Mother Nature, but I sure wouldn't bet against her winning the war.  

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