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In 1954, the United States Armed Forces assembled in secret in the Bikini Atoll islands. The American public was told the assembly was for hydrogen bomb tests, but the explosion was meant to destroy an ancient monster, code-named ‘Godzilla.’ Then, in 1999, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), two scientists in the employ of a secret multi-government institution, Project MONARCH, discover the long-buried remains of another ‘Godzilla’ monster. Inside the carcass are two chrysalises. One is dormant, but the other has disappeared. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant records unusual seismic activity, prompting supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) to call for a full plant shutdown. In the ensuing chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandy (Juliette Binoche), is killed as the plant crumbles. 15 years later, Joe’s now adult son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaves his home in San Francisco to bail his father out of a Japanese prison and, after some prompting, to assist him in investigating the disaster area, only to discover another giant chrysalis under the supervision of Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham. Doom strikes when the chrysalis hatches…

 Godzilla (2014)
Despite being the 31st film in a series that dates back to 1954, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla may be the most unique and ambitious film of the summer. With the original kaiju franchise was still reeling from two botched attempts to reintroduce the title monster to the American public, Edwards chose to solve the problem by drawing focus away from his monsters with a deathly serious character study that embraces decades of conflicting mythologies and tones. The results are successful on visceral and nostalgic levels, but, like a number of other recent sci-fi blockbusters ( Prometheus, Pacific Rim), a number of narrative issues hold the film back from being a consistent masterpiece.

The successes and limitations both begin, as they usually do, with the screenplay. The story is credited to Expendables writer David Callaham and the screenplay to Max Borenstein (who penned the as yet unreleased Seventh Son), but included uncredited polishes from all-star Hollywood writers David S. Goyer, Drew Pearce, and Frank Darabont, as well as input from Edwards, himself. This explains the film’s patchy narrative and episodic approach to action set-pieces. Fortunately, this rag-tag group appears to have been assembled from equal parts franchise fans and guys that weren’t overly concerned with brand loyalty. It isn’t a ‘from the ground up’ reimagining of the concept, like Roland Emmerich’s ill-fated 1998 version, which had basically nothing in common with the spirit of Toho’s ‘Showa’ series (the original 15 films, from Godzilla 1954 to Terror of Mechagodzilla). Also, unlike Emmerich’s film and the equally bland 30th Anniversary reboot The Return of Godzilla (which was revamped for American audiences as Godzilla 1985), Edwards’ film skips over the introductory phase, where Big-G battles mere humans, and right to the ‘versus’ part of the Showa formula, where he’s a misunderstood guardian. Despite decades of similar movies, the formula somehow feels fresh in this modern Hollywood guise.

 Godzilla (2014)
Edwards’ Godzilla also renews the Showa film tradition of keeping the title character in the peripherals of the story. Historically, this was both a storytelling device and a way to save money on expensive special effects sequences. The lack of Godzilla in this particular Godzilla movie was met with occasional resentment from audiences. Without intending any placation, I can admit that this is a perfectly reasonable criticism when coming from an average theatergoer that assumes they were promised something that the film didn’t deliver. But it is particularly frustrating when this sentiment is spouted by someone claiming to be a series enthusiast. None of the good Godzilla movies are good because they feature a lot of Godzilla (in fact, some of the dullest series entries feature the most monster-on-monster action), but because they feature engaging stories. Some of these are dramatic allegories (like the original film), while others are more simply entertaining science fiction adventures. In this regard, the new movie flails and flounders quite a bit. Once the first act’s exposition is delivered (and the first act is pretty great), the human angle of the story isn’t very engaging.

The lack of completely unique narrative elements aren’t a problem – this is a reboot of an oft-told story, after all – but Godzilla is populated by a number of frustratingly underdeveloped and uninteresting characters. This is something it shares with Emmerich’s film, which cast the human military authorities as buffoons that utterly bungle every aspect of the kaiju attack (one of the more amusing and seemingly intended aspects of that film is the fact that the military destroys way more real estate than Godzilla does). Traditionally, the military is impotent against kaiju attacks and is forced to find support in a misfit scientist or two. Emmerich’s film overplayed the comedy here, while Edwards skews more towards the frustrating by putting his military guys ten paces behind the plot and the kaijus. The bigger issue in Edwards’ case is that his misfit scientists are vastly underutilized in favour of more bumbling army guys. This doesn’t only waste the talents of Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe – it puts too much weight on the shoulders of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s weakly developed Ford Brody character and his on-screen wife, Elizabeth Olsen, whose screen name might as well be ‘token girl.’ Both actors are plenty capable (Olsen in particular), but neither is given much to do, aside from reacting to the epic damage. The ‘guy trapped in a disaster trying to save to his family’ motif is also pretty rusty, showing up most recently in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Emmerich’s 2012.

 Godzilla (2014)
The weak human characters are especially discouraging, because Edwards presented a pair of flawed but interesting humans in Monsters. I assumed it was the thing that got him the Godzilla job in the first place. But the climax of Monsters also hinted that the director was more interested in conveying relatable emotional traits in his monsters than their human counterparts – an ambition wonderfully realized in Godzilla. Edwards and his army of effects technicians/digital animators draw wonderfully evocative performances from Godzilla and his kaiju enemies, dubbed MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Their interactions are undeniably more intriguing than those of their human counterparts and not just the interactions that involve shattering buildings – the scene where the mommy MUTO cries about her dead babies is uncannily touching. There are also key distinctions between Godzilla’s semi-anthropomorphic expressions and the more animalistic, Discovery Channel antics of the MUTOs. This affords Edwards the best of the classic Godzilla films, while still progressing the property for modern audiences that are already accustomed to grittier, more adult-oriented blockbusters.

Besides learning from the mistakes he made in his own independently produced mini-kaiju fable, Edwards likely took a few lessons from Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008) and Guillermo del Toro’s aforementioned Pacific Rim – the only other kaiju movies recently released by major Hollywood studios. Even if he didn’t, the audience’s reactions to both movies help explain why Godzilla worked so well at the box office. Cloverfield was, for the most part, a horror movie that exploited a growing affection for found footage movies. It’s an uneven movie, light on plot, and heavy on suspension of disbelief, but it proved the underutilized value of street-level, human point of view photography in a giant monster movie. It also proved that the September 11th terrorist attacks were as relevant an allegory to 21st century American audiences as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to 20th century Japanese audiences. It wasn’t about 9/11, like Spielberg’s aforementioned War of the World’s remake, but it tapped the same deep-seated fears. Pacific Rim was being developed about the same time as Godzilla and probably wasn’t released with enough time for Edwards to react, but it certainly proved that American audiences (note: not worldwide audiences) weren’t as interested in light-hearted, high-concept, sci-fi kaiju action fantasies as they were in grounded, frightening movies that challenged them on a visceral level.

 Godzilla (2014)
Godzilla doesn’t actively embrace the 9/11 metaphor, either because Cloverfield and War of the Worlds got there first or because the filmmakers thought it was irrelevant. But it is a post-9/11 movie that includes images of crashed planes and skyscrapers toppled by scary, unstoppable forces. No amount of explaining the monsters’ animalistic motivations will erase the vivid memories those images conjure in most viewers. Instead of crudely exploiting these memories like some recent sci-fi blockbusters, Edwards acknowledges them in comparatively sensitive ways (I do wonder how the movie plays in a post-Fukushima Japan, however). By showing the majority of the chaos from the human angle (including quite a bit of televised footage, which is the way most of us witnessed the 9/11 attacks and experience war), Edwards often avoids the empty spectacle of buildings falling for our enjoyment.

I don’t know if this sensitivity was a conscious choice or the consequence of his visual formula, which entices and even teases the viewer with glimpses of the creatures (love it or hate it, the cut away from the first major kaiju battle is among 2014’s ballsiest edits), but the final effect is infinitely more satisfying than destruction porn tossed into a climax as an afterthought. By the time Edwards is ready to let us bask in the awesome glory of Godzilla beating the hell out of the MUTOs, he has put us through the wringer with his genuinely frightening people P.O.V.s – not to mention the fact that he distinguishes average folks from military personnel and verifies that the majority of effected area in San Francisco have been evacuated (those guys in the office tower were probably jerks, anyway). Edwards frames the destruction in a character context, including acknowledgement of the human cost at the end of the film (via walls of missing person posters and familiar images of natural disaster refugees huddled inside of a football stadium) and makes his audience earn the joy they get out of mindless carnage.

 Godzilla (2014)

Video


Godzilla was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and converted into 3D for theatrical distribution. This 2D Blu-ray is presented in 1080p, 2.40:1 video and is, for the most part, a stellar and extremely clean presentation. The transfer’s problems relate almost exclusively to the fact that it is really dark. Darkness is a vital part of Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s ( Atonement, Marvel’s The Avengers) visual equation and the film was pretty darn dark when I saw it in theaters (it was a digital projection, presented in 2D), so the deep pools of black obscuring non-vital details isn’t surprising – especially by the time we get to the extended San Francisco climax and everything is covered in billowing smoke and grey dust. But I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be quite this dark – specifically not the more elegantly shaded and smoky/foggy sequences. Do note that my screen-caps are a bit misleading, since the images are clearer while in motion. When the appropriately sharpened fine lines and highlights move they create contrast. Dark or not, details are still very crisp, limited only by Edwards and McGarvey’s use of shallow focus during close-ups. The colour palette appears accurate, based on what I remember seeing in theaters, including a lot of lavender and green highlights alongside rich reds that usually signify danger. Some of the under-lit, nighttime interiors are overtly orange and those oranges display minor blocking and edge enhancement effects. A couple of super-wide establishing shots have a hint of banding in their haze as well. Aside from these, I didn’t notice much in the way of noise or digital grain.

 Godzilla (2014)

Audio


Godzilla comes fitted with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack that will shake your house to rubble if you let it, yet it’s also almost absurdly delicate in terms of natural ambience and whispered dialogue. All minor effects are wonderfully subtle, creating a nice, wide soundscape beneath the spoken words and over the less intrusive music. The dynamic range between these scenes and the bigger, more boisterous action sequences is pretty extreme and often utilized for the sake of a good scare (though more of a dreadful scare than a jump scare). The rumbling monster fights are the track’s most impressive moments, but, being a sucker for sci-fi sound effects, I found myself reacting best to the multi-channel-enhanced creature noises. These include the MUTO egg’s LFE-vibrating electro magnetic pulses, the chattering MUTO echolocation cries, and, of course, the modern ‘remix’ of Godzilla’s classic roar. The sound designers also have fun sucking the sound out of some of the more intense sequences, as if they’ve cupped the frightened viewers’ ears for them. Composer Alexandre Desplat is risking over-exposure lately (though Michael Giacchino seems more likely to become the new Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer), but, for the time being, he’s still on a roll. His trumpeting Godzilla score is probably the best thing he’s written for a blockbuster release yet by adding just the right amount of pulpy joy and pompous melodrama. To help punch up eerie pre-battle sequences, Desplat added György Ligeti’s ‘Requiem,’ a composition most synonymous with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 Godzilla (2014)

Extras


MONARCH: Declassified:
  • Operation: Lucky Dragon (2:40, HD) – A narrated and expanded version of the Bikini Atoll footage seen during the opening credits.
  • MONARCH: The M.U.T.O. File (4:30, HD) – A video primer presumably made for new recruits of the film’s top-secret kaiju studying group.
  • The Godzilla Revelation (7:30, HD) – A faux exposé news piece that sums up the story for the general public.

The Legendary Godzilla:
  • Godzilla: Force of Nature (19:20, HD) – A generalized look at the history of Godzilla in the movies and how the filmmakers applied him to modern times. It includes character design, special effects concepts, cinematography techniques, and using the human scale for physical and emotional perspectives.
  • A Whole New Level Of Destruction (8:20, HD) – On creating special effects destruction that has a basis in reality and crafting physical aftermaths on set.
  • Into The Void: The H.A.L.O. Jump (5:00, HD) – Concerning the specifics of the parachute sequence that was heavily featured in the trailers.
  • Ancient Enemy: The M.U.T.O.s (6:50, HD) – A final look at the design and creation of Godzilla’s kaiju enemies, including the weird noises they make.


 Godzilla (2014)

Overall


This latest incarnation of Godzilla is problematic, but succeeds far more than it fails. A weak lead and a saggy middle section don’t mute the awesome thrills of director Gareth Edwards’ bleak and grounded version of the oft-told story. Warner Bros’ Blu-ray is pretty dark, maybe even darker than the film was in theaters, but is still generally attractive and detailed. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a brilliant mix of bombastic destruction and delicate sci-fi audio design and, though perhaps a bit brief, the special features are informative and entertaining.

 Godzilla (2014)

 Godzilla (2014)

 Godzilla (2014)

 Godzilla (2014)

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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