Saturday 17 May 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla has survived many genre upheavals. Beginning as a nuclear extinction parable, the films have raced excitedly through mutations dictated by public taste. Science fiction evolved into spy thriller, then an after-school special and onto childish superheroics. Godzilla has never been one particular thing. Like 007 the series is about building whatever story you like around one indefatigable idea - he walks the Earth. Godzilla 2014 matches the character with a modern set of concerns. How can we slot the King of Monsters into a pro-forces blockbuster?

Following an unusually localised earthquake in Japan, the Janjira nuclear power plant collapses in on itself killing (amongst others) supervisor Joe Brody's wife. We catapult ahead 15 years to find Brody and his son breaking into the exclusion zone to track radiation signatures in derelict buildings. It's a shame more time isn't spent in this milieu - the unhinged Joe as our point-of-view and Tokyo as the cyclical backdrop; ruin as a habitat rather than an interchangeable arena. Post-fall Edo is born in a reality bending shuffle. News footage of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown by way of a 1970s disaster movie, framed, much like a key reveal in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, from a classroom. A decade and a half after the accident a secret research facility sits in the heart of destruction. Teams of scientists pore over an egg concealing calamity, director Gareth Edwards giving us a taste of Akira scenes shot live action.

Despite the best efforts of on-site expert Dr Serizawa and his giant electricity gun, the egg hatches and the newborn riots, trashing Joe Brody's investigation. Attention then settles on his disengaged, thick-necked son for the remainder of the runtime. Brody Jnr. is an army bomb disposal expert with a smiley family back in San Francisco. Military leads are nothing new to the Godzilla series, the Millennium cycle had a procession of officer class women desperate for a settler with the Kaiju King. Ford Brody isn't quite so involved though, instead he's an everyman with a dramatically sympathetic job that allows us to track the carnage. Ford is decent but unremarkable, a poor substitute for a spluttering Bryan Cranston. From the second act onwards the entire film is placed on Aaron Taylor-Johnson's shoulders, of course it wobbles.

Godzilla 2014 is then constructed to tease. The title creature is glimpsed in snatches - an arm here, an undercarriage there. As with his excellent Monsters, Gareth Edwards wants to present a world in which mankind are struggling against warring / mating Gods. The reason this doesn't quite work, for me at any rate, is that Edwards is so good at arranging the combatants that you just want to see them fight. An extended sequence in Hawaii in which Godzilla comes to shore, causing a tsunami naturally, registers as a beautiful example of pace because we know one of the enemy MUTO monsters is rampaging on the same island. We are shown not only where the two beasts are but how close they're getting to each other. Geography is becoming a lost art in action films, so to see a director in complete command of beat-to-beat moments junking his climax for a Spielbergian gag is incredibly disappointing.

For all intents and purposes we have a sequence that plays like the greatest Wrestlemania hype promo disappearing into background noise. Godzilla was thundering through Honolulu, flanked by waves of people and debris. The male MUTO was in the process of eating a sky-train, presumably because it resembles the ICBMs it's discovered a taste for. We were criss-crossing constantly, soldiers firing wildly, unable to even gain Godzilla's attention. Ford Brody grappling with gravity, desperately trying to keep himself and a child from being consumed by the hungry antagonist. Explosions at the airport! Rows and rows of aircraft crumble and ignite around the moving MUTO, then water hits a cowering baggage handler, signalling the King of Monsters' arrival. It was an expert moment - endless possibilities signaled by a tiny detail. Godzilla is the wave, and he is close. His lumpy Apatosaurus foot smashes into view, framed by an airport lounge. Battle is joined. Cut to a child watching TV.

Again and again Edwards and editor Bob Ducsay build these confrontations, then deny release. Possibly this stings even more because a massive amount of trailer real estate was created out of the film's scant Godzilla glimpses. Surely the function of an advert should be to give an elliptical impression of the whole? Hints of spectacle rather than the spectacle itself? I haven't seen a film so committed to blowing its grandstand moments through advertising since Transformers. When the creatures do finally fall on each other, the resulting action is only briefly noted. We aren't experiencing these confrontations through the expertly realised monsters, we're avoiding it in the company of Kick-Ass. Sustained fisticuffs are absent, there's never really a point were you get to simmer in the weight and space of three titans clashing. Instead, for better or for worse, we're left with the vague impression of an earthbound God moving through clouds of rubble.

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