5/31/2014

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

                                                      John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53)







I didn't much enjoy Gareth Edwards' debut feature effort, the free-form but ultimately hollow "Monsters" (2010) – incidentally, the review I wrote upon its release back in 2010 strikes me as even more affected today than the art-housey monster movie it was meant to slight. I found unsympathetic Edwards' strained ambition to imbue the genre with high-brow respectability, substituting a loose, ambulatory structure of open-ended encounters for purposeful displacement, and a phenomenological, vaguely Malickian sense of wonder for the genre's supposedly lesser thrills.

In "Godzilla", the blockbuster with which Edwards was entrusted after his calling card of "Monsters", not much appears to be left of the director's earlier pretensions – with the exception of a few, out-of-place moments. There's the dog whose perspective we briefly share just when the tsunami hits the Hawaiian coast, and the nameless little girl whose wide-eyed but oddly disaffected apprehension of imminent disaster plays like a Spielbergian reaction shot emptied of all sentimentality. But apart from these sporadic anomalies, "Godzilla" is dutifully moving along the tracks laid down by its script like the train that features in one of the films main set-pieces. What does set the film apart is its straight-faced seriousness and near total lack of irony: think "Man of Steel", but without any of the excess.

Nothing serves better to convey this seriousness than the distinguished cast of character actors Edwards has assembled, for a film that has no interest in character. No art form is more adept at giving life to stereotypes than cinema, but the likes of Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn or Whit-Stillman-Alumnus Taylor Nichols (in a two-line non-role), their considerable talents notwithstanding, simply do not have what it takes to do so. Again, Edwards' apologetic and pretentious stance towards the genre – as if the monster movie were in need of redemption; and as if redemption lay in cluttering the background with accomplished thespians – doesn't help a film that feels flat and unengaging at the best of times, and sycophantic at the worst. We've all marvelled at the Ligeti-scored parachuting scene trumpeted in the trailer; in the finished film, as it turns out, its doomed, John Martin-inspired romanticism bears no relation whatsoever to its tepid surroundings, signalling an aspiration that is nowhere coherently realised.

There are some nice touches, to be sure, foremost among them the canny decision not to adapt Godzilla to the streamlined standards of present-day creature design. He's properly clunky, even clumsy, and endearingly anthropomorphic with his opposable thumbs and puppy dog eyes. It's state of the art CGI, of course. Still one can imagine that there is a man hidden inside this costume: a lovely and much more substantial homage to the original, for its unashamed anachronism and unmitigated naiveté, than the correct pronunciation of "Gojira" and all the other unavoidable easter eggs ("Dad's Mothra") with their whiff of fanboy smartassery. 

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