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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla

GODZILLA

** SPOILERS **

"Let Them Fight!"

In Godzilla, though the big guy bears the moniker "King Of All Monsters" (according to cable news), we learn that like many of his Japanese-born brethren, Godzilla is really just a salaryman. He has a job, a difficult one, which we're not clear he particularly enjoys. Probably not. But he gets up in the morning, makes the long (And I mean long! Thousands of miles!) commute to work, clocks in, keeps his head down, does his job, clocks out, and goes home. No nonsense. All business. You have to respect a work ethic like that.

And yet, Godzilla is also a movie star. Director Gareth Edwards' Godzilla ought to have had a serious talk with his agent about just how much screen time Godzilla should have in a movie bearing his name. In Godzilla, it's surprisingly little. He owns the final act of the picture, but for a movie called Godzilla, the filmmakers sure kept Godzilla under wraps. Maybe during his long swims in the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla commiserated with the shark from Jaws about directors withholding the namesake stars of their own movies from audiences who paid to see them.

There are other monsters in Godzilla that get considerably more screen time. They are called MUTOs -- Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, though one of them can fly and is no longer terrestrial, which the movie is quick to point out. The MUTOs are giant insects, like skyscraper-sized praying mantis that collapse skyscrapers when they land on them. We learn, via a haphazard info dump, that the MUTOs and Godzilla have been on Earth longer than humans, from a time when the Earth was far more radioactive. The MUTOs have been living underground where the Earth's core is more radioactive, but now they're awake and stomping around the Pacific Rim looking for nuclear missiles and other sources of radioactivity to feed on. The MUTOs are in fact Mr. and Mrs. MUTO and the Mrs. is quite with child. If they're allowed to successfully procreate, they will spawn a terrible army of MUTOs. Thankfully, Godzilla, the Alpha Predator, has risen to prevent this from happening.

How does Godzilla, who has lived deep in the bottom of the Earth's oceans since 1954 when the Japanese and Americans "tested" nuclear weapons in the Pacific to kill him, know the MUTOs are now on the surface? And why does he come to stop them? Only Godzilla knows for sure, and he's not talking. Left to speculate is a shadowy organization called Monarch that has kept the secret of Godzilla hidden for 60 years. They're lead by Ken Watanabe, Godzilla's biggest fan, although everything he "knows" about Godzilla and Godzilla's motivations are really just fanboy speculation. Watanabe, normally a charismatic and interesting actor, is afflicted with Ben Affleck in Argo syndrome -- he just stands around in every scene, mouth agape, almost in a catatonic state, seemingly pained to recite what little dialogue he is given. His big moment is when he convinces US Military big wig David Strathairn that Godzilla is really the only thing that can stop the MUTOs. "Let them fight!" Watanabe demands. Well, who's really gonna stop them from fighting?

The most interesting person in Godzilla is Bryan Cranston, a nuclear scientist stationed in Japan who lost his wife in a tragedy in 1999. That tragedy was caused by one of the MUTOs being awakened and attacking the power plant looking for sustenance, which the Japanese government covered up. Cranston's buff soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson (soon to be Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron) must carry the torch for the family when Cranston checks out of the movie, killed when the MUTO contained in the power plant reawakens and smashes everything. When Cranston and his ability to deliver entertainingly unhinged monologues leave the movie, so does any real human interest. Taylor-Johnson, unfortunately, is a dead zone of charisma, as we watch him rejoin the military and perform incredibly dangerous missions to stop the MUTOs, nearly dying several times. He does get face time with each and every monster in the movie, and they all take a moment to stare at him, as if trying to reconcile how he can be the same nerdy kid who wore green spandex and called himself Kick-Ass? Taylor-Johnson has a pretty young wife back in San Francisco, Elizabeth Olsen, who is a nurse and has little to do except abandon their son so he can be placed in mortal danger on a school bus when Godzilla strolls by the Golden Gate Bridge. The main reason to separate the family is to have them touchingly reunite in the end, a feel good moment thanks to Godzilla.

One thing Godzilla does well is use the monsters and the devastation they bring as a metaphor for our collective fears today. The original Japanese Gojira movie in 1954 made Godzilla a blatant stand in for Japanese fears of nuclear annihilation in the wake of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years prior. Edwards fills his Godzilla with imagery of tsunamis, superstorms leveling coastal cities, nuclear power plants being destroyed. The US Navy seems to have jurisdiction over everything regarding Godzilla and fighting MUTOs; no other world government gets involved. When Godzilla surfaces, his massive spinal spikes piercing the water, the Navy proudly sails their aircraft carriers and battleships alongside Godzilla. They also shoot at Godzilla constantly, but Godzilla doesn't care one way or the other if the humans are for him or against him. Godzilla doesn't find the humans or their problems that take up most of the movie's running time particularly interesting. Besides, Godzilla has a job to do.

Godzilla's job is to fight, and though the movie plays coy with showing the fights -- teasing the monster-on-monster action via news footage or using Cloverfield-like man on the street perspectives before vision is obstructed -- the final act of Godzilla finally lets us see what Godzilla can do, although the fights are pretty brief, considering. Once we witness him in fully in action, we see Godzilla is kind of bottom heavy ('fat' is what some unkind Japanese fans have called him.) Indeed, how much radiation is down there in the Earth's core for Godzilla to feed on that he put on so much weight? Godzilla does use his ample girth to his advantage, fighting sumo-style when slapping the MUTOs around. The numbers game works against Godzilla, but soon he rallies, using his spiky prehensile tail and his Atomic Fire Breath to finally defeat Mr. and Mrs. MUTO. (He kills Mrs. MUTO by blowing Atomic Fire Breath right down her gullet.) Amusingly, Godzilla takes a page from Ric Flair and Flair Flops face down after the fight, exhausted.

When the dark monster rises from his well-deserved nap, Godzilla merely stomps back across the ruined San Francisco to the ocean to make his long commute home, his job done, oblivious to the cheering throngs of humans who hilariously call him "Our Savior." Godzilla needs no thanks. He's a watchful guardian, a silent protector. And like any salaryman, he must merely do his job. Which begs the question, how does Godzilla blow off steam after work? Does he hit up the bars and strip clubs like his fellow salarymen? Someone should follow Godzilla down to the deep ocean trenches to parts unknown; maybe CNN should send Anthony Bourdain to see where Godzilla hangs out after work. Now, that would be a really interesting Godzilla movie.

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