Thursday, June 18, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Godzilla (2014)

Too bad the feature presentation wasn't preceded by Bambi vs. Godzilla because that would have fucking ruled.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Jurassic World just experienced the most successful opening weekend in film history, outgrossing even the opening weekend of the original Jurassic Park, a kaiju (Japanese for "strange beast") movie where smaller-sized dinosaurs are the kaiju instead of a 164-foot-tall lizard with atomic breath. But as much as I like both the craftsmanship Steven Spielberg brought to the moments of suspense (and occasionally, levity) in the first installment and Stan Winston and ILM's effective blend of practical FX and CGI in that installment, I find the Jurassic movies to be oddly underwhelming in comparison to Spielberg's masterful work in the original Jaws. As material in between the creature scenes, which are the main reason for flocking to these Jurassic blockbusters, the "Sam Neill learns to get in touch with his paternal side" storyline--a tiresome staple of post-SNL comedy vehicles starring either Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler or more recently, Will Ferrell--is less intriguing than the character interplay between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in Jaws.

I lost interest in the Jurassic franchise about halfway through The Lost World: Jurassic Park and never got on board the franchise again (I still haven't seen Jurassic Park III and will most likely wait until Jurassic Not-Yet-5, as I like to call it, comes to Blu-ray). I remember falling asleep in the theater during The Lost World--at some point between Julianne Moore nearly falling to her death while glass slowly breaks beneath her and the lame moment when a raptor gets kicked in the face by the gymnastic moves of Jeff Goldblum's preteen daughter, I dozed off with my eyes open--and I got the sense that Spielberg, whose first shot of Goldblum in The Lost World shows the star yawning in a subway station, was equally disinterested with the material in his own sequel. (Fifteen years later, you could sense the same thing when Christopher Nolan only truly became alive during the stunning plane hijack sequence for The Dark Knight Rises, and for the rest of the project, it felt like the death of Dark Knight star Heath Ledger had sapped Nolan of his enthusiasm and energy.) Spielberg was phoning it in. He, in fact, later admitted in interviews to experiencing a constant feeling of "Is that all there is? It's not enough for me" throughout the filming of The Lost World. However, there is one moment in The Lost World where Spielberg didn't phone it in, and it's that literal cliffhanger scene with a petrified Moore unable to move or sneeze, the only genuinely nerve-wracking scene in The Lost World, as well as the only moment where Spielberg is back to his old enthusiastic and alert self, and it's not even a dinosaur attack.

So the Jurassics have never been my favorite kaiju movies. But Korean director Bong Joon-ho's The Host, a.k.a. Gwoemul (Korean for "monster")? Now that, to me, is the perfect kaiju movie, in which the human side of the movie is, for a change, as satisfying as the monster action and isn't an ordeal to sit through in order to get to the monster action. The Host is an effective mix of monster movie thrills, dysfunctional family comedy and political satire (about the incompetence of both American and Korean institutions) that's reminiscent of the anti-nuke satire in Ishirô Honda's original 1954 version of Godzilla.

Bong wanted to take everyday people like the extremely flawed members of the working-class Park family (in comparison to Sam Neill's sole flaw of being awkward and standoffish around kids, which isn't all that interesting as a character flaw) and place them in a central role that's usually reserved in monster movies for scientific geniuses or muscle-bound heroes, the kinds of characters Bong says he finds to be boring. His risky and unconventional decision resulted in my favorite human protagonists in an earthbound kaiju movie since, well, the trio in Jaws. Like all the films in Edgar Wright's superb Cornetto trilogy, The Host isn't a genre spoof; it's a thriller with genuine stakes that happens to be comedic and is full of characters worth being invested in, so that when one of the protagonists dies or is nearly dead, it's a moment that genuinely stings.

Even the creature in The Host, despite being an efficient and single-minded killing machine, or rather, in the parlance of both Matt Hooper and Jaws trailer announcer Percy Rodrigues, an "eating machine," is imbued with personality too. The film's digital FX may vary in quality, but they're never too cartoonish-looking. The creature's clumsy gait cleverly mirrors the klutziness of Host star Song Kang-ho's anti-hero Park Gang-du. Sure, Gang-du learns to be a better dad just like in that sappy Jurassic Park/Billy Crystal/Adam Sandler storytelling device that annoys me so much, but The Host handles that device so much better. It also handles humor better than Roland Emmerich's Jurassic Park-ified 1998 reboot of Godzilla--a kaiju movie in the form of a terrible and unfunny '90s Fox sitcom stretched out to over two excruciating hours--did (the terrible '90s Fox sitcomminess of it all is further enhanced by Emmerich's casting of both Maria Pitillo, star of Fox's short-lived Partners, as Matthew Broderick's love interest, and Simpsons veteran Hank Azaria, star of Herman's Head, a.k.a. Inside Out if it were an oversexed '90s Fox office sitcom).

The Host's effectiveness as both a character study and a creature feature is precisely why I've never warmed up to any of the old-school Godzilla movies, except for the intriguing first movie, which I first caught on TCM, luckily without the stupid Raymond Burr-related changes that were made to it by the movie's first American distributor (the horrendous dubbing in the American versions of these films has also made me avoid the Godzilla franchise; except for spaghetti westerns and some of the Studio Ghibli films, I can't stand watching foreign films when they're redubbed by Americans or the British). As a kid, I took one look at 1973's Godzilla vs. Megalon back when it was once the feature presentation on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and thought, "That's the formula for Godzilla? It's a terrible one. Nah, I think I'll skip the other Godzilla flicks."

Godzilla vs. Megalon is one of the least beloved Godzilla installments, partly because Godzilla was basically a guest star in his own movie. It was produced during a time when the Toho Studios franchise was past its prime and had abandoned its nifty roots as an allegory about post-war Japan to strictly cater to the kids in the audience. I know Godzilla vs. Megalon is a lousy way to be introduced to the Godzilla franchise. It would be like if someone who's never seen any of the 007 movies chose A View to a Kill or Die Another Day as their first 007 flick to watch; they won't understand what all the fuss over the other movies is about. But Godzilla vs. Megalon is a good example of how boring and pointless the human characters tend to be in kaiju movies, a problem that doesn't afflict the 1954 Godzilla and is also a problem I was hoping British director Gareth Edwards wouldn't fall prey to when he got the chance to not repeat Emmerich's countless mistakes while reintroducing Godzilla for a second time (not counting the two Americanized and badly butchered Godzillas that starred Perry Mason) to non-Japanese audiences.

Godzilla threatens to unleash his atomic garlic breath on this MUTO.

While there's much to enjoy about Edwards' gritty, Fukushima-inspired 2014 version--like Alison Willmore said, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and the redesigned Godzilla look terrific and are "lumbering and massive with a sense of incredible heft to them, despite being CGI creations"--Edwards, unfortunately, has a problem of focusing his films on white lead characters who aren't as interesting as he thinks they are. It's a problem that goes back to Edwards' prior sci-fi film Monsters, his low-budget 2010 breakthrough. Monsters is a film about Mexico experiencing first contact with giant alien creatures, and it's told not through the eyes of any of its citizens but through the eyes of the most annoying white hipsters since those douches who gentrified the barrio side of Arlen and slipped salmon into Enrique's fish tacos?

As The Daily Dot astutely pointed out, Godzilla suffers from a boring white guy problem--a problem that mars another recent kaiju flick, Pacific Rim--and is part of a long line of Hollywood tentpole blockbusters that opt for the least interesting characters as their leads. Out of a cast that includes the likes of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins as audience surrogates, Edwards chose to center the film around the individual with the least charisma or personality? Yo, Honest Trailers, your "Discount Channing Tatum" line is dead fucking on.



"The funny thing here is that the franchise originated in Japan. I actually haven't seen any of the old movies, but I'm going to assume that they--at least the Japanese ones--don't use Japan and its people as merely the backdrop against which white protagonists can shine and save the day," noted one of the teen authors of the blog Cool Asian Kids. "And that's essentially what the new film does."

Warner Bros. advertised Edwards' whitened-up take on the Japanese franchise as Godzilla and his atomic breath vs. Cranston and his atomic toupee--the studio made it look like Cranston would be channeling Dr. Loomis from Halloween--but (spoilers!) that's not the movie we got. Edwards told Willmore in a BuzzFeed interview that he chose to kill off Cranston's nuclear physicist character early on in Godzilla in order to raise the movie's stakes and create the sense that "anything could happen." Sure, Cranston's physicist dad character is kind of a boring white guy too, but kicking his badacondunk out of the movie so early is such a mistake because Cranston is much more alive and present in his scenes than Blando McBombdefuser--who, as Willmore says, "jumps through a series of increasingly improbable plot hoops to stay in the path of the creatures"--is in his.

It's just the wrong character to be spending a huge chunk of the movie with (and as the type of white savior Cool Asian Kids rightly criticizes him as being, he's amusingly inconsequential in comparison to Godzilla's heroics in the movie), and it's a shame, because Edwards kicks the movie off so promisingly with one of my favorite opening title sequences in a recent tentpole blockbuster. The sequence is a cleverly assembled montage of both real and fake archive footage that establishes the history of MUTOs, nicely scored by Alexandre Desplat--who's skillfully following in the footsteps of the old Akira Ifukube score music that both Pharoahe Monch and Tracy Morgan love so much--and surrounded visually by hastily redacted text from fake government files. The Prologue Studios opening titles are one of the 2014 Godzilla's few instances of humor, one of many things Edwards accomplishes better than Emmerich did. The passages that are redacted to isolate the names of the cast and crew are either silly, freeze-frame-worthy sentences like "The monster communicates through music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat" or are full of in-jokes like "Walter Malcolm has claimed that government men dressed in white lab coats routinely appear at site and Bryan Cranston shortly after the event all residents are sworn to silence." Walter is a reference to Breaking Bad, and Malcolm is, of course, a shout-out to Malcolm in the Middle (although shouldn't it say Hal, Cranston's character's name on Malcolm, instead of Malcolm?).



Despite all the sleep-inducing moments involving Discount Channing Tatum, as well as the fact that it's nowhere near the league of The Host, the 2014 Godzilla is superior to Emmerich's previous attempt to bring Godzilla to America and is more effective at building tension and staging monster action. Also, it's not trying to rip off so much of Jurassic Park. Recent Throwback Thursday guest blogger Hardeep Aujla, who hails from Word Is Bond, a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, disagrees. He dislikes the 2014 Godzilla so much that he's skeptical about how Edwards will handle Star Wars in his next directorial effort, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One. So Hardeep, how would you have improved the 2014 Godzilla if you worked on it? Would you have made the reboot into a boy-and-his-best-friend-who's-a-strange-creature story like the old Godzilla sequels, the Gamera sequels and my favorite of all those stories, The Iron Giant? Or would you have said "Fuck the American audience" and told it from the point of view of Ken Watanabe's scientist character? Or would you have completely gotten rid of any audience surrogate characters and told it from the point of view of Godzilla, which would have probably caused the movie to cost 200 million more American dollars to make but is a kaiju movie that's never been done before?

***

Hardeep Aujla: I think I read that Godzilla's screen-time was only 10 minutes in the whole 130-something minute film. This isn't Jaws, Edwards - less is not more in kaiju films.

As for what I would have done, I love The Iron Giant and that whole story too but I would've gone with your last suggestion, hands down. This is what I always thought AvP should have been. I would have started the film introducing a crack team of badasses equal to Dutch's or Apone's team, but then would've had them torn apart gloriously by the titular creatures (perhaps they stumbled into the vicinity of a one-on-one confrontation). Then the title of the movie comes up accompanied by strong audio tone with the intention of stating "That's fucking right" to the audience and their expectations. I'm thinking a very loud shrill-type noise that starts off monotonous but evolves a couple of seconds later into something with a bit more character before ultimately revealing itself to be the war-cry of either a Predator or an Alien as we cut straight back to the duel (yep, this idea has been rolling around in my head for a while). From there on out we get a pure Aliens versus Predators narrative with no more English spoken.

'Speaking words of wisdom, let them fiiiiiiiiiiight.'

I haven't seen many of the old kaiju movies (the Gamera trilogy from the 90's is superb though), and the ones I did see were a long time ago, but I do remember some very protracted sequences where it's just Godzilla or his kid doing stuff and the audience just follows along. I may be completely fabricating those memories though. Either way, the challenge for Gareth Edwards would have been to make an engaging film like this in the modern era, one that is good enough to stand strongly unaided by human faces and words. There could of course be some human characters (retaining Ken Watanabe who was wasted in the actual film) but they should have minor roles. I can see how this would be tricky for a character like Godzilla who seemingly doesn't have a rich variety of activities to fill a movie with apart from swim, smash and roar, but therein lies the challenge, and I would be a lot more impressed with Gareth Edwards as a filmmaker if he pulled it off, or at least respect his effort if he tried.

None of Alexandre Desplat's score cues from Godzilla are currently in rotation on AFOS, but Desplat's main title theme ought to be.

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