Godzilla, part two

>> Saturday, May 17, 2014

Here is where I thought I was going with Godzilla yesterday: I thought I was going to talk about the movie in general, and something about writing in particular, and I wasn't really planning on rambling on about how you're going to die at all.

So, right--the movie.

Is pretty, for starters.  I'm not entirely sure about the 3D, because I don't know if the problems I had with it during the first third of the movie were with the 3D itself or just with me.  I found myself perceiving a diorama effect during the first bit of the movie, everything looking kind of flat and stacked, but at some point it stopped bothering me, suggesting that it may not have been there in the first place and I was having a hard time adjusting to the 3D effects, is all.  Or it's possible it was present, there throughout, and at some point I began ignoring it.  It's also possible, I think, that the theatre we saw the movie in was having some kind of projector issue, because the Maleficent trailer before the movie looked worse than I would have believed possible (visually speaking, I mean; it literally looked terrible--the substance of it looks like it will be pretty much what you expect from a gratuitous live-action prequel about the villain from Sleeping Beauty that stars Angelina Jolie)If everybody saw what I saw, I hope it was the projector.  It's okay if it was just me.

But, anyway, once my brain adjusted one way or the other, Godzilla is pretty spectacular, breathtaking at times, even.  If Godzilla doesn't quite have the existentialist angst I rattled on about yesterday, I still have to hand it to the filmmakers that they were savvy enough to frame Godzilla that way.  Godzilla is treated as an elemental force, which is good, and (better yet), he's shot that way, shown looming up against and partially obscured by backlit clouds, as a ginormous wave in the ocean with a half-seen shadow of lizardskin deep beneath.  He's an epic beast, which does hearken back to Gojira (where we have to admit that Godzilla's appearance as a monster of light and shadow may have been as much a happy accident of Ishiro Honda's limited lighting budget as it was a conscious aesthetic).

A standout sequence that may be worth the price of admission all by itself involves the apt use of Ligetti's Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra, a piece familiar to science fiction fans for its harrowing use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the parachuting soldiers, plummeting through clouds and into the smoke and dust of a ruined city, look like they're diving into Jupiter's atmosphere from space, which I have to imagine is exactly the association director Gareth Edwards was trying to evoke.  Well-played.  It's gorgeous and terrifying.

And carries more weight than most of the rest of the movie, which I guess is something we'll be getting to.

My friend Nate, one of the friends Scatterkat and I saw the movie with, is a Godzilla buff (in addition to being a proficient filmmaker and editor--the man knows movies); a Godzilla obsessive, even, and knows the franchise to a depth I couldn't hope to reach.  And he liked the movie, which I think is enough of an endorsement to full-stop say: if you're a Godzilla fan, go, see it, the biggest Godzilla fan I know on the planet endorsed it the other evening.  He did find it a little bit talky, though; I think--and I hope I'm not misrepresenting his views--he liked just about everything else about it.

I see what he's saying, though I don't quite agree; the original Gojira is a pretty talky film, but it doesn't slow the movie down any (I think Nate and I agree about this: when I mentioned it to him, he observed that Gojira is a half hour shorter than Godzilla, and I think we agreed that a half hour could easily have been cut from the latter).  For me, the problem isn't so much the amount of talk (aside from the film being too long overall, I mean), but who's doing the talking.  Unfortunately, although for understandable reasons, Godzilla decides pretty early on to sideline its most interesting actors to expository/spectator roles; specifically, we're talking about the wonderful Ken Watanabe and the equally-wonderful Bryan Cranston, though this is a movie that also fails to do anything at all with Juliette Binoche, who appears in what amounts to a cameo.

Watanabe and Cranston mostly run and gape at things, sometimes pausing in their running and gaping to turn to another character and announce some plot point that would really be nothing more than a speculative shot-in-the-dark if it came from a real person in the real world.  For instance, Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa (a nod to the scientist in Gojira; Cranston's character is named Brody in what I take as a nod to Jaws) knows an awful lot more about Godzilla's feeding habits and place in the primordial ecosystem than a man who has ever actually seen an animal in its natural environment not even once ought to know; that is to say, he jumps to a conclusion with absolutely no evidence for it and happens to be completely correct because that's what happens later in the movie.  I really need to say that this is all completely alright because this is a giant monster movie and that's the kind of thing you expect from scientists in these kinds of movies and I didn't actually have a problem with it even though it's bad writing; it's still fun, but the biggest problem with it is that it's kind of a waste to have someone as awesome as Ken Watanabe (or Bryan Cranston) intermittently showing up at various places and times just to infodump and vanish.  If anything, I sort of wish there'd been a bit more of Watanabe on screen pulling Godzilla Facts out of his ass, even though that's a double-edged sword since most of those Godzilla Facts don't actually make much sense even in the context of the film (e.g. for an apex predator, Godzilla sure wastes a lot of food).

Again, take that with a grain of salt, though.  A whole lick of salt.  Ken Watanabe's Godzilla Facts are silly, but that's okay because by the end of the movie there's a lot of Godzilla being awesome, which is a big part (if not the whole reason) you're at a Godzilla movie.  I guess I'm just letting you know what you're in for: sometimes, and not often enough, Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston show up and spout some random piece of bullshit about Godzilla, which turns out to be completely correct because Godzilla movie.

The scenes with Cranston or Watanabe don't drag that much, but the other talky scenes do, because Cranston and Watanabe are (like I just wrote) exposition and spectator guys who show up to stare at things with their mouths open or to demonstrate why they always win Trivia Night at the local wings place when Ancient Marine Cryptozoans is in play as a category.  Unfortunately, the actual main character is Generic White Guy, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I've only seen elsewhere in Kick-Ass, a movie I really liked but--I regret writing this, because it seems unnecessarily cruel--he's less memorable than Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (what's with all these hyphenated young actors?).  And Taylor-Johnson starred in Kick-Ass.  He was the title character.

In Godzilla, he's the main guy, and much of the movie shifts perspectives between he, in the role of GWG; his wife, Mrs. (or possibly Dr., I don't think it's clear) GWG (Elizabeth Olsen); and sometimes his son, GWG Jr. (Carson Bolde).  This is all coming off as snarkier and meaner than I ever meant to be with this, but one of Godzilla's biggest, primary, essential, least-forgivable problems is that much of the movie is focused on three blandly attractive people who aren't very interesting.  They aren't likable, but they aren't unlikeable, either.  The actors playing them are all competent and do what the script requires them to do, but mostly all the script requires them to do is show up.  Sometimes they are upset by something, and sometimes they have to run or hide.  Occasionally, something makes them happy or relieved.  Taylor-Johnson, Olsen and Bolde all successfully make the appropriate gestures and facial expressions and vocal changes necessary to convey their new emotional state.  But so what?

It's actually worse than that because it's pretty obvious pretty early that GWG has plot immunity, which sucks all the tension and drama out of every scene he's in, which turns out to be quite a lot of the movie.

Here's a fairly specific example of what's wrong with Godzilla, and it isn't a reason not to see the movie, and it's also spoiler-free, which is unfortunate and ironic because I'm about to describe a specific scene in modest detail.  There's a sequence towards the middle of the film, you see, in which it's very important for a nuclear warhead to be transferred to San Fransisco by train.  GWG gets himself tasked to this mission because he's the main character.  I mean that really is basically the reason he's there.  And so he's on this train, with the nuclear warhead, when it stops before a tunnel just before a bridge, because they need to check out the tunnel and the bridge before the train proceeds to enter the tunnel and cross the bridge.  And of course GWG is part of the team that inspects the tunnel and bridge, because he's the main character.  I mean, that really is basically the reason he goes into the tunnel and onto the bridge even though it kind of contradicts his plot reason for being there at all, which you'd think would be a reason to tell him to stay the fuck on the train.  But okay.  They go out onto the bridge, and things go very badly, and everybody except GWG gets killed, because GWG is the main character.  And he has plot immunity.  Eventually the bomb is transported to San Fransisco anyway, but by helicopter.

Now, this sequence is beautifully assembled.  I mean, beautifully.  The camera work is fantastic, the editing is perfect.  If you went to a con and saw this sequence, just this sequence, shown as part of a sneak peak at a panel featuring the makers of Godzilla, you would be excited.  By itself, this sequence is one of the best action sequences I've probably seen in the past several years.  It's the kind of sequence that Christopher Nolan, who is one of my favorite directors, would totally wreck in the editing room; the kind of sequence that Sam Mendes (the guy who directed Skyfall) would muck up by getting too fancy.  Gareth Edwards just nails it.

It's terrible.

In the movie, it's terrible.  It's one of the first sequences they should have cut.  I understand why they didn't, because it's beautiful.  Also, it probably cost them a lot of money.  But it's just awful.

Because, for starters, its mere existence betrays it.  This is the thing about Godzilla's writing that I really wanted to write about to start with, as opposed to the existentialism of Gojira.  The fact that this scene is in the movie at all is the reason I could tell you exactly what happened in even more detail, and it would still be spoiler-proof.  Because if nothing happened, they would just cut to the train rolling into San Fransisco: "Welcome to San Fransisco.  How was the trip?"  "Uneventful, sir.  Where's the monster now?"  You know everyone is toast the minute they show the train stopping at the tunnel entrance.  And you also know, at this point in the film, that GWG has plot immunity, mostly because you're still looking at him being blandly attractive on screen and having feelings about stuff.  So you pretty much know that some or all of the characters in this bit of the movie will die, but GWG can't be one of them.  And you pretty much also know that the warhead will eventually get to San Fransisco one way or another, because it's too Chekovian not to.

Which means this big and dramatic setpiece, while big (really big!) and dramatic--and brilliantly well-crafted, to boot--is completely meaningless and unnecessary.  Oops.

As a guy who sometimes pretends he's a writer, what this is telling me is that I should cut scenes like this from my own work, or, in the alternative, I ought to be George R.R. Martin.  The scene would work if I thought GWG was in any real danger (and cared), or if I thought the bomb would be irrecoverable (and necessary; I know I just said it was too Chekovian not to be, but you could also put it into perspective by coming at it the other way: if the bomb isn't necessary, why is it in this movie at all,* and we still don't care how this all turns out**).

Useful to think about, that.

As a viewer, it just means that I'm watching an action sequence that's much less exciting than it ought to be because the obvious fix was in from the first round.  (If you want to extend the professional fighting metaphor: Godzilla is a lot more like WWE than college boxing.***)

Which eventually brings us back around to what Nate was saying about Godzilla seeming talky.  It is, but that's really a part of the bigger problem with Godzilla being padded.  Which is not just GWG and Mrs. (Dr.?) GWG playing phone tag (which seriously feels like it's more of the film than it really is) and telling other characters that they have to go somewhere else or stay right where they are or whatever, but also entire action sequences that feel incidental to the whole project.  Possibly the only human-featured action scene that feels vital to the film in any way at all is that paradrop I wrote about earlier, which may be why it feels so exciting and awe-striking (aside from the brilliant use of the Ligetti piece).

Godzilla is fun.  I realize I'm mostly writing about the stuff that makes it less fun; that's probably because it's not just easier to write about, it's also more interesting.  There's a useful lesson (I think) in figuring out why the train tunnel/bridge sequence shouldn't even be in the movie at all.  There's also a bit of nuance (I think) in figuring out that GWG's plot immunity and overall mere GWG-ness makes for a less-interesting movie.  One thing I could have gone into, but won't (because this post is so long already) is that the writers' economy of characters sort of slips in their hands and cuts them: GWG implausibly ends up everywhere something happens, which keeps down on the number of characters the audience has to track (often a problem in disaster movies), but is also... well, implausible.  That's something else useful to chew on, anyway, if you're writerly-inclined.  If I were a filmmaker, I'd also consider the very real possibility that there are too many GWGs in movies, and maybe my film would be more interesting if I let Bryan Cranston (who is white but not generic) and Ken Watanabe (who is neither white nor generic) do some heavy lifting (not to mention, perhaps, a non-white and/or non-generic lady actor).

That's a logical place to bring up something I couldn't help thinking throughout all of Godzilla, I'm afraid: "I like this, but Pacific Rim was a lot more fun."  Granted, Pacific Rim ostensibly starred a GWG; it also co-starred Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba and Ron Perlman (who is a decidedly non-generic white guy).  Godzilla has a startling lack of diversity for a movie about a monster from Japan (there are a lot of Japanese extras and supporting players in the first third of the film, but all of them but Ken Watanabe disappear well before the halfway mark, and then I think there's one black guy in the entire rest of the film, who plays the movie's POCNIC (Person Of Color Not In Charge)), but that's not really the reason Pacific Rim is more fun; it's really just that nearly everything that happens in Pacific Rim feels like it's heading towards something, whereas much of Godzilla feels like it's trying to hold off on delivering a twenty-minute monster battle for as long as possible.

Ouch.  Okay, I'm looking at what I just wrote again.  Seriously, I liked it.  I really did.  It's not a bad way to kill two hours and you should go see it if you like giant monster movies and apocalypses.

I think that about covers it.

*Ironically, the bomb isn't important enough to be a MacGuffin.  Which seems weird at first, but if it still seems weird after you think about it, consider that the tricksy thing about a good MacGuffin isn't that it's actually unimportant, but that it nevertheless seems important.  To be a good MacGuffin, the nuclear warhead in Godzilla would probably need to be introduced earlier in the film, so that we could be convinced that we were supposed to care about it.

**Actually, there's a really awful irony about what I just wrote, but I think talking about it could provoke a legitimate spoiler complaint, which I've probably just lampshaded.  Sorry.

***And from what I hear, professional boxing is more like Godzilla than it is like NCAA boxing.


David Nelson Monday, May 19, 2014 at 7:04:00 PM EDT  

Took my daughter to see it yesterday. She's fond of this stuff like I was as a child.

Really enjoyed it, even with it's obvious predictability.

--- Leanright

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