The Lego Movie – review

the_lego_movie_2014-wide

Hollywood’s most action-packed summer blockbuster is now playing – on home video!

Everything is awesome! Well, not quite everything – but more than enough to make THE LEGO MOVIE the biggest and best surprise this year. What could have been an annoying piece of feature-length product placement foisted on unsuspecting children, is actually a joyful experience for the whole family, far surpassing recent animated efforts from DreamWorks, Walt Disney Pictures, and Pixar. In fact, despite its February theatrical release, THE LEGO MOVIE qualifies as 2014’s finest summer blockbuster, in form if not in spirit: it take the hackneyed Hollywood template and repurposes its elements (explosions, car crashes, hero plucked from obscurity, wise mentor, hot sidechick) into a satirical contemplation on conformity, cooperation, manufactured entertainment, the joy of imagination run riot, and one’s existential place in a universe run by “The Man Upstairs.”

Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.
Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.

THE LEGO MOVIE launches with an apparently typical prologue, in which the villain, Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), obtains the “Kragle” – one of those MacGuffin-like doomsday devices that all summer blockbusters need. However, the wizardly Vetruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) predicts that a hero will find the “Piece of Resistence” that will stop the Kragle. Years later, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Christ Pratt) is trying to lead a happy life in a world of conformity, but he doesn’t quite fit in. The clever touch is that Emmet is not a rebel; he wants to be like everyone else, but even following a rule book full of instructions (always return a compliment, support the local sports team, buy overpriced coffee), he is too generic too make anyone notice him enough to become his friend – until he stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, whereupon he suddenly becomes the Most Important Person in the Lego Universe. Like a hapless Hitchcockian hero, Emmet finds himself hunted for reasons he does not understand, while being assisted by an ass-kicking lady by the name of Wildstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks).
What follows is equal parts THE MATRIX, TRANSFORMERS, and probably half a dozen other movies, with cameos from virtually every well known cinefantastique franchise you can imagine: Batman, Superman, Han Solo, Gandalf, and Dumbledore (Vetruvius has trouble pronouncing the later’s name and distinguishing the two wizards from each other). What makes THE LEGO MOVIE more than just a jumble of live-action cliches rendered in animation is the film’s willingness to question those cliches.
Our first hint that things are not quite as they seem comes when the last line of  Vetruvius’s poetic prophecy assures us that “all this is true, because it rhymes.” The prophecy results in Emmet being identified as The Special even though Wildstyle, like Trinity in THE MATRIX and Tigress in KUNG FU PANDA, is  clearly more qualified, but then the film jokingly confirms our suspicion that the prophecy was simply made up. In effect, the script acknowledges that Emmet is the traditional White Male Promoted from Obscurity Because the Plot Says So,* whether he deserves it or not.
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland

Fortunately, THE LEGO MOVIE has more on its mind than simply undermining bad movie cliches. Emmet turns out to not be intrinsically important – in fact, he seems almost useless compared to the “Master Builders” surrounding him – but ultimately, his generic nature is an asset. The film is walking a fine line, avoiding simple dichotomies: while spoofing  onformity, it avoids simply championing individual creativity. As Emmet eventually points out, the Master Builders are great when working alone, but they do not work well as a team, because each is following his own muse. Unlike them, Emmet understands the value of following instructions that direct everyone toward a common goal.
Thus, Emmet saves the world not by being The Special but by being an Everyman. This leads to a brilliantly conceived conclusion, which literally takes the film to a new dimension.
SPOILERS
After being captured by Lord Business, Emmet is expelled into the void – which turns out to be real life, as we know it, realized in live-action, with Farrell now playing a father who has been forbidding his son to play with his elaborate Lego city in the basement (Dad is literally “The Man Upstairs”). The entire story we have seen is, in effect, a dramatization of the conflict between father and son: Dad wants to get everything exactly in place and keep it fixed there permanently with Krazy Glue (i.e., “Kragle”); his son wants to create new things and play, mixing up bits and pieces of different Lego worlds (big city, old west, etc).
When the son notices Emmet lying on the floor and places him back into the Lego world, his father insightfully asks, “What would Emmet say to Lord Business?” When the animated story resumes, Emmet and Lord Business reconcile their differences, vicariously acting out the real-life father-son reconciliation.
The final act is less a surprise twist than a logical conclusion of hints laid throughout the narrative, nicely tying together themes and ideas and tugging at the heart strings in a way that seems sincere rather than manipulative.
END SPOILERS
THE LEGO MOVIE overflows with enough summer-style CGI mayhem to satisfy the most ravenous Michael Bay-addict – assuming said addict can handle witty dialogue and unexpectedly clever plotting. From its early scenes, THE LEGO MOVIE offers more than meets the eye. As Emmet goes about his work day, timed to the infectious theme song “Everything Is Awesome,” you realize that the toe-tapping tune is just another product pumped out by Lord Business to keep the populace content with the status quo, like the brain-dead but popular TV program, “Honey, Where Are My Pants?” (“That never gets old!” proclaims one character of the show’s eternally recurring punchline.)
Computer animation is used to create action sequences worthy of a live-action movie, but with a look that suggests actual Lego pieces filmed with stop-motion – an effect enhanced in the 3D theatrical version. Since Legos are all about building objects piece by piece, the film duplicates – and surpasses – imagery from the TRANSFORMERS movies, as characters instantly refashion their vehicles and weapons to suit the needs of the moment. Meanwhile, the soundtrack mimics the explosive cacophony of overblown action movies, except when occasionally resorting to absurd vocal effects (puttering lips to suggest the sound of a motorboat puttering away).
Lego Movie 2014 Good Cop and Lord Business
Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) with Lord Business (Will Ferrell)

The voice cast is perfect, but special notice goes to Freeman for spoofing his “Purveyor of Wisdom” image (seen most recently in OBLIVION) and to Liam Neeson for a hilarious turn as Lord Business’s henchman,  Good Cop/Bad Cop (think of the two-faced Mayor in TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels show up, voicing their characters from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – which leads to the funnies STAR WARS gag ever, after Batman purloins the hyper-drive from the Millennium Falcon (which doesn’t do such a good job escaping that giant slug hidden in the asteroid)
And let’s not forget Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pink kitty with a unicorn horn, who lives in a happy land where sad thoughts do not exist – or if they do, they must be buried in the deepest, darkest place, where no one will ever find them. Her almost Panglossian desperation to always think happy thoughts, even amid the destruction and chaos wrought by Lord Business, is touching – until it becomes ghoulishly funny when she finally snaps and impales a few of Lord Business’s thugs. Go, Unikitty! I need an action figure of you!
As much fun as THE LEGO MOVIE is, it is not perfect. After Emmet is torn from his ordinary life, the satirical bite fades, and the running joke (it’s a blockbuster action movie performed by Legos!) wears thin midway through. Fortunately, just when you think the story has played itself out, it comes back to life for a third act that is unexpectedly thoughtful without becoming maudlin.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store

That sounds like an awful lot of baggage for a movie inspired by toys. Fortunately, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are Master Builders, whose imaginatively wrought Lego creation is more than sturdy enough to carry the weight.
Still playing in second-run theatres, THE LEGO MOVIE is also available on instant-streaming services and as a two-disc combo pack, with Blu-ray, DVD, and Ultra-Violet copies. Bonus features include audio commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, and more. You can purchase a copy in the CFQ Online Store.
[rating=4]
Must see for smart kids of all ages

FOOTNOTE

  • Emmet is yellow, but the point still stands.

The Lego Movie poster
THE LEGO MOVIE (February 1, 2014). Produced by Village Roadshow Pictures and Warner Animation Group, distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, from a story by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. Voices: Christ Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams. PG. 100 mins.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

How-To-Train-Your-Dragon-2 Hiccup and Toothless

Three or four story ideas collide like cars at a busy intersection, refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast.

Wow, playing in theatres right now is the best film ever from DreamWorks Animation! No, not HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. I mean the trailer for THE MADAGASCAR PENGUINS. That’s right: after years of playing second fiddle to goofy lions, zebras, and giraffes, the action-packed penguins Skipper, Rico, Kowalski, and Private finally step into the limelight of their own feature film, and the two minutes of footage you see is guaranteed to provide the most entertainment you will get after purchasing your ticket to the aforementioned dragon-training sequel.
Speaking of which: What is the one thing you will not see in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2? How to train your dragon – that’s what. The training was pretty much completed in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, so there’ s not much left to do this time except haul the familiar characters out of the mothballs and put them through their paces again, in search of a new plot to justify the sequel’s existence. Unable to settle on any one story idea in particular, writer-director Dean DeBlois throws in three or four, which intersect at odd moments, like cars colliding  at a busy intersection, each refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast. The result is beautiful but dull, coming to life only in isolated sequences that should have been saved for a better movie.
HOW TO TRAN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a reminder that, despite the billions of dollars DreamWorks Animation has made from SHREK  sequels and other animated fare, the company’s batting average is inconsistent in any terms other than box office. Yes, DreamWorks knows how to formulate films for broad demographic appeal, but too often the result is an awkward and easily identifiable formula. Last summer, TURBO (2013) broke the mold, insofar as it felt more like a Pixar movie than a DreamWorks effort. Unfortunately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON sees DreamWorks Animation getting back into the business of churning out standardized DreamWorks animation. Too bad no one realized that DreamWorks was better off imitating Pixar’s formula than reverting to its own.
In the grand tradition of prevous DreamWorks computer-animated films, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON shoe-horns in a frenetic but gratuitous set-piece early in the first act. Refining their technique to the ultimate degree, DreamWorks actually starts the film with said set-piece, which essentially consists of the supporting cast playing quidditch on dragons. There is lots of activity – flapping wings, hair-pin turns, characters hurling bon mots  in mid-flight – but none of it has anything to do with what follows. Which might be tolerable if the scene set the tone or at least reintroduced our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), but no, that is saved for the next scene – another set-piece, this time featuring Hiccup and his lovable Night Fury, Toothless, soaring above the ocean.
Why DeBlois though his film needed to back-to-back showstoppers before the show even got started, is anybody’s guess, but at least the ocean-going flight provides screen time with the characters we actually want to see. Moreover, the sequence stands out as a visual highlight. The nervous editing of the opener is discarded, in favor of allowing the audience to see and savor – in glorious 3D – the joy of flying a dragon among the clouds. The sense of weightlessness, when Toothless pokes his nose out of the screen at us and then descends into free-fall, is vertiginous, and Hiccup’s own efforts at flight (in a webbed get-up reminiscent of a flying squirrel) cement the feeling of two companions sharing a magical experience.
Unfortunately, you cannot sustain a whole movie on friendship and flying, no matter how glorious, so the plot(s) kick in. First, Hiccup is worried because his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) has decided his son is ready to take over leadership duties. Although Jay Baruchel does his best to convey Hiccup’s lack of self-confidence, anyone in the audience familiar with the events of the first film already knows that Hiccup has nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, the film feels need to provide Hiccup with some way to prove himself, so the second plot kicks in: some poachers are capturing dragons for the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is assembling a dragon army that could cause trouble for Hiccup’s village. Stoick wants to batten down the hatches and prepare for war, but Hiccup insists on flying to meet the threat, in the hope of negotiating peace. Stoick tries to stop Hiccup’s planned peace negotiation on two or three occasions, but Hiccup will not be dissuaded. Well, at least not until his noble effort is derailed when he stumbles upon Valka (Cate Blanchett), who turns out to be his missing mother, previously assumed dead. At that point, the film stalls into a fitful idle, as Hiccup more or less forgets his vital mission, choosing instead to hang out with Mom.
This provides opportunity for flashbacks and back-story to explain Valka’s long absence, the explanation of which strains credulity more than the thought of flying, friendly dragons. Leaving that aside, it turns out that, during the intervening years, Valka has become quite the dragon-wrangler, which makes it a little hard to swallow her apology for abandoning Hiccup all these years (think of the decades of enmity between vikings and dragons that she could have avoided if she had simply bothered to go home and teach them the lessons she had learned).
After a tearful reunion between Stoick and Valka, the film gets back on track with the whole Drago situation. As nice as it is to see the touchy-weepy story set aside in favor of something resembling a plot, what follows is not an improvement. Drago is less a memorable villain than a simple plot device. He hates dragons because one took his arm, but he doesn’t mind using dragons as an army to conquer other humans (though what he has against those humans is unclear – unless it’s simply the fact that Hiccup’s village now likes dragons?).
Drago’s plan consists of using an Alpha Dragon (you know how there was a giant evil dragon that was the real villain in the previous film – well, let’s do that again!) to control all the other dragons, including Toothless, who turns briefly evil, kind of like Superman in SUPERMAN III, except that was a lot more fun. What goes completely unexplained is how Drago controls the Alpha Dragon; apparently they came to some kind of an understanding years ago.
Can Hiccup overcome Drago and rescue Toothless from Alpha Dragon’s spell? That’s not really a question, is it? The real question is how will the events play out, and the answer is: not particularly well. Hiccups doesn’t do anything particularly clever to resolve the situation, and his ultimate solution is barely removed from something he tried unsuccessfully at an earlier stage, but this time it works, because, hey, this is a happy family film, and things always work out in the end, amiright?
In any case, all of this is supposed to prove that Hiccup is up to the task of taking over as leader – not that we ever doubted, so it’s not as if we feel any character arc has been completed. Along the way, the question of whether war or negotiation is the best approach is pretty much answered.: war! Though the film pretends to hem and haw on the issue, killing the bad guys seems to be pretty much the answer. Does this life lesson leave Hiccup a sadder, wiser man? Um, no.*
If nothing else, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 features all the production value one expects from DreamWorks. The backgrounds are beautiful; the animation is amazing; the 3D effects outshine anything you see in live-action these days. And Toothless remains a wonder to behold – the dragon equivalent of a supersonic jet fighter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem afraid of letting him steal the show from the human characters, so he tends to be sidelined too much (rather like Wolverine in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED).
Ultimately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is such a convoluted mess of random story fragments and uninteresting supporting characters, that it fails to service the franchise’s main strength, which is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. When the inevitable HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 arrives, hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this mistake.
FOOTNOTE (SPOILER)

  • And does he have trouble adjusting to the fact that his pet dragon toasted Stoick to death like a viking marshmallow? Also no. Interesting that dead fathers carry so little emotional weight this summer. Check out MALEFICIENT, in which Princess Aurora doesn’t even need to forgive the title character for killing Aurora’s father; it’s simply assumed to be fine and dandy.

[rating=1]
Avoid it like an Alpha Dragon!
How-to-Train-Your-Dragon-2-Poster-vertical
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014).  DreamWorks Animation. 102 mins. PG. Written and directed by Dean DeBLois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. Voices: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou.

Maleficent – Spotlight Podcast 5:21

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.


[serialposts]

Maleficent review

Maleficent (2014) horizontal art

The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.

Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?

The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
maleficent_dragon2Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.

The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.
The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.

At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
SPOILERS
The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script:
Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else?
END SPOILERS

[rating=1]
Avoid at all cost.
Maleficent (2014) poster
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.

Godzilla & The Flaws of Tribal Film Criticism; or, Joe Brody is Godzilla

Godzilla 2014- Ken Watanabe-in-cave
One of the interesting aspects of last month’s theatrical release of GODZILLA (2014) was the critical reaction, which turned out to be both gratifying and frustrating. How did it manage to be both? Well, let me explain…
On the one hand, it was gratifying to see GODZILLA taken seriously by the mainstream press. Yes, many of these critics disliked the film; however, their criticisms were, by and large, based on dramatic shortcomings, not on the mere fact of its being a monster movie. For good or bad, they assessed what was on the screen, and did not mock the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a somber, more realistic version of a character often (if unfairly) associated with camp.
On the other hand, it was frustrating to see GODZILLA summarily dismissed by critics who specialize in cinefantastique. Yes, some of these viewers liked the film; however, their criticism was sometimes based less on actual flaws than on the fact of seeing an unfamiliar adult rendition of a familiar, childhood icon. They were less interested in what the film actually achieved than in faulting it for not conforming to their mental template of what a new-millennium Godzilla film should have been.
That’s right: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the famous radioactive reptile got a fairer shake from mainstream critics than from genre specialists. Many viewers with a Sense of Wonder seem to have checked that sensibility at the door, replacing it with symptoms of Early Onset Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (also known as: All You Kids Get Off Of My Lawn Syndrome).
Of course I’m over-generalizing here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve done a statistical analysis of every critical comment, fair or foul, lobbed at GODZILLA. Nevertheless, I am interested in the sensibilities underlying these reactions, which I see as another example of the Tribalism that permeates modern film-going, in which the actual quality of the film is frequently less important than how well the film acts as a Tribal Identifier that helps “Us” define ourselves as different from “Them.”

GODZILLA FILM COMMENTARY – THEN AND NOW

1998's Godzilla In Name Only
1998's Godzilla In Name Only

Before delving into those murky depths, it might be instructive to look at the reactions to the previous Americanized adaptation of Japan’s most famous monster: Sony Pictures’ GODZILLA (1998), from Dean Devlin and Rolland Emmerich (the team who brought you INDEPENDENCE DAY). Back then, we were still at the dawn of the Internet era, and Hollywood, with its lock on old media, thought it could sell audiences anything by keeping a lid on it so that viewers would purchase tickets before realizing they had been hoodwinked.
In this case, Sony kept the Godzilla design under wraps, lied about it when it was leaked online, and avoided press screenings. Nevertheless, within minutes after the premiere at Madison Square Gardens, word was out on message boards and forums, informing fandom that their hopes and dreams had been betrayed.
Mainstream critics were in agreement about GODZILLA’s low quality, though for different reasons. For instance, Owen Gleiberman, who gave the film a mixed but mildly positive review in Entertainment Weekly, dismissed the the subject matter as a “$120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash,” suggesting that the very concept of Godzilla, as much as the handling, was at fault.
This is what Hollywood has come to, the Disgruntled Critics seemed to say: Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie about a giant monster destroying a city. Which rather overlooks the fact that to do a film like GODZILLA well, would require a substantially larger budget than that of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.
With this kind of attitude, it is understandable that fans might have looked elsewhere for insightful critical commentary, from people who actually knew and understood the subject matter as something more than Saturday matinee kiddie fare. I like to think we provided a little bit of that in Cinefantasitque magazine (thanks to a review written by Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star), but there were other venues available, thanks to that new-fangled world wide web thingy, where you could find such site as Barry’s Temple of Godzilla and Monster Zero News (lamentably gone since web-master Aaron Smith passed away in 2006).
Sixteen years later, we are in a very different landscape. Critics at major print outlets no longer have a lock on the national conversation; insightful voices are everywhere on the Internet – on websites, on YouTube, and on social media such as Facebook. If you want to read a review of the new GODZILLA, written by a confirmed Godzilla Geek or at least a dedicated sci-fi fan, you have a multitude of choices.
Unfortunately, this advantage is somewhat mitigated by another shift in the cultural landscape: the rise of Film Tribalism. I date this phenomenon to the release of STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, a film that was obviously awful to everyone who saw it and yet earned billions of dollars anyway, because the faithful Lucasoids bought tickets again and again, to prove their fealty to their Tribal Leader, George Lucas.
Now, I know what you’re saying: This “Film Tribalism” thing is just another term for Fandom. But it’s not. Fans watch movies because those movies satisfy their love for and devotion to particular styles, genres, or artists. These movies may not be very good, but at least they deliver what is expected of them, whether it’s amazing special effects, exciting action, or beloved performances.
Film Tribalism does not demand such satisfaction. It’s all about proving one’s bona fides as a card carrying tribe member. In fact, there is a certain advantage to an unsatisfying film, because it helps weed out the fair-weather friends from the true believers. What better way is there to prove your Geek Cred than to dismiss someone who dislikes a film by insisting, condescendingly, “You just don’t get it”?
The flip side of Films Tribalism is that, whereas it absolves all flaws in a film that adheres to Tribal Orthodoxy, Tribalism reviles perceived iconoclasm and even minor doctrinal deviation. Being a “Good Film” is less important than being “Our Kind of Film,” the latter determination usually based on whether the filmmaker is considered “One of Us.” Thus, fair to middling works such as THE AVENGERS and PACIFIC RIM are embraced because directors Joss Whedon and Guillermo Del Toro, respectively, are deemed Fans Like Us (making Films For Us), whereas the superior STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is dismissed because director J.J. Abrams is regarded as an Outsider Who Does Not Adhere to the True Meaning of Star Trek.
All of which, brings us, in a roundabout way, to the new GODZILLA from Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures, which has provoked a critical response somewhat the opposite of that which greeted the 1998 film.

MAINSTREAM GODZILLA REVIEWS

The new Godzilla
The new Godzilla

After months of anticipation, including an effective advertising campaign, fans were eager to find out whether they would be burned again, as they had been by the 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Would the early reviews confirm their hopes or reinforce their fears? Would mainstream critics give the film a chance or dismiss it as a second attempt at something not worth doing the first time?
The “Bottom Line” assessment from Todd McCarthy’s review in Hollywood Reporter succinctly states: “On a second try, Hollywood does the behemoth justice. Almost.” The review itself sums up the film’s strength’s and weaknesses: great production values, good pacing, serious tone, on the one hand; and ho-hum characters and performances, on the other. McCarthy praises director Edwards for not over-exposing Godzilla but does suggest that the film could have used just a bit more of its star on screen. If you want the basics, McCarthy tells you what you need to know, and really, none of the negative reviews have much more to say on the subject, other than to emphasize flaws already noted by McCarthy.
Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is aware of GODZILLA’s shortcomings but manages to look past them, giving an even more positive assessment:

There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of “Godzilla” works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.

Wow. Two mainstream critics, one for a trade publication and one for a consumer publication, think GODZILLA is a good movie, flawed but well-made and entertaining. Who would have believed it? These are not fan boy gushings but sober reviews by professionals. Considering how much ill will and disrespect fantasy and science fiction films have received over the years, this is rather impressive.
You would think we could all sit back, relax, and enjoy the radioactive glow of a good Godzilla movie. But not quite…
As a transition into the response from science fiction specialists, I next want to mention “Waiting for Godzilla,” by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic Monthly. Although writing for a mainstream publication, Orr claims (in a response in the comments section) to have loved the Toho Godzilla movies for forty years, and his article has been approvingly linked by Godzilla experts disappointed with the film, so presumably it expresses their opinions.
Essentially, Orr complains of Godzilla’s limited screen time, without giving the film credit for carefully building up to the the monster’s revelation or pacing the action to increase its impact (unlike Phillips, who noted that director Edward gave his creatures “room to breath and bide their time between clashes”).
In a follow-up article, Orr clarifies his first response, noting in the headline: “It’s not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.” Here, Orr expresses sympathy for Edwards’ stated strategy of attempting a slow revelation of the monster, a la JAWS, ALIEN, or the original GODZILLA (1954), but faults the director for focusing too much attention on the MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which drive the plot – a criticism endorsed by my esteemed colleagues Steve Ryfle and Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), who sarcastically called the film “The MUTO Movie” and “MUTO Love Song,” respectively.
Orr notes that JAWS is always about the shark, even before the audience sees the lethal creature, and the same goes for other films that sought to keep their monsters under wraps till late in the running time. This is true more or less, but when you think about it, even ALIEN isn’t about the Alien from start to finish. It’s initially a rescue operation, responding to what the crew of the Nostromo believes to be a distress call; and the early sequences are filled with sights of other creatures: the famous and mysterious Space Jockey; and the Face Hugger, which is not the alien per se but its progenitor. Which leads to my next question:
Haven’t Orr and others who share his outlook ever heard of an opening act? One that primes the audience for the headliner, who stays backstage as long as possible, building anticipation to the point where the audience erupts with joyful applause when he finally takes the stage? This is the strategy that Edwards uses, and it is not exactly new. In fact, Godzilla’s flying cousin gets similar treatment in RODAN (1956), which focused its first half on over-sized insects attacking miners, before eventually revealing the titular terror midway through.
Orr at least notes that the new GODZILLA is not so different structurally from the monster-battle sequels he enjoyed in the past, but he loves those films for their “campy grandeur,” suggesting that nostalgia has blurred his vision and that he is holding the new film to a different standard. He is not exactly a Grumpy Old Man complaining “they don’t make ’em like the used to,” but you do get the feeling that for him GODZILLA is failing to live up to some illusory yardstick that mis-measures the current film’s qualities while inflating the virtues of its antecedents.
I suppose this is all a matter of opinion, so I should cut Orr and his acolytes some slack, but Orr’s initial review displays a symptom plaguing other negative commentary: mis-statements of fact that make the film sound worse than it is. In this case, Orr claims:

Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot.

Apparently, Orr missed the sequence in which Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fries the MUTO’s egg sack, saving San Francisco from being overrun by monstrous insectoid off-spring. Not only that, the explosion distracts the female MUTO, who along with her mate has been double-teaming Godzilla. This distraction allows Godzilla, who has been on the ropes, to make a comeback, besting his male opponent with a well aimed tale-strike. And as if that were not enough…Ford gets the ticking nuclear bomb (a bungled strategy by the military to defeat the monsters) onto a boat headed out to sea, before it can detonate in downtown, where it would kill tens of thousands of people and irradiate countless more. I’d say Ford has more than a little impact on the mechanics of the plot.
My point here is not to diss Orr (who is actually quite complimentary to those who disagree with him in the comments section of his review). Rather, it is to express my surprise that genre experts, especially those with an appreciation for Godzilla, would point to his review as if it perfectly articulated flaws to which the rest of us were blinded by our overwhelming fan adoration.
As we will see, there is blindness involved, but it’s mostly on the other side of the aisle.
THE GENRE PRESS AND GODZILLA

Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate.

Okay, we’re finally getting closer to my point, such as it is. But first, a brief recap: A major Hollywood blockbuster, based on a beloved genre icon not usually taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics, marches into theatres to the tune of a $93-million opening weekend while simultaneously earning a 73% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics (72% from audiences). It seems, for once, that viewers and reviewers are in accord, and everyone is happy if not ecstatic.
Everyone except for the Godzilla Experts, that is. Their reactions are a bit peculiar – unless you recognize Tribal Film Criticism when you see it.
I’ll start with “Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office,” by Annalee Newitz at io9, which despite the implication of the title is actually a Tribal Shout-Out to Guillermo Del Toro’s disappointing and inferior film from last year. Newitz’s essential point is that PACIFIC RIM is “arguably a more original and complex movie than GODZILLA,” the latter of which “succeeded because it treated its audience like kids.”
Yes, you read that right. According to Newitz, GODZILLA’s success is really a symptom of its inferiority; in this case, “inferiority” roughly translates as “accessibility to a mainstream audience.” The alleged superiority of PACIFIC RIM lies precisely in the fact that many viewers didn’t like it or didn’t get it – which suggests that those who did get it are smarter and more perceptive, able to appreciate a film that is “more interesting” and “complicated.”
To be fair, Newitz’s analysis of the difference between the two films is accurate and even insightful, and she does use the word “mistake” to refer to some of PACIFIC RIM’s elements, but it is clear from her description that these mistakes are actually not bugs but features that appeal to a more sophisticated science-fiction-savvy audience
Yes, My Tribe is smarter than Your Tribe.1
Less overtly tribal, but still telling, is Evan Dickson’s “How Does Godzilla Stack Up Against Pacific Rim” at Bloody Disgusting. Having given GODZILLA a straight-down-the-middle review (2.5 out of 5 stars), Dickson returns to answer readers seeking a comparative evaluation of the two films. Evans notes a few ways in which GODZILLA is superior but winds up proclaiming “As it stands now, PACIFIC RIM beats it out for me as a movie” – without offering a tangible reason.
Ironically, the combined impact of the i09 and Bloody Disgusting articles is to convince me that GODZILLA is the superior film precisely because it does not provide fan-service at the expense of good filmmaking. Instead, it plays against expectations, synthesizing elements familiar to fans but using them as if for the first time – in other words, working them into the story so that they fit, instead of simply throwing them up on screen so that the Tribal Members can feel validated when they recognize their favorite tropes. That reluctance to offer nothing but dedicated fealty to Tribal Orthodoxy is what diminishes Godzilla in the eyes of True Believers.
PACIFIC RIM, on the other hand, gets a pass, precisely because it pays homage to the Tribe. Sure, the film has intriguing ideas, such as “The Drift,” but those ideas are drowned in a repetitive series of mindless monster battles, and ultimately Del Toro’s film hews closer to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, right down to giving the Idris Elba character a rather weak variation on President Whitmore’s rousing pre-battle speech from INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). But you won’t see that acknowledged by either Newitz or Dickson.
GODZILLA, on the other hand, lets Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) say all that needs to be said in three simple words: “Let them fight.” Let’s award a few points for a level of understatment that avoids hokey melodrama. And while we’re at it, for all of GODZILLA’s dramatic faults, let’s note that PACIFIC RIM is not exactly loaded with credible characters. The two scientists (rendered in hammy performances) are less characters than on-screen avatars for geeks in the audience, and the male lead in is even more forgettable than the one in GODZILLA; in fact, he embodies one of the worst cliches in the history of cinema: the reluctant hero who drags his heels while we wait for the inevitable plot device that will finally motivate him to fight, which is what we know he’s going to do eventually if we just wait long enough. It’s a colossal and stupid waste of screen time – the kind of nonsense that GODZILLA wisely avoids.

WHITE-WASHING GODZILLA

Real-life nuclear devastation - inspiration for the original Godzilla

In “Godzilla Whitewashed: A Special Report,” which posted at World Cinema Paradise a couple days after GODZILLA opened, Steve Ryfle takes the film to task for subverting the metaphor of the original GODZILLA, directed by Ishiro Honda, which presented its beast as a walking embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear age. Unlike the other negative reviewers I’ve mentioned, Ryfle has a point worth considering, and truth be told, I too would have preferred a new film hewing closer to the powerful and dramatic original, one that boldly confronted our legacy as the only country to use nuclear bombs in warfare (on a civilian population, no less).
However, Ryfle’s justifiable concern leads him to underestimate the extent to which the film does question the wisdom of America’s nuclear arsenal, which is portrayed as ineffective at best and counter-productive at worse (to put it mildly). The scenario tells us that nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s was a covert attempt to destroy Godzilla – an attempt that failed. When the MUTOS and Godzilla converge on San Francisco, the military, in the form of General Stenz (David Strathairn), concoct a plan to eliminate all three radiation-hungry beasts by luring them out to sea with an atomic warhead, which will then be detonated. Dr. Serizawa points out that this tactic failed repeatedly in the past, and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) storms out in frustration over the futility of the plan, leading to a key moment.
Serizawa then tries to spur Stenz’s conscience by displaying a watch that belonged to his father – a watch that stopped when his father died in the blast at Hiroshima, its hands frozen forever like a fateful reminder of that terrible day. Stenz understands the point but proceeds anyway, for lack of a better (or indead any other) military option. Even so, in a later scene, Serizawa begs him again not to go through with the use of a nuclear warhead.
Despite this, Ryfle conclueds that Serizawa and Stenz “share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil.” Having seen GODZILLA a second time, I can say with certainty that no such scene exists in the film, which in no way pushes that message that Ryfle attributes to it. In fact, the watch scene is a far more direct indictment of the Hiroshima bombing than anything in Honda’s GODZILLA, which was more focused on H-Bomb testing in the Pacific than on the A-Bomb attacks on Japanese soil.
Rather than necessary evil, GODZILLA portrays the use of nuclear weapons as unnecessary insanity – a point driven home when the military’s plan goes horrible wrong, with the male MUTO2 hijacking the warhead and giving it to his mate as an offering, which she then uses as a “food” source for her eggs. Clearly, nuclear power is adding fuel to the fire, making a horrible situation exponentially more catastrophic.
Though Ryfle insists that GODZILLA “is about nothing” and that the film does not meaningfully comment upon its scenes of destruction, I find the meaning perfectly clear: nuclear proliferation has come back to bite the U.S. on the ass; the weapons that exist allegedly to protect us actually attract more trouble than they repel, and by creating and using them we have set in motion events that we are powerless to stop – unless we get a little assistance, in the form of Godzilla, to reset the balance.
Underscoring this theme, our hero Ford Brody is not a conventional warrior; his specialty is defusing bombs. The human story of GODZILLA’S third act (as opposed to the over-sized monster battle) focuses on his attempts to stop the bomb from detonating or, failing that, to get it safely out to sea, where it can do no harm to the inhabitants of San Francisco. This is definitely a movie that advises us to start worrying and stop loving the bomb
On another level, it is significant that only the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla save San Francisco from nuclear annihilation.
Which brings us to…

JOE BRODY IS GODZILLA (SPOILERS)

Godzilla-Cranston-Taylor
Father and Son: Joe Brody (Bryan Cranstone) and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

One aspects of GODZILLA that seems to be universally disliked is the death of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is killed when the dormant MUTO hatches; ironically, Joe’s death confirms the conspiratorial ramblings that have alienated him from his son Ford but severs any possibility of father-son reconciliation. Or does it?
Cranston gives the best performance in the film, emerging as the most (some say only) memorable character. So why kill him off? Before advancing my argument, first let’s hear director Edwards on the subject:

[…] we tried versions in the screenplay where he survived. And in every one we did that with, there was nothing else that character could do without being silly. If he sticks with Ford, it becomes Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the tone of the movie becomes fun, but not the tone we were trying to do. And if he sticks with the military guys, he’s like a fifth wheel. His job was done in the story line there.
“We did try to make it work. […] But as a story beat, he becomes redundant once he’s handed over the baton to the rest of the cast.

Edwards explanation is good as far as it goes, but he leaves deeper questions unexplored: Exactly why does Joe Brody become redundant, and to whom is he passing the baton?
As you may have guessed, I have a theory, and it goes like this:
Joe Brody is Godzilla.
Okay, I do not mean to be taken seriously – or at least not literally. Previously, the Toho production GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE (1989) depicted a monster infused with a human spirit (through gene splicing). That is not what is happening here. Rather, Joe Brody has to disappear from the narrative because his role is being assumed by Godzilla; it is to the mysterious sea beast, rather than to the human characters, that he is passing the baton.
Unfortunately, the film does not do as much as it could to support this reading. I would like to have seen Joe perish by disappearing into the ocean shortly before Godzilla emerged from beneath the waves; perhaps a few familiar character tics – gestures, expressions – could have been imbued into Godzilla to drive the point home.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints:

  1. Joe makes his exit before Godzilla enters the picture. Except for brief news reel image of dorsal spines in the Pacific during a nuclear blast decades ago, Godzilla is off-screen until after Joe dies. Only then do we learn that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOS, which is not, I think a coincidence, because…
  2. The MUTOS are responsible not only for the death of Joe’s wife but also for the death of Godzilla’s ancestor. In the traditional action scenario, it is the hero’s duty to exact vengeance for this kind of thing. Godzilla takes out the MUTOs, doing what Joe would have done if he could.
  3. At one point, referring to his late wife, Joe tells his son that she is “still out there,” suggesting a continued spiritual presence even after her death. This hints that, even after his own death, Joe is “still out there,” though now embodied in Godzilla. Not literally in the sense of taking possession, with his intelligence intact, but metaphorically, his goals fused with those of the prehistoric apex predator.
  4. Ford and Godzilla share a strangely intriguing moment of eye-contact, suggesting some kind of bonding. Interestingly, Godzilla’s looming face disappears as it is engulfed in billowing clouds, almost as if the creature were de-materializing – a guardian angel evaporating into the ether.
  5. Godzilla very pointedly saves Ford’s life at the end – again, something Joe would have done if he could. This later point is particularly significant, because the film starts with a nuclear catastrophe that Joe fails to prevent, loosing his wife in the process; the conclusion neatly bookends the opening, with another nuclear disaster, this time averted without loss of life.

In effect, Godzilla takes on the mantle of protective parent after Joe’s demise. Earlier in the film, Vivienne Graham refers to Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes,” which dove-tails nicely with a quote from Sigmund Freud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly to suit the occasion:

“A personal God[zilla] is nothing more than an exalted father-figure.”

In GODZILLA, the King of the Monsters assumes the father-figure role, but that role has greater resonance when you see him as the embodiment of Joe Brody’s need to protect his family, to succeed where he failed previously. Again, this is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
Generally, I think reviewers have not given the film enough credit for a solid structure that makes sense of elements like this, regardless of whether the dialogue and characterizations are as compelling as we might like. Joe Brody is a nuclear safety expert; his son attempts to diffuse a nuclear bomb at the end; individually, they fail, but united (at least insofar as Godzilla represents Joe), they succeed.
Sure, the getting-back-to-my-family story line is banal, but it serves a function as a microcosm of the larger problem: nuclear radiation has not only upset the balance of nature on a large scale, but also split the nuclear family; the reuniting of Ford’s family is a small scale symbol of the restoration of balance.
One last point (I can hear you sighing, “Finally!”). Ryfle objects to the conclusion of GODZILLA, which sees the purloined warhead detonating harmlessly out to sea, with no threat of sickness from what should be massive fall-out. This is clearly in line with America’s myopia about nuclear weapons, which we prefer to regard as high-yield explosives while we ignore the insidious effects of radiation poisoning, which continues to kill long after the smoke has cleared (a pointed made with disturbing poignancy in Honda’s film).
However, I am going to give the new film the benefit of the doubt, because it has laid the groundwork for an explanation. Earlier in the film, we learn that Dr. Serizawa and company have been nurturing the dormant MUTO because it has been absorbing the radiation from nuclear plant it destroyed; the surrounding area, which should be toxic, is actually clean.
Godzilla, like the MUTOs, feeds off radiation. After defeating his opponents, Godzilla collapses, exhausted and spent, apparently dead (in a nice touch, his fall to earth after a heroic victory mirrors Ford’s slipping into unconsciousness, the actions synchronized to once again emphasize the connection between Ford and Godzilla). The next morning, with people swarming the beach around the fallen titan, and Dr. Serizawa gazing in wonder upon what is for him the equivalent of the Holy Grail, Godzilla’s starts to breath again, rising in triumph to head back to the ocean.
I think this is why there is no danger of radiation poisoning: as the MUTO did with the radiation from the reactor, Godzilla has absorbed the fall-out from the warhead; this is what brought him back to life. As he returns to the depths from which he came, the implication is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists between humanity and Godzilla. Just as plants live on the carbon dioxide that we exhale, purifying the atmosphere for us, Godzilla is taking our nuclear poison with him and leaving a purified world behind.
It’s not all that far removed from the ending of GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (a.k.a. GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER), whose writer-director, Yoshimitsu Banno, serves as executive producer here. The difference is that Edwards’ GODZILLA takes a potentially silly idea and presents it with a straight face, free of camp or irony. We may chuckle to ourselves after the curtain has dropped and the theatre lights go up, but while the film is actually unspooling we can enjoy the delicious experience of taking Godzilla seriously.
FOOTNOTES

  1. I would be a little less snarky here if some of Newitz’s points were not so specious. For instance, she praises PACIFIC RIM’s “bold decisions,” such as starting the film ten years after the first appearance of the kaiju. Actually, this not so much bold as safe: it gives the film an excuse to start with monster mayhem from the very first frame, to capture audience attention before boring them with the exposition and “drama” that follow. GODZILLA is bolder in strategy, daring to tease its audience along, resisting the urge to go full-on monster mayhem from beginning to end.
  2. By the way, Ryfle objects to acronym, referring to the “laughably named M.U.T.O” and expressing pity that “the fine actor David Strathairn had to utter those words without chuckling.” I just want to say that MUTO sounds quite like UFO (Unidentified Flying Object, pronounced “YOU-FO”), a term coined by the U.S. military and used for decades (in official documents such as Project Bluebook) without provoking laughter.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past – CFQ Spotlight 5:20

X-Men-Days-Of-Future-Past-Logo
From the Better Late Than Never Department: Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast 5:20, focusing on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, was supposed to post last Monday. Unfortunately, technical delays prevents it from being posted until today. Listen in as Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski discuss the latest installment of the Marvel mutant film franchise, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to enlist Dr. Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in an attempt to prevent an apocalyptic future with dire consequences for mutants and humans alike.


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