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.

[serialposts]

Spotlight 5:19.2 – Godzilla, Part 2

godzilla-2014-full-monster-570x294
The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast returns with Part 2 of our look at the new GODZILLA film, this time with guest Joe Sena and host Steve Biodrowski leaving the heavy thematic discussions behind to focus on the film’s strengths as joyful genre entertainment. This episode follows after 5:19.1, in which guest Steve Ryfle dissected the film’s short-comings vis-a-vis Godzilla’s history as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. Ideally, the two parts would have been synthesized into a single podcast, as they balance each other nicely; unfortunately, scheduling and technical difficulties presented this. If possibly, we recommend you listen to them back-to-back.


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Godzilla – Radio Film Review

Yep, GODZILLA is still King of the Monsters (and a helluva tourist attraction).
Yep, GODZILLA is still King of the Monsters (and a helluva tourist attraction).

Turns out maintaining a presence in the social network only makes life more complex for a film critic. I had to delay my viewing of GODZILLA ’til Sunday, meantime trying to avoid the various hosannas and the occasional nay-say (not to mention Steve Biodrowski’s own in-depth analysis) being splattered all over Facebook, Twitter, etc. An impossible task, actually, and I went into the theater a little anxious over whether what little feedback had filtered through to me was somehow going to skew my reaction, for good or ill.
Happily, I was well pleased with GODZILLA. Not staggered, no, but grateful that director Gareth Edwards managed to pay homage to the history of the franchise while adding some crucial elements to the exercise, elements that I explore in my review for WBAI 99.5FM’s HOUR OF THE WOLF. Click the player to hear what I had to say.

Right-click to download: GODZILLA – Radio Film Review

LISTEN TO HOUR OF THE WOLF
EVERY THURSDAY AT 1:30 AM
ON WBAI 99.5FM IN NEW YORK CITY

[serialposts]

Godzilla: Spotlight Podcast 5:19.1

Godzilla art crop
Godzilla has stormed into theatres, and he’s too big to fit into one podcast! That’s right: this week the Cinefantastique Spotlight will be presented in two parts. The first features regulars Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski, along with special guest Steve Ryfle (author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biograph of the Big G). Listen in for insightful commentary about the new film version of GODZILLA, from Warner Brothers Pictures and Legendary Pictures, which has crushed the box office competition flatter than its titular monster razing a skyscraper to the ground.
Come back soon for Part Two!


[serialposts]

Godzilla (2014) review

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Is Legendary Pictures’ GODZILLA the perfect re-imagining of the classic kaiju character as the star of a Hollywood blockbuster? No. Is it a decent antidote to the disappointing 1998 film from Sony Pictures? Yes. Does that mean the new film is a mediocrity that falls somewhere in the middle? Hell no. For all its dramaturgical faults, GODZILLA captures the fundamental nature of its radioactive reptile in a manner that eclipses its weaknesses, like the shadow of Godzilla himself eclipsing the efforts of the puny humans frantically scurrying beneath his feet. Unlike Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devilin in their 1998 fiasco, which diminished its GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) into nothing more than an over-sized lizard, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein realize that Godzilla’s power lies in his stature – not only physical but also metaphoric. Godzilla must be more than large enough to fill the IMAX screen; he must be large enough to fill our collective imagination.  This is GODZILLA’s singular triumph: it invests its titular character with a Sense of Wonder that outweighs his mere bulk, lingering in the mind after that last building has toppled and the last roar has faded from the soundtrack.

THE STORY

godzilla05GODZILLA begins with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa1 (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) examining a giant skeleton of a beast apparently felled by a pair of prehistoric parasites, one of which heads toward Japan, where a nuclear power plant goes haywire, causing the death of Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche). Years later, Sandra’s husband Joe (Bryan Cranston) has become estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while devoting his life to proving that his wife’s death was the result of something more than an ordinary accident. The parasite (later dubbed a MUTO, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) reawakens and goes searching for its mate, and the U.S. military, led by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) wrestle with the thorny problem of how to stop apparently unstoppable creatures with an appetite for nuclear material – including bombs. Fortunately, in the words of Dr. Serizawa, the MUTOs are being hunted by an ancient apex predator, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla), who will restore the balance of nature upset by the MUTO’s access to a vast new food source, thanks to the proliferation of nuclear energy.
Borenstein’s screenplay (developed from a story by Dave Callaham) is stretched a bit thin in its attempt to provide an epic-sized vehicle for its titular monster. The problem is not with the number of incidents – there is plenty happening in the film. Nor is it necessarily with the characters, who are sketched in basic terms but are more than serviceable (aided by solid performances). What’s missing is a larger dramatic conflict – the sort of moral quandary that invested the original GOJIRA (1954) with a memorable gravitas, rendering the film as something much larger than a mere genre piece.
The closest GODZILLA comes to this is with the decision to use a hydrogen bomb in an attempt to distract the radiation-hungry monsters from converging on San Francisco – a decision opposed by Dr Serizawa, whose father died in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima. However, this element winds up being less a thematic development than a plot device, galvanizing the human action during the titanic tag-team wrestling match that makes up the third act.

THE DETAILS

godzilla-trailer-02The story deficiency weakens the film but, fortunately, is not nearly enough to knock the crown off the King of the Monsters. The plot may be thin, but that is almost beside the point when director Edwards imbues the images with a serious tone that renders the action believable even when it is at its most incredible. (In a weird way, GODZILLA is like Darren Aronfsky’s NOAH, which unabashedly embraced not only genre fantasy but also sheer physical impossibility  while simultaneously selling its tale with a layer of straight-faced realism – cognitive dissonance be damned.)
Edwards’ gift, previously displayed in his low-budget MONSTERS (2010), is the ability to depict an apparently believable, human world, in which unbelievable monsters exist, affecting people’s lives and altering their very perception of the world – even when the monsters are off-screen. Consequently, when the monsters do show up, their appearances register not as obligatory set-pieces carefully and generously distributed to satisfy genre junkies (I’m looking at you, PACIFIC RIM); instead of empty spectacle, GODZILLA evokes a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of civilization poised on the brink of destruction, of humanity perhaps on the verge of extinction.
And in case you haven’t heard, Godzilla is off-screen quite a bit, but that’s all part of the film’s carefully wrought strategy.
Edwards plays his hand like a master card sharp, holding his trump cards in reserve until he can lay them down when they will score the most points. He teases us with a series of tantalizing glimpses: a massive shape surging beneath a battleship; a glimpse of a tail from behind a building; a brief battle seen via televised news report; dangling claws and chest scales illuminated by flares; dorsal spines slicing through the ocean like the shark’s fin in JAWS.2
Edwards is not enough of a visual poet to carry off the gambit completely. The tease does lead to a massively satisfying pay-off when GODZILLA finally emerges in all his glory, but until then, the slow build-up sometimes seems merely slow. The opening sequence of Dr. Serizawa examining the underground remains of another Godzilla skeleton, for example, is merely adequate, when it should be awe-inspiring, sending shivers of anticipation down the spine. A little patience may be required from over-eager audiences, but that patience will be rewarded many times over. When the King of the Monsters finally unleashes his most famous power near the end, it’s a jaw-dropping moment of glorious spectacle, but it is all the more satisfying because it is not played as a sop to Godzilla geeks eager to sate their hunger for more of what they saw when they were kids attending bargain matinees in their local theatres; instead, it is depicted with all the immediacy of something newly discovered, and for at least one brief moment, the neophytes and the veterans can unite in communal joy, as if both are witnessing the event for the first time – an impression enhanced a thousand fold by the awestruck audio reaction from the screen, as one character gasps: “DID YOU SEE THAT?!…WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”
I may seem to be over-emphasizing a single moment, but there is a method to my madness. The fundamental failing of the 1998 Godzilla was diminishing – or even completely eliminating – the awe-inspiring aspects of its monster. Boronstein, Edwards, and the technical craftsmen embrace this aspect and bring it to convincing life, partly with modern, high-tech cinematic craftsmanship, but mostly through the use of a human perspective on the events, which allows the audience to engage directly and uncritically, without undue reliance on suspension of disbelief, ironic detachment, or fond nostalgia.
That’s the power of this GODZILLA: not in “re-imagining” or “re-booting” the past, but in taking raw materials from the old films and refining them into something that feels newly created instead of merely recycled with a bigger budget and better effects. Yes, it’s still only a movie, but you don’t have to keep telling yourself that to gloss over the weaknesses; you can simply be enthralled – not from reliving old memories, but from enjoying this experience now.

THE MONSTERS

godzilla_2014__the_winged_muto_by_sonichedgehog2-d7aqlg7With Godzilla playing coy throughout most of the running time, it is up to the MUTOs to satisfy the film’s monster movie mayhem requirements. This mated pair  – a larger female, a smaller male with wings – are insectoid in appearance, with elements seemingly borrowed from Gayos (an opponent of Godzilla’s rival, Gamera) and the Orga from GODZILLA 2000, not to mention the titular creatures in Edwards’ own MONSTERS.  Though destructive and frightening, they do evoke a tiny spark of sympathy when the male passes along a tasty treat (well, an H-bomb) to its companion: if only they weren’t going to breed and overrun the world, they might seem almost endearing. More to the point, they make for intimidating foes – one purely terrestrial, the other aerial – as they deliver a monumental tag-team beating to Godzilla.
Godzilla himself retains the classic elements of the familiar design – a scaly, upright-walking dinosaur with dorsal fins and an angry, reptilian appearance – but those elements have been adjusted. Once a mere 100-feet tall, this new Godzilla towers over his older selves, at 350 feet. He also looks heavier, more muscular, like the kaiju equivalent of a barroom bouncer, and his face suggests a battered old boxer, used to receiving and dealing out punishment.
Of course, this Godzilla has been rendered with modern computer graphics instead of a man-in-a-suit, but the problems of CGI (cartoony movements, lack of inertia) have been overcome, providing marvelously realized special effects with the spirit of the best of Godzilla’s old Toho films – which is to say, the action is allowed to play out so that you can see it, without any editorial razzle-dazzle to goose up the sequences (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). There is a convincing sense of momentum to the monster’s actions, and the massive scale is effectively suggested by slowing the  movements down (though not as much as in PACIFIC RIM); the 3D photography, though not essential to the film’s overall effectiveness, enhances the illusion that we are seeing large objects at a distance (as opposed to the old-fashioned miniatures, tricked up to look big by placing them close to the camera lens).
There is a tactile quality to the monsters, which makes them seem like living, breathing creatures, not just computer-animated creations, and Godzilla actually gives something approaching a performance, in both his facial expressions and his body language. (His post-battle collapse suggests an exhausted warrior falling like a deflated balloon, leading to an image almost as iconic as the final panel from The Death of Superman.)
Interestingly, this performance was captured without the use of performance capture. Though mo-cap specialist Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong) consulted to enhance Godzilla’s movements, the special effects footage was actually computer-animated. (Director Edwards says motion-capture would have worked had Godzilla been fighting another two-legged beast that could be portrayed by an actor, but the multi-legged MUTOs required CGI handling.)
The result is somewhat akin to the 1990s era Godzilla, a massive hulk that implacably repulses the attacks of any opponents. Though the story pushes him into heroic mode, there is nothing benign in his countenance; rather, this is a mean-ass junkyard dog who just happens to hate on the thing attacking San Francisco. Oh well, the “enemy of my enemy,” as the saying goes.

THEMES

The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.

Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge. Military action backfires, nearly killing civilians, but for the intervention of the Big G.

Thus speaks Dr. Serizawa, precipitating the final act of GODZILLA. If he sounds a bit oracular, delivering the film’s message here and elsewhere rather unapologetically, that is actually an appropriate part of Godzilla’s tradition. Godzilla was conceived in 1954 as a none-too-subtle metaphor  – in essence, a walking nuclear weapon, a living embodiment of the perils of the atomic age. This element diminished throughout numerous sequels in the 1960s and ’70s, which eventually turned Godzilla into a hero defending Earth from alien invaders such as King Ghidorah. When the character was revived in the ’80s and ’90s, his atomic origins were acknowledged once again, though the emphasis shifted. Godzilla was no longer merely a nuclear menace; he was nature’s reaction to mankind’s tampering with the atom. Thus he could be seen as in some sense a righteous character, an anti-hero whose city-stomping destruction was the consequence of mankind’s actions but whose defense of his territory yielded benefits for humanity, who otherwise might have been destroyed by the numerous monsters Godzilla defeated.
The new GODZILLA film follows through on this later idea. Godzilla is still a prehistoric creature awakened by nuclear science (by an atomic submarine rather than an atomic bomb, if I heard correctly), but he is not necessarily here to extract vengeance for that awakening. Instead, the MUTOs are the real monsters of the story, their nuclear appetite for destruction fueling the plot, and it is Godzilla’s job to balance the scales (though not without collateral damage).
Though not literally faithful to Godzilla’s original conception, the Warner Brothers film is a smart updating that speaks to current concerns; like a text translated into a new language, it has been rendered in a form that speaks to its new audience, conveying the ideas if not the exact words.
When GOJIRA (later released as GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS in the U.S.) stomped into Japanese theatres in 1954, it was seen not only in the context of the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; it directly referenced U.S. H-bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean, which irradiated the crew of the Japanese fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon. This sort of topical reference is used in the new film, but with fear of bombs and nuclear testing no longer at the forefront of our public consciousness, Edwards and Boronstein opt for an attack on a nuclear power station, eliciting painful recollections of the ill-fated Fukushima plant. We may no longer lose sleep over nuclear Armageddon, but Fukushima reminded us radiation poisoning is still a fearful long-term problem – and one that may be symptomatic of a larger problem regarding our treatment of the planet on which we live.
GODZILLA brings that fear to life and embodies it in the MUTOs, whom Godzilla must destroy to save the Earth. This may seem like a bit of a cheat, robbing Godzilla of his own metaphor, but it works in the context of this film3, which suggests that humanity is incapable of fixing its mistakes. We are told that, after Godzilla was awakened, the subsequent nuclear bomb tests were actually unsuccessful attempts to destroy the beast. Though not emphasized, this is a subtle condemnation of U.S. Cold War policy, in which the answer to the problem of nuclear weapons was – wait for it! –  even more nuclear weapons.
The point is underlined when the military initiates its plan to destroy all three monsters with yet another H-Bomb, hoping that the blast will be enough to destroy creatures that would otherwise thrive on the resulting radiation. The insanity of the proposal is not lost on Dr. Serizawa, who – in one of the film’s most touching moments – displays a pocket watch that belonged to his father – a watched that stopped when his father died at Hiroshima, its frozen hands like an eternal reminder of the horrific event. A chastened Admiral Stenz can only silently acknowledge Serizawa’s point and then continue with the plan anyway – because that’s what the military does, regardless of whether it makes sense.
The result very nearly causes even greater destruction for San Francisco, which is averted only because of the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla (in one of the script’s nicer touches, the human protagonist is actually given something more important to do than simply watch the monster action from afar). This stands in marked contrast to the more archetypal message of American science fiction films (such as Godzilla’s progenitor, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), which suggested that nuclear science, working hand in hand with the military, would solve any of the problems it caused.
GODZILLA is clearly less optimistic about our abilities to auto-correct ourselves.

CONCLUSION

With its nuclear disasters and tidal waves suggesting nature thrown out of balance by mankind, GODZILLA pitches itself as a pop-message movie laced up in genre attributes. Though the actions of the human characters may be somewhat generic, the film itself is anything but. Whatever its weaknesses, GODZILLA sells itself, its message, and its monster to the audience – unabashedly and unapologetically. It suffers no undue restraint from fear of indulging in the absurd, but nor does it rely on audience good will to see it over its dramatic short-comings. Unlike PACIFIC RIM, this is no Geek Movie, simply sending out dog whistles to the tribe of the already initiated. This GODZILLA works overtime to earn any good will it receives from the audience, and for that reason, it works as well for newbies and initiates alike.
Or put it another way: In an era of over-hyped blockbusters, each straining to be bigger, louder, and more cataclysmic than the competition, GODZILLA takes a relatively low-key approach to deliver not just what fans want but what audiences need: incredible entertainment that seems somehow credible.
[rating=4]
Out of five stars on the CFQ scale: must see.
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GODZILLA (May 15/16, 2014). From Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Boronstein, from a story by Dave Callaham. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Editing: Bob Ducsay. Production Design: Owne Paterson. Special effects: WETA Digital, Jim Rigiel; John Dykstra.  PG-13. 123 minutes. Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Straithairn, Akira Takarada.
FOOTNOTES:

  1. The name of Watanabe’s character conflates the first name of GOJIRA director Ishiro Honda with the last name of Dr. Serizawa, the character who sacrifices himself to destroy the beast at the end of the original film.
  2. Other critics have noted similarities to Steven Spielberg’s gradual revelation of the Great White, but a more apt comparison would be to Ridley Scott’s clever did-you-or-didn’t-you-see-it game in ALIEN.
  3. This plot device also recalls GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (1971, a.k.a. GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTERS), in which Godzilla’s opponent was a metaphor for the harm mankind had done to the environment. Since Toho films stopped making Godzilla films in 2004, director Yoshimitsu Banno had been trying to launch a sequel to GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH. The project eventually led to the current GODZILLA film, on which Banno receives an executive producer credit, so it is perhaps not too surprising that there would be some similarities.

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X-Mas Stocking Stuffers & Destroy All Monsters: CFQ Laserblast Podcast 2.49.2

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Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Just in time for Christmas, the Cinefantastique Laserblast crew – that would be Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski – offer up their recommendations for  DVDs and Blu-ray discs that would make perfect stocking stuffers for the horror, fantasy, and science fiction fan in your life. Suggestions range from the 1932 classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, now on Criterion Blu-ray disc, to the 1968 Japanese giant monster fest, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, out on Blu-ray from Media Blasters. As a special added bonus feature, this Laserblast podcast includes an interview with Steve Ryfle (author of JAPAN’S FAVORITE MON-STAR), who provided audio commentary for the DAM disc.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And truly, nothing says Christmas like Godzilla!

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