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.
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!
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.
GODZILLA 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 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.
With 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.
The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.
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.
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. 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:
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.
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.
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.
So…. I, FRANKENSTEIN. What can you say? Is it a bad movie or a bad videogame? We report; you decide! Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski analyze this patchwork of plot elements that is every bit as much a stitched-together abomination as the titular monster, played by Aaron Eckhart. Stuart Beattie (COLLATERAL) wrote and directed, from a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, the man also responsible for the UNDERWORLD franchise, but UNDERWORLD-like box office success is eluding this effort.
Have you heard about this new videogame called I, FRANKENSTEIN? If not, don’t blame yourself; the commercials and posters probably left you thinking that I, FRANKENSTEIN is a feature film. They even hired a few movie actors to make it seem more like a – well, like a movie, and adding to the confusion the demo version is currently playing in theatres, so you can check it out and decide whether it’s a game you’d like to play. Unfortunately, the answer is: No.
Now I know what you’re saying: How could a videogame with Frankenstein’s Monster caught up in a war between angels and demons not be super-exciting? I mean, at the very least, there must be some cool graphics and battle scenes, and stuff like that, right? Well, yeah, the computer graphics are great – almost like a movie – but the game itself is surprisingly dull, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
First, here’s what you need to know about the game’s story: You play Frankenstein’s Monster, an immortal artificial man with superpowers. You get caught up in a war between Good and Evil over the fate of mankind. You don’t really care much about mankind, because mankind hates you because you’re ugly, but eventually this hot, blonde doctor chick puts a bandage on one of your wounds and so you fall in love and decide humanity’s okay after all and take up sides against Evil.
I should pause here and mention that Aaron Eckhart (who was really good in THE DARK KNIGHT) reads the lines for the Frankenstein Monster. His presence is supposed to make this feel more like a real movie than a videogame, but you can sort of tell he knows he’s just filling time in between the action game-play which is the real reason someone might buy a game like I, FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose if they made a real movie out of this game, with him in the role, he’d probably do a much better job.
Anyway, acting aside, I had a really problem with Frankenstein’s Monster as an avatar, because when you play a videogame, you want your in-game character to be the most kick-ass warrior around like Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, or Alice in RESIDENT EVIL, or even John Grimm in DOOM, but Frankenstein just didn’t seem all that powerful in this battle between Good and Evil. I mean, yeah, he’s superhuman – which is good in a videogame – but does being artificially created really make you strong enough to battle angels and demons?
I was thinking maybe the idea would be that the opposing forces were so evenly matched that the monster would be able to tip the balance one way or the other, but instead it turns out to be that Team Evil just needs to study the Monster to learn something that will help them; meanwhile, Team Good doesn’t want the Monster to fall into the hands of Team Evil.
So your game avatar is really a pawn in what should be his own game instead of being the hero driving the acting. And it even turns out that Team Evil doesn’t even really need the Monster; all they need is the journal telling how the Monster was created, so the Frankenstein Monster avatar is that much less important to the game’s outcome.
At least, being superhuman, the Monster can fight, but though the action is nicely rendered, the fight scenes just don’t look that challenging to a potential player. Basically, any weapon with the game’s peculiar religious symbol carved on it will kill a demon, so all you have to do is pick up any weapon and hit a demon with it. That’s all there is to it. Not much strategy or skill involved. In fact, you wonder why Frankenstein’s monster need to be superhuman to do that. Anybody could hit a demon with a stick with a symbol on it. Or if the demons were too fast for that, why not carve the symbol on some machine gun bullets and just fire away?
So, uninteresting avatar and unchallenging fight scenes – at least the game might survive on the strength of its visuals, right? Because the fights are so easy to win, you should be able to quickly breeze through lots of cool settings with great-looking backgrounds and soak up all that wonderful atmosphere, shouldn’t you? Sadly, no.
Probably the biggest problem with I, FRANKENSTEIN is the way the “story” keeps interrupting the action and slowing down your progress from scene to scene. Once upon a time, you just killed something and then moved to the next level, where you could at least enjoy the graphics even if the game was not too exciting; now, however, videogames pretend there’s a story that ties all the death battles together, even though it’s pretty obvious that the story doesn’t really matter.
I’m not saying there’s shouldn’t be a story, but it needs to fit a little more smoothly into the game. Here, it just bogs the game down, constantly – in fact right from the beginning, when we get this prologue which acts like one big exposition dump telling us how “Adam” (as he is eventually named) was created by Victor Frankenstein – as if we didn’t already know that. In fact, I’m betting a big part of the reason they named the film I, FRANKENSTEIN is because they know we all know who Frankenstein is.
And that’s not all: the prologue also tells us way more than we need to know about the war between angels and demons. I mean, we get it: angels=good; demons=bad. About the only thing “new” here is that the angels call themselves gargoyles because they camouflage themselves as gargoyles, but I could have figured that part out for myself.
Unfortunately, figuring things out for yourself is not something I, FRANKENSTEIN ever lets you do. As boring as the prologue is, I took it in stride, because that’s the way these games start now, with the little introductory clip before the real game begins; sure, the absence of a “Skip” button was frustrating, but I figured a few minutes of tedium is par for the course before you get to the good stuff. Boy, was I wrong! Once you get into the actual game-play, the game keeps stopping to explain everything – and I mean everything. There’s never a moment when you wonder what to do next, because the character dialogue spells out what, where, and why before you start each new level.
This would be bad enough if I, FRANKENSTIEN were a non-linear game with multiple paths you could follow; however, the progression is strictly linear, with no two ways about it, so there’s really no need for explanations to justify “decisions” that are predetermined for you by the game. It’s as if they game designers realized their actual story was too flimsy to hold your attention from one level to the next, and so they tried to cover it up by giving you step-by-step explanations why you had to go on to the next scene and defeat the next demon or whatever.
Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t know why things happen, but part of the fun of a good game is strategy – weighing options and deciding what the next move should be. Here, it’s all laid out for you, and it left me wondering whether the designers even know who their target customers were. The fight scenes and computer graphics make I, FRANKENSTEIN look a cool game for teenage boys, but the constant hints and suggestions about what to do next make I, FRANKENSTEIN feel more like a lame Interactive Hidden Object Game for ten-year-olds. You know the kind: you can’t “lose,” because the game always tells you what to do next. (“Congratulations! You have found Frankenstein’s journal! You can use it to revive your fallen demon hordes and route the angelic gargoyle army!”)
What this means is that I, FRANKENSTEIN is predictable from beginning to end. Not just the usual predictability, where you know you’re going to win if you pay attention and play well – but scene-by-scene predictability, where you know what to do to complete each level even before you start playing that level. Watching the I, FRANKENSTEIN demo in theatres the other day, I ended up feeling like I was watching someone else play a videogame – someone not very talented. At first I wanted to take the controls for myself and show him how it was done, but after seeing how easy it all was, I just lost interest.
Sure, there would be a little more suspense with my fingers pushing the buttons to make Adam swing his club and whack his demon adversaries, but that’s not enough to make a satisfying game experience. I want some challenges, some puzzles, and adversaries whose weaknesses need to be discovered and exploited. To be fair, there is just a tiny bit of that in the end, when Adam comes up against the “boss” demon (named Naberius and played by Bill Nighy – another actor whose presence makes I, FRANKENSTEIN seem almost like a real movie). For some reason never explained (which is weird when you consider who much trivial stuff is explained) Naberius cannot be killed by weapons with the weird religious symbol carved on them.
If you plan on playing I, FRANKENSTEIN yourself, I recommend you watch the demo version on you X-Box at home and stop at this point before it gives away the solution for killing Naberius, which is just about the only halfway decent surprise in the whole game. As for me, as I said, I saw the demo in a theatre, and it totally gave away the solution for killing Naberius, which instantly killed any interest I had in ever adding this game to my collection.
The I, FRANKENSTEIN demo was show in 3D at my theatre, which did add a little bit to the game. I liked seeing wide-angle shots of the ancient cathedral (where the gargoyle order resides), which was surrounded by modern buildings, while demons swarmed the cobblestone streets for the final battle. But the 3D technology has its problems, especially when the game pretends to be a movie. If they had just done the whole thing with computer-generated imagery, it probably would have looked okay, but when they mix the real actors with the computer stuff, it doesn’t always line up properly – and in 3D, the alignment problems are more obvious. Like, there’s a scene where this character shifts from human form to his true demonic appearance, and his head is too big, kind of like a balloon – or more like that joke they do on THE TONIGHT SHOW, where they paste Jay Leno’s face on the body of some guy streaking through a football scene. Except the scene in I, FRANKENSTEIN is much funnier.
The last thing I will mention is that the actress who played Hannah McKay on the last couple seasons of DEXTER shows up as the doctor who sorta falls in love with “Adam.” Which is kind of funny, because on the TV show she fell in love with a serial killer who she thought might kill her because he had killed lots of other people, and now she falls in love with a monster who she thinks might kill her because he killed Victor Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth in that long boring prologue I mentioned above. But of course her blonde hair and good looks provide an invulnerability shield that guarantees she will survive through the closing credits.
Which, come to think of it, are the best thing about I, FRANKENSTEIN: at least there’s no post-credits teaser promising us a follow-up to a game no one wants to play in the first place.
On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: avoid! I, FRANKENSTEIN (January 24, 2014). A Lakeshore Entertainment production, distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment. 93 minutes. PG-13. In 3D. Directed by Stuart Beattie. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, based on a screen story by Beatie and Kevin Grevioux, based on the graphic novel by Grevioux, inspired by the character created by Mary Shelly. Cast: Aaron Eckhart as Adam; Yvonne Strahovski as Terra; Miranda Otto as Leonore; Bill Nighy as Naberius; Jai Courtney as Gideon; Socratis Otto as Zuriel; Aden Young as Victor Fraknenstein.
Volume 5, Number 3 of the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast brings you the latest news and reviews of what’s happening in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. The intrepid CFQ podcasting team analyzes the 2014 nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including GRAVITY and HER; and eulogizes late actor Russell Johnson, most widely known for playing the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, who also featured prominently in several science fiction films. Steve Biodrowski exorcises THE DEVIL’S DUE, a new “found footage” horror film featuring a demonic pregnancy. Lawrence French lionizes FIRST MEN IN THE MOON with a 50th anniversary appreciation of the 1964 science fiction film, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
Also on the menu are this week’s home video releases for Tuesday, January 21, and a look back at the 2012 Blu-ray release of GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE.
This week, the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast celebrates the new year by looking back at the old: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, Steve Biodrowski offer their picks for the Ten Best Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Films of 2013. We’d love to tease the titles mentioned, but that would be spoiling the suspense, so you will simply have to listen in and find out for yourself.
Also on the menu: reactions to trailer for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and a look at home video releases for Tuesday, January 7 2014.
In Cinefantastique’s final Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast of 2013, Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski wrestle with the trailer for LEGEND OF HERCULES, travel to the end of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor, examine the current slate of home video releases for Tuesday, December 31, and explore the public domain horrors of NIGHTMARE CASTLE (a.k.a. AMANTI DOLTRATOMBA [“Lovers from Beyond the Tomb”]), a 1965 Gothic chiller starring Queen of Horror Barbara Steele. The highlight is a review of TIME OF THE DOCTOR, in which Matt Smith winds up his tenure as the famous Time Lord and turns the TARDIS over to Peter Capaldi. Is it a worthwhile farewell or simply a gimmicky geek lovefest? Listen in to find out!
Cinefantastique’s Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast returns from the grave, offering a colorful cornucopia of horror, fantasy, and science fiction news and reviews. Correspondents Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski size up the new GODZILLA teaser trailer, examine the Oscar Academy’s finalists for Best Special Effects, and bid farewell to actor Peter O’Toole (most known for his great dramatic roles, though he did a handful of genre movies, too).
Next, Steve reviews THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR on DVD. Larry recounts the extended cut of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Dan enthuses over the animated television show WANDER OVER YONDER. And we wrap up with a trip to the Borderland: reviewing the non-genre SAVING MR. BANKS, because it recounts the behind-the-scenes story of the making of PETER PAN, the animated fantasy classic from Walt Disney Pictures.
There is a pretty decent 90-minute movie hiding within THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, but the filmmakers were not going to let that fast-paced thriller escape from the laborious two-and-half-hour running time required to appease a fanbase that wants every major development, nuance, and tidbit from the source material to at least rate a mention on screen. Patient viewers (including not only readers of the Suzanne Collins novels) will still find an enjoyable viewing experience, but only the most forgiving fans will be able to completely overlook the longueurs – which are even longer here than they were in the previous film.
As before, there is a rather length preamble before we get to the good stuff, which is of course the titular Hunger Games. This time, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embark on a government-mandated promotional-propaganda tour of the twelve districts, selling their tale of survival and feigned romance to the populace, who presumably will be pacified and more accepting of their miserable fate while the elites continue to live high on the hog.
What’s that about feigned romance, you ask? Well, you ask if you have not read the book, because nothing in THE HUNGER GAMES suggested Katniss did not fall in love with Peeta, but in order to make the sequel story work, that previously overlooked narrative thread finally finds its way off the page and onto the screen. It makes for a rather sulky first act, with Katniss’s true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) lamenting how genuine Katniss’s feelings for Peeta seem, while Peeta sulks over how artificial they are.
The challenge of acting as if she is acting is a bit of a stretch for Lawrence, whose feigned passion for Peeta registers as no more or less passionate than her allegedly real feelings for Gale. Lawrence is hardly helped by the series of gowns and makeups she is given to wear: one would like to forgive them as intentional attempts to underline the clown-show nature of the victory tour, but at times they look simply like failed attempts to render the actress in an exotic guise, and by the time dress designer CInna (Lenny Kravitz) is ruthlessly beaten, the action seems less like political ploy than aesthetic statement about his work.
Fortunately, President Snow ( Donald Sutherland) puts the sulk-fest at least somewhat to bed when he grows resentful over the popularity of Katniss and Peeta, who success seems to be inspiring hope in a populace that Snow wants permanently quelled. Hoping to nip this development in the bud, Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) contrive a new version of the Hunger Games, in which twenty-four previous winners will compete, with the goal of eliminating the popular heroes and showing the futility of hoping to rise above one’s station in life.
The “hope” issue contradicts THE HUNGER GAMES, in which Snow specifically stated that hope was the essential reason for having a winner: hope keeps people from succumbing to despair and believing there is nothing left to lose, which in turn can lead to rebellion. Apparently, hope is a Goldilocks kind of thing: you don’t too little or too much, but Snow never clarifies exactly what qualifies as “just right.”
However, none of this matters, as it is just a contrivance to get Katniss and Peeta back on the killing field. Once there, the film generates considerable, if familiar, interest, as alliances are formed and tested, and our heroes ponder the moral dilemma of joining forces with people they may be forced to kill later, in order to survive themselves (a dilemma that, fortunately for mass-market taste, the scenario solves for them). The lethal action on the island where this year’s Hunger Games takes place is captivating – not just viscerally exciting but also emotionally engaging – which is a good thing, because the plot developments are, well…mostly a matter of marking time until the next film.
Snow and Plutarch begin and even more Draconian program of repression against the twelve districts, theoretically in order to suppress that unwanted rising hope. Strangely, the arbitrary nature seems more like to foment an uprising than repress one, and one begins to wonder just how Snow has managed to stay in power.
This question is not directly answered, but a twist ending gives us insight into why the tactics might be been deliberately designed to produce exactly the opposite of their stated result. SPOILERS:
Plutarch turns out to be part of a resistance movement, in league with Katniss’s mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). This also explains why several competitors on the island seemed willing to sacrifice themselves to save Katniss and Peeta; it’s all part of a plan whose details are to be revealed later.
Unfortunately, this is one of those revelations that raises as many questions as it answers, such as: Why isn’t President Snow smart enough to see that Plutarch’s methods are having the opposite of the desire result? And how did Plutarch and Haymitch know to have their rescue ship poised above the dome on the island at precisely the moment when Katniss, on the spur of the movement, performs an entirely unexpected action that blasts a hole in the dome, allowing the rescue ship to get in? And if Plutarch and Haymitch are so on top of the situation as to be able to pull this off, how is is that (we are told) the President managed to get his hands on Peeta and take him to the capital? We also have to wonder whether we are now supposed to forgive Plutarch for the lethal results of the plans he concocted with Snow – is this a Machiavellian case of the ends justifying the means?
END SPOILERS Worst of all, this half-articulated surprise revelation is supposed to pass for a climax, but it is entirely inadequate. The movie simply stops in mid-sentence, and instead of a real ending, we get a nifty CGI rendition of the mocking bird emblem, in a blaze of firy gold (the closest the film comes to living up to its title). Call it THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK syndrome: who needs a conclusion when you’re watching the middle chapter of a trilogy?
Though it never fully ignites, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE has its virtues. The sullen leads may lack charisma, but the supporting cast is fine, especially Harrelson; Elizabeth Banks very nearly humanizes the cartoony Effie Trinket, and Donald Sutherland excels so well at villainy that he can rend a simple sip from a glass as a supremely ominous gesture. The satirical depiction of the Capital is amusing if a bit broad (Stanley Tucci’s phony smile as TV celeb announce Caesar Flickerman is still funny but wearing out its welcome). The film takes effective pot shots at the contrived nature of “Reality TV,” which is relentless manipulated behind the scenes to fit narrative requirements. And the propaganda nature of the resulting popular success stories is relentless mocked though the bogus victory tour, in which Katniss and Peeta must seal the deal on their publicly perceived personas by playing out their romance on camera, regardless of Katniss’s actual indifference. (One of the film’s highlights occurs when Peeta, having learned to play the game, announces he would have no regrets about playing another round of the Hunger Games “if it weren’t for the baby” – the phony announcement of Katniss’s non-existent pregnancy predictably delights the decadent crowds.)
THE HUNGER GAMES remains one of the best film adaptations of a young adult novel in recent memory, exceeding expectations for a genre mired in muck like TWLIGHT. Unfortunately, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE succumbs to twin devils of Sequel Syndrome and Franchise Disorder: it provides more of the same – not bad, but not better – and its main goal is less to be a satisfying work unto itself than a teaser to keep you coming back for more.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: worth watching if you’re interested THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Lionsgate, 2013). Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Simon Beuafoy, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Rated PG-13. 146 minutes. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrleson, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer.