Saturday, 24 May 2014

Bore in the Pacific

Godzilla’s back, and that’s all you’ll see of him for an unforgivably huge portion of this film...

 Gojira is sixty years old, the product of a still-numbed nations attempt to come to terms with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined with that same country’s love of Dragons.  He lives in mainstream consciousness through expressions like ‘Bridezilla’ and most are aware of him. Of these, a subsection know that he’s the ‘King of monsters’, and love the idea of a primordial behemoth protecting us from alien attack and less benign colossal beasts, (or Kaiju as the Japanese call them).  And finally, there’s the tiny sliver of the population who’ve actually sat through a Godzilla film (and I don’t mean the unlamented Roland Emmerich effort from the late nineties) and perhaps even enjoyed the experience.

Personally, I’ve seen a handful of the original Japanese studio Toho productions – and while I appreciate that they are an acquired taste, I generally enjoy the man-in-suit hokum, and the mind-bendingly complex continuity behind this endless cycle of films and it’s many off-shoots.  Godzilla himself has different self-contradictory origins and timelines.

I need to do a lot more research before even beginning to try and categorise and date
these different versions of Godzilla (represented hereby some beautifully detailed kits
bought from an Asian fruit and vegetable warehouse, of all places) .
The relatively diminutive creature on the left is probably the earliest (Godzilla, 1954),
ending with the hulking green figure (Godzilla 2000: Millennium, 2000) on the right.
 When I first heard about the King of Monsters, however, I hated him with a passion.  And that was because the pull-out  ‘album’ free with Monster Fun comic back in 1975, which provided cut-out and paste-in pictures every week, told me that my all-time favourite: King Kong had fought something called Godzilla and that the outcome was unknown.  “No-one knows because the referee hasn’t been seen since!” chortled the caption under the still-empty space where this mysterious interloper was eventually going to be pasted.
Not only this Godzilla person dared to accost my beloved Kong, and not only did I still not know what he even looked like – but there was no confirmation that Kong had kicked his brobdinagian backside.  Maybe he hadn’t…
When the picture arrived, admittedly rather poorly drawn, I assumed it was a just another dinosaur until I looked more closely. THIS was Godzilla – a cross between the T-Rex Kong had already vanquished and a stegosaurus?  Ridiculous!

It was many, many years before I finally saw the film in question: King Kong vs. Godzilla, and am happy to accept the theory that the Toho Kong is a different creature altogether.  Looking like a sixty-foot man in a baggy ape suit with a strange papier mache mask, this creature sports the unlikely ability to store electricity from lightning in his simian fingers.  On the other hand, after spending most of the film as the ‘under-ape’, this battered and beleaguered avatar of Kong does indeed rally at the end and appear to win, so that’s OK too.

A rare instance of 'Kong’ gaining the upper hand, and showing how a Kaiju battle should be done.
Despite all this, I found I had room in my heart for Godzilla too, which made my disappointment with the aforementioned 1998 Hollywood effort all the more sharp.  It was spectacular, but Godzilla had somehow become an egg-laying, mutated iguana*, with the incredible ability to swim across the Pacific and come ashore in New York. He/she was also clearly the villain, and met an ignoble end at the hands of a cut-rate, bland American cast and a confused looking Jean Reno.

The Japanese displayed their disdain for this version of their biggest movie icon by renaming him ‘Zilla’ (taking the ‘god’ out of his name) and pitching this leggy US interloper against the real thing in Godzilla’s shortest fight ever.

So I was excited as anyone when I heard that Gareth Edwards, Director of the fabulous 2010 film Monsters, was directing a new US version of Godzilla. This time, they were surely going to get it right, and certainly the trailers and ecstatic reviews I had read pointed to this very much being the case.  In the meantime, I had finally got around to watching Breaking Bad, and was looking forward to seeing the charismatic Bryan Cranston as the lead in a film showcasing a heroic Godzilla defending us from a monstrous global threat.

Oh dear. 
After the first hour in I was already silently forgiving Roland Emmerich – at least he gave us a film with something purporting to be Godzilla actually in it. 
Generally I enjoy the gradual build up to a big reveal, but there has to be a pay off-to reward our suspense and patience. Most of this film involves Godzilla’s leisurely paddle across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco.  Admittedly, the sight of his spinal plates towering out of the ocean like a charging volcanic reef is an arresting one, but pales as it becomes clear that this is all we’re going to get for a long time.  The outcome of Godzilla’s mid-point night emergence in Honolulu is glimpsed on a muted TV screen which no-one is even bothering to watch, and no wonder, his ‘seeing off’ the male Muto (Massive Underground Terrestrial Organsim, one of the villains of the film) looks to have all the energy of a slow motion glove puppet scuffle.  And then the King of Monsters wades back to resume his dip and we are forced to spend yet more time with a very un-engaging human cast.  A major disappointment was Cranston unexpectedly fulfilling the old mentor role and exiting early to leave us in the bland hands of his son.  The vast majority of this film expects us to care about his family the witless military grunts we have no choice but to keep company with.  Even Ken Watanabe gives a very one note performance, uttering the occasional portent-laden pearls of wisdom, but mostly just looking bilious while Sally Hawkins is another wasted opportunity as an equally worried-looking she-nerd.
In Monsters the human cast were edgy and interesting, but here they are saccharine, two-dimensional ciphers, who could be accused of holding up the action, if only there was some…

Futilely, I was still holding out for the big showdown at the end, where Godzilla finally completes his customs and passport documentation at the San Francisco Port before getting on with stopping the Muto threat, as only he can.  If the film delivered in its climax, then even now all else could be forgiven.
There!  In the smoke - is that the movie climax?
Oh dear, again. 
It starts well, but then what we do glimpse through the ever present smoke and asbestos dust just appears to be more of the ponderous ineffectual flailing which we glimpsed in Hawaii, all those hours ago.  Maybe we really do need athletic Japanese Gentlemen in enormous rubber suits to make this kind of thing work properly.
Because, to be honest, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant brought a more titanic struggle to the screen in Bridget Jones diary, and without offending us by constantly cutting to other actors mid-tussle, whom we long gave up caring about, if we ever did in the first place.

Perhaps this is all the final part of some kind of American revenge plot against Toho studios for what they did to Americas’ favourite giant monster back in the 1960s with their two Kong films.  If this is the case, then let’s please call it quits because now it’s even: they dissed Kong twice and Hollywood has now roundly done the same to Godzilla.

Looking at the box office returns and many reviews I might be alone in my issues with this film. The two worthy gentlemen I saw it with are no strangers to this genre and enjoyed it very much.  Admittedly there is the occasional memorable scene, my favourite being the sudden panicked inland exodus of terrified seabirds as Godzilla approaches the coast.  And the Kaiju do at least look amazing, Godzilla in particular. But it isn’t nearly enough.
A reviewer on the Rotten Tomatoes site (which I turned to for reassurance that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way) sums it up best:
“Godzilla handles everything the military hurls at him: ships, guns, planes, rockets, even a squadron of Halo paratroopers. The only thing that can cut him down to size is being relegated to a supporting role in his very own movie.”

Ed-zilla, the world's sleepiest photo-bomber...

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