Worry, boredom, frustration, disappointment, confusion. That’s the trajectory of my feelings regarding the 2014 American Godzilla film, directed by Gareth Edwards.
Prior to seeing the movie, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, because every trailer I saw and every word-of-mouth review I heard from people who attended early screenings filled me with doubt.
I was bored when I watched the film, because nothing it did entertained me. Then I grew frustrated. I observed the efforts of Edwards, his cast, and his crew. I viewed their combined vision, which cost 160 million dollars and countless hours to produce. I watched and I waited for all of this effort to give me something that I could enjoy. I would have settled for almost anything. A fight. A striking visual image. An iota of emotional resonance. Something to engage me. Something to thrill me. Please, for the love of Godzilla, give me something to love. I’m begging you.
Then the credits rolled, and all I felt was crushing disappointment. I felt like I’d wasted two hours of my life.
Afterwards, I jumped on social media to be part of the conversation, and that’s when the confusion settled over me like a thick winter coat. Practically all of my friends had positive things to say about this new Godzilla film. Favorable comparisons to Pacific Rim were inevitable. One friend said they enjoyed it as much as Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to monsters and giant robots. Another claimed it was far superior in terms of establishing a serious tone. He praised the film’s ability to make humanity’s technological mastery seem insignificant in the onslaught of an indifferent Nature. Yet another dismissed the human-centered drama as laughable, but lauded the giant monster action.
I wondered: did we even watch the same movie?
Is there something wrong with how my brain processes film?
What on Earth were they talking about?
So let me lay out all of the problems I had with the film. Maybe this way I can come to some sort of understanding.
Aside from Bryan Cranston, I didn’t care about any of the human cast.
I didn’t care about Ken Watanabe. I felt he was wasted in his role as Dr. Serizawa, the resident mad scientist. His dialog was painfully devoid of context. Every time he expounded about the movie’s monsters and the best manner of dealing with their rampages, it felt like a clumsy information dump. “I believe Godzilla will restore the balance,” he says. What? Why? Why do you believe this? What was Serizawa’s specialty supposed to be again? Is he a nuclear physicist? A biologist? A paleontologist? I don’t know. I never learned anything about his character, aside from a tiny bit of business about his father dying in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This was meant to humanize him, but a single note of backstory is not enough to build a character unless it’s thoroughly fleshed out. The only decent thing that Dr. Serizawa does in the entire film is to urge the military not to use nuclear weapons. This was reasonable: the military had tried using nukes in the past. They didn’t work. It was a failed hypothesis. Yes! Actual concern for the safety of other human beings! Valid reasons! Could this be the seed of drama from which interesting developments will bloom? Nope. Serizawa’s concerns are dismissed, and he sulks a bit but doesn’t really try to stop the military’s lousy plan from proceeding.
I didn’t care about Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and but it wasn’t because of his performance in the role of the protagonist, Ford Brody. Others have already observed that Taylor-Johnson seems cold and aloof, but I can reconcile that with the traumatic circumstances of Brody’s childhood and his strained relationship with his father. No, it wasn’t Taylor-Johnson’s acting. It was the writing. I didn’t care about Ford Brody because the character was completely hollow. He had no spark, no personality, nothing to make him unique and interesting. Nothing to make him a person rather than a cipher. Brody has a wife and a young child who are similarly undefined. I don’t care about children characters just because you place them in danger. I don’t care about spouse characters just because you make them shed tears for the safety of their loved ones. That’s lazy, Hollywood hackwork that substitutes danger for characterization. Show me who these people are. Give me a reason to like them. Show me their hopes and dreams and fears. Make me want to see them succeed. Fear of death is the baseline. Everyone is afraid of dying in some giant catastrophe. Everyone fears that sort of powerlessness. Give me more. There’s more characterization in the few minutes that Brody spends looking after a young child who is separated from his parents at the airport during a monster attack than in any of the scenes involving Brody and his family, and that’s a problem. If Brody’s so willing to protect a stranger, I should feel his concern for his own family. It should radiate outward from his very bones. It should be palpable. That doesn’t happen in this film, because Godzilla (2014) is written like an emotional shortcut, without any real development of character or plot.
This movie squanders all of its potential for human drama. For example, Elizabeth Olsen plays Elle Brody, the wife of the hero. She’s an emergency room nurse in a city that’s suddenly transformed into a battlefield for giant monsters. This could have been an opportunity. Elle Brody could have displayed her heroism by rising to the call of duty. She could have performed triage in desperate situations. She could have cared for her patients while the city crumbled. She could have guided panicked residents to shelter. She could have shown courage and resolution in the face of unspeakable danger. Instead she cries a lot and waits for her husband to come home. This is all that Mrs. Brody does for the entire film. Meanwhile, Mr. Brody is jumping out of airplanes and escorting military trains and defusing nuclear bombs, and none of it matters, because the movie gives me no reason to care.
“Okay, Paul, we get it,” you say. “You didn’t like the human-focused elements of this story, but that’s no surprise. You’re a robot, an unfeeling lump of transistors and steel, with a diffusion pump where your heart should be. At least you thought the giant monster stuff was cool, right?”
No. No, I did not.
I did not like the giant monster action in this film. There wasn’t a single moment that wowed me.
I hated the design of the M.U.T.O. creatures. Their spindly legs and their implausible wings annoyed me. They reminded me of a second-rate Megaguirus, my least favorite monster from the Millenium series. Perhaps these giant goofy bugs would be more palatable if they were the result of humanity tinkering with genetic manipulation. I kept hoping that that the M.U.T.O. were actually a secret military experiment gone horribly awry. Then at least their desire to feed on nuclear energy sources would make some sort of sense, as would their ability to generate technology-crippling electromagnetic pulses. Nope. These ridiculous things are merely the products of natural selection, and their improbable existence is hand-waved away with a single line of dialog.
And then there’s the Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I think Godzilla is in here, somewhere. Never mind that it’s about an hour and a half into the movie before you get a good look at him. That by itself is specious complaint. There are numerous Godzilla films that delay the reveal in this manner. The reason it’s a problem in this film is that while Godzilla is absent there is nothing interesting happening onscreen. Godzilla vs the Sea Monster had a dance contest and adventure on the high seas in a stolen yacht. Godzilla vs Monster Zero had alien intrigue. Godzilla vs Megalon had car chases and a pair of swingin’ bachelors playing with their cool inventions. Even the execrable Final Wars had Matrix-style shenanigans and Don “The Predator” Frye’s bodacious mustache. What does this movie have to offer when the titular character is not around? Nada. Zip. Zilcho.
Much has already been said about Godzilla’s new rolly-poly design. I’m not going to complain about that, although I will quibble about the shape of his feet. They are stumpy and blunt and weird. I prefer the splay-toed design. I’ll also kvetch about his atomic fire breath, an effect I’ve seen countless people praising online. Really? You liked the fire breath in this film? You enjoyed that wispy, asthmatic trickle of sickly, blue plasma? That’s what you liked? Because I thought it looked completely flaccid. I want Godzilla’s atomic breath to blast my face off, like it does in the Millenium series. Or I want it to tickle my funny-bone, like it does in the later Showa films. I don’t have any time for this weak tea.
The monster mayhem did nothing for me. There was no tension, no drama, no grand sense of scale. There was never a moment that spoke to the child within my heart like the first time I saw Gipsy Danger in Pacific Rim stride into the ocean, club a monster with a tanker ship, or slice a kaiju in half with that wobbly-noodle segmented sword. It was just a bunch of well-rendered CG constructs rolling around in a cloud of dust. There was no heft, no weight, no sense of gravity when they crashed into buildings. There was no climatic back-and-forth struggle and no triumphant sense of victory. The monsters wrestle for a bit, the director cuts away from the action, and eventually Godzilla wins.
(NOTE: Edwards was clever to frame the bulk of the monster action via live news casts. It created an interesting psychological effect, and I believe Edwards did this to comment on how modern reporting and the impartial gaze of the camera lens distances us emotionally from tragic events, even ones that are occurring in our own backyard. That was cool. I wish more had been done with it.)
The biggest transgression – at least for me as a life-long fan of giant monster movies – is removing Godzilla from the context of nuclear anxiety. Again, this is not a problem in and of itself. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack did exactly this by proposing a Godzilla that was a spiritual incarnation. In director Shusuke Kaneko’s film, Godzilla embodies the rage of all of the people slain in the Pacific theater of World War II, and the result is a terrible and compelling creature. But if you excise Godzilla’s nuclear-irradiated origin, you have to replace it with something. Godzilla must have meaning, even if that meaning is as paltry as “friend of children” or “defender of humanity”. The best Godzilla stories involve Godzilla representing some form of divine retribution: humanity in its arrogance messes with Nature, and Nature bites back. That the original 1954 Godzilla is mutated into an unstoppable killing machine by atomic weapons testing is a symbol that is perfect in its bleakness, its irony, and its existential despair. There are numerous directions you could take a modern Godzilla film. Rather than an anti-nuclear allegory, you could make Godzilla a stand-in for climate change; our reckless technological abandon awakens a primordial beast, and it destroys us. You could create Godzilla via genetic engineering and comment on fears about GMOs, if that’s the boogeyman that haunts your nightmares. But there must be something, and I don’t think this film offers anything. What does this naturally evolved, apex predator from a bygone era Godzilla represent? What does it mean when he “saves” humanity from the other monsters? Isn’t he merely a brute animal defending his turf? Isn’t the human element incidental in that case? From where does the drama spring, then? Godzilla can be many things, but indifferent isn’t one of them.
Finally, invoking the imagery of Fukushima is cheap and exploitative if there isn’t a deeper message undergirding it.
None of these complaints would be a deal-breaker if Godzilla (2014) wasn’t so doggedly committed to maintaining a serious tone. There is no irreverence here: no attempts at humor; no one-liners; no wacky comic relief; no winking at the camera. This is a valid stylistic choice and one that I appreciate in most contexts, but there’s a disconnect here because the subject matter is patently ridiculous. I can’t simply sit back and pretend that this movie wants me to treat it like a fun, mindless popcorn flick. That’s clearly not how I’m supposed to engage with this film, and the movie simply withers beneath the harsh glare of critical scrutiny. The plot is too convenient. The characters are too thin. The writing is too weak. The action is too brief. Sure, there’s some nice composition, a well-framed shot here and there, but the film is dramatically empty and thematically frail.
So, yes, I’m a grumpy Godzilla fanboy who hates fun. I won’t deny that. But I also won’t pretend like this film doesn’t aspire toward serious drama. It tries to be more than giant monsters smashing into things. It tries to be more than spectacle. Edwards deliberately teases the audience by cutting away from the giant monster action scenes before they have a chance to build, as if to say that this film is so much more than debased genre fiction pandering to our collective appetite for destruction.
But it’s not, and what little spectacle that Godzilla (2014) had to offer left me colder than a blast from Mechagodzilla’s Absolute Zero Cannon.
Filed under: Science Fiction | 14 Comments
Tags: Gareth Edwards, Godzilla
Let’s look at the dwarves as depicted in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.
The Dwarves of The Hobbit Trilogy.
When viewed as a group, the thirteen dwarvish warriors on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain look quite fetching. I applaud the design of their clothing and weaponry. These elements suggest something about each dwarf’s personality, his background, his skill set, and his relative socio-economic status. For example, Bifur – with his shaggy appearance and massive spear – appears to be some sort of hunter or trapper. Thorin Oakenshield, on the other hand, wears fine furs and polished armor that befit his role as an exiled king.
I have no issue with their costumes nor with their props. My problem resides in the make-up design, because too many of these dwarves just don’t look like dwarves.
Filed under: Fantasy | 3 Comments
Tags: Criticism, Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Rankin / Bass, The Hobbit
It’s no secret that I’m disappointed with Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth. So far I’ve been let down by The Hobbit trilogy. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, left so little impression on me that I honestly forgot that it existed until I saw a display case advertising it at a local Wal-Mart. The sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more entertaining viewing experience in the moment, but the more I reflected upon it, the more the movie withered beneath my pitiless glare.
I don’t want to kvetch about the story elements that displeased me. Other critics have already examined the narrative with a fine-toothed comb, cataloging all of the flaws and inconsistencies, all of the shortcuts and embellishments and studio-logic that gave the films their current shape. Instead, I’d rather discuss where these movies stumble in terms of creating a convincing visual aesthetic, because I believe one of the greatest weaknesses of these films stems from a matter of design.
Filed under: Fantasy | 1 Comment
Tags: Criticism, Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Rankin / Bass, The Hobbit
Full disclosure: I’m an off-again, on-again Shadowrun fan. I’ve owned the core books for every earlier edition of the Shadowrun tabletop role-playing game, up to and including 4th Edition. (I don’t own 5th Edition yet.) I never played the video games for the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo, but I did read several of the novels, including “Never Deal with a Dragon” by Robert N. Charrette, which left a favorable impression on my young mind. I’m reasonably familiar with the lore, which is why it was so surprising to me to revisit the setting after a number of years and discover that I’d completely underestimated the dramatic potential of the franchise.
Originally, I was quick to dismiss Shadowrun as something rather silly: a mash-up of Tolkien-esque fantasy elements with cyberpunk science fiction. In the Sixth Age world of Shadowrun, magic is just as real as advanced technology. It’s possible to be a street shaman slinging mana-bolts at your enemies, or a troll mercenary decked out with the latest cybernetic implants, or an elf hacker that breaks into heavily encrypted corporate data-stores with the aid of a neural interface “datajack” and the hottest Mitsuhama cyberdeck.
Wizards with machine guns, what could be cooler than that? Right? Right?
Eh, maybe not…
But recently, I watched a Let’s Play of the PC game Shadowrun Returns, and it forced me to radically re-evaluate how I thought about the setting.
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Title: Night of the Cobra Woman
Subgenre: Erotic Supernatural Thriller
Director: Andrew Meyer
Netflix’s Lying Description: “A scientist in the Philippines must tear her boyfriend away from the clutches of Lena, a seductive jungle priestess who feasts on snake venom and constant sex to remain young and to prevent herself from turning into a cobra.”
What I expected: A steamy, sensual horror flick with a sultry femme fatale in the lead and boatloads of nudity. It says it right there in the Netflix description: constant sex! Hurray!
What I got: A rather bland co-production published by Roger Corman’s company, New Concorde. The sex scenes were few and far between, and their staging was about as erotic as a trip to the county fair. The special effects make-up was primitive. The acting was limp and bloodless. The story wasn’t anything like what I anticipated: the victims of the transformative venom of the ‘firecrest cobra’ are treated sometimes like drug-addicts, sometimes like cancer patients. Ultimately, the Cobra Woman comes across not as a manipulative villainess, but as an unfortunate soul who is merely doing what she needs to do to in order to survive. The movie shifts perspectives in the middle and concludes with Joy Bang blithely munching on a poisoned mango. It’s a weird one.
What was the best part: This movie is largely terrible from start to finish, but there was one scene in which Lena, the titular Cobra Woman, sheds her skin after making love to an unsuspecting Phillipino fellow. The imagery of shucking off spent skin like so much dirty clothing was surprisingly effective, despite the overall cheapness of the special effects. I also liked the scene in which Lena offers a prayer to her patron snake-deity and explains that she doesn’t want to return to her human form and that she prefers to live as a reptile.
What I learned:
- A shot from a Ruger pistol leaves no discernable bullet wound and as much blood as half a packet of ketchup.
- Wandering through the jungles of the Phillipines requires bare legs and a fuzzy, yellow hat.
- After being assaulted by the mentally handicapped, the best way to assuage your feelings of terror and confusion is to eat Cheerios straight from the box.
- “Eagles don’t require too much attention.”
- When making love with your lady-friend, the presence of creepy snakeskin is NOT a huge turn-off.
- It wouldn’t be a Phillipino movie without at least one cockfight.
- Joy Bang delivers every line like she’s trying to saw through a log with her voice.
What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…
The Mighty Peking Man.
Filed under: Horror | Leave a Comment
Tags: Andrew Meyer, Body Horror, Cobras, Exploitation Films, Horror Movies, Netflix Adventures, New Concorde, Night of the Cobra Woman, Phillipines, Roger Corman, Snakes
Genre: Science Fiction
Subgenre: Killer Robot
Director: Mark Rosman
Netflix’s Lying Description: “In this engrossing sci-fi tale, teen computer genius Kyle Baxter is thrilled when he wins the chance to play a live version of his favorite video game. But Kyle doesn’t realize that he’s pitted against a robot programmed to kill.”
What I expected: Chopping Mall.
What I got: Lawnmower Man 2: Job’s War. There were a surprising number of those trippy, computer-generated virtual reality sequences that were all the rage in the early Nineties. The movie also features some delightfully suspenseful sequences as the killer robot upgrades its programming and quietly rearms itself, transforming everyday tools (ball bearings, kitchen knives, gasoline) into deadly weapons. It was also fun to see John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Discord from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) as a slightly befuddled scientist who seems genuinely surprised when his repurposed kill-bot goes haywire and embarks on a murderous rampage, even though he left the original “seek and destroy” programming intact. Gee, what could have possibly gone wrong?
What’s the best part: By far the standout feature of this film is the design, puppetry, and voice-acting that combine to create the character of Evolver, the titular military-robot-turned-children’s-toy. Jim Salvati is credited with the conceptual design of the robot, which adapts and changes as its programming evolves, becoming more visually menacing as the movie progresses. Steve Johnson and Eric Fiedler bring Evolver to life as the robot special effects artist and lead puppeteer, respectively. And William H. Macy provides Evolver’s warm, friendly voice, a detail which makes the automaton antagonist all the more unsettling as the violence escalates. All things considered, the Evolver robot is way more charming than the sneering meat-bags who mock and torment it with their continued, carbon-based existence.
What I learned:
- The cyberpunk future is gangs of hooligans with New Wave haircuts placing bets while some goober flails around with a clunky, VR helmet on his head.
- Every teenager’s bedroom is invariably decorated from floor to ceiling with crazy movie posters.
- The girls’ locker room of any high school is conveniently and clearly labeled.
- For meathead jocks, the preferred choice of undergarment is ‘commando’.
- Marijuana and virtual reality are a DEADLY COMBINATION.
- Rubber alligators are not intended for use as a flotation device.
- Even if you’re an unlikeable, computer-obsessed, anti-social shit, if you’re the protagonist, you’ll get the girl in the end.
What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…
Night of the Cobra Woman.
Filed under: Science Fiction | Leave a Comment
Tags: Evolver, John de Lancie, Killer Robots, Mark Rosman, Netflix Adventures, Science Fiction, William H. Macy
Fair warning: I feel no qualms about spoiling a film based off a book that was published in 1937. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You’ve probably read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. You’ve probably seen the Rankin-Bass animated film from 1977. You’ve probably, god help you, read The Silmarillion. Maybe you had an Elvish wedding. Maybe you named your firstborn Aragorn, son of Arathorn, even if she was a girl, and now she’s old enough to resent you for it, you hapless nerd.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Spoilers ahead.
Filed under: Fantasy | Leave a Comment
Tags: Fantasy, Peter Jackson, The Desolation of Smaug, The Hobbit