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Gareth Edwards’ 2014 franchise re-igniter Godzilla debuts on 4K this week with a posh-looking disc release just in time for the the monster’s third movie and showdown with Kong. While the first movie has its strengths and weaknesses, the disc offering is all weakness. Here for a review of the film and a look at the physical media features is our film critic Don Shanahan:
Thanks to the several factors, “campy” is the common label of most things Godzilla before the 2014 blockbuster remake from Warner Bros. Simply put, the classic movie monster from Japan did not age well since his bold debut in 1954. The character may be a pop culture icon, but it’s an incredibly cheesy one because of the intentional “camp” elements too often involved. Most of us look back at that low-tech debut and the 27 knockoff sequel and spin-off films before Gareth Edwards’ new incarnation and laugh at the horrible production value of either a really bad puppet or a guy in a cumbersome rubber costume smashing balsa wood miniature sets with sparks and little fires. As imaginative and cool as Godzilla was, and still is, as throwback entertainment, “serious” and “menacing” were not appropriate descriptions for the most part.
Those two adjectives were the target of this new take. Amazingly, Godzilla (2014), while actually having a trainwreck in it (two in fact), was not a complete trainwreck itself. This stood as a legitimate summer blockbuster in scale and in quality. The promised size and scope of monster carnage that the last Hollywood attempt in 1998 failed to compellingly deliver and, honestly, we never thought we would see done right on the big screen, is successfully accomplished in a big way. This new film makes Pacific Rim look as silly as it really is, Transformers look downright weak and tiny, and even makes the controversial city destruction final act of Man of Steel look like a knocked-over sand castle or two.
Japanese star Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai and Inception plays the scientist Ishiro Serizawa and begins our extensive story with the discovery of a mysterious colossal skeleton and large chrysalis pod unearthed at a Filipino mine in 1999. They don’t know what came out of it, but whatever it was left and headed towards the ocean north. That steers us up to Japan where Joe Brody (TV star Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche) work at nuclear power plant experiencing unexplained seismic activity. Something is shaking the ground under the plant and it’s not an earthquake. When the plant is destroyed, it is treated as a natural disaster and isolated nuclear fallout.
We fast forward fifteen years later to find Joe maddeningly seeking to uncover the truth of the accident’s cause, convinced it wasn’t a natural disaster. His estranged son Ford (the wooden Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordinance disposal technician for the U.S. Navy living stateside in San Francisco with his nurse wife Elle (Elisabeth Olsen) and young son Sam (Carson Bolde). When Joe is caught trespassing in the quarantine zone, that brings Ford to Japan to bail him out. In the process, Joe convinces his son to join in his investigation which intersects the turf of Serizawa and company. As it turns out, the plant disaster has no radioactive activity and the quarantine zone is a massive cover-up hiding another mysterious chrysalis pod being monitored by scientists.
The power plant accident that sets things in motion was just the start of the struggles and loss from disasters that occur for the Brody family. By using this point of view, the film really hits the notes towards family being the most important thing when everything else around you falls away. Family is worth saving and rescuing. Strong families survived disasters together.
Soaking up neighboring radioactive energy and emitting natural electromagnetic pulses, a gigantic winged creature emerges from the pod. Dubbed a MUTO, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, by the military (led by the unrattled David Strathairn), the monster destroys its inadequate containment and is now on the loose. With this creature’s emergence, Serizawa stokes the scientific legend that a greater natural force and equalizer monster will emerge to bring balance to this threat. That monster is named “Gojira” in his native language which we Americans slur to another more famous name.
In a movie of more staring than speechifying, Ken Watanabe gets off the doozy of a line, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control,” that typifies what Godzilla (2014) really stands for. This quote is followed by the finish of “and not the other way around.” Through this scientist’s beliefs, Godzilla is a necessary force to emerge and periodically correct the imbalance in the world, whether it’s life or death. As usual, the military and powers-that-be think they can just shoot it and blow the monster up, showing their ignorance and hubris. It’s never that simple. Godzilla is the embodiment of a predator. He is a gigantic reminder that we are still mortal, small, and weak in comparison to nature as a whole.
If that sounds like an awful lot of backstory and human point of view for a monster movie and disaster flick, it’s because it was. Running a little over two hours, Godzilla (2014) took its dear sweet time getting to the showdowns and throwdowns we were all hoping to see. The reveal and emergence took nearly an hour and was still shrouded much of the time by camera angles and dark night scenes. With a screen story by Expendables franchise writer (and future Wonder Woman 1984 and Mortal Kombat scribe) David Callaham and a screenplay by Monsterverse steward Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island), the family element of living through and observing this disaster in the making was maximized.
Don’t ask me how movie monsters always seem to pull this off, but King Kong, T-Rexes, and now skyscraper-sized ancient reptiles, all of which seem to shake they ground when they walk in certain scenes still, when they apparently want to, can move and be unseen by dozens of people for dramatic effect. Sure, silent surprises are suspenseful for movie purposes, but how do they not see or hear these big bastards coming from miles away? I can’t walk on a hardwood floor around an infant or toddler without them knowing I’m there. How does Godzilla pull off the opposite?! I digress and so does the movie when this is the incarnation trying for the most realism.
Those looking for a straight roller coaster ride were disappointed. In its place was a very methodical buildup towards a true and fully realized singular climax, not a chain of disconnected action sequences. Had they stayed this course going forward, the results would have been very interesting and maybe closer to the boldness of Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes series. Instead, Godzilla (2014)’s lower customer satisfaction returns would lead to the future course correction back to camp that would come from the more romp-filled 2019 sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
You will either like that a popcorn movie made the effort to give you something tangible to work with or you will be checking your watch for a very long time wondering when something is really going to blow up or get knocked over. Compared to the campy trappings this character has always had and its contemporary competition like Transformers and Pacific Rim, this slower effort is a plus, even a tedious one.
The absolute top thing going for this Godzilla (2014) also leads to its biggest flaw. With the emphasis on backstory, the human observers, and a very slow-boil pace, this movie couldn’t be more deliberately serious. There is zero camp and little to no humor. There is no token sidekick, like a Hank Azaria sideshow of jokes that was used in 1998. All of that effort is a victory unto itself. That tone was the intentional goal of bringing in director Gareth Edwards, who wowed the industry with his micro-budget 2010 independent film Monsters that dealt with an alien invasion war in the U.S. and Mexico seen through the frightened eyes of common citizens from afar. This new film flies tight against the toy-bashing clichés of other aforementioned movies or the complete weak cheese of 1998’s Godzilla.
However, in diving into this monster movie with that much seriousness, the film loses a chance to stir up some emotions opposite the prevailing sense of menace. As expected, the acting is all over the place and centered more around long stares at green-screen CGI carnage and more techo-babble than anything memorable and poignant, which is a shame when you have Bryan Cranston around. The musical score from Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, normally a genius, is repetitive, unmemorable, and nowhere near compelling enough to match the film’s tone. While a prerequisite happy ending emerges, the doom and gloom are never balanced by the burgeoning spirit that a movie like this kind needs to be a true summer blockbuster classic. Take Independence Day. It completely has its campy elements that fail with telling its wild alien invasion saga, but, overall, that classic maintains a strong emotional base and sense of excitement that either hits you in the gut with heart or drops your jaw in awestruck wonder.
For a landmark movie that starts a franchise and tries so hard to add serious muscle to a monstrous classic character, this disc release is skinnier than the electrical power lines Godzilla shears while stomping through cities. First and foremost, zero special features are on the 4K disc. It’s all relegated to Blu-ray and, presentation-wise, are filed in the plainest disc menu styling possible. To call this bare bones and no frills is spot-on.
Without a doubt, the biggest missing component and opportunity was a director’s commentary. Gareth Edwards is the fascinating and true energy of this Godzilla (2014). He was a Hollywood outsider before Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. His unique genius was a stout infusion of substance over spectacle and it came through in the movie. His goal was grounded and scary to mirror the post-Hiroshima echo from the old original in our post-terrorism world. To hear his level of creativity filtered through the studio’s goals of how the movie came together would have been a brilliant experience on a commentary.
Instead, the best we can glean from Edwards are his sidebar explanations in a smattering of production featurettes. And even in those, you have a pair of producers in the form of big-time Pacific Rim producers Jon Jashni and Thomas Tull that constantly assert the “we” level of control and necessity that Edwards likely had to include and bow to at several points. Even their inclusion over Edwards shows the insistance of who really pushed most buttons on Godzilla (2014).
The small features of Godzilla: Force of Nature and A Whole New Level of Destruction, give trickles of the massive production it took to make the film. While big CGI effects filled the backgrounds, Edwards and company really set out to have much of where their actors stride be true physical sets. Visual effects head Jim Rygiel shows short examples of that merger and the heavy pre-production use of animated cinematics that had every prescribed shot on set ready to go. During those two featurettes, input from the actors like Cranston, Hawkins, and others is purely junket-level kudos and nothing close to any deep dives.
A tiny little peek is given to the signature halo jump set piece with Inside the Void: Halo Jump. Once again, the full nuts-and-bolts are glanced over in favor of “wow, that was cool” reactions. The final production inclusion is Ancient Enemy: The M.U.T.O.s where a short conversation overlaying concept designs talks about the process of creating the two new adversaries for Godzilla made for this film. This too feels like a missed opportunity to flesh out some monster backstory that is afforded the returning classic villains that would come in the 2019 sequel.
The last portion of special features try to play up the clandestine Monarch influence of the franchise. Some team of content creators over at Warner Bros. put together little “declassified” newsreels that outline the passage of time from the atomic 1950s to the present. They’re cute to a degree, but feel amateurish for such a large property and franchise. Sure, they work for social media ingredient to a marketing campaign but are not tomes to build mythology on. Much like the rest, nothing is anywhere as substantial as the legendary monster subject.