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Film review: 'Godzilla' (2014)

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Godzilla (2014)

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As a kid growing up in the 70's, I grew up on a steady diet of monster movies. The local UHF channel played lots of 'Godzilla' movies, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

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And while watching director Gareth Edwards remake of Japan's mighty monster, I felt a rush of emotions and nostalgia flashbacks. He's done a remarkable thing; created a monster movie that remains totally reverential to it's source material, while replacing the goofy rubber suits with the best giant monsters ever seen in a motion picture.

Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have outdone themselves with their marketing of 'Godzilla'. Each trailer promised something jaw-dropping. But it also looked quite bleak. It appeared they were going for a 'Batman Begins' reinvention of Toho Studios iconic beast; dark, humorless and foreboding.

'Godzilla' is none of those things. It was almost jarring, to see a movie that revels in all the goofy over-the-top stylings of the old movies.

But it starts off sobering; Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, supervisor of a Japanese nuclear power plant that suffers a catastrophic radiation leak as the result of an earthquake (eerily, the screenplay was written before the 2011 Earthquake Fukishima nuclear plan disaster). In the aftermath of the tragedy, Joe becomes estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), both reeling from a devastating loss.

Ford is a Naval explosive ordinance disposal officer, who has to fly to Japan to get his father out of prison. Joe has been digging for clues, certain that the plants destruction wasn't caused by a natural disaster.

Joe guilts Ford into investigating the plant disaster, but they're intercepted by authorities and whisked away to a secret facility, where they meet scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). Brody's fears are confirmed, when they share knowledge of MUTO's (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), ancient gigantic creatures that feed off radiation. And with that, we're off; as the military chases the creatures to stop their wanton destruction, with a big reptilian secret weapon in tow. This eventually leads them to San Francisco (coincidentally where Ford and his family reside).

Cranston plays the mad scientist role with relish, paranoid and hurt, and chewing the scenery with such panache, it comes as an unfortunate surprise that he doesn't carry the film. That role goes to Taylor-Johnson and the movie suffers from his nondescript performance.

This has been well documented, along with accusations that the plot of 'Godzilla' moves too slow, with too little pay off. This, is a misnomer. Evans does go for a slow burn with 'Godzilla', following in the footsteps of delayed gratification film's like 'Jaws' (the name Brody is a clear homage to Roy Scheider's character in Spielberg's shark epic). But what sustains the film are brilliant teases of the carnage to come.

Edward's films most of the monster activity from the human's POV (but thankfully shaky-cam free). He wants to instill the viewer with awe, that they are truly in the presence of something never seen by human's before.

This is perfectly encapsulated in a HALO jump where Ford descends into San Franscisco. Through his visor we got a full view of the massiveness of both Godzilla and the Rodan'ish beasts he battles.

And let me tell you, you've never seen giant monsters like this. The effects team went into overtime on 'Godzilla' and his MUTO foes. Massive sinewy beasts that dwarf all of humankind, they are a beautiful sight for lovers of 'kaiju' and spectacle in general.

And after all the teases of monster battle (early monster clashes are shown via TV newscasts), when it comes, it's a monster orgasm royale. Watanabe's character intones 'Let them fight', and it delivers. But Edward's cheekily, isn't interested in super articulated, lightning fast movements; these beasts brawl just like the suited monsters of the 60's. Awkward shoving matches, done WWE style, slug outs that decimate cities, and roars that rattle your theater seats.

And for those waiting for Godzilla to use some of his patented stage moves, when Edwards finally delivers, there will be eruptions of cheers and clapping in the theater (if my experience is to be replicated across the world.) The surly lizard has charisma to burn (pun intended). He remains a cranky anti-hero who deserves this rich reincarnation.

But is 'Godzilla' flawed? Yes. The characters and their exposition dialogue can be clunky. And Ford's rush to get home to his wife (Elisabeth Olsen, who gives her all in a relatively thankless role) and son, feels more perfunctory than driving. There are definite moments of goofiness. But that goes for every 'Godzilla' movie ever made. The humans always play second banana to the big guy.

Edward's isn't going for traditional 21st cinematic bombastic overload; he's going for something more nostalgic, more quirky, and more joyously innocent than any blockbuster in recent memory.

This is only Edward's second film. The first was the indie monster movie 'Monsters', and he expands on that vocabulary wonderfully with his second feature. That's impressive. His narrative choices reinvent old-school stagings in a modern context. It's not for everyone. It can be frustrating for those wishing for the darker portrayal foreshadowed in the trailers. It would be fascinating to see a bleaker take, playing off our environmental concerns. In that sense it does feel like a missed opportunity.

But if you check your inner cynic at the door, you'll have a good time at 'Godzilla.' There's no other giant monster movie like it for spectacle (sorry 'Pacific Rim'). Let's hope he roars himself into another installment in the near future, perhaps with more compelling humans to play off of.

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