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Movie review: New 'Godzilla' is the serious and destructive version we've lacked

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Godzilla

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GODZILLA”—3 STARS

Before I get into “Godzilla” remake, I want to talk about the notion of “camp” in motion pictures. For those not hip on the term, in the film industry, “camp” is an adjective meaning something “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for a humorous effect.” The key word there is “deliberately.” Camp humor has its revered place as a comedy style. Notorious filmmaker John Waters is the resident master. On the flip side, one of the worst things that can happen, in the film sense of the word, is when something that is meant to be serious turns out being received as unintentionally campy. Classic examples of that are “Mommie Dearest,” both of Joel Schumachers “Batman” films from the 1990’s, and “Showgirls.” Instead of being taken as compelling, they were laughed it and skewered.

Thanks to the several factors, “campy” was my impression of “Godzilla” before the current blockbuster remake from Warner Bros. Pictures. Simply put, the classic movie monster from Japan has not aged well since his bold debut in 1954. The character may be a pop culture icon, but it’s an incredibly cheesy one. Most of us look back at that low-tech debut and the 27 knockoff sequel and spin-off films before today’s new one 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.

The nail in the coffin for my predisposed opinion (and also those of many other film fans) of Godzilla was the absolutely retched 1998 American “reimagining” from filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, hot off of their worldwide summer smash “Independence Day.” With outstanding marketing teases from Sony thumbing their nose at the “Jurassic Park” franchise and the promise of modern special effects to breathe new live into the “King of the Monsters,” that would-be summer blockbuster was one of the largest creative flops the industry has ever seen and a shining example of unintentional camp. There aren’t enough darts to throw at that Matthew Broderick vehicle, but the folks over at Cinema Sins give you 7 ½ minutes of “Everything Wrong with Godzilla” and it’s glorious. They rant it better and more efficiently than I ever could.

Put it all together and you can likely tell that I wasn’t looking forward to this latest modern interpretation. I had very little faith it would be worth it or even anything remotely new. It was a long way down my list of must-see films for 2014 since the start of the year. The marketing wasn’t swaying me either.

Through the teasers and trailers for Gareth Edwards’s take on the monster, I still saw the 1950’s nuclear age origins and paranoia. I still saw relatively smaller-name actors leading a summer tent pole in the form of TV star Bryan Cranston, the wooden Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick-Ass,” and the untested Elizabeth Olsen. I still saw trailers hinting at, but hiding the big enchilada monster and too many scenes set at night that killed the view. Worst of all, the marketers wanted everything to look serious and be taken seriously. All of that matched the 1998 trainwreck and we know how that turned out. The recipe didn’t seem new. At best, I felt “Pacific Rim” from last summer would steal its pizazz.

Amazingly, I’m happy to report that this “Godzilla,” while actually having a trainwreck in it (two in fact), is not a complete trainwreck itself. This is a legitimate summer blockbuster in scale and in quality. The promised size and scope of monster carnage that the 1998 film 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.

While the film is still its own mess in many areas, this new blockbuster is definitely worth your summer ticket. I’m sure someday it will spawn a new video montage for Cinema Sins, but, in the meantime, enjoy the vast improvement. What follows is SPOILER-FREE.

Japanese star Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai” and “Inception” plays the scientist 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 (Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche) work at nuclear power plant experiencing unexplainable 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 (Johnson) is an explosive ordinance disposal technician for the U.S. Navy living stateside in San Francisco with his nurse wife Elle (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.

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.

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 is. Running a little over two hours, “Godzilla” takes its dear sweet time getting to the showdowns and throwdowns we are all hoping to see. The reveal and emergence we are looking for takes a while and is still shrouded much of the time by camera angles and night scenes. With a screen story by “Expendables” franchise writer David Callaham and a screenplay by relative newcomer Max Borenstein, the family element of living through and observing this disaster in the making is maximized (see my later lessons). Those looking for a straight roller coaster ride are going to be disappointed. In its place is a very methodical buildup towards a true and fully realized singular climax, not a chain of disconnected action sequences.

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. I think, 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. You might disagree and label it plenty tedious, which would still be more than half-true.

The absolute top thing going for this “Godzilla” 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 minority sidekick or Hank Azaria sideshow of jokes. 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 couldn’t be more opposite to the toy-bashing clichés of “Pacific Rim” or complete weak cheese of the 1998 version of “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.

I think “Godzilla” is missing a bit of spirit towards becoming a summer blockbuster classic. Then again, the need to correct this character, overcome clichés, and erase the horrible residual memory of the 1998 debacle probably required this all-out-serious take. I can’t fault Edwards and company for erring on that side and not letting some throw-in Jar Jar Binks element ruin a good thing. This is a “Batman Begins”-level of course correction for an icon and it works more than it fails.

LESSON #1: FAMILIES LIVING THROUGH DISASTER—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.

LESSON #2: MOVIE MONSTERS, NO MATTER THEIR SIZE, CAN SNEAK UP ON ANYTHING AND ANYONE—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?!

LESSON #3: “THE ARROGANCE OF MAN IS THINKING NATURE IS IN OUR CONTROL”—In a movie of more staring than speechifying, Ken Watanabe gets off a doozy of a line that becomes this certain idea and lesson to what Godzilla 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.

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