OMGzilla: The Latest Lizard Epic Has That ‘Jurassic’ Spark

t-rex-godzilla-jurassic-parkSummer movie season is officially underway, everybody, and you know what that means: I’ll be writing weekly reviews of each and every blockbuster that Hollywood throws our way.

Just kidding! What am I, made of money? I sure don’t have the funds to shell out sixteen bucks for all of the mindless crap the studios hope teenage boys and Chinese people will like enough to put them in the black for the year.

Nor do I have the time. Last summer, I saw one lone “summer movie” in theaters, which does not mean I didn’t see any movies during the summer. I just preferred to spend my summer hours on the likes of Blue Jasmine, The Spectacular Now, The Bling Ring, Much Ado About Nothing, I’m So Excited, and Before Midnight, all of which appealed to me more than Man Of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness or The Lone Ranger.

This summer is a little better. The season kicked off early in April with the better-than-expected Captain America sequel The Winter Soldier. Next week sees the release of a promising X-Men movie, Days Of Future Past, with the return of Bryan Singer. And while there are a handful of obvious thuds on the horizon, like Blended and Transformers 4 and Let’s Be Cops, we can be cautiously optimistic about a number of titles including Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, 22 Jump Street, and Guardians Of The Galaxy. Cinematically speaking, I’m looking forward to this summer.bryan-cranston-godzillaThis past weekend brought us the behemoth reboot of Godzilla, last spotted wreaking Independence Day-style havoc on New York City in Roland Emmerich’s largely reviled 1998 version, which had the bad luck to be released after Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Unleashing a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the mainland was a no-brainer for the blockbuster dino franchise, but the T-Rex’s rampage through San Diego was not a part of Michael Crichton’s book, and admittedly the sequence was randomly tacked on at the end of the movie as a bonus fourth act. I didn’t mind. It was basically Spielberg’s way of giving Emmerich’s Godzilla the finger (if T-Rexes had a middle finger…), beating the Americanized Asian monster to the punch by having him stomp through hordes of innocent civilians.

And why not? Emmerich’s Godzilla definitely stole a page or two from Spielberg, with a more T-Rexiified lizard than the traditional Japanese fatty and lil’ ‘zillas that were, no doubt about it, velociraptor rip-offs. Emmerich’s movie even had us feeling sorry for the big mama bitch, the same way we developed some feels for the mama-and-papa T-Rex duo in the Jurassic Park sequel. To be fair, Spielberg probably owes some kudos to the Japanese Godzilla movies, so this whole cycle is basically one giant lizard eating its own tail. In the years since, we’ve had Cloverfield, which was a rip-off of Godzilla‘s rip-off of Jurassic Park (and we all know JJ Abrams loves ripping off Spielberg!). And now we’re back with both a new Godzilla and next year’s highly anticipated Jurassic World. (Is anyone else starting to feel old, witnessing multiple reboots of the same franchise within their lifetime?)

It’s no surprise, then, that the latest Godzilla owes as much to Spielberg as it does to the Japanese B-movies of yore. The hero’s name is Ford Brody, for crying out loud! (That’s Ford as in Harrison Ford, AKA Indiana Jones, and Brody as in Martin Brody, the hero of Jaws. Because, I guess, “E.T. Goldblum” was just a bit too obvious.) Ford’s wife’s name is Elle Brody, not so far from Ellen Brody (also of Jaws), and for that matter, not so far from Ellie Sattler of Jurassic Park, either. The film opens with a picaresque helicopter sequence that we can only wish had a lush John Williams score to go along with it, and at one point, a soldier is pointing his flashlight beam dangerously close to a monster’s eye, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t want to jump up and scream, “Turn the light off! Turn the light off!”godzilla-school-busMoreso than these aesthetic similarities, however, what Godzilla really borrows from Spielberg is its pacing. It’s a good long while into the movie before we set eyes on the title titan, and before we do we see his “fins” poking out of the water (hello, Jaws) and his big ol’ legs (hello, T-Rex). Godzilla spends its first hour primarily on scientific-speak, which is not nearly as riveting as Jurassic Park‘s rather nerdy and utterly convincing discussion of just how dinosaurs were brought back to life, but posits what is probably the most plausible explanation for how Godzilla and perhaps a few other behemoth beasties have been hiding out unnoticed on Earth for the past however many years.

This pseudo-science buildup all might be a bit more riveting if it hadn’t been done (rather badly) back in the 90s, except with Vicky Lewis and Matthew Broderick instead of the award-winning likes of Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, and Sally Hawkins. Like Jurassic Park, Godzilla casts a caliber of actors we don’t normally see in a major summer blockbuster like this one, though none of them are really able to transcend their one-dimensional characterizations. Bryan Cranston has the most to do, emotionally, though he’s unfortunately not playing a meth kingpin (that we know of). Indie darling Elizabeth Olsen plays a W.I.J. (Wife In Jeopardy) and as such gets to do movie-wifely things like frown at the news, leave frantic voicemails, and then wait in some kind of crater for the army to rescue her. Protagonist Ford Brody is played by the newly buff Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who seems to have traded in his acting chops for biceps. I’m not sure the buff body really suits him; wasn’t he better off when he was quirky and scrawny? Wasn’t that kind of his niche? Does the world need another Taylor Kitsch? I dunno, these days Aaron Taylor-Johnson looks like he’s perpetually posing for a selfie.godzilla-aaron-taylor-johnson-selfieWhat director Gareth Edwards gets right in the latest Godzilla is that Spielbergian sense of awe and spectacle. Does anything match the Spielberg face goodness of Jurassic Park? Of course not, and no movie probably ever will, because back in 1993, seeing a CGI dinosaur roaming the Earth was about as novel as seeing a real one. Nowadays, we’ve seen too many monsters causing havoc on the big screen, and there’s not too much in the 2014 Godzilla that we didn’t see in Jurassic Park or Pacific Rim or some other Godzilla movie, which is the problem with these frequent reboots (it’s even more “been there, done that” in The Amazing Spider-Man). But these creatures are genuinely ginormous, way bigger than a T-Rex, and Gareth Edward’s Godzilla could probably step on Roland Emmerich’s. (He’s more or less gone back to the original Japanese design, big fat cankles and all. You’d think that would be cheesy, but it actually works.)

There are some genuinely awesome moments in the new Godzilla, the kinds of moments we can’t take for granted in a blockbuster these days. Several feature Spielbergian flourishes, like when a monster stomps idly under a bridge as Brody and a fellow soldier lie very, very still — because it can’t see you if you don’t move! There are also several children in jeopardy — at one point, a whole school bus full of ’em. Edwards does not forget to ground all this mutant mayhem in the real world, in the context of what people’s reaction to this next-level chaos would be. (Not that we couldn’t have used a little more, especially from Elle Brody.) The scale is massive, proposing apocalyptic WTF reactions from the little people being stomped on like so many ants, and that’s at times genuinely unsettling. (Which is appropriate for a franchise that started off as an allegory for nuclear threat.)godzilla-elizabeth-olsen-spielberg-faceWhat doesn’t work so well is the large amount of screen time given to the military, almost always the most useless subplot in a city-in-peril blockbuster. (Spielberg knows this, but Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and countless others seem to think we want numerous cutaways to what some admiral or general thinks we should do about all this.) Making Ford Brody an expert at dismantling nuclear weapons is a tedious and ultimately pointless choice — the whole point of these movies is to spend time with the clueless, hapless, scared-shitless civilians, because that’s us. Martin Brody and Alan Grant may have some know-how, but when it comes right down to it, they’re just regular dudes who make Spielberg Face just like the rest of us would if presented with the gaping maw of a great white shark or a T-Rex. They’re relatable, you see. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems incapable of making Spielberg Face. (Either that, or he’s making it all the time. I can’t tell which.)

A few of the action set pieces are disappointingly brief, including a Hawaiian tsunami and especially an attack on Las Vegas, which could have been a whole ten minutes longer (because how much fun is it to see a monster take down that tacky city?). Edwards seems a little hesitant to dwell on mass destruction until the end, which basically obliterates San Francisco. The multi-monster battle at the end is suitably epic. The overall filmmaking is rather impressive, with a style and mood that isn’t matched by many movies of this ilk. There’s a parachute sequence that is hauntingly beautiful, and the images of burned and destroyed cities evoke the devastating blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that kicked this whole franchise off in the first place; it’s rare to see these disaster movies evoke such gravitas, and it’s much-needed. GODZILLAGodzilla has already been deemed worthy of a sequel, something its 1998 predecessor never was granted. With a hefty slate of blockbusters on the horizon and rather tepid word-of-mouth, though, it may not end up being quite the smash Warner Bros. is hoping for. Why aren’t people more favorable to Godzilla? It could be the weak characters, or the lack of humor, or the Godzilla-free first half of the movie — which may prompt some audience members to channel their inner Ian Malcolm and inquire, “You are planning to have Godzilla in this Godzilla movie?” — or maybe we’ve been so bombarded by Transformers-style mish-mash in the years since Jurassic Park that we’ve forgotten how to have patience with smart, slow-building spectacle.

It isn’t quite Spielberg, thanks largely to a rather dull cast of characters and an unfortunate lack of humor or levity to even out of the gloom and doom. (Not a single line approaches “Hold onto your butts”-level memorability.) But it’s also not Roland Emmerich.

In other words? We might wish life had found a way for the studio to spare no expense on a more clever girl to write the screenplay… but at least it’s not one big pile of shit.    godzilla-sally-hawkins-ken-watanabe *

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