Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
For sixty years now Godzilla has been the undisputed king of movie monsters. Debuting in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla, the legendary creature has appeared in 28 films for Japan’s Toho Company. Despite that legacy, only once, in Roland Emmerich’s much maligned 1998 effort, also called Godzilla, has he received the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. But sixteen years later, Hollywood is ready to give it another go: different studio, different director, same title – Godzilla.
Scientist Joe Brody is certain that the Japanese government is covering up the true nature of a nuclear power plant disaster which took his wife’s life fifteen years earlier. With his son, Ford, a Navy explosives expert, he discovers that rather than being the result of a natural disaster, it was an attack from a MUTO, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object. That MUTO, and its mating pair, are now heading across the Pacific Ocean towards the west coast of the USA and their only hope appears to be an equally large and mysterious creature which is tracking them.
Godzilla is only Gareth Edwards’ second feature film, after the 2010 independent film Monsters. He does, however, have a background in visual effects and that really comes through in this movie. Clearly taking his lead from Spielberg in Jaws, Edwards is careful not to overexpose us to the monster – in fact with Godzilla not featuring prominently until the third act there is a fair argument to be made that we don’t see enough him. But when he does show us the star of the film, he makes it count. Godzilla looks fantastic. The combination of immense scale and intricate detail makes for a very impressive visual presence. Edwards avoids the quick-cutting, shaky-camera style that makes some of the action sequences in the Transformers films such a headache inducing mess, allowing us a really good look at creatures as they battle it out. The film retains the traditional shape and lumbering movement of Godzilla, so even with these brilliant effects there are still moments when you get that nostalgic feel of a man in a costume, which is fun.
One of the other things this movie does really well is give a classic film figure contemporary relevance. This is achieved through the clever way that the film’s narrative ties in with contemporary fears. The catalyst that gets everything rolling is a nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. There is a tsunami. We see crowded city streets enveloped by a cloud of dust as skyscrapers crumble, which feel very familiar to 9/11 footage. All of these moments engage our memories of real world events. Effectively pressing the emotional buttons of relatable, real world experiences serves to ground what is otherwise a fantastical story.
Unfortunately though, as much as there are some great things about Godzilla, the film also has some pretty glaring problems. Primary among them are the film’s human characters. They simply aren’t engaging. Bryan Cranston’s nuclear scientist, the film’s most compelling character, does not feature as prominently as the trailers would have you believe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a pretty bland, cookie-cutter protagonist, serving his role adequately but failing to take us on any sort of emotional journey. Elizabeth Olsen, who is a really good young actress, is the most underutilised, getting little more to do than wait by the phone and worry about her husband. The blockbusters of the last few years have made audiences largely immune to watching cities being leveled. We need individual characters to care about, and this film doesn’t adequately give them to us.
These characters are also not helped by the fact that there is an unavoidable disconnect between the characters and the central narrative of the film. Classical film narrative uses characters as the primary causal agents which propel a cause-and-effect narrative towards its resolution. The actions of the protagonist are supposed to make things happen, to ultimately determine the outcome of the film. In Godzilla, the human characters have very little dramatic importance. The message of the film is that nature will find a way to correct imbalance. Thus, the events that the human characters are involved in are only side stories, having little bearing on the outcome of the film which is to be determined by the battle between Godzilla and the MOTUs.
Godzilla is a film that gets some things very right and some things quite wrong. It possibly takes itself more seriously than a film about a 350ft sea-lizard should, but as a piece of pure spectacle cinema it does the trick.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Godzilla? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Currie Graham
Pompeii, a $100 million, effects heavy, swords-and-sandals disaster movie, is the latest film from director Paul W. S. Anderson. It should be clarified up front that this is Paul W. S. Anderson of Alien vs Predator, Death Race and many a Resident Evil film, not Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and The Master, so expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
When his entire village in Britannia are massacred by the Roman army, young Milo is sold into slavery. He grows up to become “The Celt,” one of the most fearsome new gladiatorial talents in the Empire. As such he is taken to Pompeii to fight in the games that are to be staged there. There he catches the eye of a young noblewoman, Cassia, who has been unwillingly betrothed to the Roman Senator Corvus. As Mount Vesuvius erupts and the city crumbles, Milo must fight to save his beloved Cassia.
Pompeii opens with slow, emotive panning shots of the famous Pompeii body casts, people preserved in very human, often tender moments, by the ash from the eruption. These haunting images suggest a level of profundity that the gladiator-cum-disaster movie that follows doesn’t really possess.
From the moment the movie starts we are basically waiting for that enormous mountain that looms over the city to wreak havoc. But the first half of the film is effectively filler as we are made to wait over an hour for that event to occur. In the meantime we are entertained by the occasional well-staged gladiatorial bout, and the screenplay momentarily touches on an interesting area, looking at the dynamics of a relationship between two gladiators who know that at some point they will be required to try and kill each other. But if you are going to make the audience wait this long for the disaster to occur, it needs to be in service of really establishing a connection with the characters, and that is where Pompeii misses the mark. The characters are largely forgettable and the poor-boy, rich-girl love story is one we’ve seen so many times before.
Thankfully, though, the second act is where the film comes into its own. Once the volcano erupts, Pompeii sets a cracking pace and it doesn’t let up for the next 45 minutes, maintaining momentum right through to its completion. It is for these scenes that the film has been shot in 3D and the visual effects are quite impressive and exhilarating. We see plumes of ash, fireballs, lava, earthquakes, even a tsunami. It really is all happening in this horrifying, apocalyptic moment. For a disaster movie, particularly in the age of digital effects, it is so important to get this part right, and the eruption and the destruction of Pompeii really are the strongest scenes in the film.
Pompeii attempts to be Gladiator meets Titanic, but where both of those films succeeded in connecting with audiences on a human level, Pompeii relies solely on its impressive special effects. As such it ends up proving that one plus one can still somehow equal significantly less than one.
Review by Duncan McLean