Godzilla in the mist
Back in 1998, I went to see the newly released Godzilla film for my tenth birthday. I remember seeing the trailer before something else, perhaps Men In Black, or Independence Day, or some other film with Will Smith and some aliens in it, because back then that was largely the basis upon which I decided to go and see films. Films in which the Fresh Prince of Bel Air got covered in slime and took the piss out of old white guys for being old white guys.
Sure, Godzilla wasn't an alien, and Big Willie Style didn't appear to be in it, but at the time I thought that it looked perfect for my birthday celebrations. An action-packed amuse-bouche before a visit to the local TGI Friday's. I was hyped; I even bought Jamiroquai's proto-dubstep banger Deeper Underground. Evidently this stuck with me longer than the film, because I remember absolutely nothing about Godzilla '98—not one set-piece, not one stream of dialogue, not who was in it, nor who directed it, nor what buildings they blew up, nor how they killed Godzilla in the end.
IMDb tells me that the film featured a ragtag cast made up (bizarrely) of Ferris Bueller, Leon the Professional, and two cast members from The Simpsons. But my lasting image of that day was of sticky ribs and potato skins rather than Japanese nuclear monsters. I guess, in some way it was the first film I saw that failed to impress me. Until then, the very act of being in a cinema had been enough. Godzilla set the precedent for a lifetime of cinematic disappointments, from Tomb Raider to The Butler.
Sixteen years later, and Hollywood has finally had another bash at Godzilla. We're at the stage where Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, Sam Raimi's Spiderman and Christopher Nolan's Batman are no longer even the latest versions of their franchises, so it makes sense that Godzilla would be revisited, even if it was hugely underwhelming last time round.
For those of you without a Forbidden Planet discount card, the history of the Godzilla franchise dates back to Japan, where the titular giant dragon/dinosaur thing first appeared on screens in 1954. The films were very much of their time: rickety stop-motion, miniature model cities on fire, wooden acting and most interestingly, a series of fairly blatant parallels with a real-life monster—nuclear warfare, which was still all-too fresh in Japan's collective memory less than ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The iconography was clear. Not only was Godzilla a mindless, unstoppable entity that left Japanese cities in ruins, the story says that the creature was awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific. Despite the fact that it was a lizard the size of a skyscraper, the original Godzilla was in many ways a very real monster—a monster that lingered in the minds of the Japanese people who flocked to the films, and spurred on several sequels with a whole cast of secondary monsters like an irradiated dinosaur with five brains and a crocodile's face and a gigantic benevolent moth that lives on a tropical island where it is worshiped as a god.
Quite what the American production company behind the '98 film was trying to draw parallels with, I'm not sure. Bill Clinton's impeachment? Savage Garden? It was little wonder the film flopped in an era where the world was more interested in rogue blowjobs than the nuclear endgame.
Turning up to the local cineplex for an afternoon screening of the film, I wondered who it was trying to appeal to. Kids? Grown-ups? Geeks? Looking at the small gaggle of tourists, amateur film critics and middle-aged men with membership cards, Crocs and, shall we say, "social issues," I was none the wiser. This just seemed like a random collection of people you might see in a Post Office line or at a bus-stop.
I was keen to take a look at the current state of the cinematic summer blockbuster. The last film I saw in the cinema was The Great Beauty, and I realized I hadn't seen a legit blockbuster in a theater for well over a decade. I didn't even see Avatar.
Where and what are the descendants of those films I loved as a child, before I went through that teenage gateway of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas that led me to Italian neo-realism and Michael Haneke? I wanted to know what the children of MIB, Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Hard Rain, et al looked like. I wanted to know what their worldview was, if presidents still fly fighter planes, if you could still land on asteroids and punch aliens in the face. I wanted to know if that typically American idea of man vs. intergalactic disaster was still alive, or if the characters were more concerned with their personal brands than saving the world.
So, I gladly paid the $30 for entry and a regular Pepsi (I know, cheap right? I'm glad I went when it was "off-peak") and entered the cinema, a place Maxim Gorky once called "the kingdom of the shadows." Though at those prices he probably would have just sacked it off and gone to the candy store instead.
According to the trailers before the film started, the blockbuster was still in full flow, or at least back in some sort of semi-aware, post-modern incarnation. Watching the Transformers trailer, it occurred to me that this was the fourth installment of the franchise, and that I had never seen any of the previous three. Then I realized that I'd never even heard anyone talking about any of them, or even met anyone who'd admitted to watching one. Maybe it's cultural elitism on my part, but I can't help but think that despite their obvious box-office appeal, the series seems to have passed without making any tangible impact on the wider culture. Whereas films like Juno or Shame clearly did. I wondered if these kind of films now existed in a kind of parallel world to the rest of cinema, whereas once they were very much the mainstream of Hollywood.
Perhaps these big summer action films had their glory years, and now existed in a different, more niche, but still just as stupid sphere. One populated by young men who still buy FHM, and talk about how hot Megan Fox is over games of pool. Maybe these films had become the heavy metal of American cinema, an overwhelmingly macho aesthetic that is now long past its glory days, and focuses on keeping its hardcore demographic happy, rather than trying to rule the world.
After the mandatory 45 minutes of trailers and ice-cream ads, the film started. As the credits began to roll, I played a game with myself, guessing which actor would fill which stock-role.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the guy from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, would inevitably play the hero, I thought, a guy with tons of brawn and just enough brain to get by. Elizabeth Olsen? His love interest; sensitive but sassy. Bryan Cranston: cranky maverick, a scientist perhaps. Ken Watanabe: he's Japanese, it's Hollywood, of course he's going to be a scientist.
Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins were oddball casting moves; they're both more likely to be starring in indie films about female sexual awakenings than movies about giant monsters. But I put them down as scientists just in case. David Strathairn I wasn't sure about. He looks like a president, he'll probably be a president, I thought.
30 minutes into the film, and I was 90 percent right. A tonked up Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a soldier who unwittingly becomes an action lead. Bryan Cranston was indeed a cranky maverick scientist. Elizabeth Olsen played AT-J's girlfriend, who is a nurse and doesn't say much. And, impressively, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe all played scientists of various kinds. Only David Strathairn, with his face of authority, spoiled my predictable-casting Royal Flush—he played a navy admiral, not a president.
As you might expect from a film that—when you strip away all the social allegories—can basically be boiled down to the central premise "lizard's too big," it's somewhat thin on story. Or rather, it starts off telling a kind of story, then kills most of its principle cast members and lets rip into an hour-long monster brawl. It starts in Japan, where we meet a team of scientists working in a nuclear plant, who spend a lot of the early part of the film frowning at strange electro-magnetic activity on their charts. Binoche and Cranston are a married couple who work at the plant, and for some reason I can't quite remember, Binoche dies in an explosion. About ten minutes into the film. Presumably she can go off to make another Iranian family drama rather than the prequel to this.
Cranston, needless to say, is angered by this, and the film zooms forward to 15 years later, where his young son has become Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Since this has happened, Cranston has lost his mind and become an amateur sleuth, trying to find out the real reasons behind this strange electro-magnetic activity and the death of his wife. As are Ken and Sally, who wobble around the film looking nervous and intelligent.
Structurally, it's a mess. The best actors in it all die pretty early on, and not only are Johnson and Olsen's roles outdated and thinly realized, they both play it blander than the worst sex tapes. Both have been excellent in other films like this, but the script gives them little to chew on, and while Johnson looks the part with his jarhead and Creatine shoulders, he lacks that sense of "we're OK with this guy" that was exuded by the likes of Smith, Willis and Costner. After the oldies depart, it's a bit like watching a cast of high school kids trying to do Paradise Lost.
The special effects are impressive enough, I guess, if you're the kind of person who gives a shit about special effects. But the 3D only really provides one good shock, and for all the moments where you feel like you're in the teeth of the beast, it did just remind me of all the identikit first person shooter games set in muddy grey landscapes that made me give up on video game consoles. Call me pretentious, but I like my movies to be more than just watching somebody else play Killzone.
But Godzilla does touch on a few nerves, and isn't afraid to kick you in the teeth every now and again. Characters you like die without warning, and I couldn't help but notice the slightly subversive comment on the army's presence in it. In Godzilla, the boys in uniform are not the heroes. They're helpless onlookers, as terrified and enthralled by the monster fight as everybody else. AT-J's character tries, but they never come close to really making any impact on the beasts. Instead he and the boys are forced to watch, petrified and in awe of this thing that is bigger than them. Impotent with their man-weapons and Stars and Stripes patches, I don't think you need to be Slavoj Žižek to wonder if this is a comment on America's interventionist failures.
The almost totally unveiled threat in the original Japanese films may have been nuclear warfare, but in the 2014 version it seems to be a manifestation of all our modern nightmares. The disaster scenes played on the grimly iconic moments from recent tragedies and disasters that were burnt into our collective retinas by rolling news. The collapsing buildings that fill the streets with dust clearly call to mind 9/11, the tourist resorts ruined by tidal waves almost make you shudder as you remember that handheld footage from the Boxing Day tsunami, and the Japanese nuclear plant where the early part of the film is set is surely based on the Fukushima disaster. It's not surprising that the 2014 version feels scarier to me than the 1950s ones—it's tough to get too worked up about a puppet of a gigantic benevolent moth—but there is something acutely nightmarish and amorphous about the threat today's Godzilla represents. He's the culmination of all our paranoias rolled into one unstoppable disaster. The realization of everything we're doing to fuck up the world we live in.
Ultimately, though, it's a brave attempt at making a modern, subversive blockbuster that falls short due to bad writing and acting. It definitely possessed more vision than I expected it to, however, and for that I respected it, even if it did feel like a bit of a waste of time.
As to the bigger question of whether the blockbuster has any place in our self-aware, self-obsessed culture? I'm not sure. I suppose people will see Godzilla, and the new Transformers, and maybe Into The Storm. But among the trailers was a new kind of film. A new kind of blockbuster that'll probably fill seats like all those films I loved as a child. For instance, there's Tammy, a film in which professional fat person Melissa McCarthy plays an overweight armed robber who dances to "Gangsta's Paradise" and can't jump over a fast food counter.
With that in mind, I decided that the days of the blockbuster as a form of mass entertainment are probably gone. They're oversized, overstuffed, outdated monsters that only really shake us when they strike a note of nostalgia within us—a bit like Godzilla himself, really.