I thought Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jawdroppingly good — the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights.
But maybe a monster movie SHOULD start with a monster rising out of the ocean and stomping on people. All that useless exposition…and to so little end: the background with the mother and father; the sentimental cringe of the father’s birthday greetings at the beginning and middle of the film; the son repeating the father’s cycle; the rescuing of someone else’s child paralleling the danger faced by his own — it all leaves one either cringing or yawning
Hollywood filmmakers should find something other than psychiatry to entertain them. It really seems to have reduced their understanding of people, of individual character and their motivation, and of the political and social contexts in which recognisable people might live in. Thus in Godzilla, the filmmakers’ control over the means of expression vastly exceeds an understanding that never seems to go beyond Pychology 101 and Intro to Film Studies 101 (there seemed to be a shot copying everything ever done here — The Birds, the Aliens films etc) with a dash of cod-Buddhist philosophy thrown in so that Godzilla can come and re-order the ‘natural balance’ of things. There’s a ‘feather-in-brain’ moment too where Ken Watanabe brings out his father’s watch to remind us of the Atomic Bomb (as if a film called Godzilla in which the monsters are powered by nuclear energy itself needed further reminders).
The actors are supremely bad: when one’s noticing that Bryan Cranston is wearing the same wig fifteen years later; or feeling cheated because Aaron Taylor-Johnson hasn’t taken his shirt off but isn’t doing much else; or longing for Mathew Broderick to appear from somewhere show his charismatic face and crack a few jokes, there’s a problem with the story-telling and acting. Ken Watanabe seems to have three expressions: one where he turns his mouth into an o; another, more expressive, where he turns his mouth into an oval; and then a grim and resolute downturn of the mouth. He does say Godzilla with a Japanese accent and with particular relish for which much can be forgiven; and to be fair, it’s is not as if he’s given a lot to do.
Except for Juliette Binoche, Godzilla does give a more compelling performance than the rest of the cast: the monster design and animatronics or whatever vfx skills brought the monster to life are indeed terrific and worthy of praise. The gradual introduction of the monster, the design and execution of the shots of destruction in the Hawaii and San Francisco sections of the film, the detail and amount that one can see going on inside each shot; all are thrilling. There are shots that truly do make one go ‘Wow’! However, even when the monsters do start stomping on cities or fighting each other, the story lacks tension and suspense. I was longing for them to stomp one someone we were meant to care about but didn’t really.
Godzilla is indeed spectacular. If your interest is in vfx and on the look of things, it may well surprise and delight. It’s certainly worth seeing on IMAX in order to enjoy those pleasures to the full. But the pleasures the film satisfies are those of spectacle rather than of narrative, and given that so much time was spent on narrative, this really counts as a failure in this film. Ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and ultimately unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be, that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself, and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorize with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.
It sometimes feels cinema today is making the world a muddier, greyer place. That may be why animated films rule the box-office: they’re bright, colourful; they create and convey a world of romance, action and adventure, a cheerful one. All the romance, action and adventure in most other types of cinema take place in a world made grey or yellow/brown by digital. It’s all the colour of steel and smog. This is part of the problem with Total Recall. It has fantastic sets; when you look closely you see how marvelously designed they all are …but they’re so grey and unattractive; and as the original Total Recall from 1990 showed, the depiction of dystopia can go together with a more cheerful colour palette and pleasing design, at least for the world above-ground. Also, the action here doesn’t quite work. Each individual shot is fine but the architecture of a scene seems arbitrary. One doesn’t know who’s shooting whom and why; or why one has to shoot someone at all; or where one has to go to in order to escape being shot. One ends up simply not caring. Everyone (Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston) is ok in it but no one is really good and there are no audience moments, like the jokes we got in the original; the Paul Verhoeven version included the audience in on the joke and gave them something else (it’s like an existential quest within a cartoon; between Arnie socking people it’s not afraid to ask what is being? what is a person? who am I? how do I know? – it’s a great movie). Here, one asks why was this movie made? Who was it made for? Why am I bothering with it? There was almost no reaction from the audience to any of it.
Rock of Ages is really bad, really camp, hugely enjoyable: Alec Baldwin throws himself into a crowd like a happy hippo into a mud pool and ends up in Russell Brand’s arms; Mary J. Blige gets a head-to-toe makeover for each shot she’s in (and plays the ‘manageress’ of a strip joint, of course); Bryan Cranston enjoys a caning from his stenographer; and Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones go completely OTT as the slithering sex god and the mayor’s wife trying to ban heavy metal. The film is very poorly directed, visually and rhythmically, but the actors are great. This is what people who don’t like musicals think musicals are like but no less enjoyable for that. Julianne Hough wastes her second chance at stardom.