GODZILLA 2014: Monster Movies in the CGI Era

25 May

I’ve seen every Godzilla film, most of them multiple times. As a child I saw the first one in its English-dubbed version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, when it was first shown on TV 56 years ago. When I first heard about the new Hollywood version of GODZILLA, I was skeptical. We all know what the 1998 Hollywood version was like. What further damage could they do now? When I saw the first trailer where we got to see what he looked like, I was pleased that they kept the design of the original Japanese Godzilla, but they’d made him way too big. I started thinking about the physics of a creature like that. What did he eat? How did he stand up? How’d he have enough energy to propel himself? Wouldn’t he have gotten more easily tired or exhausted at that size? I’d never had questions like that when watching Japanese Godzilla movies. I knew what he ate. At lunchtime, Haruo Nakajima, the actor who put on the rubber suit to play Godzilla in the first ten Godzilla movies, would take off the Godzilla head and remove the Godzilla gloves and get a pair of chopsticks and eat a Bento box lunch like everyone else on the crew, followed by a cigarette, and then put the costume parts back on and go back to knocking down buildings in a miniature city on a Toho soundstage. The character was human-scaled. He moved like a living being because—guess what?—he was played by a living being.

When I saw the longer trailers for the new GODZILLA, I was heartened by the presence of an actor with real gravitas, Bryan Cranston, presumably in the leading role, and on the Japanese side, an actor of equal gravitas, Ken Watanabe. I was also heartened by news that Akira Takarada, one of the stars of the original GOJIRA (1954) and countless other Japanese Godzilla and sci-fi movies, would be making a cameo. And when early reviews indicated that the film offered a slow build-up to the monster action that sounded like a good thing, too. Too many blockbusters dominated by CGI special effects go overboard in relentlessly throwing CGI-created spectacles at us, leaving me, for one, exhausted long before the movie is over. As filmmakers in the pre-instant gratification era understood, less is more.

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in GODZILLA (2014)

PACIFIC RIM (2013) offers a good example of what I’m talking about. As a fan of giant robots and giant monsters, I was initially thrilled to see so much giant robot vs. giant monster action as the film progressed in 3-D IMAX. But then, after the first hour, sensory overload set in. My nervous system refused to process any more of the film. Whatever parts of my brain were happy with the action just shut down and the rest of the movie is a blur. I was no longer interested and the film went on for another hour and a half! Just because you can throw in everything plus the kitchen sink doesn’t mean you have to.

I had a similar problem with AVATAR (2009), also seen in 3-D. There was a scene where the hero, housed in the body of a blue-skinned animated native of Pandora, is running through a jungle being chased by a massive hooved beast who resembles a creation out of Edgar Rice Burroughs. One beast would have been enough. Instead the film gives us three. Why? Not because it made a better scene, but only because someone sitting at the computer said, “Hey, why not make three of them?” Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. There were too many scenes like that in AVATAR where excess ruled the day. I lost interest fairly early in that one also.

Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA tries to strike a balance. It doesn’t overdo the scenes of Godzilla in action and it spends a lot of time on the human story. But it errs in the wrong direction. The humans aren’t that interesting and Godzilla’s bursts of time-honored kaiju pugilism come way too late in the movie to save it. I wanted more of Godzilla and less of the two callow leads, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. The trailers were misleading. Cranston is written out of the movie after the first third. Watanabe, at least, is around for the whole movie, but he has the same baffled expression on his face the entire time. (See below) And Takarada’s cameo was cut, although his name is still in the end credits.

The movie started to go downhill in the first ten minutes when another performer with gravitas, Juliette Binoche, exits the movie. (Why cast someone like her if she’s not going to stick around?) It gets worse a half-hour later when Cranston exits the movie. Following that is the scene that nailed the movie into its coffin for me. There is a long piece of exposition where Watanabe and his English partner, played by Sally Hawkins, explain to the American Admiral (David Straithairn) the nature and origin of Godzilla and the other monsters that have appeared, black winged creatures called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). I didn’t understand a word either Watanabe or Hawkins said. Nothing wrong with their line delivery, I just didn’t understand the concepts. At one point Watanabe says, “We call him Gojira,” following which he then describes the MUTOs. I was paying attention but I got lost. Were Godzilla and the MUTOs one and the same? How could that be? In a Japanese film they would have had a detailed diagram explaining the whole thing. Here, it’s all addressed in a few lines of dialogue and if you didn’t get it the first time you’re left in a state of confusion. If I don’t understand the monsters, I can’t follow the movie.

One big problem for me with the MUTOs was their design. To me, they looked like winged humanoids, harking back to the demon from the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of FANTASIA and the Harpies from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. And their heads looked like they were copying the design of one of the monsters from the Gamera series, Gyaos. If this were an animated film, that design would have looked quite imaginative, but in a supposedly “realistic” sci-fi monster film, I wanted something that made more biological sense. Were these creatures supposed to be reptilian or insectoid? If so, they looked like neither. Their bodies, arms and legs, especially in motion, looked more humanoid than anything else. How was that explained? At a certain point, I could no longer suspend my disbelief, so I just lost interest. And the notion that nuclear warheads would be a prize delicacy to them just made no sense to me. If they get their sustenance from radiation, how would an unexploded nuke feed them? Radiation is only released from a warhead after it’s exploded, yet these creatures are seen sucking on the bomb itself. In a typical Godzilla movie like GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER or GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, I wouldn’t have asked these questions. You’re in an alternate universe created on a Toho soundstage and you accept the rules they’re playing by. In the new GODZILLA, you’re in the ostensible “real” world and you have a different, more rigorous set of rules.

I admit that the final battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco had its moments. The Big G finally got to strut his stuff and do some of his trademark moves. But it was too little too late. I needed something like that earlier in the film to sustain my interest. My suggestion would have been to move the SF sequence to the middle of the movie in place of the destruction of Honolulu and then build up to a final, more spectacular battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in another locale, possibly involving the MUTO hatchlings, this time allowed their release. The spawn of the MUTOs represent the biggest threat to humanity in the film and yet they are disposed of onscreen way too easily by the young hero in a manner that is treated almost as an afterthought and couldn’t possibly have succeeded in wiping all thousands of them out. Had Godzilla destroyed them in a face-off at the end, perhaps with some help from young Brody (Taylor-Johnson) and the military that would have carried the necessary weight for me and might have compensated for the film’s other flaws. (And if they’d only kept Cranston around, that might have helped also.)

While I tend to prefer old-fashioned special effects technology of the man-in-the-rubber-suit mode, I don’t, as a rule, automatically discount all CGI spectacles. I thoroughly enjoyed the first and third Transformers movies, TRANSFORMERS (2007) and TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011). I love giant robots in anime and I thought their visualization in these films via CGI was really clever and imaginative. It was exciting to watch all those cars and trucks transform, in great detail, into giant fighting robots. I liked the storylines in both films and the abundance of interesting characters.

Shia LaBeouf, as Sam Witwicky, the protagonist of these films, knew how to act opposite a green screen. You believe he’s seeing transforming giant robots in front of his eyes. He reacts with a sense of wonder. It’s possible that one of the problems I have with so many CGI films is that the actors don’t know how to act opposite nothing. I have to believe the actor is seeing what he’s supposed to be seeing.

Also, I really enjoyed the sense of humor in both films. Director Michael Bay didn’t take the subjects so seriously that he couldn’t have fun with them. I laughed a lot while watching them. And it helped in the third film that the cast included three Coen Bros. actors doing comic turns—Frances McDormand, John Turturro and John Malkovich. I should add that I enjoyed THE AVENGERS (2012) for the most part also, chiefly because it focused a lot on the characters making up the superhero team and the way they related to each other, but also because it had a lot of humor. It wasn’t afraid to be funny.

And therein lies a big problem for me with so many big-budget special effects movies these days: they take themselves too seriously. The filmmakers act like their superhero/comic book/giant robot/giant monster movies are the cinematic equivalent of “War and Peace.” Christopher Nolan’s two Dark Knight movies were so ponderous and self-important that I lost interest in both of them fairly quickly also. Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER (1995) may have been all over the place, but it at least had a sense of comic book style in its visuals and pacing. I thought fondly of the DC comics I read as a child (before I got hooked on Marvel) as I watched that movie. Nolan’s first Batman film, BATMAN BEGINS (2005) was a good balance of the two approaches. It created an imaginative comic book-style alternate universe for its figures to move around in, while offering characters of substance and an emotionally involving storyline.

Ken Watanabe, Christian Bale in BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

Christopher Nolan (right) directs Tom Hardy (Bane) and Christian Bale (Batman) in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Guillermo del Toro loves giant robots and giant monsters as much as I do, but he got carried away with PACIFIC RIM. They gave him too much money and too many special effects technicians and he went crazy with it. Perhaps if they’d given him a limited budget and a limited shooting schedule, he would have created a more manageable movie.

I should point out, though, that I did enjoy Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) a great deal. There were a few scenes that went on too long or were too excessive (e.g., the dinosaur stampede and the spiders at the bottom of the gorge), but, for the most part, it used CGI to create a truly engaging giant monster character and a wondrous, exotic world where such a creature might exist. It was very respectful of the source material, while maintaining the right amount of playfulness and humor. For instance, I loved the scene where Kong slides on the ice on a frozen pond in Central Park. It was new to the remake but perfectly in sync with the character of Kong, as crafted by Jackson, and the feel and tone of the rest of the movie. And as someone who’s walked through Central Park at night during the cold of winter and actually seen that pond when it was frozen, I can vouch for the authenticity of the look of that scene.

Back in present-day Japan, the filmmakers at Toei Studios make live-action giant robot-vs.-giant monster movies all the time. They’re theatrical movie spin-offs of whatever current sentai series is running on TV at the time. (Sentai means “superhero task force” and the yearly series in this franchise provide the action and effects footage for the American Power Rangers franchise.) And they’re done on very low budgets with actors in plastic “zord” suits tromping around miniature sets. Yet to my eyes, they’re pretty spectacular. No sensory overload here. I enjoy these films for their simple pleasures; they don’t need $200 million worth of CGI effects to entertain me.

The Gekiranger zord in Hong Kong, from the 2007 Gekiranger movie: JUKEN SENTAI GEKIRANGER: NEI-NEI! HOU-HOU! HONG KONG DECISIVE BATTLE

The current season of Power Rangers in the U.S., “Power Rangers Super Megaforce” is based on the 2011 Japanese sentai series, “Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger.” I record every episode of the PR season as it airs and I pick up the box sets of the Japanese original (sans subtitles) from a Japanese video store and enjoy both versions. What the Power Rangers seasons do is take the Japanese action and effects footage and intercut them with new scenes featuring western actors (not always American anymore) in the roles of the Rangers, much like the way GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)  took footage from GOJIRA (1954) and inserted newly shot scenes of American actor Raymond Burr to make the finished product palatable for American audiences. No reason I can’t enjoy both versions of each.

Finally, in looking over past writings on this subject, I found a section from an introduction I gave at a Japan Society screening in 2005 of GAMERA III: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999) that explains why I found that film’s special effects, relying on miniature sets and men in monster suits, so effective and appealing:

One of the big distinctions of this film is the way the monster battles are shot. They’re shot from the ground, from the p-o-v of the people caught up in it. So we see Shibuya on a busy Friday night in location footage with lots of people milling about and then we see their reaction as a new Gyaos lands and Gamera comes flying in after it order to stop it. The two battle it out as crowds flee and buildings, shops and subway stations get destroyed. Later, the big climactic confrontation between Gamera and Iris takes place at the Kyoto station and takes up the last 20 minutes of the movie. These scenes mix location work with special effects and miniatures and do it so well it’s as if the filmmakers took the cameras on location and filmed a monster battle as it happened. This is a big change from the Godzilla films where we follow the monsters into the battle area established by sprawling miniature sets in the Toho studio. The human side of it is acknowledged, moreso in some films than others, but the battles in Godzilla movies tend to be staged from the monsters’ point of view. Not so here.

And what makes it work all the more, at least for me, is the fact that the monsters are portrayed not by computer-generated images the way they would be in a Hollywood film (the 1998 Godzilla movie, the Lord of the Rings movies, the Star Wars movies, etc.), and not by stop-motion animation the way we used to see in Ray Harryhausen movies, but by the time-honored Japanese kaiju method of actors in monster suits. What this means is that the monsters move like living beings. If they were done by CGI or stop-motion animation, their scenes would take me right out of the movie. They wouldn’t seem real to me. I could sit there and admire the special effects, but I wouldn’t get emotionally involved the way I do with Gamera and Godzilla movies, but especially Gamera movies. When Gamera shows up, I believe him. He’s a real character to me.

Granted, my position has changed somewhat since then. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s KING KONG and two of the TRANSFORMERS movies, so I recognize that in the right hands CGI can be a most useful and effective tool. And my big problems with GODZILLA were less about the special effects than about questions of structure, casting, editing, writing and design. I actually didn’t have a big problem with the execution of Godzilla himself, except for the fact that there was so little of him in the film. But when all is said and done, when it comes to giant monsters and giant robots, I still get the biggest thrills from 2-D animation and men in monster suits.

And, of course, the one and only original…

P.S. Since doing this post, I went back and watched a classic Godzilla movie, MOTHRA VS.  GODZILLA (1964, aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING) and relished the infusions of poetic imagery in it:

Now why won’t a CGI filmmaker in Hollywood offer up this kind of imagery?

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