2014 Movie Roundup Part 1 – Godzilla vs Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Watchingcattle starts his review of the year’s cinema with a look back at Godzilla and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes Right so it’s hugely unfair to compare two movies but in the case of Godzilla it’s fucking asking for it.
 
Firstly lets look at some of Washingcattle’s primary rules of cinema:

1. Originality is overrated
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll be saying it again in the future but it is true. Later in this series of articles I’ll be discussing The Double which also falls foul of this simple law. If you make a film with an original premise, a quirky plot, a totally new form of cinema which bends the rules and turns the medium on its head, that’s great, congratulations I look forward to seeing it and I’ll applaud you for your vision. However, none of that matters if your originality of vision simply papers over the cracks in the basic makeup of your film. For example it doesn’t matter if you’ve invented a new structure for feature film narrative if your plot doesn’t make any sense. That’s okay of course because that doesn’t matter if you engage your audience on an emotional level and deliver something that they can engage with and feel moved by. Even if your film moves them to anger, or horror, or tears of frustration. If that’s your intention then congratulations. You’ve achieved something great. If you fail on both of those simple counts you’re fucked.

2. Make your own sort of sense
It doesn’t matter if you create a universe all of your own in which robots fight aliens over the right to sexually probe cattle in a galaxy of floating foetuses. That’s fine, but if that’s your movie establish this universe and stick to the rules you’ve created. David Lynch for example is often battered with the “that doesn’t make sense” stick, but for my money he’s in such control of the cinematic universe and the context in which his films are set that nothing in any of his films seems that unbelievable. It all makes a sort of David Lynch-kind of sense. He’s incredibly skilled at creating his universe and he presents even his most outlandish leaps into the surreal in such a candid way that they transcend basic sense and forces us as an audience to follow him.

3. Love your characters
Even if your audience is going to hate them, you the writer should love them. If they’re supposed to be hateful, revel in their hatefulness and make them your own. Make them fly off the screen and into the audience’s consciousness so that they can love, hate, sympathise, distrust, admire or pity them because this is what all stories are about. It’s human emotion that is transferred in a story, not fact, not opinion, but emotion. Even if the story is “I fell off my bike” the story is funny, or sad or even contains schadenfreude depending on how you feel about the “I” in the story.

Godzilla is not original. It’s a remake of a remake of a remake. In fact it’s almost a form of folk story or traditional cinema passed down from generation to generation like James Bond or Dr Who. It seems that as long as cinema has existed then the monster movie has existed and as such Godzilla is the quintessential monster. So why remake it again ?

Well it’s a good question. Warner Bros ponied up $160 million for this rehash and perhaps in that figure alone you can see what they were trying to do and why this film is so fundamentally flawed.

A few years ago film budgets climbed to a ridiculous new level. James Cameron led the charge for total control by spending a combined $437 million on Avatar and Titanic. That’s okay – when combined those films bring in the billions and so when Christopher Nolan puts his hand out for funds to make Batman properly it seems like no problem to cut him a cheque for $200 million.

But this isn’t Batman, this isn’t a film about a fucking ship, this is a film about a giant lizard destroying whole cities so comparatively, the budget is a little low. And why is that ?

Well big summer blockbusters aren’t what they used to be and it seems the reason is the bottom line. You get the feeling that if Godzilla had been made five years ago it would have had twice the budget and Michael Bay’s name all over it. Don’t believe me? Bay put his hand out for a combined $600 million dollars to molest my childhood by destroying the Transformers, and they fucking gave it to him!

But times have changed.

The key skill of blockbuster making is bringing the film in on or under budget. Big productions no longer go to a proven name with a list of demands and instead now go to younger, hungrier film makers who have proven they know the value of a dollar. And this is a smart move. If Bay or Cameron had been in charge they might have burned through the first $100 million before lunch and then put their hand out again, but, by having Gareth Edwards in charge the studio gets a lot more control and for the most part this technique works.

If you’d told the likes of Bay, Spielberg, Cameron or Roland Emmerich five years ago that Captain America, Batman, Godzilla and Planet of the Apes were going to be made by directors with 12 features between them (7 of which were Joe Johnston alone) they’d have laughed their arses off. In the case of Bay this probably sounds like a high pitched squeal and some gurgling and an interruption to that horrible sound of bottom feeding.

When you think about it that’s 8 massive films directed by people barely out of film school. Last time that was happening the results were things like Jaws and Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars.

The fact that this is director Gareth Edwards second feature film means that we should probably cut him some slack. On the other hand his previous film Monsters is most notable for the fact that it cost $800,000 to make… and ….. That’s it really. I didn’t like Monsters. As impressive as it is and as original, it was weak in all the ways that Godzilla is weak so it’s a big surprise to me that he got the job. But he did and as so here’s this Godzilla as the result.

So we all know some of the story, big scary lizard, bit clumsy, knocks shit over everywhere he goes and is a result of nuclear testing etc blah blah blah. Like I said, Godzilla is not an original concept so what is new. Well…. eh… nothing really. But that’s fine. Films of this ilk are all about the execution and as such, Godzilla is a mess.

But lets start with what Edwards and his back-room staff gets right. The look and sound of the film is great. It looks like a blockbuster. It opens with a sequence which brilliantly channels the energy of a 70’s disaster movie it’s excellently executed and culminates in one of those classic make it to the door before it closes scenes that’s really quite gripping even though you know the outcome if you’ve seen the trailer. Some of the effects are fantastic – one HALO jump into a ruined city which featured in the trailer is among the most beautifully shot sequences you’ll see this year. Godzilla’s initial appearances are fleeting and add tension and weight to the first hour, there’s a brilliant tsunami sequence in here. There’s a sort of Mothran monster called a MUTO which is well realised too and harks nicely back to the original film. The score is also doing it’s best to revive the classic cinematic elements of the original films while it (like practically every other score of the past five years) owes a lot to Jonny Greenwoods brilliant work on There Will Be Blood, there’s enough swell and brass and riffs here to be noticeable which is probably the last good thing I have to say about the film and probably the most damning because if you start noticing the music then something has gone wrong.

In no particular order here are the films flaws:

Firstly Godzilla looks more like the classic Godzilla and less like a left over from Jurassic Park which is a good thing, except that by todays standards Godzilla looks a little bit too much like a guy in a suit so what you end up with here is something of a CGI guy in a suit. I mean it’s slightly better than the 1998 version but still a little silly.

The acting is pitched somewhere between hysterical and bored and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the central role and Ken Watanabe as a scientist flitter between these two emotions throughout. Frankly I have no idea what Edwards was aiming for here and I doubt he does either. We have Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen – who gobbled up indie awards for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Brian Cranston who wins an Emmy every time he opens his mouth. All three are relegated to nothing roles with no depth so instead we get Taylor – Johnson tough guying it around as though he’s made of MDF and Watanabe acting shocked every couple of seconds while spouting gibberish about balance when, as a scientist he should just go “It’s a fucking Lizard it either wants to fuck or eat…. that’s literally all they do”

The problem with Godzilla is that Edwards doesn’t know what film he’s making and in doing so he fails every standard I have for film making. Godzilla is described on several occasions as a force of nature and as such that’s fine. As I mentioned earlier the opening plays as a disaster movie, there’s a section about a government cover up and conspiracy and that all plays rather well if a little sluggishly. If Godzilla is a disaster movie then fine, but play it as such. A disaster movie basically involves three acts. – Act one – establishing characters (as many as possible because you’re going to kill most of them before the end, and an old married Jewish couple is a must) and the impending disaster. Act two – the disaster. Act Three – survival. So in this context Godzilla gets off to a promising start, but then the gears shift into monster movie and in this genre you have three different acts. Act one – establish your monster, at the same time establish your characters (Steven Spielberg took over an hour to do this with Jurassic Park but it was worth it because when the T-Rex’s tail appears about an hour in you shit your pants and genuinely care about the characters in peril). Act Two – monster attacks. Act Three – fight for survival. Edwards doesn’t manage to establish anything in act one except a pointless conspiracy which eventually ends with the existence of Godzilla. I’m sorry, but the fucking film is called fucking Godzilla so why all the cloak and dagger bullshit ? We know it’s fucking Godzilla. It said so in the credits, and on the fucking poster.

This establishing is vital because the following two acts of Edwards film plays out as though they’ve been written by a four year old. Everyone has had this conversation with a child right ?

“There’s a cat and he’s fighting a dog”

“Okay”

“And he hits the dog into space with his paws”

“Really can cats do that ?”

“He’s a super cat with super paws”

“Oh right, then what happens ?”

“The dog comes back to earth because he’s a devil dog”

Oh, a devil dog I didn’t know he was a devil dog”

“Yeah he is and he shoots the cat with his lazer eyes”

“Oh he has lazer eyes ?”

“And the cat dies”

“Poor cat”

“Yeah but then he’s not dead and he kills the dog with his poisonous tail”

“Oh right he has a poisonous tail….like a scorpion”

“No! like a super cat”

“Oh…. right”

“Yeah and he’s invisible”

And that’s pretty much how the story progresses. One character inexplicably hops from Japan to Hawaii to Nevada to California continually running into Godzilla and the Muto until he finally makes it to his home town where his wife and child are and then monsters fight each other for about 45 minutes. It should all be so simple. Your main character is a bomb disposal expert for the army? Great, give him a bomb to disarm. He’s got a family? Fantastic, put them in peril, ramp up the tension. You’ve got a monster? Right, make me care about the monster, make me fear him or sympathise with him make me feel something. I loved King Kong, I feared the T-Rex, but instead what we get here is a mess which resembles the worst excesses of Michael Bay films in which characters simply disappear while two CGI Monsters batter each other and destroy a city in the process. What’s most damning is that it’s impossible to care who wins.

Visually spectacular but ultimately a total mess, it’s all spectacle and utter nonsense – and even that would be okay if it weren’t so joyless and po faced.

I hated this.

On the other hand Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes get’s practically everything right.

The film fills in the intervening ten years between the last film and this one during its credit sequence. Original? No, but effective and one of the most simplistic and nicest uses of 3D I’ve seen to date.

The film opens with a brilliant 2001 meets Apocalypto sequence and from this moment on you can tell this is simple film making done superbly well. Everything here looks amazing. The Apes and the performances by the actors portraying the apes are personable, believable and heartfelt. There is more humanity in the opening ten minutes here than in two hours of Godzilla and there aren’t even any fucking humans in it.

What unfolds there after is a plot which is far from original. There’s a resource in a territory controlled by a primitive and somewhat socially fractured tribe. The resource is needed by another tribe who try diplomatic relations with the tribe in control of the territory where the resource is located. Tensions mount and it leads to the brink of a war. If this seems familiar it’s because it’s basically a microcosm of human history. In fact the only thing missing from the film is a shady CIA character selling arms to one group of apes in the hope of a coup and a hierarchical relationship with the head ape in which they can basically run the apes by proxy.

“Look at those chimps. Lording it over you in they’re ivory tower. We support a gorilla uprising, and we will continue to support you after you have the tricky task of uniting all apes under gorilla rule…. now lets talk about that oil you’ve got it. We need it”

ahem…

The plot really doesn’t matter, the fact that it can easily be read as allegory doesn’t matter. What matters here is story telling plain and simple and in this regard the film makers from screen writers Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Joffa to director Matt Reeves to the cast right on up (yes up, this is the special effects team’s film. They work magic here) to back-room men and women who edit the film, program the CGI apes and the pitch perfect performances by the actors playing the apes. They all get it spot on. They all know exactly what they’re doing and what story they’re telling. It looks great, it sounds great – the constant ape chatter in the background of every scene is amazing.

In a film of this type it’s all down to execution. Cleverness is one thing and there are clever moments here but it’s the simple ideas that really work. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was clever and heartfelt and perfectly executed. This is far simpler, and as such it’s somewhat predictable and could easily fall flat because of it. Instead it’s a triumph – engaging, personable and fast moving, beautiful to look at and at times thrilling, even the 3D effects are unobtrusive and subtle. This has the feeling of being the second film in a trilogy of course, but it never lets its self get bogged down in the “larger story”. For some it may be a little too simple and perhaps a bit too long but for me this has so many moments of pure cinematic joy – one scene in which apes silently follow a truck into a city is among the most simplistic and brilliant I’ve seen this year. Basically I loved it.

Plus it’s got an Orangutang named Maurice. C’mon like? It’s fucking class.
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