Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla and Other Monsters

Modern giant monster movies are difficult to make because they have to be both believable and show a spectacle. They are expensive to produce and therefore require blockbuster status at the theaters. It isn't like the golden age where special effects were not expected to look real to enjoy. Some masters of the art didn't need more than clay, lots of time, and patience.

Even when the golden age of monsters in the 50s and 60s was long over, television for a short time gave new life to old celluloid. Late at night or noon after cartoons the giant terrors once again lived. The best of them included insects like a giant tarantula, a flying mantis, and them ants. Forget that no exoskeletal creatures could physically exist. There they were in the theater or on television larger than life and haunting a young kid's imagination. Two of the biggest stars were King Kong and Godzilla. Only once were they together, and that was a disastrous Japanese B movie with more laughs than wonder; no matter what age the viewer.

In later years the giant monsters fell out of favor to be replaced by dinosaurs. The same problems of production values and unbelievability hung on them, but without the supportive audience. It was fine that giant monsters or even insects didn't look real on the screen because they never did exist. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, had proof of their reality. It didn't matter how extinct, they were not lizards with plastered on prosthetics or actors in suites. A few movies with them were made and then died out just as quick.

Late 70s and mid 80s tried to bring back the Great King Kong with limited success. The stories were updated, but movie magic remained questionable. Actors in monster suites had become a joke and stop motion picture animatronics didn't change much either. It seemed that the giant monsters had finally died off in Hollywood.

Until . . . the return of dinosaurs thanks to computers. Now what had been lost to time both in film and history came back to life. More than that, it proved new methods could both replace and eclipse the best of the past. Right before and after the turn of the next century giant monsters were on a comeback -- although the results still remain mixed. King Kong once again graced the screen with amazing effects, but the story competed too much with the mayhem and visuals. Another movie at first teased with possible Godzilla or Cthulhu (if only true) references. It turned out to be part of the found footage genre with a new monster(s) and lots of running.

No recent giant monster movie has been maligned to the degree of the 1998 Godzilla, and with good reasons. The interpretation of the monster resembled an iguana with weight issues. Any resemblance to the original was considered superficial. It avoided most buildings, breathed fire once out of nowhere, and ran away from the combined military force. The final scene was a reenactment of Jurassic Park.  The characters didn't help as a pack of stereotypical New Yorkers with grating attitudes and low IQs, mixed in with equally stereotypical French military.

Negatives aside, the 1998 incarnation was much more fun than the newer Godzilla reboot. Behind the rampaging monsters loomed a conspiracy thriller and intertwining love stories. There is the nuclear physicist trying to solve the true reason his wife died and reconnect with his son, while this same son is trying to not become like his father, and believe it or not two giant monsters trying to meet and reproduce. Godzilla becomes a side story.

The saying goes "less is more," and that can be a truism in many situations. For a Godzilla movie, not so. The father scientist, son, and two monsters were given far more screen time than the titular character. By the end of the film there is a payoff. The question is if too much too late. Audiences want more than a mindless set of special effects and monster fights, but they do want it while story and character are developed.

The origin story of the monsters was a cool invention. In contrast, the human backstory at times got in the way of a blockbuster raging to come out. worst of all, the one human that bridged the two got written out of the script halfway through. The audience missed the opportunity to say "I told you so" right along with him. Replacing the character is an underutilized Japanese scientist and an emotionally confused military bomb expert who magically ends up in the right places at the required times. By the end of the film there has been so many deus ex machina's that the resolution becomes one big eye roll moment.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, there is a little game I would suggest to pass the time during boring parts. Try to name all the movies it can reference. My own list includes 1998 Godzilla, old style Godzilla, the director's own Monsters, Mars Attacks, Cloverfield, Independance Day, The China Syndrome, and Batman. Final verdict is to watch it in a "dollar theater," but before it comes out on disk.

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