Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Godzilla (2014)


Prologue
This is maybe the most beautiful giant monster film I have ever seen.  Maybe the most beautiful any-kind-of-monster movie I’ve ever seen.  If you don’t read anything else in this review, I want you to at least have seen that much.  That’s the take-home message here.  I can’t get over the awe I feel from experiencing this film, even as I sit down to finally write this after taking in quite a number of other reviews both for and against.
            But before we get to discussion of the new film, a few contextualising words of introduction are in order as to my own lifelong relationship with the King of Monsters.  When I compulsively and devotedly watched Godzilla movies as a little kid in the late 70s and early 80s, my mom would eventually walk through the living room, pause and watch with me a moment, and then, not without kindness and good humour, pronounce the whole production ‘so fakey!’  She smilingly wondered how I could love it so much.  
This was in an era when a household still usually had just one main TV in one main room for viewing it, and when you had to view whatever programming your TV stations provided – home videos were not yet common and online streaming was, of course, still nothing more than a gleam in some technophile’s eye, if that much.  Lucky for me, some executive guardian angel of my imaginative development saw to it that there were plenty of Godzilla movies aired.  And I mean the whole crew too:  Ghidorah, Rodan, Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Gamera, the lot.  But especially Gamera, beloved Gamera, The Friend of All Children.


The thing is, I had never consciously noticed the ‘fakiness’ of these movies until my mother first pointed it out to me.  But even when I did clock that fact, I positively liked that men were in monster suits playing, knocking down toy cities, wrestling with each other.  Plus, I either forgot about the fakey factor altogether while absorbed in watching the film at hand or I believed both the artistic lie and the artistic truth at the same time without any diminishment of imaginative surrender, no dream-breaking—like those rare moments in sleep where you suddenly realise you’re dreaming but you go on embracing the dream-logic of the scenario anyway.  
            Now, to capture my full experience of these films you have to also add to this ludic (playful, make-believe) quality an element of true fear.  I was mostly never the least bit frightened when watching a Godzilla film when I was little.  But occasionally that playfully imagined sense of scale did creep me out a bit as I watched:  when, for example, that somehow goofy-yet-menacing Godzilla head loomed up from behind the hills while a crowd of people ran screaming away in the foreground; or when the entire gargantuan figure was seen off in the distance at the far end of the city from the perspective of someone looking through a high-rise window miles away; and so on.  In those moments I could enter so far into the make-believe of it that I experienced a tiny tinge of the real feeling that would accompany the sight of a two- or three-hundred foot monster towering above your city.  A sense of awesome fear would bend down and give me a gentle bone-shivering tap.  Little boy me received a tiny dose of mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a spine-tingling sense of mystery that simultaneously repels and fascinates) even from a guy in a hokey rubber suit and a toy model city.  
Those little tinges of fear obviously rooted deep in me and here’s how I know:  I have had recurring Godzilla nightmares all my life.  The latest, I think, was some time last year.  In those dreams the gigantic eye of the kaiju monster somehow almost impossibly sees me – me, little old me – from across the miles of cityscape and air.  And yep, when I try to run away from that gargantuan gaze I might as well be slogging through invisible molasses.  ‘Fakey’?  Sure.  Still, somehow for me Godzilla brings home something of T. S. Eliot’s ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ – and that handful of dust is little old me.  It’s crucial to note thought that this nightmare-inducing capacity Godzilla has for me in no way diminishes my uncomplicated sense of affection for the greatest of monsters.  I did and do love Godzilla and Co. as much as any kid-become-adult did and does love the more innocuous monsters of Sesame Street or what have you.  
Some readers of this blog will know that I even went on to sing here and there about Godzilla monsters in a 90s punk rock band I was in.  But one more important thing to note in connection with my response to this latest film is that I haven’t massively ‘kept up’ with Godzilla over the years.  I’ve only casually and incidentally re-watched some of the old films in my adult years and haven’t more than sampled 90s or 2000s productions and up till now have engaged in almost zero intellectual analysis of the phenomenon.  That gap between childhood enthrallment and now seeing this new movie, linked only by simple love for Godzilla that has never waned even though I’ve not intentionally fanned its flame, may be a central reason the film can really tap into my sense of wonder.

Review
So here comes Godzilla (2014).  I tried so hard to keep my expectations low, low, low.  I did that with films like Pacific Rim and Man of Steel and had a decent time at both despite their obvious flaws.  But I’d forgotten how invested I was in Godzilla.  I sat there in the dark cinema with my older children before the film and had to physically quell my excitement.  I was buzzing!  And alas, I just knew this unjustifiably optimistic attitude was going to ruin it for me, that I’d end up overall underwhelmed.  
But no.
            No, no, no.
            (Spoilers from here on out – this ‘review’ is really a discussion for those who’ve already seen the movie.)  
One of the major categories of this film is majesty.  In the film’s story, the project that has followed the Godzilla monster since the 1950s is called the Monarch project.  We see this in the opening sequence of faux vintage footage.  For my money, the notion that overt word-drop is clearly meant to signal was fulfilled in spades.  The slow-burn pacing of the film only aids the sense of majesty it eventually achieves at the reveal of the wondrous monsters.  The film’s score and cinematography serve almost exclusively this purpose as well:  to make you feel in the presence of immense, terrible, and magnificent royalty.
            Indeed, after processing my feelings of awe in response to the film for a few days, I came to the conclusion that Godzilla (2014) is mainly an aesthetic exercise.  And I have zero problem with that.  I love a good story and brilliant characterisation and drama as much as anyone.  But I also love a successful foray into sheer emotion and atmosphere and visual-visceral punch.  The director himself said they wanted to linger on moments of ‘not story, but cinematic-ness’.  It’s no wonder then that at times the film felt to me, in both score and cinematography, almost echoic of the likes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This film may have more of what Timothy Beal calls the ‘monstrous sublime’ than any other I’ve seen.  Beal uses this terminology to distinguish an almost worshipful feeling in the presence of monsters from the perhaps more familiar notion of the ‘monstrous diabolical’:  i.e. the merely, if awfully, evil monster.  The monstrous sublime need not be evil at all and in fact may be awesomely, bowel-tremblingly good.  It is, in my opinion, akin to ‘holiness’.
            As one reviewer pointed out, the solid if not especially remarkable human drama of the film mainly serves to give a profound sense of scale to the monsters.  The movie is spectacularly MONSTER-CENTRIC – somehow more so than Cloverfield or Pacific Rim or other recent entries in the giant-monster genre.  But not in a way that bludgeons.  The views of the monsters that we are given are exquisitely judicious, uncompromising in their service of the film’s tone:  lordly as a ten ton lion.  (And really, in the end I felt very satisfied with the amount of giant monster action I saw.  Wishing I could see more of the monsters only makes me want to see the film again as soon as possible, which is a delightful prospect.)  
The scene where the two MUTOs are mating in the rubble of a city they have rampaged to ruins put me very much in mind of Lovecraftian visions from the Cthulhu Mythos, where a future is imagined when primordial Old Ones rule the Earth again.  (Dave Henry over at Zekefilm noticed the Cthulhu connection too in his excellent review, noting that these kaiju seem more like mystical Old Ones than naturalistic atomic abominations or what have you.)  This film’s convergence with the Cthulhu Mythos seems significant, but a crucial difference it has with Lovecraft’s celebrated ‘cosmic horror’ is that this monstrous mating scene, for example, is not all pure horror, like some return to madness-inducing chaos and carnage.  It is ecologically beautiful, if also no good for the safety of humans.  
            But speaking of Cthulhu & the Gang, that sort of giant monster mythology is already rooted in ancient Mesopotamian Chaos Monsters.  Coming out of that culture, the writers and compilers of the Hebrew Bible were ruminating on the ecological and existential majesty and monstrosity of a very Godzilla-like creature millennia before the Godzilla franchise was conceived.  The  Bible calls its own mega-monster iteration Leviathan.  (Dave Henry beat me to this punch also with his excellent Echoes of Eden article on the new Godzilla film:  Leviathan Redeemed.)  Just look at the description of Leviathan in chapter 41 of the Book of Job and keep one eye at the same time on all you’ve seen Godzilla be and do.  You’ll be tempted to skim past this part, but don’t.  Take the extra minute to actually read through this and let the poem’s imagery heave up before your mind’s eye.  I can’t promise it won’t bite, but I can promise it’s worth it.  And remember, keep one eye on Godzilla:
“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
    its strength and its graceful form.
 Who can strip off its outer coat?
    Who can penetrate its double coat of armor?
 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
    ringed about with fearsome teeth?
 Its back has rows of shields
    tightly sealed together;
 each is so close to the next
    that no air can pass between.
 They are joined fast to one another;
    they cling together and cannot be parted.
 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
    its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
 Flames stream from its mouth;
    sparks of fire shoot out.
 Smoke pours from its nostrils
    as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
    and flames dart from its mouth.
 Strength resides in its neck;
    dismay goes before it.
 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
    they are firm and immovable.
 Its chest is hard as rock,
    hard as a lower millstone.
 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
    they retreat before its thrashing.
 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
    nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
 Iron it treats like straw
    and bronze like rotten wood.
 Arrows do not make it flee;
    slingstones are like chaff to it.
 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
    it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
 Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
    leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
    and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
    one would think the deep had white hair.
 Nothing on earth is its equal—
    a creature without fear.
 It looks down on all that are haughty;
    it is king over all that are proud.”
Some of the resemblances between ancient Leviathan and the very contemporary creation Godzilla are to me rather uncanny.  
I will say that I do think you have to see the new film to appreciate the incredible effects that create the ‘graceful form’ of this latest Godzilla (complete with the ‘glistening wake’ when it swims gigantically through the ocean).  The posters and movie stills don’t look all that impressive to me personally.  And I have qualms about some of the design choices.  The snorting nostrils certainly add an air of believable animality to Godzilla, for example, but I just don’t like the feel they give all that much.  But no such qualms could quell the overall effect of majestic monstrosity this director and his team have achieved.  I wanted to jump up and cheer at moments in the film, but I had to settle for covering my mouth and moaning a little since I didn’t want to be the lone loud American cheering in a British cinema.  (I’ve heard reports of spontaneous applause in American cinemas.)
The wonderful monsters in this movie are what eco-critics call ‘charismatic megafauna’ (e.g. elephants, tigers, whales) turned up to maximum.  The problem eco-critics have often had with, say, a wildlife television program emphasising, often through slow-motion camera work and epic orchestral scores, such beasts is that ‘the camera sometimes seems to stand in for the colonial figure of the white game hunter’, which can distance us from real encounter with the animal Other (Ecocriticism: 2012: Routledge: p. 175).
But in Godzilla (2014) all the drama and cinematography seem to work to make us feel like ‘strangers in a strange land’ rather than entertain us with a sense of our control over a wild ecology portrayed before our masterly gaze.  (Hey now, don’t get worked up:  I’m not over-intellectualising a Godzilla film.  It’s just an awesome movie about giant monsters wreaking havoc that taps into our childlike sense of play.  Nevertheless, the director clearly upped that ante into an intentionally crafted space of awe and humility and I’m just trying to go with that flow in this little chat here.)
In distinction, I think, from wildlife documentaries a lot of the sense of sublime in this film comes from the way the camera portrays the monsters:  like ‘hyperobjects’ that you can’t usually see all at once and never for very long, some vast portion the kaiju swimming up into view, its aural centres sounding forth in gorgeous alien noises, terrifying and tantalising at one and the same time (mysterium tremendum et fascinans, people, I’m telling you).   Furthermore, these strutting mega-monsters give a slight ‘pingback’ to their tiny cousins too in various scenes of the film:  for example, we see in different moments a beautiful millipede and a small horned lizard. On the opposite end of the scale, towering even over the MOTUs, the film also evokes monstrous landscapes, the topography on top of which we live our lives (and far underneath which, the MUTOs had up to this point dwelt), especially the incredible aerial view of the mountain range in the Philippines that looks like the back of a super-kaiju rising out of the earth itself. 
The Japanese lead scientist in the film’s story warns the military and his fellow scientists that our mistake is in thinking we are in control of nature when it’s the other way round.  It’s actually rather amazing that this is one brief line in the movie (with maybe another similar line or two – I can’t recall exactly).  The old Toho Godzilla franchise was fond of much longer soliloquies on this theme.  But this new film, like the passage from the Book of Job above, shows you this truth rather than lecturing.  The result is that you walk away feeling it in your breast rather than cognitively assenting to it or debating it in your intellect.  

(image from http://godzilla.wikia.com/)

This all ties in somehow to what some eco-critics have called the ‘swamp dragon’ in our ecological visions and what Timothy Morton calls ‘dark ecology’:  i.e. ecosystemic harmony and thriving is not all about pretty flowers and bunnies, nor even simply inclusive of beautiful predators savagely but impressively devouring their prey – a full ecology has to include all the ‘ugly’ and ‘gross’ and poisonous stuff too (toxins and sludges and parasites and so on).  But I don’t want to rush into making such connections too easily.  In fact, I heartily approve of the subtlety and ambiguity of the film as regards politics and other ‘messages’.  I agree to some degree with monster historian Scott Poole that monsters are ‘meaning machines’, but not first and foremost (as Poole himself notes when he admits that the term ‘monster’ tends to resist definition).  A monstrum, as many monster theorists have pointed out, is a ‘warning’ or ‘sign’ or ‘portent’.  Monsters do seem to point us onward as harbingers of Something Else.  But they have an integrity all their own as well.  To parody the title of an older little work on theology of art, Monsters Need No Justification.
Primarily and primordially monsters are MONSTERS.  They are there to be MONSTROUS.  I’m reminded of how one reviewer recently said that horror-master Stephen King sells himself a bit short in emphasising the humans over the monsters in his own comments on his fiction:  rather, said that reviewer, 'one of the central ideas in King's fiction' is 'that the universe is more mysterious, freaky, and bad-ass than we know'.  
That’s the first ‘message’ of Godzilla (2014) and I don’t think we should take much else from it until we’ve sat and soaked in the roaring stomping truth of that for a good while.  We should be floored, awed, speechless.  Start there.  And do not proceed unless you find it hard to articulate what you’re feeling.  That’s the way the world feels (or ought to feel, contra all-too-quick headlines and taglines and recriminations and justifications) when tsunamis hit and tornadoes touch down or a loved one dies (or when a eucatastrophe strikes as well – the birth of a baby, for example).  
When the giant monsters show up, the tiny people shut up.  (After the initial screaming and crashing have died down at least.)
So Godzilla is not just about ecology any more than the original film was just about atomic bombs.  Godzilla, inasmuch as it evokes majesty and awe, is about ontology.  They are about questioning the boundaries of what is real.  
Plus, if you want to talk about over-mining resources unto ruin, ponder the inevitable quickly-churned-out ‘franchise’ the success of this film will likely spawn.  Maybe this is a prime example of ‘eco’ irresponsibility based on greed and disrespect and wilful ignorance, but this time in the ‘ecosystems’ of the arts and culture.  (Thankfully, the director himself said they first and foremost wanted to focus on making an excellent standalone film and wouldn't consider anything else until that was accomplished.  It shows.  I wish others in the film industry could learn from this.)  And these kinds of (cultural) waste and mismanagement have their monstrous consequences too.  Aesthetic mass-destruction in order to restore aesthetic balance can happen too, I suspect.  I’m not sure how or what this would look like, but don’t count it out.  
Don’t get me wrong.  I desperately want to see this particular cinematic vision give us new iterations of Mothra, Gamera, Ghidorah, and Rodan – heck, maybe even Mecha-Godzilla!  But not necessarily too soon or too (aesthetically) cheaply, and maybe not at all if it can’t be done ‘righteously’ as regards cultural production.  I respect the monsters too much to grub for sequels at any cost.

 
(image from http://www.godzilla-movies.com/)

Epilogue
I did not think I was going to see a Messiah-themed film when I went to see this movie.  I didn’t even noticed how much I was seeing such a film until right toward the end when the television news in the film was flashing the headline ‘King of the Monsters - Savior of Our City?’ about Godzilla.  This was after Godzilla had quite clearly sacrificed himself to rid the world of its monstrous attackers, lay buried in dust and rubble, and then ‘rose again’ the next morning.  King and Saviour are explicitly biblical messianic terms – they are what the title Christ, the Anointed One, means in the Bible.  The film goes out of its way to give the feeling that Godzilla was sent in to save us from our horrifying excesses.  You could, of course, read this in some pantheistic or maybe even, at a stretch, some ‘mystical’ naturalistic way.  Maybe the filmmakers would even prefer you to do so.  But I’m not so sure.  
            Probably the most talked about scene of the film is the ‘HALO jump’ the soldiers perform in order to drop into the city that’s being raized by the battling monsters.  The long, score-enfolded depiction of the sky-diving soldiers descending like angels into hell (those are the director’s own words to describe the nature of the scene) will surely go down in cinematic history as one of the most achingly beautiful artistic achievements of early 21st century film.  It is an awe-inspiring image of the heavenly penetrating into the hellish.
Just before this jump is made we see a chaplain soldier with his open Bible praying for his fellow soldiers.  It is not a ‘name it and claim it’ prayer demanding that God deliver the world from the evil it has at least in part brought upon itself, nor even a prayer of protection or victory.  It is a very simple prayer of thanksgiving that these soldiers have had the chance to serve together.  The sense of surrender to divine will, and willingness to die in service of others, comes across so simple and, to me, profound.  One could, of course, see this scene as nothing more than little humans praying to their pathetic man-made gods as a sort of denial of the shift to eco-centrism that the film enacts.  But I think it resists that all-too-easy categorisation.  The sense seems to me to be that humans must play their part and do everything they can, even when that is very little, and they must trust to something higher than themselves for the rest.
            In this connection it’s also fascinating to note that the main husband and wife couple of the film are comprised, career-wise, of a nurse and a bomb-disposal expert.  These people are professional helpers, healers, redeemers – bit players in the ecologically monstrous drama unfolding about them to be sure, but intriguing in their aiding and redemptive capacities nonetheless.  In their tiny way, they actually reflect what Godzilla is doing at the much larger level.
 
Envoy
In closing, I leave you with another passage from Job 41.  This was the section from the speech of Yahweh that came just before the passage cited above:

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
    or tie down its tongue with a rope?
 Can you put a cord through its nose
    or pierce its jaw with a hook?
 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
    Will it speak to you with gentle words?
 Will it make an agreement with you
    for you to take it as your slave for life?
 Can you make a pet of it like a bird
    or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
 Will traders barter for it?
    Will they divide it up among the merchants?
 Can you fill its hide with harpoons
    or its head with fishing spears?
 If you lay a hand on it,
    you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
 Any hope of subduing it is false;
    the mere sight of it is overpowering.
 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
    Who then is able to stand against me?
 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me.”