Bryan Cranston, the Savior of Godzilla
I have never known a movie I fell for at the start, then was gutted by, then was indifferent to, then had great fun with and eventually liked again, so I thought it was worth noting that Godzilla had this affect on me. But it took a long time to find the right words. After my plans to see it kept getting pushed back, six weeks in total, it took another three to write about. Life finds a way...to always be in my way. Every time I tried finishing this, minutes later I would be interrupted, and I was starting a new second job that I had to fit around my old one. I kept getting sidetracked, as I do nearly every time I think I have some free time to write (sorry Winter Soldier, you wonderfully epic thing), I wasn't sure how much I wanted to reveal, and often I changed whole paragraphs that I thought I was done editing. I found it very hard to commit. Praising a certain actor came easily, yet I had a bone to pick with a major plot point that had a negative effect I had to address. No matter how I tried I couldn't talk about anything that stemmed from that moment without spoiling it, and I couldn't talk about the movie without mentioning that moment, which caused it to stumble.
But with sparks of brilliance provided by the national treasure that is Bryan Cranston, I have a more complicated relationship with Godzilla than the average movie. There was disappointment when it couldn't live up to its early promise and it still managed to make me love it; not through and through, but from time to time. I had no idea it would be like this, because I tend to read reviews only to make up my mind or if a movie has been getting humorously bad ratings. I'd rather not see hints to turning points or the fate of someone I'll end up caring for the most. If I find out about something that fundamentally changes the way I'll see a movie before I even buy my ticket, then I'm less enthusiastic. Rather than enjoying it, I'll spend the whole time waiting for one scene. I was excited to see Godzilla, so all I wanted to know was if audiences were generally positive. They were, and almost half a billion dollars in theater receipts can attest to that.
Now, I assume you're reading this because you've seen Godzilla by now, since in about every case it should be out of theaters, and you just want to see what others thought of it. But if you're waiting for it to release on Blu-ray or hit iTunes then stop, unless you like spoilers. If you're close to a second-run theater that happens to be showing it, I highly recommend it for Bryan Cranston alone. My grandmother would always take us kids to one of those theaters. It was a single-screen so the selection was small, but they showed all the big movies we missed. Tickets were cheap and even the snacks were affordable. Best of all, as any movie outing still is, it was a great time spent with family. I wish I had the stubs from there.
Okay, that's enough rambling preamble, right? Let's get to it. All those who haven't seen this movie, please read something else for now. I have plenty of links at the top of the page that may keep you interested.
SO YOUR EYES DON'T SKIP DOWN, HERE'S A GREAT T-SHIRT FOR SALE.
Why can't you let her rest?
Because I sent her down there.
Joe, obsessed for 15 years with discovering the reason for his wife Sandra's (Juliette Binoche) death, having helplessly watched her last moments at the nuclear plant where they both worked, through a radiation-shielded door that he kept open as long as he could, was infinitely more interesting than anyone else. Cranston has amazing range and depth, draws you into his mindset, and makes you believe what he's going through. Even the quietest scene is imbued with a sadness that practically leaps off the screen: Joe in his old home in the quarantine zone gently holding the only picture of Sandra to his chest, looking for the first time at the 'Happy Birthday' sign his now grown and resentful son made for him the morning of the disaster. These are the remains of a life changed forever in a day.
Maybe you can understand my frustration that a fantastic character with a brilliant actor playing him didn't get more screen time. Cranston is flawless in giving life to a collection of words. The anger and the tremble in his voice while pleading for answers is so true it's like watching pure heartache. Doubtless what he extends to us is drawn from a real place. That's why he needed to be there longer, putting a face, a voice, a soul to the human toll. An opportunity was missed to have father and son work together and share the hero spotlight, to grow closer and connect with each other and the audience. An opportunity was missed to turn a good movie into a great one. Godzilla was obviously intended to have a very human center, so I wish the writers (Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham) had recognized that Joe was the true center and deserved more.
At least he deserved a decent ending. I'm not sure Joe was even mentioned again after the matter of fact condolences. I was sad for the loss because it meant I was no longer able to watch one of our current greatest actors, who never gives less than he's capable of and dives into a role completely. Yet Joe's death wasn't as wrenching as it would have been if he had come to the same fate nearer the end after having started to repair his relationship with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), having had more time to be with each other, strengthening Ford's character with some much needed insight. Had he been given a proper goodbye, it would have been appropriately devastating, but it barely seemed to register with Ford that he had just lost his father. His younger self (CJ Adams) showed more emotion simply looking out his school window at the cooling towers collapsing with his parents underneath. As an adult, he was underdeveloped. He had a lot to do but not much to say.
Taylor-Johnson had to carry so much largely alone, a big task for an actor without the dialogue to hold it all up in the shadow of one that had started the movie off with such depth. Fortunately, Cranston's part was so densely packed and emotionally charged that it resonated through. ATJ (it's just easier to say) did a good enough job with what he was given, but there should have been more for him. Ford was separated from his family and volunteered for a dangerous mission that required his explosives expertise and would bring him closer to home. Conversations with strangers were kept to a minimum. Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) I almost believed, but usually it seemed that she wasn't scared enough. Her best moment was when she put her son Sam (Carson Bolde) on a school bus headed out of the city, a decision that almost cost his life. Her nervous smile and sad eyes belied her reassurances that everything would be okay. That's how it would be; she hopes he'll be safe, but she can't be there to protect him. Other than that, Olsen didn't have the material. (Hopefully, she and Taylor-Johnson will have that in Avengers: Age of Ultron.) And after the bridge, I don't recall Sam being anything other than an idea that Ford was trying to get home to. We're supposed to care about Joe's son, grandson, and daughter-in-law, so some more meat on the bones of those roles would have made all the difference.
The icing on the cake would have been to do the same with the secondaries and extras to make them feel real, so that the audience has some sort of reaction when they're stomped on or buried under rubble. The lives Ford floated through were basically fodder that I felt nothing for. The only exceptions were an adorable kid named Akio (Jake Cunanan), who was really a means to show us Ford's paternal instincts absent his family, and scientist Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who was intelligent, very likeable, and contributed to the story. Hawkins did wonderfully in taking her part as seriously as Cranston and didn't just phone it in. She didn't have a fleshed out background, but she had personality and determination. Her counterpart, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), was not as impressive. Normally Watanabe is reliable, but sometimes a part isn't written as well as it should be. Serizawa sagely filled the audience in on what he believed to be the kaiju's place and pointed out man's hubris in trying to control nature. But in the absence of dialogue, both he and Ford had a tendency to stare wide-eyed and dumbstruck into some middle distance. It was an expected reaction to the situation not pulled off naturally by either actor and an unintentionally humorous parallel that had me analyzing the scenes rather than being absorbed by them. Last, and least, Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) and Captain Hampton (Richard T. Jones) were both played by experienced, well-liked actors, but didn't have much to do at all besides give orders. I've known other sci-fi and disaster movies, such as Jurassic Park and Twister, that managed to give humanity to their humans. I still get emotional when Alan and Ellie look in awe upon their first dinosaur or sad when Aunt Meg gets trapped under her house. I cared about them. I would have loved to care about everyone here.
You may be wondering right about now if I'm ever going to get to the main attraction or if I loved anything besides Bryan Cranston. To that I say I'm sorry that I think performance should interest you just as much as a lizard with gigantism that we've all seen before, and I'm really writing this for me because my brain won't leave me alone until I finish this...but yes! Prehistoric super predators seeking out and chasing each other across ocean and earth was pretty spectacular. The sounds of the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms brought me right into those moments, mesmerized by the rumble and click in their throats and a ramping up of radiation pulsing through their stealthy bodies. They were lifelike in their behavior, helping tremendously with the suspension of disbelief at their size, and had more personality than most of the people. I actually felt sorry for the MUTOs at one point, though they were incredibly destructive, because they were just animals who knew nothing of the tiny beings that were trying to hurt them.
As for the big guy, he arrived fashionably late and hell broke loose all over again. One of Godzilla's coolest, eeriest moments had an ominous silence as a group of HALO jumpers descending close by jagged, house-sized dorsal plates glimpsed through the smoke and dust of collapsed buildings, the setting sun obscured, the light through the ash looking like hellfire. Godzilla sounded as appropriately dangerous and enormous as he looked, and his tussle with the MUTOs was the end of the world under the footfalls of gods. Yet there was a delicate touch from the leviathan's entrance - ignoring the carriers and destroyers, diving under them, rising in front of the Golden Gate, seemingly trying to not destroy every last thing - in stark contrast to his previous enraged rampage of an outing. The blue-breath behemoth (Have I used up all the words meaning large yet?) was much more interesting than almost anyone on the bridge, except for the bus with little Sam on it. That was one of very few times I was concerned for someone. If they could kill off Ford's father so easily, why not his son? But as in most movies that put action above interaction, I didn't have much fear for those shooting at the skyscraper-sized lizard with the equivalent of spit balls and sparklers.
I mentioned Godzilla's late entrance because I have to address it. I saw someone complain that he didn't show up in his own movie until halfway through. I didn't realize it took that long, because for a while I was wrapped up in the drama and the superb performance of the person I've gushed over already. That's really how it should be if I'm going to truly love a movie. Without an investment in the people then what happens to them doesn't matter and it's all just hollow noise. I wasn't there to count the minutes of screen time the title monster got. Just because he's the star doesn't mean he has to steal every scene. And the MUTOs were enough of a handful, the set pieces and action top notch. Another commenter ignored the decades of history and decided they were so big they would be crushed under their own weight. Yes. And? I thought people went to movies like this to see something impossible, terrifying, and just plain awesome. There doesn't need to be plausibility to have a great story. If that was a requirement then a lot of sci-fi and all fantasy would be out, making for a sparse Imagination Land.
Having said all that, I really did love Godzilla. It may not be at the top of my list, but I wouldn't be writing about it all if I didn't care. Bryan Cranston was so superb for the short time he appeared. It was a misstep to lose him. It was surprising and refreshing, though, that the commercials just gave away glimpses. I only caught a commercial where Joe said, "They evacuated us so quickly..." The end of that sentence I never heard was, "I don't even have a picture of her." Joe seemed distressed, but I didn't know he lost someone so dear and would have to live with the guilt for so long. I didn't guess that Ford would be the sole focus of most of the movie. I didn't know about the MUTOs even though I saw that insectile leg come down. Remembering the Rexzilla from '98, I assumed they changed him again and gave him some Clover-like appendages. I hadn't searched for news or interviews. I didn't even seek out the trailer. I knew nothing about the movie other than the one man I wanted to see it for. It was refreshing to be in the dark. These days I usually know too much before going in.
Speaking of Cloverfield, that movie was more effective in getting right down and dirty there with people who were more convincingly terrified than anyone not named Joe in Godzilla. Being pursued by fast, flesh ripping parasites that fell off of the beast and constantly on the move, I was increasingly nervous for a situation was increasingly intense. But the main creature was indestructible, which was hard to swallow, and the fate of everyone was depressing. A perfect Godzilla movie would have had the tension of Cloverfield and had Bryan Cranston most or all of the way through, depressing ending for him or not.
Now I'm in love with this giant of cinema the way I never was before. While not perfect, Bryan Cranston and his ancient co-stars assured it was worth nearly every moment. If you didn't know him before Godzilla, pick up Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle. You get two extremes and he's spectacular at both. When he was cast in a dark drama about desperation and the corruption of power so soon after a rousingly funny dysfunctional family comedy, I was surprised but had no doubts that he would kill it. Some of the funniest people have the deepest understanding. He's unafraid to be blisteringly raw, and he was no different here. From now on, anytime I see anything that remotely reminds me of this movie, I will think first of the bruised heart he brought to the story. I'm still thinking about it weeks later, which means that it affected me in the best way. Godzilla was a great attempt to give substance to a genre with hardly any. It's a bit sad to think what it could have been, but I'm thankful for what I got.
Aside #1: I find it odd that in the same summer there were two blue-glowing, "fire" breathing lizards at the movies. I still have to finish my thoughts on How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Aside #2: Since this site is dedicated to TV (and movies) and t-shirts, here are some more of my favorites. All shirts are from RedBubble. Atomic Destruction and San Francisco are also available at TeePublic for $14 each.