16 May 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Godzilla Stomps on Everyone and Likes It

Another Summer Friday is upon us and it's time again for the Road to a Blockbuster - our look at the cultural, critical, and commercial potential of every big, loud, brash Summer Movie Hollywood has to throw at us. Now, it's typically important that a film be a big commercial success, that's what everyone writing the checks cares about. Generally the fans and critics also hope it to be a critical success, that is, an actually good movie that inspires some sort of insight into the human condition. I am most concerned, however, with its cultural success. What kind of impact will this have in driving the national pop cultural conversation as well as creating an investment that will make us want to discuss it ten or twenty years down the road?

There are all kinds of variations here, but in the long run, culture trumps all of them. Blade Runner (1982) is always a nice example of a critical and commercial failure but a stunning cultural success. You can go up to AVABAR (2009) to see the full extent of commercial success without much critical or cultural influence. And I might think of something like Super 8 (2011) which had a lot of critical love without a ton of cultural impact or commercial success. Get my drift? Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) already has all three this year. Can Godzilla (2014) replicate?
Sometimes I struggle to even believe this is a whole genre.

I love Godzilla. I saw every Godzilla movie probably between the ages of six and nine years old, which up to that point mostly involved Showa Era goofiness. Giant puppets and dudes in rubber suits smashing into each other with incomprehensible alien plots are very attractive to small children. It's what made Pacific Rim (2013) so fulfilling last year in that it put up on screen all those ancient fantasies which worked nostalgia with a shiny veneer of competent CGI work.

That's the thing though - it took a while for special effects to catch up with imagination. We can do just about anything now, and it's not totally limited to big rubber masks and stock footage. Of course, that's not necessarily a good think. Just ask Roland Emmerich's Godzilla (1998), staring GINO, Matthew Broderick, and that blonde chick whose career was possibly destroyed because of it. I feel like Godzilla has sort of become the poster child for everything that can go wrong with a modern blockbuster. It's really embodies the re-make that can't get anything right. Even when I was a fairly inarticulate movie-goer at the tender age of twelve when it came out, I hated it because Godzilla died at the end. Godzilla can't die - his skin is made out of super-radioactive armour or something. That's my kid brain logic, anyway. Even then I understood that the main symbolism of Godzilla originally began as a clear analogue of the uncontrollable dangers of nuclear power, but he's also morphed into this elemental force of nature that mankind unleashed upon the world. Call him nuclear fallout, a tidal wave, global warming, whatever - you can't kill it with a missile. You can't kill it at all, folks.

And this kind of deep symbolic reading of Godzilla combines with a sixty-year, thirty-film history that also includes aliens from Planet X, Giant lobsters, horrible dubbed acting, and some of the cheesiest shit ever be featured in this prolific of a series. Still, for being a giant rampaging nuclear lizard, Godzilla has a really articulated personality and clear sense of branding that has infected just about everything, from Reptar to Cloverfield (2008). In the back of my mind I also kind of wonder if the recent spat of Godzilla video games, like the canny Godzilla Unleashed (2007), helped both to canonize both Big Green's allies and Rogue's Gallery (it's always nice to remember that a monster as cool as Titanosaurus exists) as well as featured that fine mix of fast organic movement with the genuine weight of a man in a rubber suit. Things like this that held back more than the rapid energy of the Jurassic Park (1993) T-Rex-like Zilla foster a greater sensibility in line with the original, slow-moving destruction concept, but without the expense of things looking totally ridiculous.
This movie will at least go down in history as having
some of the best posters ever.

So, here we are. It's 2014 and we've got a new Godzilla movie that is making the biggest promise in the world not to suck. It's a testament to the talent involved and a very concerted marketing effort that strives for cool and intense over schlocky and arrogant. Director, Gareth Edwards' Monsters (2010) does a great little bit of world building, shows some effective human drama, and plenty of destruction from giant alien monsters. He's an inspired choice for Godzilla. As far as the actors go, from Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson giving us a little Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) preview of their big-budget chops to the instant gravitas brought by Bryan Cranston (I dunno - he's kind of ended up everywhere lately. Has John Carter [2012] or Total Recall [2012] changed anyone's minds? Cranston does not a good piece of art make), there are some power players here.

And that could be this film's greatest strength. Name one human from any previous Godzilla film. By character name. Yeah. Now name twenty monsters. Yeah. If Godzilla can actually create some interesting human characters, juicy disaster-addled drama, AND a monster-mash, this will knock it out of the park. It's been a long time coming, to be fair, but Godzilla's twisty-turny history between camp, thoughtful commentary (okay, we haven't seen that one since 1954), and playful sci-fi fantasy has both given us an incredibly deep well of mythology to draw from as well as plenty of experience with adaptations that have gone horribly, horribly wrong. I'm serious about pulling influences from the horrors of Godzilla '98, the balance between action and homage of Godzilla Unleashed, and even some of the line between insane science and thrilling smash 'ems of some of the better later films like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) or Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S (2003) to give us the best concoction of drama and destruction. There's plenty riding on this, and with any luck, this will be the first really great film of the summer.

Godzilla is in theaters today.

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