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Godzilla (2014)

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // September 16, 2014
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted September 10, 2014 | E-mail the Author

Based on the supremely successful film franchise that just turned 60, Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) attempted to win over American audiences still sour from that other installment. Armed with a huge budget, state-of-the-art special effects and---oh yeah, a script---this ambitious American revival of the beloved Japanese icon debuted in domestic theaters less than four months ago. Of course, the film's considerable box office take and already-announced 2018 sequel qualify it as a financial success...but is it Godzilla any good, or will people flock to see anything with this behemoth's name attached?

Kind of and yes, respectively....and for those who missed Godzilla's theatrical run, here's a quick synopsis. Fifteen years ago, two chrysalises are discovered by Project Monarch scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant, Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins); as bad luck would have it, one of them is empty and a trail leads to the open ocean nearby. Meanwhile, Japan's Janjira nuclear power plant, by way of supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), detects unusual activity underground and sends a team---including his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) to investigate. Before long, disaster strikes and a full-on catastrophe befalls the plant and surrounding area as the Brodys' son Ford looks on. Fast-forward to the present day, and adult Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has returned from military duty to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde). Ford has little contact with his estranged father, who's convinced that a cover-up ruined his life and career...but before long, it doesn't matter because the "unusual" activity" returns. As anyone halfway familiar with the franchise can tell you, mysterious creatures and radiation don't mix well. Within hours, all Hell breaks loose.

Whether or not you appreciate the slow reveal of our scaly hero in the flesh, it's easily Godzilla's most admirable element. Much like Jurassic Park's T-Rex or Jaws Himself, this approach does a fine job of building dramatic tension and, combined with the film's jaw-dropping visuals and grounded "street-level" perspective, succeeds in creating an appropriately epic atmosphere. This is by no means a rubber suit monster and Godzilla fares all the better for maintaining such a difficult illusion...and even if its lesser elements drag everything else down equally, this film has earned the right to exist on visual merits alone. But the sound design is even better, as the guttural growls, fierce roars, chaos, and carnage hit viewers on almost every possible level. What's more is that Godzilla doesn't just serve up a punishing sonic barrage from start to finish (like Transformers, for example), which actually gives our ears more reason to celebrate when the action arrives.

WARNING: Moderate to heavy spoilers ahead.

As for the film's less admirable elements...well, unfortunately, they're about as difficult to ignore as a 355-foot monster destroying a downtown district. Perhaps Godzilla's most noticeable flaw is its bland characters and the flat performances that make most of them feel even more vanilla. Ford Brody is our focal point during much of the film for whatever reason, and most viewers will struggle to root for such an obtuse hero. Ford abandons his wife and young son almost immediately after returning from active duty. He makes very few attempts to contact them and, when he does, asks them to wait for him to return instead of, you know, leaving the damn country. His wife literally hands over their son in one of the film's most baffling moments. In both cases, they put their jobs ahead of their family, and for basically no real reason. But don't worry: they'll be conveniently reunited almost immediately after the chaos settles down, much like a similarly lost little boy that Lieutenant Brody nestles under his wing. These baffling decisions are only rivaled by flat performances, and even supporting characters like Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) and Dr. Serizawa just feel completely phoned in.

Yes, and about those convenient reunions: they wouldn't bother me nearly as much if Joe Brody weren't killed off long before the halfway mark. It's a relatively pointless act of bait-and-switch that basically wipes out Godzilla's only memorable human figure, both due to Cranston's committed performance and the way his character is established. This, combined with his wife's early death, tricks us into thinking anything can happen and, from a human perspective, a lot of crazy stuff does happen. But since certain loose ends are tied up in a wildly uneven or (worse yet) clich├ęd manner, that earlier act of cinematic trickery just feels all the more deflating. Geez, they could've at least given the poor guy a more heroic death (or a more charismatic son, while we're at it). So while the hard-hitting presence of monsters and the film's visual prowess give Godzilla a "popcorn pass", from a human standpoint it runs on fumes during the second half. In an accompanying featurette, director Gareth Evans---during production, presumably---ensures us that he aimed to make a timeless film and not a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster. But from more than one vantage point, that's pretty much what we got anyway.

Either way, Godzilla shines from a technical perspective and, in that respect, it'll sporadically knock your socks off as the chaos ensues. The end result almost plays out like the polar opposite of Pacific Rim, though: while Guillermo del Toro's ambitious free-for-all buried its technical innovations in goofy, almost mind-numbingly stupid layers of story aimed at 12 year-olds, Godzilla takes slightly more serious source material and aims for a more realistic, ground-level experience. Both miss the mark for different reasons, but they're still loaded with eye candy and worth getting lost in for that reason alone. Either way, Warner Bros.' combo pack serves up a top-notch A/V presentation that plays up Godzilla's obvious technical prowess, though a rushed and surface-level set of supplements don't give us much to dig through after the credits roll.

Video & Audio Quality

Make no mistake about it: Godzilla, on many occasions, is an extremely dark film. Like, "David Fincher" dark. Nonetheless, this 2.39:1, 1080p transfer handles the difficult source material quite well as it rotates between on-location footage, CG imagery and green screen composites. The overall effect is almost seamless from start to finish and, without a doubt, those with larger setups will get the most benefit out of this Blu-ray. Image detail is terrific, textures are handled nicely, and the film's limited color palette also looks pleasing. Black levels are quite solid but, whether by design or the source material's difficult nature, some scenes almost manage to get lost in the shadows. Still, the lack of flagrant digital imperfections is appreciated and, in lesser hands, Godzilla might be smothered by digital noise and contrast boosting. It isn't. So whether you caught the film theatrically or not, this big-budget blockbuster has made a satisfying transition to home video.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures in this review are strictly decorative and do not fully represent Blu-ray's fancy-pants 1080p image resolution.

Simply put, Godzilla is one of the finest sounding discs I've heard to date. The film's sound design obviously accounts for strong channel separation, heavy panning effects and, most importantly, a metric ton of low frequencies. Whether it's the rumble of an electromagnetic pulse, the thunderous approach of ominous footsteps, or the total destruction of an urban battleground, the audio hits hard at almost every conceivable turn. This DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track (also available in French and Spanish Dolby 5.1 dubs) is certainly up to the task, delivering crisp dialogue and a suitably epic atmosphere. Even the quieter scenes are handled nicely, especially during the bridge sequence where troops are searching for the MUTO in relative silence. Those guttural noises produced by the behemoth are exactly as threatening as they need to be, and perhaps even more so. Optional English (SDH), Spanish, and French subtitles are included during the film and extras.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Presented in Warner Bros.' typical style, this interface is lacking in creativity but easy to navigate. The forced pre-menu commercials, on the other hand, are not appreciated. This two-disc release is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase along with a Digital Copy redemption insert and a matching slipcover. It's certainly not the most creative effort, but let's be honest: we should just be happy that an original poster design was used for the cover artwork instead of a giant head collage.

Bonus Features

Sure, I had a few issues with the main feature, but these extras are objectively the disc's weak point. Comprised of short featurettes made during the film's production and/or promotion, this material rarely digs below the surface and, at worst, deflates the film's sincere attempts to maintain a level of realism. The first section, Monarch Declassified, serves up three like-minded faux short films in the vein of Lost's "Dharma Initiative" material: "Operation: Lucky Dragon" (2:44) overviews the atomic testing segments, "The MUTO File" (4:29) provides a brief history of these insect-like beasts, while "The Godzilla Revelation" (7:25) offers a slightly more detailed recap of the film's mythology. There's some nice visual attention to detail here, but the information is very repetitive and makes these featurettes feel more like promotional curiosities.

Our second section, The Legendary Godzilla, offers a more traditional behind-the-scenes overview of the film's production, including brief comments from key members of the cast and crew. "Force of Nature"(19:18) is the best of the bunch and covers the franchise's abridged history, director Gareth Evans' realistic visual approach, shooting locations, visual effects, and more. "Whole New Level of Destruction" (8:24) covers set design and demolition, green screen effects, and keeping the cast and crew safe amidst all the chaos. "The HALO Jump" (5:00) briefly touches on concept art, staying grounded, and working with the military, while "Ancient Enemy" (6:49) glimpses at MUTO designs, sound effects, and creating EMPs.

These extras (and yes, that's all we get) sound passable on paper, but they don't really go into sufficient detail to satisfy anyone but the most casual fans. They all feel extremely rushed and I wouldn't be surprised at all if a more substantial edition was announced in the near future. A production like this just begs for more in-depth background material, while the studio's insistence to release a shorter film all but confirms the existence of deleted scenes (and the possibility of a longer cut, of course). It's much tougher to recommend this release with those items in mind, as tweaking the main feature and supplements would push this closer to being a substantially better package. Either way, Godzilla will sell plenty of copies.

Oh, Godzilla, how I wanted to love you so much more. I wasn't alone in my optimism after the trailers premiered, and my soft spot for chaotic and destructive cinema almost guaranteed a great time at the movies. But this is just a passable one, as the film's jaw-dropping visuals and realistic, grounded approach are almost completely negated by flat performances, too many focal points, and sloppy writing. Even so, Godzilla still delivers sheer chaos and terror in spades...and whether you're a lifelong fan of The King of Monsters or not, it's still entertaining enough in the right mindset. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray/DVD combo pack offers near-perfect A/V quality as expected...but the bonus features feel rushed and promotional, almost guaranteeing a more substantial edition (and possible Director's Cut) in the near future. Unless you loved Godzilla theatrically and don't care about extras, I'd recommend avoiding this release for now, especially as a blind buy. Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance art and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person. He's also worn glasses since childhood, so take those visual ratings with a grain of salt.

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