Godzilla: Movie review

When Hollywood’s last crack at the King of Monsters came out in 1998, I was about 15 – the prime age for enjoying awful blockbuster spectacles. And I still thought that movie was a giant hot turd. (Matthew Broderick as a leading man? Really?)

Sixteen years later, Godzilla roars back into cinemas* in a vastly, vastly, vastly-I-can’t-state-this-enough better film. His new incarnation wears the “gritty reboot” shell  beloved by modern films, but on the inside it’s still a gooey dumb monster movie. Which is a good thing! You will like this if you’re after grim but elegant visuals, but you will also like it if you just want to see skyscraper-sized behemoths scrapping with each other.

(*Meanwhile, if this movie does good at the box office “Godzilla roars back into cinemas” will be the headline used by every hack entertainment writer. If it does bad, I guess the standard headline will be… I dunno. “Rival film fights off Godzilla” or something shitty like that.)

Light spoilers ahead.

godzilla-posterUnlike the ‘98 movie, which depicted Godzilla as a humanity-bullying monster, here he’s the monster who saves us from other humanity-bullying monsters. He’s a mythical hero, all majestic and unknowable and, admittedly, a little tubby (a design which actually works in his favour, still evoking the classic guy-wearing-a rubber suit look even though he’s pure CGI.)

Godzilla’s battles in his new film with a destructive pair of MUTOs (that’s “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object”, obviously) set up a new franchise where he’s an “apex predator” who must return every couple of years to save the day and “restore balance” while crushing landmarks underfoot.

Or something. His purpose is all explained away via pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo delivered as straight-faced as every other line in the movie; there are almost no jokes here (unless you count the callbacks featuring screaming Japanese running for their lives, which I think are only unintentionally hilarious). Where its kaiju cousin Pacific Rim was camp and neon, Godzilla is muted and serious.

Its monster battles are strikingly realised, offered to us mostly in glimpses – witnessed out of car windows, in reflections, through binoculars – until the climax, where Godzilla and the MUTOs finally have at it. It’s a very nice-looking film, especially that stunning shot of military skydivers parachuting into a monster-addled San Francisco. (A scene, which, sadly was spoiled by trailers and previews that lessen its big screen impact. Please quit giving away so much, Hollywood.)

Unfortunately, the script keeps dragging us away from the fun stuff – the monsters – and forces us to suffer through the boring stuff – the humans. It’s not a problem (in theory!) that Godzilla chooses everyday-types as the lens for its story – none of its characters are chosen ones, or presidents, or Will Smith-in-Independence Day-style wise-cracking badasses. The problem is that most of these bystanders are just… pretty boring.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is hardest hit as the awesomely ridiculously named Liuetenant Ford Brody*, whose role is to look pretty and anguished as he wavers back and forth between wanting to save his family from monsters and apparently forgetting about his family while he goes off to fight monsters. Brody’s dad is Joe (Bryan Cranston, who’s set his Act-o-Meter somewhere up around “Manic Gnashing”), who’s that disaster movie staple: the madman whose crackpot theories about impending doom turn out to be right. There’s nothing surprising about that character type, but at least Cranston’s subplot ends unexpectedly.

(*Like I had an actual double take when I realised that was the character’s actual name. It’s like it came from a focus group to determine the most generically masculine-but-not-threatening name.)

Ken Watanabe plays another disaster staple: the scientist. He’s a monster expert who doesn’t do much more than look disturbed by the devastation and advise that the military’s plan to defeat the MUTOs is dumb. (A military with a dumb rescue plan is yet another disaster movie staple, but even by the usual standards Godzilla’s military is really dumb. At no point does anyone in charge actually point out that, um, guys, our plan makes zero sense if you actually think about it. Guys? Guys?)

The worst victim of this blandness is Elizabeth Olsen, who’s burdened with the appalling boring role of Brody’s nurse wife – a bonehead who literally does nothing but stay behind in San Francisco looking scared, refusing to flee because her husband told her to stay put. Seriously. That is her plot arc. She has a son to look after, but at no point does she have any convincing maternal chemistry with him. (She’s not helped by the fact that her onscreen kid is one of the movie’s many mute, gormless children who stares at Godzilla and destruction with vacant eyes.)

Actually, none of the human females in this movie fare well. The only other notable woman is Watanabe’s assistant, who simpers and expositions and was maybe given a name? She’s played by Sally Hawkins, who has so little of the spark she showed in Blue Jasmine that I barely recognised her.

That’s not to say Godzilla is yet another Hollywood blockbuster with a woman problem. It has equal opportunity character problems for both genders! And besides, there is one badass female character: The she-MUTO, who just wants to get laid and have babies and settle into a nice nest underneath a ruined city. And isn’t that what all of us want, really?


Pacific Rim: Movie review

Pacific Rim Charlie HunnamRemember when you were a kid and you’d bake a cake with your mum, and she’d ice it, and she’d let you lick whatever was left in the icing bowl? And the icing tasted soooo good that you tried to persuade her to ditch the cake and just let you eat just icing, and she’d be like “No, shut up and eat your delicious cake”? But then years later you were hanging out with your friends, maybe you were drunk or something, and you decided you’d finally eat that bowl of just icing, Mum be damned, so you did, and it was kind of awesome but it also made you feel kind of gross?

Pacific Rim is that bowl of icing.

Which, OK, is exactly how a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots* should be. Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the screenplay, knows just what kind of film he’s making here. He doesn’t waste time with things like satire or humour or subtlety: Pacific Rim is big and loud and intense and fun and silly. There isn’t a lick of Dark Knight-ish grimness. (PHEW.) If you’re not in the right frame of mind for it, you’ll just hate it: You can’t watch a movie which straight-facedly shouts the line “The apocalypse is cancelled!” without wearing your 14-year-old-idiot-boy googles, because the second you look at Pacific Rim through your grown-up eyes you realise it’s just made from sugar and water and not a whole lot else.

(*Or, to borrow Pacific Rim‘s terminology, “kaiju” fighting “jaegers”. It is very entertaining watching them battle each other! But also pretty exhausting.)

Pacific Rim movie posterScattered around all that spectacle are the characters, which are sketched in then largely forgotten about when the monster-robot fights get underway. They’re a diverse bunch, cheerfully free of that “U-S-A! U-S-A!” grossness in so many other America-saves-the-world blockbusters. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, who – thank god – has ditched that awful Sons of Anarchy hair/beard combo and seems to have accepted that, yes, he is a beautiful pretty-boy), is an American former jaeger pilot with a tortured past. Stacker Pentecost (the awesome Idris Elba), is the super-macho English military-type leading the last-ditch effort to send the kaiju back down the interdimensional wormhole, or whatever, that they’re leaking out of. Hercules and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) are a father-and-son team of jaeger pilots who… I think are meant to be Australian? (They sound Cockney. That is not what Australia sounds like, America*.) Kaiju scientists Geizler and Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are the not-very-funny comic relief duo, who…

(*I will forgive the film this transgression, only because there’s an early, too-short scene depicting Sydney under attack by a kaiju. And if there’s one thing I like seeing onscreen, it’s giant monsters trashing local landmarks.)

… hey, are you starting to notice a pattern with all those characters? No, not their ridiculous (but kind of admirably over-the-top) names. Something else they share in common? Something like… penises? The only major female character, really the only female character at all*, is Raleigh’s jaeger co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), whose identity is thoroughly, unmistakably stamped “GIRL”. She gets a few obligatory ass-kicking scenes – “obligatory” because how else would you know she’s a Strong Female Character – but mostly she’s demure, quiet, doesn’t do much unless a man has told her to do it**. Seriously, would it have killed del Toro and his collaborators to make just one of the other supporting male characters a woman? Pacific Rim sometimes feels like boys much around with their toys, and it’s annoying.

(*I refuse to count the female Russian jaeger pilot who has approximately two lines of grunting, or  the jaegers’ GLaDOS-y computer system, which is voiced by the GLaDOS, Ellen McLain.)

(**What is interesting about Mako is that, though you expect her to wind up Raleigh’s love interest, the duo’s relationship isn’t that romantic – at least, not explicitly so.)

Honestly I can’t decide if Pacific Rim is like every other blockbuster I ever saw, or not like any other blockbuster I ever saw. It’s unquestionably memorable. And it deserves kudos for a) not desperately attempting to launch a new franchise by ending on even a hint of a sequel, and b) just going for it for 130 minutes. It’s so big it’s numbing. If you ever laughed so hard you just wound up feeling hollow and exhausted and weirdly underwhelmed by the joke that made you laugh in the first place – that is how you will feel watching Pacific Rim.


A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness: Book review

A Monster Calls, Patrick NessWhat do you even say about a book as perfect and brilliant as A Monster Calls?

OK, well, firstly: There is no excuse for anyone not reading this, because it’s barely 200 pages long and you can finish it in a single sitting. (You can buy it online so don’t even try “I don’t have time to go out and buy it”.) It has the extra advantage of being one of those books that draws you tight into its story – you don’t realise how tight till you put it down and can’t stop thinking about what’s on the next page.

Without giving too much away, because one of the (many) pleasures of Patrick Ness’s writing is his skill at unwinding a story, the book is the tale of Conor, a 13-year-old whose mother is battling cancer and whose father is almost entirely absent from his life. Meanwhile, he’s the victim of a recurring nightmare so terrifying that he’s mostly unfazed when he’s visited by a real, ancient monster. This monster promises to tell Conor three stories, which will ultimately help him through deeply troubling events he’s forced to confront.

Ness (whose Chaos Walking trilogy is probably the book series I never shut up about telling people to read, especially people who ask me for excellent YA recommendations. Put it near the top of your to-read pile, please) borrowed the idea for A Monster Calls from Siobhan Dowd, a fellow writer who died of breast cancer before she could write it. Ness’s care and respect for Dowd’s plot runs so deep I was surprised to discover the two never actually met.

Please please please read A Monster Calls. It’s powerful, and beautiful, and one of those truly transcendent reading experiences. There aren’t really that many entries on the List of Things That Made Me Cry*, but, well. This book is on there. In the same way I still think of The X-Files years after watching it when I see the clock turn 10:13, I’ll remember A Monster Calls whenever it’s 12:07.

(*#1: That time I thought I had Oreos at home and spent all day looking forward to eating them then I got home and discovered I did not in fact have any Oreos at home.)


Monsters University: Movie review

Monsters University posterSigh of relief, everyone: Monsters University is pretty terrific.

This was not a sure thing. Pixar can do good sequel: Toy Story 2 is one of the best sequels ever. And Toy Story 3 is even better than that. On the other hand: Cars 2.

Monsters University does not, luckily, reek of a sequel churned out to sell toys. It’s a worthy successor to Monsters, Inc. (which for a long time was probably my favourite Pixar film. Or at least up there at the top of the list. It’s almost impossible to choose just one favourite Pixar film). It’s entertaining. It’s smart. It’s funny – sometimes very funny.

A+ grade to whoever decided to make the sequel to Monsters, Inc. a prequel, because there’s really nowhere to go from Inc.‘s lovely final shot. University takes us back to Mike Wazowski’s (voiced by Billy Crystal – who didn’t annoy me even once, which says a lot about how good this film is) and Sulley’s (John Goodman) college days. The former is booksmart but lacks natural talent as a scarer; the latter is the exact opposite. They clash. They start to grudgingly respect one another’s talents. Eventually, they become best friends. Their relationship flows perfectly into – and from – Monsters, Inc.

Monsters University

This is unashamedly a “college movie”. The plot riffs on every Greek system cliche, packing in everything outsiders think of when we picture American colleges: parties, studies, fraternities, sororities, beautiful Ivy League-style campuses, no anxieties about how all this is being paid for. There’s a point near the end when it seems Monsters U will have a standard (and disappointing) college movie ending – the nerd underdogs triumphing over the frat boys. A surprise third act rescues the climax, moves it into unexpected, more interesting territory.

(Slight spoilers: It’s interesting that, though the film appears initially to fawn over the idea of college/university education, it turns out Mike and Sulley are college dropouts. Their success is because of their own hard work and skill at spotting opportunities, not because they have degrees. I don’t remember if that was addressed in the first movie or not, but there’s a nice parallel with the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.)

See Monsters University on the big screen. It’s stunning. The things they’re doing with computer-generated animation these days are incredible. Every monster is a lush, furry, unique beast, bursting with energy and flexibility. They look like big walking Muppets. Preceding the feature is the short film The Blue Umbrella, whose charm is almost overwhelmed by its dazzle. Its rain-slicked city setting looks like a photograph brought to life.

Monsters University gives me faith that Pixar’s next sequel Finding Dory will be good. But… not as good as its predecessor. Pixar’s films have long been revered because they’re fresh, they’re inventive, they’re awesome – in the literal sense of that word. Very little about Monsters U feels awe-inspiring. Pixar has its formula – a very good formula – but doesn’t deviate from it. (This is why Cars has always bored me, I think – its story hits exactly the beats you expect it to hit, and nothing more.) University is enjoyable, polished, but it’s lacking the darker, rich adult subtext Pixar built its reputation on. Maybe that era is behind them now.


Short story: Tuned In

Horror Filming, *samuel123

Horror Filming, by Samuel123

It took months for my sons to convince me to subscribe to a pay television service, which I’ve always maintained is a dreadful waste of money, though I must admit that when they finally bought me a subscription I was rather looking forward to all those additional channels on my television set.

A large carton containing the set-top box was delivered to my home. Installation was simple enough. Though the set-top box came with a thick instruction book it was really just a matter of plugging a slender white cable into the back of the set, then switching it all on. I eased back into my cracked-leather sofa, the remote control that had come in the box held aloft in readiness.

The electronic program guide flickered into life on my TV screen. More than 100 channels to choose from – where to start! I decided to partake in the news, but even the selection of news channels was vast. I chose one at random. Sky News.

“… the attack by Ablahelzareth the Thousand Eyed Spawn continues into its third day,” intoned the reporter, who seemed to be standing somewhere around Circular Quay, “with the eldritch abomination continuing its assault on the Sydney Harbour Bridge…”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Behind the reporter was the bridge, but it was being attacked by something… huge, by some behemoth rising up out of the harbour, tremendous streams of water sluicing off its swathes of horny toad skin. Thick long tentacles twisted up around the bent struts of the bridge, slathers of dripping viscous goo bubbling on to the surface of the road, barbed hooks scoring jagged cuts in the metal struts. Scores of pustulant eyeballs the size of cars protruded on stalks from all of the monster’s asymmetrical body, swivelling and blinking redly in the sun.

Parts of the creature’s massive bulk hung impossibly in the air. Several naval ships were positioned in the water around the beast, though none of them seemed to be doing anything. There appeared to be birds circling the creature, but as I squinted at them – my television set is very high-definition – I realised they were huge bat-like creations, squawking and swooping and spattering filthy dung over the sleek grey boats.

The entire image sucked and dragged at my eye, almost seeming to distort the edges of my TV set. Just looking at colossal monstrosity piqued vulgar flavours in my mouth, sent images of warped geometric shapes spiralling through the dark recesses of my mind.

I had caught the train over the Harbour Bridge not an hour earlier coming home from work. There was certainly not… some enormous monster hanging from it then.

I blinked. Gritted my teeth. The supposed reporter continued to yammer on in clipped tones, as if the horrific beast were no more consequential than a bad traffic jam. What was this horrible program? The abomination had to be some kind of ghastly computer effect, clearly, probably promoting one of those terrible new movies Hollywood makes, but what was it doing on a so-called news channel?

With a shaking finger I switched to CNN. Some kind of panel show, featuring perfectly coiffed Americans ensconced in a bright studio, came to life on the set.

“The Democrats are in crisis,” said one lady with a rock-hard blonde bob and an especially hard-curled accent. “Even if no one wants to admit it President Obama has ca-learly been driven to insanity since he laid eyes upon Yog-Sggauthnth the Great Goat-Headed Ruler of the Frozen Yonic Void -”

“Oh, please,” snorted a weaselly looking man in an ill-fitting suit. “Obama is very experienced with multi-dimensional eldritch abominations -”

“Yes, but -” the woman tried to interrupt, but the man pressed on.

“- and staring into Stygian waters seething with the trillion offspring of cruel dimensional abnormalities is a sight… is a sight he is well equipped to handle!” he said, by the end shouting to the heard over the blonde woman.

Another woman leapt into argue – something about the inability of any human mind to comprehend the sheer spectacle of the old ones from beyond the stars, regardless of its party affiliations – but what she said made not a lick of sense to me. I must confess that while I’m not as up on American politics as I ought to be, I’m not a complete dunce, and I couldn’t follow a word of this.

“1000-Eyed-Spawn continues Sydney assault,” read one of the headlines crawling along the bottom of the screen.

Annoyed, I brought up the electronic program guide again. A home renovation program would do the trick. Not that I’d be able to do much with their advice – what with my apartment being so small, lacking even a garden or second bedroom to do up – though I counted the genre among my favourites nevertheless.

An episode had only just begun. A strapping young lad holding a hammer was surrounded by the other presenters, explaining this episode’s project. By the look of all the tools and materials stacked behind them – vast sheets of corrugated iron and mounds of severe grey cinderblocks – I guessed it to be a big one.

“… fortifying your home against the plagues of horror that burst forth from the dark side of the moon is something you and your family can do in a weekend,” said the man with a grin.

“We’re gonna tell you how to build the home of your dreams,” added the woman standing next to the man, who had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, “that’s safe from the creatures of your nightmares.”

And she winked at the camera.

Hmmm. This was not at all promising. I lifted the remote again and circled through the channels to land on The Simpsons. Not my favourite television program, I admit, but my sons have watched it for years and I must admit to having enjoyed some of the episodes.

It was an older one, judging from the cruder look of the animation – the family had a strange bug-eyed look. They sat in their brightly coloured home watching television.

“Beer. Need beer,” Homer said.

“The Outer Gods took all the beer,” Marge said glumly.

“D’oh! Stupid Outer Gods,” said Homer. Suddenly a tentacle snapped through the window – sending the dog and cat fleeing – and wrapped itself around his neck! “I mean,” Homer managed, turning purple, eyes bulging comically, “woo hoo…” And the tentacle released him.

And it wasn’t even one of those Halloween episodes! Furious, and sick of tentacles, I switched off the television. Something had clearly gone terribly wrong. This… silliness was certainly not what I had signed up for.

I marched to the phone and dialled the pay television hotline.

“I would like to complain!” I announced, once I was through the maze of automated voices.

“Certainly, sir,” trilled the girl on the other end. “What seems to be the issue?”

I explained, sternly and clearly, that all my pay television channels were infested with tentacles and monsters and certainly not the informative and entertaining programming I expected, and given the price I had paid (I didn’t deem it necessary to mention that my sons had actually paid) I demanded a higher standard.

“I absolutely understand your complaint,” said the girl politely, once I’d finished. “Fortunately your problem is quite common among the newer set-top boxes, and very easy to fix.”

“Common? So the boxes are defective?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Some of the boxes are shipped from the factory in China with incorrect default settings, that’s all. All you need to do to receive programming from our universe is reset the -”

“Pardon me? Our universe?”

“That’s correct,” said the girl, who at least sounded like she was born in this country. “Some of the set-top boxes, such as yours, are inadvertently tuned in to parallel universes when they’re manufactured. Those are realities that sit alongside our own, but are different in subtle and -”

“I know what a parallel universe is,” I snapped. “I wasn’t aware it was possible to receive programming from one.”

“Oh, yes, the technology in our set-top boxes is very advanced!” she said. “For example, would you like me to explain how you can record up to five programs at once to watch at your convenience, using -”

I interrupted her to explain I was perfectly capable of learning how to record programs on my own in due course, and that in the meantime I would very much like to set the box to tune into my universe.

So I followed her instructions: I switched off the box, flipped a switch on its backside, waited five minutes – filling the time by boiling the kettle – then fired it up again. The television set leapt into life. I scrolled through several of the channels: past an old British sitcom, a black-and-white movie, a soccer match. It all looked normal enough, but I kept my finger on the redial button of my phone in case I needed to complain again. Finally, I settled back on one of the news channels.

A reporter stood across the water from Manhattan, the skyscrapers of the city rising up behind him.

Above the skyscrapers hovered an enormous ship, low enough to almost brush the tops of the buildings. It was almost as wide as the island and stretched nearly half its length, rising hundreds of metres into the air and casting a shadow across perhaps the whole of New York City.

An alien spacecraft.

I leaned forward in my chair.

“… a seventh Araxerxian starship entered Earth’s orbit today and set a course for Tokyo, though ambassadors for the alien visitors still refuse to explain the purpose of the starships, or whether any more are to be dispatched from the mothership in the Kuiper Belt.”

The reporter stopped, straightened hair whipped by the wind, glanced momentarily back at the huge ship over Manhattan. He looked suspiciously similar to the reporter I’d watched earlier, though I supposed they all had a certain sameness about them.

“President Obama will meet will Araxerxi from the New York ship on Monday, with hopes of continuing talks that stalled after China’s attempted nuclear attack on the Beijing ship…”

I leaned back in my chair and sipped my tea. Yes, that was better.


The image I stole borrowed from *samuel123; you can see the high-res version at deviantART.

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Tuned In by Sam Downing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.