I chuckled several times during Saturday night’s sold-out public premiere of Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla (Warner Bros., 5.16) at Le Grand Rex in Paris. And three or four times I laughed out loud, which is saying something considering that my legs were aching due to the cramped balcony seating. For me, chuckling and laughing at a monster film is a thumbs-up reaction. It means I’m having a fairly good time, which Godzilla definitely provided until the finale. Overall it left me feeling cranked up and a bit surprised in a “wait…what?” sense of the term and yet taken care of for the most part. It’s not a great monster film but a very good one, I feel. Or at least until the end. It’s a hell of a lot better that the 1998 Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin version, I can tell you that.
The best blow-your-socks-off sequence, I feel, comes around the middle — a monster- attack-on-Honolulu sequence that includes a big tsunami crashing and racing through the streets and wreaking all kind of non-consequential, eye-popping destruction — ten if not twenty times what this city suffered through when Michael Bay staged his Japanese aerial attack in Pearl Harbor (’00). The swelling wave effects are pretty damned persuasive, I must say. In fact nearly every damned visual effect seems at least above average. On a purely technical level Godzilla is one hell of a ride.
And I loved, loved, loved seeing Las Vegas get levelled all to hell. Like the original 1954 version that started the franchise, Edwards’ Godzilla is supposed to be a metaphor about nature’s wrath pushing back against man’s industrial arrogance and technological excess. It therefore seemed fitting if not delightful that the “worst money-grubbing place in the world” (which I’ve never had any love for, unlike Ben Affleck and a million other guys who actually worship the place) should be one of the cities to pay the price. I laughed and almost cheered when I realized what was happening to this overdeveloped shithole. Eat it, Steve Wynn! Maybe you’ve been crushed to death under the rubble of your own hotel. Just desserts, asshole!
And I liked the fact Edwards tones Godzilla down for most of its running time. Over and over he uses suggestion — visual and aural hints and implications — instead of blatant show-and-tells. He deserves admiration for delaying Godzilla’s first big MCU roar until the two-thirds mark and also holding back on the trademark fire-breathing until the big super-finale, in which San Francisco gets it but good.
Too good, to be honest. Edwards throws in so much destruction during the last 20 or 25 minutes that the movie kind of numbs you out. The all-but-total ruination of big cities (each one a conscious or all-but-conscious 9/11 metaphor) has been happening a lot during the final acts of 21st Century tentpolers. Chicago was all but totally flattened during the finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Man of Steel destroyed some rural-ass town during its hour-long battle finish. New York got it pretty badly at the end of The Avengers. And now San Francisco (along with Honolulu and Vegas and a portion of Tokyo) has been totally decimated by Godzilla.
And then there’s the matter of Godzilla’s…uhm, I need to put this carefully. His true colors? I don’t want to say “his irrepressible love for humanity” because the big guy clearly doesn’t love us and yet…well, it’s complicated. What should be divulged? It would be one thing if I’d seen Edwards’ film with a bunch of critics and an embargo was in place until next Wednesday or Friday. But Godzilla was seen tonight by everyone and anyone in Paris who coughed up for a ticket, and there’s just no keeping a lid on it. This is why Warner Bros. isn’t having its all-media Godzilla screening until two days before it opens (and on the same day it opens in Europe).
The fact is that big bad Godzilla isn’t exactly the terrible bringer of death that Warner Bros. has been selling all along. It turns out, sports fans, that Godzilla has two or three super-sized enemies from the same family (kind of like the Clantons from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and these guys, not Godzilla, are the real baddie-waddies. Who are these titanic beasts (also known as MUTOs) who swim, walk and fly? Edwards has described them as “a combo of all our favorite monsters from every movie. Part shark, part Alien Queen, part Starship Troopers, part gorilla — they’re kind of an amalgam.” I would call them part Alien Queen, part long-legged Martians from Steven Spielberg‘s War of The Worlds, part giant serpent-spider and part snapping turtle.
I would also remind that Edwards has made this film with a nod to the Godzilla fan base…but what base is that exactly? When I think of hardcore fans, I think of those who love the 1954 Toho original and who’ve also enjoyed the camp value of the 1956 American version that inserts footage of Raymond Burr reacting to the devastation and describing the beast. But if you’re a serious Toho fan you know that Godzilla was turned into a friendly monster in the ’70s. He fought other monsters and became a kind of lovable, crazy-eyed superhero. This is fact. I’m not divulging anything here. I’m just saying this is what Toho guys did to Godzilla when they got bored and greedy…okay? I’m just saying what everyone knows.
The Parisian crowd loved the big Godzilla moments, I can tell you. They whooped and cheered when he howled and growled. They really cheered when he opened his mouth and the flame breath shot out like C02 from a fire extinguisher. They all seemed fairly satisfied when it ended. As was I. I just wasn’t…well, I’ve said it.
Here’s a video ad that I noticed in the Paris metro after the screening: