See It Instead: Godzilla
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the terrible movies starring washed up actors . Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
The latest attempt to revitalize the Godzilla franchise hit theaters last week, and it caused a mixed reaction for me. The monster fighting goodness was quite good, though not quite as unabashedly kick-ass as Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. The human interest angle was complete crap, and revealed a really weak script…as well as a distrust by the studio to let the monster carry the movie. Nobody sees a Godzilla movie because they want to see a silly human drama about an absent dad and his devoted family, delivered in the barest cliches that a disaster movie could spare. The original was a classic critique about human over-reach, on par with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This movie is a hum-drum family drama, with some racist Mr. Miyagi crap explaining the monster away as nature’s guardian spirit. What!?
So yeah, I had some really big gripes with the new Godzilla (well, with the movie, not with the actual new Godzilla: the new CG Godzilla looks like the baddest mammer-jammer to ever elbow drop a skyscraper.) So why not see these movies instead?
The Serious Pick: Princess Mononoke (1997)
If you want to see a vengeful spirit of nature put the god-almighty smack-down on human arrogance, you can look no further than Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki had been crafting brilliant morality tales about humanity and its relationship to nature for decades (with my favorite being Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,) but Princess Mononoke was the first triple-A success for Miyazaki with American audiences. It was such a powerful draw, a pantheon of American stars descended on the project to offer voice work. It may have been the biggest cross-over success Japanese animation has yet achieved, as it put Studio Ghibli on the map for US audiences and established Miyazaki as the “Disney of Japan.”
The story is classic without being hackneyed: a young prince learns that the natural disasters menacing his remote village have originated to the west, in the human mega-city of Irontown. There, humans led by the haughty and ambitious Lady Eboshi have angered the ancestral nature spirits by asserting human independence…and using the latest technology (muskets) to enforce that independence. To feed the rising industry of metal work, they have carved up the mountains, fields, and forests, setting humanity on a collision course with the powerful avatars of nature. The remainder of the film involves the prince and a feral young girl (the Princess Mononoke, who leads nature’s army against Irontown) trying to find a peaceable solution as both sides seem set to annihilate each other.
Mononoke draws from folk tales, modern steam-punk, anti-imperial literature, and, yes, even the Godzilla franchise (when the spirit of the forest shows its monstrous decapitated form, for a brief second it looks exactly like the silhouette of Godzilla.) Filled to the brim with excellent voice work, beautiful hand drawn animation, and cutting edge CG animation (which holds up very well nearly 20 years later,) Princess Mononoke is an excellent action film about Man versus Nature, that creates a unique and wondrous world.
The Lighthearted Pick: Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)
The Unconventional Pick: Monsters (2010)
For those who were disappointed by the weak elements of Godzilla (namely, anything that wasn’t Godzilla pile driving a giant baddy through a high-rise) and want to know where to pin the blame, may I humbly submit that you NOT egg the director’s house in vengeance. Gareth Edwards, a young British director, may have been out of his element in dealing with the tremendous influence of both Toho and Warner Bros. Studios, but he certainly was not out of his element telling a gripping human interest story involving giant monsters.
Monsters is an independently made film that Edwards wrote, directed, and did the cinematography for. The story centers around a crass journalist sent to shepherd the rich daughter of an influential media magnate out of Central America just days before it is permanently quarantined due to biological infection from…well…space monsters. The two encounter every set-back and misadventure imaginable, much like the heroes in Godzilla, but amazingly these events don’t occur due to gross stupidity (well, once…the scummy journalist gets loaded, and has his belongings stolen by a prostitute.)
Monsters manages to be engaging where Godzilla is flat: the characters are not completely likable…but are consistent and well realized; the monsters are rarely shown…but are used for great effect to advance the plot or create atmosphere; the military is over matched…but ruthlessly efficient when they have the enemy in their sights. No idiotic generals ordering gasoline to fight a wild fire, no useless cut-away shots just to tease the audience, and no silly cliched heroes and damsels in distress. You may hate these people at the beginning, but that makes them that much more memorable when they finally mature as individuals.
If you had a bad taste in your mouth after Godzilla, and don’t some Cthulhu-looking space-spore monsters (which is a thing…check the internet…) go back to the source and see why Gareth Edwards was given the reigns to this franchise in the first place. One suspects that if he had been given a free hand, we would have had a truly worthy successor to Godzilla (1958.)