Excessive, Escapist Excellence — Django Unchained

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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Over the years, acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has exhibited the influence of 60s/70s Italian-made “spaghetti” westerns through the narratives, dialogue, cinematography, and music of his movies, but never before has he directly taken on the genre itself. Until now.

Well, almost, anyway. Given that ‘Django Unchained’ takes place more in the Old South than the Old West and centers on the issue of slavery, Tarantino himself has branded the film a Southern (as opposed to a Western). Still, ‘Django Unchained’ thoroughly captures the spirit of the spaghetti westerns from which it draws inspiration. That wonderful, raw, purposefully violent and over-the-top escapism is present in full force, laid beautifully with the corner stones of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking—deep and witty dialogue, extravagant characters, unorthodox plots, and striking cinematography.

It’s fun, pulp cinema at its finest, which may be why some have failed to understand it. Various critics as well as noted African American director Spike Lee have derided the film. The story—centering on a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and kills slaveholders—has been criticized as insensitive to the historical reality of slavery, an ignorant insult to those unfortunate victims of inhumanity and racism.

Such criticism would be valid if Tarantino had actually intended for ‘Django Unchained’ to be at all serious or historically accurate. But he didn’t.

‘Django Unchained’ doesn’t try to say anything particularly insightful about racism and slavery, only that they’re bad; and he almost purposefully seems to throw anachronisms into the film, as if to dissuade anyone from thinking that this was real history. The film is purposefully indulgent in a good way—it allows us to suspend the trappings of reality and (to some extent) real morality and then lets us explore our more base feelings. We want to see evil slave holders being blown away by a former slave; we want the satisfaction of seeing blatant evil destroyed, regardless of the actual historical conditions of slavery in America. That the title character, Django, is himself hardly a banner of morality is irrelevant. He takes down the embodiments of true evil, and that is what we love to see. It’s the same thing the old spaghetti westerns depended on, and it’s a small part of why filmmaking in general is so special. More so than books or plays, film gives us a uniquely powerful way to explore ideas and moralities different than our own. It lets us be excessive, to white wash experiences not for the sake of ignorance, but for emotion. Few of us, hopefully, would ever solve the world’s problems by shooting at them, and yet there is something amazingly cathartic about seeing it done on screen, if only so that we can vicariously live out thoughts and feelings we otherwise keep hidden. In that sense ‘Django Unchained’ is strikingly potent, a well executed celebration of the medium of film.

All that being the case, if you aren’t prepared for graphic shootings, beatings, nudity, explosions, and frequent racial slurs, this probably isn’t the film for you.

What else can be said about this film? The characters are all brilliantly cast. Jamie Foxx plays Django with much the same striking presence that Clint Eastwood had as the Man With No Name; Christoph Waltz (thankfully) plays the antithesis of his character in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as a German bounty hunter with a heart-of-gold. I hope he gets more heroic roles after this. Leonardo di Caprio steals the show as Calvin Candy, a wonderfully over the top slaveholder and a really fun bad guy with a hilarious accent to boot. Finally, Samuel Jackson, as the head slave of Candy’s plantation, gives an odd yet incredibly effective performance as the film’s true villain. They even get the original Django from the 60’s spaghetti western (which I reviewed on this site), Franco Nero, for a small cameo, which is a nice touch.

Tarantino inserts his usual lengthy dialogue into the film, but unlike the somewhat unjustified excesses of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, it’s more restrained here, and that’s a definite plus. Admittedly, at nearly three hours, the film’s length caught me off guard the first time I saw it, and I initially felt that it dragged by about a half hour. After seeing it a second time, though, I’m now convinced that the film, while not as short as it perhaps could have been, is paced the way it needs to be, and its length is not the hindrance I originally thought.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this film is truly exceptional. Tarantino incorporates a diverse pallet of artists, from Johnny Cash to hip-hop, from the 1960’s to present day, into the film in striking sequences that are a lot of fun to watch. Famed spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time, even wrote some original music for the film, which is just awesome. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack on its own merits.

It seems obvious at this point and a little redundant to say, but I enjoyed ‘Django Unchained’ a great deal, as much any film I’ve ever seen in theatres. As long as people approach this movie with a proper understanding of spaghetti westerns and the purposefully surreal nature of the plot, I think they too will enjoy it for thrill ride it is.

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Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Tough Love — (500) Days of Summer

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: As I said once before, we don’t really review “chick flicks” (or, films about relationships in general) on this website.  Partly because James and I are men and we have more masculine tastes; partly because they are an easily exploited genre, and finding truly worthwhile films to review can be, well, cumbersome.

That said, 2009’s cult hit ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is a little different.

I suppose people might have thought it was traditional romantic stuff when the film first came out.  You know, boy meets girl, they fall in love, a lot of “will they?/won’t they?” before they finally do.  But that’s not what ‘Summer’ does.  Very boldly during the opening, it announces that the boy and girl will NOT wind up together at the end.  Crazy, right?  But it works, for the most part anyways.
Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (‘Inception’!), is a young romantic who believes in true love.  Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a coworker who does not.  They slowly begin a relationship (though Summer maintains that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend), and the film, told from Tom’s perspective, chronicles 500 days of it, through good and bad, through their break up, and what we conclude is their final goodbye.  The entire film is told nonlinearly, showing their break up early in the movie, which, combined with the film’s opening promise that they won’t fall in love, manages to keep us involved throughout; we, like Tom, look back through the past to see what went wrong in their relationship.

But that’s just it: their breakup, sad as it is for Tom, is not due to any flaws in either his or Summer’s personality or any mistakes they made.  Neither was a bad person, neither was unreasonable.  Though it could be assumed that they broke up because of their different views on love, this isn’t really true.  That Summer does learn to believe in love at the end of the film (albeit with another man) shows that she was not beyond growth.  She admits that Tom was right about love, just not about them.  So, nothing really went “wrong,” beyond that they simply weren’t right for each other.

Thematically, this reminds me of the biblical Book of Job, which tells the story of a man who, while virtuous and god-fearing, still suffers greatly in his life.  The point of that story, I think, is that, while we like to believe that we can, in some way, “earn” a good life, we are ultimately always at the mercy of others, always subject to forces beyond our control.  Bad things do happen to good people.  And so it is with love.  We cannot win love, we cannot earn it, we do not deserve it, and we are not entitled to it.  Love is simply given and received.  All we can really do, then, is share our own love with others, and hope that they return it, knowing full well that it doesn’t always happen.  That, I think, is what Tom learns at the end of this film.

I said that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ mostly works.  It’s very well-crafted and creative, and I think it was right for someone to make a movie that, while not completely realistic, more or less draws from realty.  In that sense, ‘Summer’ is a very unique, important film.  Perhaps the only thing about the film, though, that doesn’t really work is the ending, which implies that, for Tom anyways, true love is “just around the corner”, which, while ending the film on a hopeful note, feels a bit forced.  But I won’t fault it for that.

That said, for those of us who have gone through what Tom Hansen went through, the film is a little painful as well.  It is uncompromising in showing that sometimes the people we love don’t love us back the same way, and sometimes our greatest hopes and dreams are smashed in front of our very eyes.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t see myself watching it again any time soon, if only because the experience itself was so harsh.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the kind of film that comes only occasionally, although that’s more than sufficient.  It’s a “tough love” story for the audience that will challenge more than comfort.  But it’s also a very good, truthful film, reminding people that, sometimes, even Summer has to end.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

I have one of these. It's awesome.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the best action film of 2011 came in the form of animation maestro Brad Bird‘s live action directorial debut.  Take a close look at his three earlier films; the criminally underrated Warner Bros. feature ‘The Iron Giant‘, and his two Pixar pictures, the exhilarating superhero caper ‘The Incredibles’ and the insightful artistic comedy ‘Ratatouille’.  All three films, in addition to their strong characters and distinctive styles, boast extraordinary action sequences, the likes of which rarely seen in live action filmmaking.  After all, truly effective cinematic action is all about telling a coherent and consistently surprising story, and it doesn’t matter what form that takes.  It’s one of the grandest — and therefore, one of the hardest — magic tricks in existence.  Most of what passes for action is actually noise.  True action relies on suspense, clarity, easily discernible rules, and character development.  A giant robot shooting a gun is not action.  A giant robot shooting a gun while it avoids being shot by another giant robot is not action.  A giant robot having to shoot another robot before a bomb goes off is not necessarily action either, but it is getting close.  Unfortunately, that third iteration is about as far as most filmmakers will ever go.  At best, they will add more robots, guns, and bombs, but they will not use these elements to tell an effective story.  This is because the clarity required to deliver an edge-of-your-seat action sequence is not just external; primarily, it applies to the characters, and through the characters to the audience.  Bird’s ability to quickly build bridges between characters and audiences is the foundation of his cross-medium action expertise.  It’s why ‘Ghost Protocol’ is not only the best film in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series, or the best action vehicle of 2011, but indeed one of the best of the past ten years.

Without doubt the best scene in the film is Ethan Hunt’s unfortunate climb of the Burj Hotel, which, in case you didn’t know, is Dubai’s crown jewel and the tallest building in the world.  The way Bird eases the audience into the scenario is masterful.  First, he takes advantage of the IMAX format to immerse us in a tremendous establishing shot of the tower.  Scale matters.  If, for example, you want a giant robot fighting another giant robot whilst humans run in terror at their feet, you should probably pull the camera back and hold it steady so we can drink in the sheer and literal weight of the conflict.  It’s ultimately about sympathy; if we’re intended to connect with the five-foot humans running around, the composition needs to center on both their perspective and their emotions within the context of character.  Put someone on the ground whose reactions matter to the audience, and have that person change over time as the scenario evolves in logical ways.  In the climbing scene, Bird does this immediately; as soon as the IMF team discovers that they have to send someone to climb the tower, we see Ethan’s mix of fear and determination, and we connect with it because we are, in a sense, going out there with him.  Sympathy has been established — we know how high the tower is, and dread it just as much as Ethan does, but we also know that if he doesn’t go out the IMF team can’t stop the bad guys.  Suspense and clarity are in full force.  What about rules?  Clearly, Ethan requires some apparatus to make the ascent, and the team provides him with futuristic gloves that glow blue when adhesive and red when they fail.  “Blue is glue,” Benji, the tech expert, offers, “And red is dead.”  As long as Ethan makes the proper motions when climbing, the gloves should work; but what happens if they simply quit on him?  As you can see, rules, clarity, and suspense feed into each other.  Every subsequent development strengthens the bond between the Ethan and the audience, and makes his eventual improvised descent — which is highly reminiscent of the original ‘Die Hard’ — one of the most thrilling cinematic moments since Indy went under the truck in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘.  The Dubai scenes alone would have made ‘Ghost Protocol’ a standout picture, but Bird and company keep up the intensity through the final act, and it all comes together in a highly satisfying way.

‘Ghost Protocol’ is an extremely effective piece of escapist entertainment, more faithful in tone and structure to Bruce Geller’s television series than the other entries, and pleasantly reminiscent of the golden age James Bond films.  Indeed, it’s more spectacular and fun than any Bond since Timothy Dalton fell out the back of a plane in ‘The Living Daylights‘.  Perhaps Brad Bird could inject some vigor into that spy series, as well; as the box office numbers have shown, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is more alive than ever, simply because of Bird’s willingness to get swept up in the exhilarating places the genre can go.  Darkness, grit, and serious themes can make for compelling stories, but they can also be as predictable and disappointing as fluff.  Balance gravity with levity, however, and you have the most potent concoction in the business.  Once you have a taste, you’ll always be looking for your next fix, and I’m glad to say that after ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ got me hooked, ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’ satisfies my need for a cinematic high.  Brad Bird, you’re with Steven Spielberg as one of the great pushers of our day.

War Horse

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Before going to see ‘War Horse’ with my family on Christmas Day, I caught a glimpse of Christopher Kelly’s review, which described the film as a “magnificently mounted, yet utterly soulless shell of a movie.”  I was intrigued by the idea that this could potentially be one of Steven Spielberg’s rare blunders in filmmaking (he has made a couple.)  I attempted to watch the film with the mindset that I was viewing an inherently bad one.  I critiqued every potential flaw, every plot hole; I questioned the films credibility; I tried my hardest to see the film as having no emotional weight and being truly “soulless,” as Christopher Kelly put it.  However, despite my best efforts to see this as a bad film, I failed.  ‘War Horse’ is many things, but poor filmmaking it is not.

‘War Horse’ is not “soulless”; it is conventional, however.  It seems pieced together from a wealth of other films.  Countless animal pictures, including ‘Lassie’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘International Velvet’ are channeled during the first half hour as a boy befriends a colt, Joey, in pre-World War I England.  Later, as the horse is sold to the British army and makes an incredible journey through the war, a thousand different war films — not the least of which is Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — will seem to pass on the screen as well.  Furthermore, at no point during the film does Spielberg pull any fast ones — the story that the audience, from countless experiences at the movies, believes will happen does indeed unfold, albeit in a very beautiful way.

So yes, the film does rely on conventions, but that’s not necessarily bad. Writer/actor Harold Ramis once mused that conventions and clichés were essentially the same thing, conventions were simply done well; and that’s certainly true of this film.  There is a reason conventions exist — they do tend to work — and Spielberg does not abuse them here.  Rather, he executes them well, molding them into a story that feels organic and strong.

Simply put, this film is incredibly well put together and shows more genuine heart than I’ve seen in a while.  A lot of that has to do with the characters.  As the horse travels from new owner to new owner during the course of the war — the core piece of the film — Spielberg balances a plethora of roles without cheating any principal character of their humanity.  British and German, civilians and soldiers, parents and children, young and old; Spielberg makes them all feel real.  No one seems like a caricature, and certainly none a stereotype.  A scene of a British soldier working with a German to free the horse from barbed wire shows beautifully the complexity and sympathy he has given to each character; it’s consequently one of the best and most powerful film scenes of recent memory.

I would especially like to point out the outstanding performance of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from this year’s ‘Thor’), in the role of a British captain.  During his brief screen time, he exudes so much emotion and depth that he deserves at least a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s one minor complaint I would levy against the film in terms of its characters, though, it is that there are so many that no one really gets an adequate amount of screen time.  However, I think that is ultimately a good problem for the film to have — we like these characters enough to want to see more of them, and that is a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling.  Perhaps an extended version down the road will rectify this.
Lastly, I commend the performance of the true star of this picture, the horse himself.  From subtle gestures to gallops and leaps, Joey is an incredibly well-trained animal, and his personality in the film shines through brilliantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much for an on-screen creature.

In closing, ‘War Horse’ is a film you’ve already seen, but it’s told so well you’ll want to see it again anyways.  Spielberg has proven once again that what matters most in filmmaking is passion and heart, and that certainly bleeds through here.
One final note on conventions: In these modern of times of art and individuality, a lot of us live under a myth that to be conventional is to be unambitious.  To be conventional, is to sell out.  To be conventional is to create something fleeting and shallow.  And that does happen… sometimes.  But if Spielberg hadn’t been willing to be conventional, he never would have made ‘War Horse’.

Hugo

Poster courtesy of impawards.com

Review:   Scorsese’s wonderful, thoughtful film ‘Hugo’ is his tribute to the intimate relationship between cinematic dreams and their dreamers, and how the magic of filmmaking, so easily believed by children, is, in a psychological sense, actually real.  Movies are not primarily about what is seen — the plot, characters, setting, and action — but a way of seeing.  Cinematic vision can transform mundanity into magic, magic into mundanity, violence into beauty, or beauty into violence — and that’s just scratching the surface.  It’s why Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg can hold on one simple image and change it into a microcosm of creation’s majesty, while in another film, through less imaginative eyes, the simple image would be glossed over, and the insight lost.  Great directors like Martin Scorsese stand above their peers because they succeed in creating unified, articulate expressions of their unconscious minds, in essence giving life to their dreams.  We go to the movies, whether we realize it or not, to live in a filmmaker’s mind and to let it shape our own.  This is why recognizing creative forces is such a big part of responsible movie-going; whose dreams have you been having, lately?

Like the source material, Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, Scorsese’s film is a fictionalized account of how filmmaking pioneer George Méliès was rediscovered by French cinema enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s.  Audiences are given a way in through the title character, an orphan named Hugo, who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and tries to fix the mysterious, intricate automaton left by his dead father.  The brilliant thing about letting this talented, intelligent and vulnerable boy shape the narrative is that it helps today’s cynical audiences connect with Méliès’ strange world, while simultaneously providing a sympathetic story that demands resolution.  Scorsese’s love of cinema, and his emulation of it, is mirrored in Hugo.  Hugo takes his friend Isabelle to see silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last‘, and the delight on their faces is worth the price of admission.  Though Hugo doesn’t yet suspect it, a filmmaker works in the train station as a toymaker; a sad, elderly man who Hugo observes with fascination.  Hugo, and the audience, do not yet know that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, but we sense the man’s painful loss immediately.  The toymaker/magician is incomplete, because his films — his dreams, in fact — are gone.  It’s up to Hugo to reconnect the filmmaker with his lost work, and in the process to solve the mystery of the automaton.

‘Hugo’ is a film populated by broken characters.  Like the automaton, they are missing the pieces that would allow them to act according to their design, and each of them, incomplete, cannot connect with those they care for.  It’s a simple but beautiful rationalization of life, and rightfully, the film lets young Hugo and Isabelle articulate it for us.  Like many children’s films, ‘Hugo’ expresses its morals through its youngest characters, but unlike a typical genre entry, it carefully shows us not just why, but how these morals are practical.  Each character contributes to the stream of plot, and as the protagonist, Hugo is kind enough to open the dam and let it resolve itself.   Until the final thirty minutes, the film progresses slowly; it takes its time to flesh out the train station and its peculiar denizens, in particular the comically awful Station Inspector, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Lanky, awkward, and by turns pathetic and menacing, the Station Inspector makes a terrifically pitiable villain, a guy we’d like to see get his comeuppance and fall in love at the end of the day.  Méliès, meanwhile, begins as a minor, though sympathetic, villain, and ends as a playful sorcerer and loving father.    Hugo confronts the Station Inspector and the filmmaker, and his actions, like those of a skilled tinkerer, realign their hearts with their dreams.  Méliès’ cinematic magic, in turn, fixes Hugo, demonstrating the truth of cinema and the real power a director has over a willing human soul.

On the technical side of the equation, director of photography Robert Richardson’s 3D cinematography is so rich that it competes with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.  While Cameron’s film illuminated the beauty of nature, Scorsese’s collaboration with Richardson renders clockwork machinery glorious.  This makes for a rare occasion in which I will actually recommend that you experience ‘Hugo’ with the third dimension; just make an effort to find a theater with very bright projection to offset those tinted glasses.  Even without 3D, the color palette and composition in ‘Hugo’ is striking, so if you can’t find a showing with bright projection, go 2D.

For more on ‘Hugo’, I recommend the following articles: Kristin Thompson’s historical analysis of the film, which doubles as a review; Matthias Stork’s take; and Richard Brody’s thoughts at the New Yorker. 

Also, you can find many of Méliès’ films on YouTube.  Here’s a good one to start with: A Trip to the Moon. 

Classic Review: Gojira

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

When I reviewed the 1998 remake (or is it reboot?) I mentioned that I was a fairly devout Godzilla fan as a kid.  Still, I admit that I was only really a fan of the sequels.  I loved to watch Godzilla fight other monsters and comically destroy cities.  I didn’t see the original film until much later on and I was initially put off by it.  It was slower paced, there were no other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, and the whole movie felt too grim.  I dismissed it for many years.  Having recently rewatched it, though, I see what a masterpiece it truly is.

It’s difficult now-a-days to treat giant monster movies seriously.  No one, it seems, not even those who make them, honestly wants to make great films for the genre.  They’re about action.  They’re about special effects.  They’re about how cool the monsters look. They don’t exist for story telling purposes*.  Most are glorified sporting matches, a football game with more monstrous contenders.

Not so with the 1954 Gojira (Godzilla was an American mistranslation that stuck.)  Here is a movie that is about ideas, not merely action.  The grimness that I found so off putting years earlier is quite intentional—this film is about war and nuclear annihilation, albeit through the imagery of a giant destructive dinosaur.

Japan, of course, had experienced the destruction of the atomic bomb less than a decade earlier, and so many scenes in the film allude to it.  A city on fire, countless buildings collapsing, hospitals overflowing with the injured and dying, the military fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable force, a secret weapon (the oxygen destroyer) that could end a war but might fall into the wrong hands.  The imagery is powerful, even overwhelming at times.  One scene shows school children singing a prayer, a desperate cry for salvation, the kind of thing that could very well have happened after Nagasaki or Hiroshima were bombed.  It may be one of the saddest moments ever filmed.

It’s easy to be caught up in moments like this in the film and forget that they were caused by a clumsy man in a rubber suit.  Admittedly, the special effects aren’t great.  At no point does Godzilla look real or believable; he looks like what he is: cheap foreign effects from fifty years ago, and still I find myself involved.  Maybe its because the film takes him so seriously.  A shot of Godzilla standing in the middle of a miniature city in flames should’ve seemed comical, and yet I found myself feeling disheartened over the destruction.  People aren’t supposed to die in vast quantities in a giant monster movie, cities aren’t supposed to be on fire.  This film dares you to care, plain and simple.
I had once said that giant monster movies could never rise above B-movie grade.  I think it’s time I retract that.  The reality in film is that any subject can be made into an A-film, if only it’s done with sincerity and strong ideas.  Too many films aim low and get low returns.  Gojira could’ve easily done that.  It could’ve just been another monster movie.  But instead it aimed higher; it wanted to symbolize something.  And that’s why, fifty-seven years after its release, people like me are still talking about it.

*Cloverfield may be an exception, but I never saw it.