MONSTER MASH: “Monsters” (2010), “‘Zilla” (1998), & “King Kong” (2005) (Review)

· Films & Video Games

So Godzilla comes out on Friday! It looks good. Early buzz has been pretty positive, even if the press embargo has made for very few actual reviews of it. I’ll likely not be reviewing the film. I’m in a wedding that weekend and won’t get around to seeing it until Sunday, by which there will probably already be a review up for it.

Obviously Godzilla deserves to be examined on its own objective merits, but human attitude and perspective on art is fluid, always changing and adjusting, particularly when given new or adjacent material. Godzilla belongs to and is shaped by a genre and franchise with a history of both successes and failures. So I thought I would use this post to prepare our readers and contributors for the film by taking a look back at some other not-too-recent but related. Whether we like it or not, our expectations come from our experiences of the past that will undoubtedly affect how we watch and what we think of the new film.

Is this also just an excuse to write three different retro-reviews? Yes.

Monsters (2010)

Monsters

Being the only feature film director Gareth Edwards has ever created, Monsters offers the only testing subject we have as insight into the mind of the man who will be bringing one of the greatest monsters of all time back onto the silver screen in an American setting.

Our story – we found aliens in our Solar System but the probe that extracted a sample crashed into northern Mexico and contaminated the area, causing the Mexican and American governments to seal off the area as an “Infected Zone.” Two American kids in Southern Mexico need to get home but miss the last boat of the season, and thus must journey through the Infected Zone where dangers await them.

I don’t like this film. It wastes time, energy, and intrigue on a half–hearted, contrived, and utterly predictable romance that isn’t necessary or cute at all. The opening premise is awesome and raises so many questions about how this infestation affected U.S.–Mexico border relations and immigration policy (or perhaps could have made the entire film a metaphor for the struggles of an immigrant journeying from the south) but refuses to answer any of them. Its focus is entirely misplaced, showcasing the two main leads – Andrew Kaulder & Samantha Wyden – and their little romance. And on that note, they have no chemistry together, neither as actors or from anything in the script.

The only real glimpse of the aliens we ever get to see are at the very end in an admittedly nice luminescent scene but we get nothing at all from them; they’re just treated as hazards on the path. And they aren’t even given the kind of action chops you’d expect from giant walking squids. There’s a mid–climax action scene in the water that starts to build some real tension…and then it’s just resolved in a flash. It’s understandable that a movie like this, particularly one without much of a budget, would be more about the human element of a monster experience. I get that; but if that was all the film was interested in, why not just pick a different bottlenecked area to make the Infected Zone, like Florida? A premise as interesting and intriguing as the one offered up at the beginning really shouldn’t be the basis for a movie that chooses to completely forget about it. The two leads don’t get to do anything interesting other than being plot devices in a disconnected narration the flim seems to think is serving as a greater allegory.

This is a film that thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. It’s like Ang Lee’s Hulk, except less watchable. It’s just boring. If Gareth Edwards has any real action chops as a director, we have yet to see them.

Score: 4.1/10

Zilla (1998)

Zilla

The panning and unpopularity of this film (originally titled “Godzilla” and renamed by Toho after its poor reception) is widely known. If you Google the lists of the worst remakes and worst monster movies ever, it won’t take you very long to find this one. So the real question becomes – is this film really as bad as we all thought it was when it first released? Were the critics and audiences unfair to it, letting their immediate reptilian rage instincts take a hold of them upon witnessing a monster that looks more like a big velociraptor and thus causing them to overlook some genuine quality in an otherwise not terrible monster movie?

Nope! This movie really is just that awful.

It’s both perplexing and unsurprising that the kooky man at the helm for this disaster of a disaster movie is Roland Emmerich. He’s a talented aestheticist and high–effects big-scale action choreographer who jumped at the opportunity to make the Independence Day lightning strike again, but this time with an Americanized version of the world’s most recognized monster. Despite all the CGI at play, the monster doesn’t just not look like Godzilla; it looks like a boring monster. Admittedly, the helicopter action is pretty awesome and you kind of have to wonder just why in the hell that couldn’t have been more or less the whole movie.

A tighter and more straightforward film could added some meat to the spectacle. ‘Zilla (and yes, I’m calling it “‘Zilla”) features the most bloated script of Emmerich’s entire career (who never wrote great dialogue to begin with) and some atrocious acting on the part of everyone but Jean Reno. The first fifteen minutes is a disposable attempt at building tension and character out of shorthand and the rest of the film is pointlessly and repetitively padded out with paper–thin uninteresting attempts at drama you’ve seen before. Emmerich’s sense of humor is misfired here in just about every way (the running joke about Tautopoulos’ difficult last name doesn’t work because you hear the butchered version of his name before his real one…something a nine year old could have pointed out). David Arnold’s score is alright, but some of it is hilariously dissonant with the actual moments of the film. As this insufferable piece of scotch-tape filmmaking snails along to the finish, it becomes less and less worth taking seriously and even less possible to care. Yet even in apathy, there’s no fun.

This film is a mess and an insult to the legacy of Godzilla. Michael Bay probably could have made a better movie than this if he wasn’t busy wasting his time and ours with Armageddon. Couldn’t Emmerich just have (in the words of the late Roger Ebert) like…y’know…made a movie?

Score: 3.8/10

King Kong (2005)

King Kong

If the Godzilla franchise is the mother and Gareth Edwards is the father, there isn’t a particularly high bar that the new movie has to live up to that was set by its half-siblings. We must therefore look to its cousin. As long as I’m running with this ridiculous metaphor, its mother’s sister – the King Kong franchise – has one recent child of note that might also make for a worthy comparison. Like ‘Zilla, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a modern effects-driven remake of a black/white classic by spotlight auteurs who had released their masterpieces only two years prior. Both of them are a little too long and self-indulgent, particularly in their more cartoonish action highlights.

However, “King Kong” is awesome. It’s flawed in the same way a movie that milks & stretches its relatively simpler original property and overstuffs them with modern affectations that come across more like stylistic tropes than fresh optics because its director is having a bit too much fun with the movie and isn’t being properly reigned in is (Evil Dead, Man of Steel, Skyfall (oh shut up; I love that movie), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, & the Star Wars prequels), but when it doesn’t really have any major flaws beyond that and still manages to be this engaging, beautiful, and fun…you won’t see me complaining.

The difference, I think, lies not just with raw filmmaking talent and affection that was unleashed in spades, but with a greater ability to put the parts that make up the sum into greater focus and ensure that they actually interact with each other. “King Kong” really does feel like it’s channeling seventy years of cinematic evolution. It’s clear from the start that Jackson wanted to honor King Kong through magnification. What made up a ten-minute scene of minimal character development on the ship in the original, Jackson turned into a sea voyage in the spirit of Titanic and Indiana Jones. What made up about twenty minutes of jungle mayhem in the original, Jackson turned into an hour-long Jurassic Park adventure setpiece. What was only a fifteen-minute sequence of Kong’s showcase, escape, and death in the original, Jackson turned into forty-minute that fused Beauty and the Beast with the monster-movie affect.

Where King Kong drags from hyper-embellishment, it flourishes in its action and in its more on-the-nose thematic tone. What glues it together is the relationship between Anne Darrow and Kong. The film does a great job dropping boring glamorized civilized types into the world of the beast where every crevice has something looking to snack on them. Yet the deadliest and most vicious creature in the jungle is also the one that is capable of the most compassion. In particular, Kong is attracted to that which he does not understand. Only Anne understood that – this time because the relationship she has with Kong is less one-sided. Kong isn’t just attracted to her because she’s a pretty white girl he’s never seen before. Here, she fights him, she wiggles free of him, she entertains him, then she stands up to him. The film stews and festers for a long time in Kong’s territory before it returns to the world of man, where the game changes entirely. Now the fearsome predator that defeated three tyrannosaurus rexes simultaneously and killed a flock of pterodactyls with his bear hands is the hopeless prey lost and alone in man’s world, but for Anne. When Kong scales the Empire State Building with Anne, knowing full well how suicidal such an endeavor is, he does it only for love, for it is the one constant that remains even when the entire world is uprooted.

Aside from that, the acting is terrific, the cinematography is some of the best in Jackson’s career, and did I mention the T-Rex battle?

Score: 8.6/10

Well, there you have it. Here’s to hoping Godzilla is a good movie in the spirit of this genre.

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