Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
With only a week and change having passed since the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we no doubt feel the question living fresh in our minds: can we ever judge a remake without considering its predecessors? The conversation about the stark contrast in critical favor between Marc Webb's release and Sam Raimi's trilogy (the second installment of his franchise in particular) buzzed loudly, and we imagine the volume will keep in regards to Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. But it'll be a different sound altogether.
The original Godzilla, a Japanese film released in 1954, reinvented the identity of the monster movie, launched a 30-film legacy, and spoke legions about the political climate of its era. The most recent of these films — Roland Emmerich's 1998 American production — is universally bemoaned as a bigger disaster than anything to befall Tokyo at the hands of the giant reptile. With these two entries likely standing out as the most prominent in the minds of contemporary audiences, Edwards' Godzilla has some long shadows cast before it. And in approaching the new movie, one might not be able to avoid comparisons to either. It's fair — by taking on an existing property, a filmmaker knowingly takes on the connotations of that property. But the 2014 installment's great success is that it isn't much like any Godzilla movie we've seen before. In a great, great way.
This isn't 1954's Godzilla, a dire and occasionally dreary allegory that uses the supernatural to tell an important story about nuclear holocaust. A complete reversal, in fact, first and foremost Edwards' Godzilla is about its monsters. Any grand themes strewn throughout — the perseverence of nature, the follies of mankind, fatherhood, madness, faith — are all in service to the very simple mission to give us some cool, weighty, articulate sci-fi disaster. Elements of gravity are plotted all over the film's surface, with scientists, military men (kudos to Edwards for not going the typical "scientists = good/smart, military = bad/dumb" route in this film — everybody here is at least open to suggestion), doctors, police officers, and a compassionate bus driver all wrestling with options in the face of behemoth danger. The humanity is everpresent, but never especially intrusive. To reiterate, this isn't a film about any of these people, or what they do.
Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
The closest thing to a helping of thematic (or human) significance comes with Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa, who spouts awe-stricken maxims about cryptozoology, the Earth, and the inevitable powerlessness of man. He might not be supplying anything more substantial than our central heroes (soft-hearted soldier Aaron Taylor-Johnson, dutiful medic and mom Elizabeth Olsen, right-all-along conspiracy theorist Bryan Cranston), but Watanabe's bonkers performance as the harried scientist is so bizarrely good that you might actually believe, for a scene or two, that it all does mean something.
Ultimately, the beauty of our latest taste of Godzilla lies not in the commitment to a message that made the original so important nor in the commitment to levity that made Emmerich's so pointless, but in its commitment to imagination. Edwards' creature design is dazzling, his deus ex machina are riveting, and the ultimate payoff to which he treats his audience is the sort of gangbusters crowd-pleaser that your average contemporary monster movie is too afraid to consider.
In fairness, this year's Godzilla might not be considered an adequate remake, not quite reciprocating the ideals, tone, or importance of the original. Sure, anyone looking for a 2014 answer to 1954's game-changing paragon will find sincere philosophy traded for pulsing adventure... but they'd have a hard time ignoring the emphatic charm of this new lens for the 60-year-old lizard, both a highly original composition and a tribute in its way to the very history of monster movies (a history that owes so much to the creature in question). So does Godzilla '14 successfully fill the shoes of Godzilla '54? No — it rips them apart and dons a totally new pair... though it still has a lot of nice things to say about the first kicks.
Oh, and the '98 Godzilla? Yeah, it's better than that.
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"Sorry if my snoring bothered you."
Those are not the first words I'd expect out of the mouth of someone who got up on a Friday morning to catch the 10:30 AM screening of a new movie but that is more or less what the fellow who'd been sitting behind me said as I passed him on my way out. I'd heard him snoring over the constant rat-a-tat-tat of bullets and butt-kicking being doled out by Milla Jovovich et al in this latest iteration of the never-ending Resident Evil series (this time in IMAX 3D) but I figured maybe I was hearing things. Nope he was asleep.
I used to play Resident Evil on my ancient PlayStation when it first came out. It scared the crap out of me. I enjoyed the first two movies — hey they included the skinless zombie dogs! — but I lost interest soon after that. How many times can you make the zombie apocalypse exciting? How many different skintight outfits can Jovovich wear while killing grotesque creatures who shoot evil grasping tentacles out of their mouths? Why should we care about all the blood and guts when we know the people we're supposed to be emotionally invested in will never die? We don't.
Try as he might there are only so many ways for writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson to give the Resident Evil series fresh new layers for each new movie. The Umbrella Corporation is the big bad. They were playing with biological weapons and somehow there was an accident that let one of the viruses loose... and boom you've got a zombie apocalypse on your hands. Our heroine is Alice played by Milla Jovovich and there is a rotating cast of characters who help her fight the good fight against the hordes of brain-eaters and whatever is left of the Umbrella Corporation that's now after her. There are some parallels to the video game series but Paul W.S. Anderson (a gamer himself) has taken lots of liberties with the basic plot over the years. While Anderson's flashy style is especially suited to these types of movies there's not enough plot to make it work.
We don't go to video game movies for plot of course but there has to be something to hold onto; otherwise why would we care if our protagonist were in danger? Anderson tries some neat tricks to snap us back to attention like bringing back characters that were killed in previous movies and throwing in a cloning subplot that calls into question some of the characters' true identities but it's still hard to get worked up about anything onscreen. However it ultimately sidesteps any deeper ideas that might take our attention away from all the guns. And there are so many guns and explosions and elegant butt-kickings doled out by Milla and her pals (or former pals in the case of Michelle Rodriguez's character Rain) that they blend together.
It is especially difficult to work up any interest in the story because it's a franchise and no matter how many times the stars or director might say they're not that interested in doing another everyone is just waiting to see how much money this will make before deciding to go forward. There is no question how franchise movies will end; there will be no derring-do on the part of the writer or director to actually kill off a beloved character permanently. At one point it seemed like Anderson was going to pull the old "And then she woke up!" trick which would have been bold both because it's such a hackneyed idea that it would make writing professors' heads explode all over the world but also because it would have required Anderson to play in a different universe and expand his repertoire a bit. Alas like Alice and Anderson himself we just can't seem to escape this rabbit hole.
Do the Bourne movies make any sense? Enough. The first three films — The Bourne Identity Supremacy and Ultimatum — throw in just enough detail into the covert ops babble and high-speed action that by the end Jason Bourne comes out an emotional character with an evident mission. That's where Bourne Legacy drops the ball. A "sidequel" to the original trilogy Legacy follows super soldier Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as he runs jumps and shoots his way out of the hands of his government captors. The film is identical to its predecessors; political intrigue chase scenes morally ambiguous CIA agents monitoring their man-on-the-run from a computer-filled HQ — a Bourne movie through and through. But Legacy has to dig deeper to find new ground to cover introducing elements of sci-fi into the equation. The result is surprisingly limp and even more incomprehensible.
Damon's Bourne spent three blockbusters uncovering his past erased by the assassin training program Treadstone. Renner's Alex Cross has a similar do-or-die mission: after Bourne's antics send Washington into a tizzy Cross' own training program Outcome is terminated. Unlike Bourne Cross is enhanced by "chems" (essentially steroid drugs) that keep him alive and kicking ass. When Outcome is ended Cross goes rogue to stay alive and find more pills.
Steeped heavily in the plot lines of the established mythology Bourne Legacy jumps back and forth between Cross and the clean up job of the movie's big bad (Edward Norton) and his elite squad of suits. The movie balances a lot of moving parts but the adventure never feels sprawling or all that exciting. Actress Rachel Weisz vibrant in nearly every role she takes on plays a chemist who is key to Cross' chemical woes. The two are forced into partnership Weisz limited to screaming cowering and sneaking past the occasional airport x-ray machine while her partner aggressively fistfights his way through any hurdle in his path. Renner is equally underserved. Cross is tailored to the actor's strengths — a darker more aggressive character than Damon's Bourne but with one out of every five of the character's lines being "CHEMS!" shouted at the top of his lungs Renner never has the time or the material to develop him.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton Duplicity and the screenwriter of the previous three movies) is a master of dense language but his style choices can't breath life into the 21st century epic speak. In the film's necessary car chase Gilroy mimics the loose camera style of Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass without fully embracing it. The wishy washy approach sucks the life out of large-scale set pieces. The final 30 minutes of Bourne Legacy is a shaky cam naysayer's worst nightmare.
The Bourne Legacy demonstrates potential without ever kicking into high gear. One scene when Gilroy finally slows down and unleashes absolute terror on screen is striking. Unfortunately the moment doesn't involve our hero and its implications never explained. That sums up Legacy; by the film's conclusion it only feels like the first hour has played out. The movie crawls — which would be much more forgivable if the intense banter between its large ensemble carried weight. Instead Legacy packs the thrills of an airport thriller: sporadically entertaining and instantly forgettable.
Hollywood’s preeminent zombie-hunting ex-model, Milla Jovovich, took time out of her busy shooting schedule on the Germany-based set of The Three Musketeers, her husband Paul W.S. Anderson’s foray into the realm of period-accurate, 3D adaptations of cherished literary classics, to chat with me about her gripping new drama Stone, in which she stars alongside Edward Norton and Robert De Niro. To her credit, she successfully parried my repeated attempts to bait her into making fun of the curious hairstyle that adorns Norton’s head in the film. You win this round, Jovovich.
Your role in Stone is quite a bit different than what we’ve grown used to seeing from you. I was curious about how it came up on your radar, and were you surprised that it did?
I definitely was really happy to get the script. Since having my baby, I’ve felt very much more open to just going out, performing, writing and being an artist in general, and feeling like this newfound confidence as a mom and a newfound confidence in myself. Part of that bled over into my film career in the sense that I really wanted to go out and audition for things, really keep on my toes. I was really just into the whole process of being a performer again, just going out and reading for a lot of different stuff. When this came up, of course I just jumped on it ... I compelled by these sort of flawed personalities and these grey areas and the fact the script didn’t really put everything in a neat little package for people. It’s very rare that you get scripts that don’t sort of shove an opinion down your throat, and this is one of them. So I was very interested in the subject matter and very interested in the characters and of course, working with Edward and Bob was unbelievably attractive. What actor wouldn’t want to work with such amazing artists?
When you say “Bob,” you’re of course referring to Robert De Niro. You got to be a part of that exclusive club of people who get to call him Bob.
Everybody can call Bob “Bob.” You never feel like you can, because his movies sort of precede him into the room. So, you know you’re always on your best behavior and he’s always like, “Just call me Bob.”
So you go from killing zombies to seducing Robert De Niro. That has to be a little daunting in certain respects, right?
I think the whole script was daunting. The seducing Robert De Niro part, that was sort of just one of the elements that would seem a bit intimidating, but I think the character as a whole – she is very much a flawed personality and at the same time very beautiful and very joyous, and brings a light to the film and the script that I think was really important for the movie. So there were so many elements that I was sort of trying to put together for this character to not make her just one thing or the other and to kind of follow in the footsteps of the script by not making it so obvious. I think it’s always a journey to discover who people are, and it doesn’t all just unfold in an hour and a half, you know? I think that’s what the movie leaves you feeling, that there’s so much more to discover about these people.
With all the characters in Stone, there’s this great sort of ambiguity and a gradual getting to know these people that I think is my favorite aspect of the film. So let me ask you, how long did it take to get used to Ed Norton’s cornrows?
(Laughs) I mean, Edward’s amazing and his process is so beautiful because he spent a lot of time interviewing and hanging out with the prisoners at the Jacksonville County Prison and interviewing these guys and putting them on tape. He let me listen to some of these tapes and it’s just amazing how open these people were to sharing their experiences. And he would pull one thing from one person and one thing from another. The voice is one particular guy and the cornrows were somebody else and it was beautiful to see the character come together for him.
That’s interesting, because I have to admit it took me a while to adjust to that hairstyle.
I think that’s the great thing about Edward is that he really very much slides into every part he plays in a different way and I think definitely the whole persona was something that he wanted to sort of encase himself in because he said, “You know these guys in prison, they really take on these personalities.” They sort of encapsulate themselves in these tattoos and cornrows to sort of protect themselves.
So you’re filming Three Musketeers right now in Germany, and I noticed you tweeted about “climbing castle walls in corsets.” Is that as difficult as it sounds?
It’s pretty difficult. Anything in corsets is a challenge, especially sports or any athleticism in particular. I mean, corseted women were meant to just sit and do nothing, and I’m sort of doing quite a lot of climbing and sneaking and action. One of the more challenging aspects of this movie for me was how I would actually do all these things with the corset on, because definitely by midday you’re like “Get me out of this thing!” I need to breathe, I need to stretch, I need to like bend my back a little bit.
Are there times you look at your husband and say, “What are you putting me into?”
I think it’s wonderful to see Paul doing a historical piece and I think definitely we both share such a love of history and we spend our time off – the rare time that we have it – always talking about history. It’s a pet subject for us, and we’ve always wanted to do a historical movie and of course he loves the action, so Three Musketeers was very much kind of already tailored for him in a sense. But it’s beautiful too, because I think he’s taking the 3D aspect to a whole new level because we haven’t really seen 3D done like this before. To see it done on a historical piece, it really, you really get immersed into this world, the castles and the scenery and the statues. It’s very interesting, and it’s kind of taking it out the whole sci-fi world and the horror world and the action world and taking it into a whole other era to immerse people into the past. It’s beautiful.
So you can confirm that there are no zombies in this version of The Three Musketeers?
(Laughs) Nope, not that I’ve seen so far.
You also recently talked about doing a fifth Resident Evil film. How long do you think you can keeping doing these movies? It has to be exhausting for you.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve definitely said, “Let’s go RE:5,” but I didn’t say, “We are doing another one,” just that I would love to. Of course for me, I would love to do another movie Ali (Larter) and Sienna (Guillory) ... I love the franchise. I mean, we built the franchise from its baby stages into what it’s turned into today. It’s wonderful to see a four-film franchise with a woman in the lead having so much success and it’s definitely our little baby in a sense. So I love it, and I have a lot of fun doing it. I love doing the stunts, I love doing the training for it; it’s something that’s always been attractive for me. I grew up watching the Thundercats and She-Ra and stuff, so I always had this feeling as a kid that I wanted to be this sort of magical, powerful woman who could fly and do crazy stunts and sort of be a superhero.
Maybe we need to see a live-action version of Thundercats.
That would be awesome. They’ve been talking about doing it for years, but I don’t know. There’d be a lot of makeup involved.
Stone opens in select theaters this weekend. The Three Musketeers is currently slated to open October 14, 2011.