Friday, May 16, 2014

King of the Monsters: GODZILLA

There’s a difference between filling a movie with effects and setpieces and constructing a movie with effects and setpieces. Gareth Edwards illustrates that difference with great excitement and skill in Godzilla, the latest attempt to recreate the beloved 60-year-old Japanese franchise on American shores. Edwards succeeds where others failed precisely because he takes great care in constructing his imagery – steady, dynamic, clear – and pacing – slow and steady, building to an impressive crescendo – to create a vivid sensation of awe. His Godzilla is awesome in the most literal sense of the word, an overpowering feeling of astonishment and terror. He manipulates his film and his audience with a methodical Spielbergian brio, gazing up at his tense scenarios and massive spectacle with trembling fear and wonder.

Edwards’ shoestring 2010 indie Monsters was a meandering mumbly relationship drama set against the backdrop of enormous beings wreaking havoc off-screen, but with it he proved his facility with effects. It ended with a scene of alien monsters so tenderly photographed as to border on the sublime. Now with a massive budget and a requirement to amp up the action, he finds a similar core of respect for the biology and ecology of Godzilla. He’s presented as an animal like any other where it counts, part of the natural order of things. We should fear him and respect him.

The beast’s 1954 debut created him out of the atomic anxieties of post-World War II Japan. This new iteration places him firmly in modern environmental worries. It begins with two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) surveying a dig in the Philippines that has uncovered incomprehensibly large fossils, and evidence a creature has dug its way out into the ocean. Meanwhile, distant tremors collapse a Japanese nuclear power plant where two more scientists (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) struggle to contain the radiation. In an echo of our modern climate change and superstorm anxieties, there’s a clear sense that humans are about to learn we don’t control nature. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

We jump ahead 15 years. Scientists continue to study the strange readings around the disaster area of the film’s opening. Cranston and his now-grown Navy officer son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) explore the area and get caught up in the proceedings when an enormous beast breaks free, revealing itself to the world. In a nod to the franchise’s past, we learn that the military’s Cold-War-era nuclear tests in the Pacific were actually an attempt to put down the ancient beast they called Godzilla. They succeeded only in putting him in hibernation. Now he’s awake, hungry, and on the hunt for sustenance. It’s only a matter of time before he makes landfall in a few cities. The army, led by a tough general (David Strathairn), is in desperate pursuit, frantically cobbling together a plan to save the planet.

If you think all that sounds like it could be the generic plot description of many a monster movie, you’d be right. But where this new Godzilla really makes an impact is in its sensitivity in framing the disasters – the slam-bang monster battles, the peek-a-boo creature stalking, the crumbling buildings, rounds of ammunition, and billowing fireballs – against the consuming terror such a calamity would be to the people on the ground. It’s a monster movie stocked with flat characters run through a diversity of sequences of action and destruction as the low camera looks up at the creatures towering above causing their devastation. But because the people remain framed in the foreground, creating a sense of scale while stumbling away from unimaginable horror, gazing upwards in windswept confusion and terror, it matters.

So what if Taylor-Johnson, our lead, has an incredibly simple emotional through-line of needing to fight his way back to his health-care professional wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and adorable moppet (Carson Bolde) who are stranded in harm’s way? There’s no harm in such shameless emotional manipulation if it isn’t careless. This is also a movie that repeatedly puts barking dogs, small children, and the sick and elderly squarely in the path of chaos. But the movie seems to care about their plights, regards the destruction with a measure of real sorrow instead of mere CGI kick, and treats the events with the right mix of gravity and entertainment. It comes off less a series of jolts, more as a grand, relentless amusement park ride.

The movie is filled with complicated effects shots, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum booming brass on the score, and rattling sound design with deep bass footsteps that start as soft quakes until suddenly something is right on top of us. But it doesn’t add up to only a chaotic jumble of sensations. It’s a movie focused on process, troop movements, and monster behavior. Edwards, with screenwriter Max Borenstein, has shaped setpieces within this narrative to have peaks and valleys, tense escalations, teasing suspense, and dips of shaky, tenuous comfort. Take, for example, a great sequence set at an airport. The power goes out. There are explosions and commotion in the distance. The power comes back on, illuminating a monster towering over the runway. It’s a great tease, and Edwards takes amused pleasure in the construction of it while never losing sight of the scare. Like Spielberg’s Jaws or Jurassic Park or Ridley Scott’s Alien, Edwards knows how to get just as much entertainment out of not showing the monsters as revealing them to us in their entire enormity. No need to get the whole thing in the frame right away when one massive scaly flank striding past as people quake in their skyscrapers is even scarier. Even better, we aren't tired of the monster by the time the climax arrives.

This Godzilla is a full movie: big imagery telling a complete story. It’s not up to much beyond the sensations of its awesome creature feature spectacle. The stock characters remain flat. The ecological message doesn’t resonate or build as impactfully as it could. But it’s operating near the genre’s highest level. Edwards is working with impressive craftsmanship, visual intelligence, and moral weight that too few spectacle-wranglers can manage. Like the best popcorn entertainments of Spielberg, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Jackson, he builds wonder with great patience, excitement, and skill. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your line, "to create a vivid sensation of awe." That's exactly why this Godzilla reboot works over previous incarnations. I also wrote an essay on the film, if you are interested: