Saturday, May 17, 2014
King of the Monsters
As I see it, the only way to begin a review, which this might well turn out to be, of Gareth Edward's new film Godzilla is to say "Very recently, I saw Godzilla." Sentences that begin "Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear scientist in Japan with a wife (Juliette Binoche) who works with him, and a son, and so one day" or "Gareth Edwards' new blockbuster hits theaters on a wave of etc." or any of your standard openers, feel slightly disingenuous to me. There's so much understood going in about Godzilla, such as what he is and does, where he's from and why he's from there specifically, that one should, in theory, be able to cut the line so that all preamble can be condensed, with no loss of understanding on the part of the reader, to "Very recently, I saw Godzilla."
Which indeed I have done, and I'll tell you: this is actually kind of an odd one. It's the second (or third, depending on whether snobs like you count television) full-length feature from director Gareth Edwards. His previous offering, 2010's Monsters, was to my eyes an only partially successful attempt to combine old-fashioned monster movie-as-allegory directness with a modern arthouse, of the American independent variety, sensibility. But as weak as I found the majority of Monsters to be, there is within it the seed of Edwards' particular genre aesthetics. If that seed hasn't blossomed particularly in the four years between that film and this new Godzilla, I feel confident that's not because Edwards doesn't know what he's doing, or what he wants, but rather that this particular aesthetic is not something that's going to be embraced by the kind of people who have the kind of money Edwards would need to expand significantly on the one concept that makes Monsters memorable. It would be both expensive yet not remotely commercial, is what I'm getting at. Yet here it is again, no larger but still recognizable, in the very expensive-to-make Godzilla.
And I'm talking about what, exactly? In Monsters (which I talk about in more detail here, if you care) Edwards ploy was to show the audience very little of the titular beings until he shows you everything, and that withholding when paired with the explicit image's inexplicability, becomes very powerful. Okay, but how can you do that in, and perhaps more to the point who would want it from, a modern Godzilla film? To explain I suppose I will have to tell you a little bit about the plot. So: Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear scientist in Japan with a wife (Juliette Binoche) who works with him, and a son, and so one day, on the scientist's birthday, a terrible accident destroys the nuclear plant, his wife is killed, and for the next fifteen years the scientist follows an obsession that the cause of the accident isn't what the official story says it was (it was actually Godzilla). His son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) grows up, joins the Army, goes to Iraq, comes home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son and then immediately has to fly to Japan to get his dad out of jail for trespassing, long story short it was Godzilla just like I said, plus two other monsters, there's a whole thing about these guys that is explained to us by scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins).
So that's how things get going. And before I get to the important stuff, I have to point out that Godzilla is a strange one in a couple of different ways, and before Edwards' unique approach asserts itself, the strangeness is apparent in how quickly he blows through the above plot stuff. Godzilla is just about exactly two hours long, which in the world of modern effects blockbusters is actually about thirty or forty minutes on the lean side. The film opens in 1999, with one of those scenes of scientists wearing safety suits with the flat glass helmets shining flashlights in a cavern (which I'm about done with, by the way; pretty soon all films will become one and we'll have scenes of scientists in safety suits holding flashlights in caverns while they use the internet to look up old newspaper articles about mysterious local deaths) and by the time we've reached the modern day section with Taylor-Johnson and Cranston in Japan, I can't imagine more than ten minutes have passed. Most films of this type, that material takes up a solid half hour. I was jarred, but perhaps only because I've been conditioned to the torture so that someone offering me kindness seems untrustworthy. In any event, that's different, and pretty clearly part of the philosophy of this Godzilla is to hack things to the bone as much as is reasonable, a philosophy that can lead to clumsiness, as when one scene featuring Olsen ends with her standing outside the hospital where she works, about to go back inside, but when we see her next she's in the middle of the street, in the rain, with let's just say some threatening things surrounding her. It's not necessary to know, when you get right down to it, how she ended up there, but there should be a clean flow between scenes, unless it is your plan to throw that shit right out the window; however that is not Edwards' plan. "Plunging ahead" is not usually the most graceful way of navigating this stuff.
Fundamentally, though, who cares? One thing about Godzilla that surprised me was that it follows the rough structure of the later Godzilla films made by Toho, when Godzilla acted as a kind of savior of mankind, defending them against other, more vicious monsters (in this case, thankfully though not really surprisingly, Godzilla's helpfulness is just a happy, for humanity, side effect of his natural predatory behavior; he's not overly concerned with being benevolent, or consciously aware that such motivation is even possible), and so much of the havoc wreaked upon Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco is the result of Godzilla squaring off against this kind of husband/wife monster pair which have also been on the radar, as Godzilla himself has been, of various scientific and government agencies over many decades. But for quite a while, Edwards doesn't want us to see it.
To give a couple of examples, in one dramatic scene we see Godzilla and one of the other creatures coming together to do battle -- for the first time in the movie, I might add -- and right then Edwards cuts to Taylor-Johnson and Olsen's kid watching it on the news. And even then, the point for Edwards is not to give us a good look at this fight but through the lens of media, or some such thing, but rather to highlight the absurdity of an oblivious Olsen telling her son to turn off the TV and come to dinner. Later on, these creatures are slamming together again, mouths snapping at each other, but here Edwards has his camera down where Olsen would be, and moving backwards, as Olsen would be, into shelter, and the doors of that shelter close and cut off Olsen's, as it would cut off the camera's, and our, view of this battle. So not only is Edwards fucking with us, but he wants us to be aware that he's fucking with us.
The way he handles the human characters is illustrative, as well. Taylor-Johnson is positioned as the hero, and he is, but if he has more screen time than, say, Olsen or Watanabe, and I'm sure he does, it's not so much more as to make him feel anything more than part of an ensemble, one that even as a whole is overshadowed by enormous monsters that we're often not even allowed to see, even as the people are playing second fiddle to them. Even when Godzilla isn't on screen, and, for instance, Watanabe and David Strathairn are sharing a scene, it's Godzilla -- absent from our eyes for maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes by now -- who dominates.
When all is said and done, we'll have seen Godzilla do everything we hoped we'd see him do, but that we, or I, left the theater feeling he was a mysterious character is a strong mark in Edwards' favor. As ubiquitous and as soaked into international culture as Superman, yet I still found myself thinking "This Godzilla, what's the whole deal with him anyhow?" Part of this is achieved through Edwards' focus on the other two creatures, the "bad guys" of the story, who, as I've said, are a mated male and female, and before the shit's really off the hook (and please make no mistake, for all Edwards' coyness, eventually shit really does fly off the hook, and the special effects, and the imagination that dictates what these effects should depict, are all top of the line), Edwards takes time showing these things simply behaving, doing things that, if they make sense, make sense in the same way that the behavior of wild animals in nature makes sense to a human observer. This is when the best part of Monsters comes through into Godzilla. Those moments, and also when Edwards brings Godzilla in, cloaks him in smoke or darkness, and lets his massive tail swing silently over our heads as he simply turns. One thing Edwards understands that almost no one else in the world who makes these kinds of movies does, is how breathtaking such sights as the one he's presenting, monsters such as these, would be if human beings actually encountered them. Add to that the iconic shudder that accompanies the name "Godzilla," and nothing less than awe is called for.