Godzilla (2014): Methodical Monsters

Gareth Edwards’ reverent take on Godzilla is like a view of something real that until now we had only dreamed about. He defies its campy upbringing to be awe-inspiring; he returns it to its allegory. And as you would view most things from the ground, the action is shot from below, barely in frame. The pay-off is stalled beyond normal human tolerance, as though Godzilla were a nervous groom who simply can't commit to being on screen until he has enough buildup. Edwards makes Oscar-worthy actors fudge the genre's war themes into their daily conversation: the dialogue in Godzilla means something, and asserts itself to meaning like a crowbar asserts itself to a jammed service door. This is when it remembers to have dialogue at all.

But I realized that if the monster's scale has changed -- this is only the second time Godzilla hasn't been a guy in a suit -- then perhaps his blockbuster is on a different scale as well. Edwards harnesses a theme and subjects his characters to it, exploiting their blank-eyed wonderment at the things happening around them, as though the whole earth is against them. We are tiny in this film. Every shot of giant things angles itself from the ground to give it weight and scale; watching this in the theater is an exhilarating, frightening experience. But it requires that you don't yearn for the instant satisfaction of the modern superhero blockbusters. Godzilla is more in tune with Jaws this way, waiting fifty minutes to show us the title monster. It doesn't have interesting characters or dialogue but also doesn't need any: it is an experience told entirely through visuals, a true spectacle film in the way that Transformers is only a pretender. Some people would call this "style over substance," but I've never thought these things were exclusive. Making them so ignores the possibility that visuals themselves can harness a theme. That's what Edwards uses Seamus McGarvey's gorgeous cinematography to do.

Godzilla, like many of the films in its series before it, is about our relationship with the natural world. The insectoid MUTOs are a product of our careless desire to weaponize nature; Godzilla is the earth one-upping our hubris with a godlike equalizer. These beings seem ancient and Godzilla’s timelessness appears in this film not just in design but in action: he is a response to ancient ambitions, to war, to destruction. He is indifferent where people are cruel. The notion that no humans in the film would catch our attention, or make us feel anything more than for action figures thrown around a playset, may be a byproduct of an empty imagination or even something as cynical as a scheduling conflict, but it creates the perfect theme. If we liked these folks too much, we might miss the literally bigger picture.

Unfortunately, the film’s first major flaw is that the opening act is more conventional. It undermines the general understanding of how this film subverts major blockbusters because it feels more like the movie “as it should be.” What I mean is that the motivations are clear and movie-like: nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) becomes conspiratorial after losing his wife (played for a heartbreaking three seconds by Juliette Binoche). He spends the rest of his life getting arrested by national authorities who, like his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), accuse him of being insane. He believes something unknown caused the nuclear plant to melt down, and from the mysterious opening credits and throughout the first 45 minutes, Edwards uses Cranston to put us in hearing distance of something mythically significant. But we’re so attached to this character that when he leaves the film, Godzilla gapes with his absence. The film rearranges itself from an enthusiastic monster hunt to what feels at times like nothing more than a well-filmed military movie. The grieving widower’s plight, the suspicions of conspiracy, the arc of a failed father, seem to be nothing more than a long trick on our senses. The end of the first act makes Godzilla feel like a big sister that punches you after saying, “Close your eyes and get your surprise.”

None of this plot is important to Godzilla. Should it have been? It would be easy to demand that Edwards make something more conventional, with a relatable plot acted out by a cast of likable characters (which today means “spunky”). I shudder to imagine a scene introducing Joe Brody to the "Godzilla-hunting team" (which would be called G-Force), comprised of a sassy black guy who’s good with computers, a white uber-masculine jughead, a Japanese tough girl biology nerd, and on and on. Any film made today would have broken the mythic, pondering shots with quippy scared people peeing their pants, or sassy control room people saying we’re all gonna die. Edwards had to stand brave and firm to make a movie with so few mainstream conventions, and he lets the shots stand too. He had to let the humans fade into the background, which may not always be to the film’s credit, but it's the only way he could get to his big picture. Godzilla is a poem to the way the monster feels to us, leaving him standing in the rubble as a visual anthem to his own themes and to the reasons we come back to his films over and over.

Edwards crafts a Godzilla that is no nuclear iguana but an ancient and weathered samurai, bleeding history in every sad grimace and epic gesture. He films him as though we’ve never seen him before, and never believed we would. He announces him not with trumpets but with the twang of a shamisen and the whistle of a reed pipe. The monster's computer model -- one of the most complex ever filmed -- simmers with small emotions: a tiny bit of anger, or weariness, or even pride. He is every Godzilla in one (even, buried somewhere deep down, the one who fist-bumped his fellow monster mates ever so often).

Godzilla seems as omnipotent as Edwards imagines we believe him to be. He doesn’t seem like someone who would go on to fight King Kong (Legendary pictures has their own idea of him, it seems). Small details amount to so much immersive visual storytelling: how Godzilla displaces water, drawing out the tide and moving it back in like a tsunami, how weight and momentum direct the objects around him, and send people to their death. Many people die on-screen in Godzilla, another instance where it elevates itself with fearless filmmaking. The Avengers nervously shied away from letting people die on screen because of the hero's actions; in Godzilla, civilians are easily swept away by tides, and crumble with their homes. Edwards may have made the bravest blockbuster I’ve ever seen.

This is also the reason Godzilla divides its viewers. Most people wanted Cranston to stick around, and watch televisions in a control room with a worried face while monsters battled it out. The problem is not that Cranston disappears: it's a perfect application of Edwards' natural reverence. Losing the protagonist makes us realize how small we are. The problem with Godzilla is that Edwards replaces that protagonist with a new one. Ford Brody (Johnson), the stony military man placed conveniently in the path of the monsters over and over, whose influence on the plot is way too overstated to communicate the theme of our smallness before nature, dilutes and confuses this movie. He's the reason that even when faced with the titanic anti-protagonist scoured by lightning and glistening in the surf, even though I love hiding the monster ala Cloverfield and waiting for the big payoff, it’s easy to miss that campy Saturday morning GodzillaFord Brody doesn't ruin the movie, but he makes it fail itself. He made people misunderstand it.

Ford Brody is a problem because of how much time we spend with him: his story is convenient in the way that any blockbuster would be when it puts its uninteresting lead right next to the monster at every important event. This guy draws the film’s events to him like a main character, even though Edwards seems to conceive the film as a true disaster movie, where the events have global significance viewed from ground level and never taking place there. The reason we let go of Cranston is also the reason we should not have to endure a new main character, especially one that isn't given a single interesting thing to do, or one emotion to call his own. Johnson has a single face in every scene, whether he’s looking through the windshield of a car at the undulating pregnant belly of a towering origami spider monster or asking a sergeant for directions; he interprets "awe" as a face other people would have if they forgot their lines. The most miraculous thing about him is that Johnson is in every scene, and yet Ford Brody is truly a nothing part.

Ken Watanabe, perfectly cast as a stand-in for a dramatic stare, is a visual aid for how movies like this think of themselves. He leads a supporting cast of likable leads on the sideline, including Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn. They are not important, but they fill the edges of the frame with competent grandstanding; they are the characters that Edwards needed to give the movie a human taste. The action hero bomb disposal expert that singlehandedly destroys the enemy nest deflects all of that effort. Even late in the film when Watanabe gets misty-eyed with a speech about nature, Godzilla is breaking its own oath to be a visual narrative about our place in the world. The film’s best scene has parachuters dropping through the clouds, lit only by flares and streaks of lightning, drifting into the buildings against a backdrop of the smoke-shrouded monsters to the sound of their own heavy breathing and the miasmic choral theme of the discovery of the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Did this scene need an action hero? It's the movie's vision portrayed as purely as it could be.

That tease, of Walter White vs Godzilla, was our big misstep in approaching this movie. We had an idea of what it was "supposed" to be. The film's misstep, and the reason so few people understand it, is that it tried to make up for our mistake with a bigger one. Recasting the lead as someone infinitely less interesting dampens this movie, though nothing can detract from its visual splendor (it still has some of the best CGI I've ever seen). The only corollary I can think of in the movies to this bait and switch is the one in Psycho, which was still better prepared for it with a protagonist that the audience wasn't sure of: it did not feel like the film was over when Leigh left the set because the villain more or less became the protagonist. Can you imagine Jaws killing Chief Brody an hour in as some kind of statement on the infinite natural dangers that surround us, and then for his wife to go out on the boat with Dreyfuss and Shaw? That’s what Godzilla feels like when you’re not prepared for it.

Of course, Godzilla movies always used an operatic monster battle as a prelude to mumbling about the environment. Edwards almost elevates them to mythic proportions (he almost makes the Godzilla that I see in my mind, and used to draw in crayon), with his pondering, wide visuals and Spielbergian details (that dog on the beach is a wonderful touch). But those old creature features didn’t tease an Oscar-worthy performance, or give it up as a plea for objectivity and then drop us back down with a much more boring person and no way to justify him. That’s where Godzilla lost its audience forever. Overcompensating for their desires may ruin its sequel.

But beyond that desire to see spunky characters elevated to invincibility by the power of quips, there is a different kind of blockbuster in Godzilla, one that allows its images to linger and emote without interference. I don’t know if it’s possible to make this film perfect in Hollywood. As soon as we say the characters need to be more relatable, they become incessant and sparky, the girls become badass ninjas, the guys become cocksure billionaires. Edwards ignores the noises in the soundstages all around him and builds a film that deserves tired terms like “epic.” It earns the long wait to see a disaster from the corner of your eye, or one small part of a god. The craft on display is worthy of its awe, though it offers no instant satisfaction for taking part. You have to take it home with you and bury it, and roll it around in your fingers, and recall its images again later like a half-remembered dream. The characters fade into the backdrop and maybe the problem isn't that they do so but that they don't do so enough. But the weight of its vision survives: its subject is still powerful, even after we let him down with our hopes, even after he's spent so much time wreaking havoc in our hearts. Long live the king.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Gareth Edwards

Max Borenstein (screenplay)
Dave Callaham (story) (as David Callaham)
Ishirō Honda (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.) &
Takeo Murata (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.) &
Shigeru Kayama (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.)
Frank Darabont (additional writing) (uncredited)
David S. Goyer (additional writing) (uncredited)
Ford Brody Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Young Ford CJ Adams
Dr. Ishiro Serizawa Ken Watanabe
Joe Brody Bryan Cranston
Elle Brody Elizabeth Olsen
Sam Brody Carson Bolde
Vivienne Graham Sally Hawkins
Sandra Brody Juliette Binoche
Admiral William Stenz David Strathairn
Captain Russell Hampton Richard T. Jones
Sergeant Tre Morales Victor Rasuk
Lieutenant Commander Marcus Waltz Patrick Sabongui

Official Trailer

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