Saturday, May 17, 2014
The reason I bought a ticket (and to the 3D screening) was the name Gareth Edwards. The young UK writer/director came to the world's notice through his 2010 film Monsters. Shot on a Canon 5D with effects done on a bedsit computer, Monsters moved well beyond its romance-with-added-aliens to give us an allegory about difference ... and be thoroughly entertaining all the way through ... and betraying none of its zero cost origins. It is a compelling romance but it is still very much sci fi. Gareth Edwards equalled resourcefulness as much as Shane Carruth had a few years earlier for Primer. I needed to see what Edwards would make of so familiar and often ridiculed fare.
So, dinosaurs emerge from the sea and fight.
Well yes and no. All sci fi comes with a warning. The 1954 Gojira was a means to address the effect of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 and the notion of scientific advancement for its own sake. Its eye-patched central scientist has created a weapon more devastating than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He has been cast into a deep melancholy by his own invention and the knowledge that its discovery alone will guarantee its development and proliferation in the arms race. Even then, the first time out, this story was not just about a man in a rubber lizard suit.
Edwards not only knows this but wants you to know it as well. Toho, the studio that made the original, is given credit in the impressive history show of the title sequence. Ken Watanabe commands the scenes he's in with an unshakeable sadness. Through him (he's even addressed as Sensei or master/teacher) we are given the link between Hiroshima and Fukushima. Between the monsters and the planet's environment are the humans whose mess this is to clean.
As in all monster movies (especially ones with giant monsters) we don't get to see the title role until a fair way in. We do get to see the adversary early on (a kind of bat beast) and its effects and then the first fight begins the action that will focus the remainder of the film as appropriate. So, if this Edwards voter is so good at being all charactery and indy how does he handle all this?
The critics who thought they were being clever in calling Monsters a romance plus aliens missed both its sci fi and action elements. There's plenty in Monsters to tell you how destructive the aliens can be and, while done within a tiny budget, feels big and scary. That is the difference between directing by checklists and making cinema. Edwards simply knows his creature features and takes them seriously. Now that he has the budget to match his ambitions he has applied his fandom, his clear understanding and his respect and the result feels big but also nourishing. When we see a bridge torn by violence its two ends hang like exhausted bodies: we are being invited to linger over the destruction and feel something beyond wow.
Now to scale. The monsters are impressive even by Michael Bay clodfest standards. The bat like thing that first emerges from the nuclear mess in Japan is all claws and aerodynamics, tearing planes from the air and crawling through jungle like a monstrous overgrown insect. Godzilla's entrance happens in crisis as his mountain-rang back surfaces from the waves and he breaks land and then a lot of infrastructure. But the difference can be found in one moment on screen. As MUTO (the bat creature) moves through the waves of San Fransisco Bay jet fighters fall through the smoke and dust around it. Michael Bay would have made this a scene made of a million nansecond edits and massive cataclysmic noise. There is a lot of noise in this Godzilla but the fighters fall in silence like flocks of birds poisoned by smog. Edwards knows this could be more pyrotechnics and volume but knows the value of contrast and chooses instead to turn it down for this image so that instead of thrilling or jolting it haunts.
Ok, if the monsters are good how are the humans. I bet it's all mumblecore in sensurround. Well, yes and no. David Strathairn plays Admiral Horatio Exposition, delivering descriptions of action and its consequences in catch up dialogue. It's not a turnoff but it's noticeable. It is in one of his scenes that the name Gojira, spoken by Watanabe, gets assimilated into Standard American as Godzilla faster than Ringu became The Ring. Elizabeth Olsen is as solidly emotive as in her best performances but there's so little of her beyond giving Aaron Taylor Johnson a motivational arc. Aaron Taylor Johnson impressed me in Nowhere Boy, owning the role of a much loved universal figure, the startup superhero in Kickass and the creepy bully in Chatroom. Here he carries action with the same sense of active thought visible through his sculpted youthfulness. Bryan Cranston is fun and moving in his short role as ATJ's father. Why cast Juliette Binoche in a role that requires so little of what she can do? Edwards, for all his touches of innovation and insistence on adding depth, is making a big monster movie. Can you do that without obvious dialogue and cute animal moments? Yes, but if you want your second feature film to blast out on screens worldwide all at once rather than drip through the festivals over a couple of years then you do need a few familiar touches to get past the door bitch at the local plex.
Gareth Edwards has crossed into the mainstream with honour and I wonder if we'll be thinking of him in the same way as Christopher Nolan before too long. This is a good Godzilla. Oh yeah, no need to see it in 3D, it's just not shot with that in mind. Enjoy and maybe try some pepper or saffron on your popcorn just for the new.