'Godzilla' is an artful antidote to the usual this summer
I loved Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" so much I went back for seconds. And I'll probably revisit it many times over as it's a captivating directorial accomplishment, in my view, one that puts the anonymous summer actioners that tend to permeate this time of year to shame. I might not go so far as to declare it a work of art, but it is unequivocally the work of an artist, and that makes all the difference in the world.
The first time I saw the film, my immediate reaction was that Edwards is our new Spielberg. I realize that sort of praise has become a cliche, wasted on pretenders like M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams in the past. And indeed, Edwards is very much doing a bit of an impression of the blockbuster maestro with some of his work here; everything from the fiery night train from "War of the Worlds" to the initial T. Rex attack from "Jurassic Park" is referenced and lifted with love. So I'm most interested to see him apply his ideas in even fresher territory. But I think the comparison is fair because of a shared interest in making the audience actually feel something with the way spectacle is conveyed.
What Edwards has in mind for the imagery here puts "Godzilla" on another level where movies of this ilk are concerned. There is actual thought behind the way the story is told visually; I knew when I first saw the second trailer, featuring a paratrooper jump sequence set to György Ligeti's "Requiem," that this wasn't going to be quite the remake I expected. And Edwards delivers on that promise constantly throughout the film.
Just as an example, one moment that sort of floored me features a crowd witnessing a parachuting pilot drifting out of a cloud of debris following the delivery of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). It's a beautiful but perplexing sight, explained quickly enough by the pilot's power-sapped fighter jet abruptly plowing into a building above him as other jets similarly affected by the EMP begin dropping from the sky like flies. Choices like that, revealing information in unique but effective ways, help maintain a delicate balance, allowing the human drama to be the source of perspective and emotion.
And no, the actual human narrative on display here doesn't reinvent the wheel. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a soldier who wants to get back to his family amid crisis. Period. But the subjectivity of that human perspective is what Edwards is interested in, and that's something that stuck out to me on a second viewing.
As another example, Edwards teases the hell out of the Godzilla reveals, yes. But not arbitrarily. Throughout the first two thirds of the film, we're consistently catching glimpses of the beast and other monstrous elements from a practical point of view. It's low, obscured angles, through debris and destruction. Or it's via TV news streams, cleverly planted throughout but never necessarily depended upon. And when the climax is upon us, Edwards is still economical, showing the shadow of a tail slithering past here, lightning illuminating a hulking figure there.
This kind of thing builds suspense with incredible precision. Anyone can put the camera (or "camera") in an objective place to capture numbing action. But Edwards is thoughtful in how he chooses to reveal things, and that's what separates films like this and keeps them from being bland product built merely for mass consumption. (That being said, I can't imagine any general consumer being let down by what he or she is given in this film.)
Nevertheless, I'm recognizing that not everyone is sold. Someone at one of my screenings said to me that Taylor-Johnson is "not a leading man," that he lacks the requisite charisma. My immediate reaction to that is you shouldn't be scavenging for archetypes. This is a blockbuster concerned with being its own thing, so let's let it be that. But I also think that kind of dismissal pushes aside some other interesting decisions made in how the character is used.
I came to see Ford as a surrogate for Godzilla in some ways. He is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer. His job is to defuse weapons. Godzilla is a figure of primal order. His "job" is to maintain the natural balance by defusing monstrosities set loose on Earth. The parallel couldn't be made clearer than when both the man and the monster collapse from exhaustion at the same moment late in the film, after having already had a delicate moment of eye-to-eye acknowledgment in an earlier scene.
Another complaint I've heard is that there isn't enough Godzilla. I could sort of understand that grief initially, given the patient build to his reveals, but after a second look I came to realize it doesn't really wash at all. There is plenty of monster action on display in this movie, and I can't quite figure out what more one could want. I do humbly suggest anyone who feels that way, give it another look. Because while the film may be economical in surprising ways, Edwards never shirks his responsibility to deliver "a Godzilla movie."
(And by the way, being a bit economical in how the creature is revealed is very much in the spirit of the 1954 original. If you remember "Gojira" as a wall-to-wall monster movie, take another look; even when Godzilla was on screen, the reveals were quite conservative.)
Anyway, I didn't mean to get into others' reactions to the film. Certain complaints surprise me, but I won't get hung up on them. I went into it fairly cold, having only really watched (or at least focused on) that second trailer, and I was leveled by the handling of the material. This is the blockbuster movie event of the summer to me so far, and I'd be surprised if something tops it over the next few months.
Oh, and I haven't even touched on the below-the-line wizardry going on here. One of my screenings was in Dolby Atmos, which I absolutely recommend; the sound team did an exceptional job carving out the aural textures of this film and the low end gave me a friggin' back massage at times.
Alexandre Desplat can apparently do anything as his score is like nothing he's ever offered, properly reverent to the genre and absolutely thrilling in its own right — and speaking of Spielberg cues, Desplat's work even seems to take a lead from some of the more foreboding elements of John Williams' work on "Jurassic Park."
Finally, of course, the visual effects are pretty awe-inspiring on the whole, conveying scale with relative ease and never really registering as familiar. That's a pretty impressive feat in this day and age.
So I'm in the tank. I hope you are, too. No, I haven't gotten into performances, because really, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins (who I do wish had more to do), Juliette Binoche — they aren't the star of the show. Godzilla isn't even the star of the show. The star of "Godzilla" is Gareth Edwards, and his vision here represents an organic but still unexpected leap from his indie debut "Monsters." Any project Hollywood is thinking of handing to spectacle heavies such as Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay and the like, I hope they'll at least consider what Edwards has done here to liven up this sort of material. We really need this kind of ingenuity, particularly in the summer movie season.
"Godzilla" raids theaters May 16. See it.