Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Seismic Cinema: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla

Hollywood loves a mulligan. Spider-Man was only given five years to settle in our collective consciousness before his series was rebooted – but Godzilla, dormant for sixteen long years, has had more than enough time to gestate. Roland Emmerich’s regrettable 1998 bomb is long (and mercifully) forgotten. The time is ripe for the Japanese icon to stomp through cinemas once more. But what kind of beast will emerge this time? I can tell you first-hand: a frightening one.

The story, surprisingly, is front and centre here. Bryan Cranston is compelling in a role as a Japan-based American engineer named Joe Brody, overwrought by the stress of one who speaks sober truth in a room full of hubris. He believes the seismic activity he is carefully monitoring is indicative of threatening trends, and urges that the nuclear plant he works at be shut down as a precaution. During the meeting in which he pleads his case, massive tremors shake the plant, and his wife – who is also employed there, down at the reactor level – is trapped as the plant goes into meltdown. Their son Ford watches from his classroom window as the cooling towers collapse in the distance, and the story shifts to the present day, in which Ford has become a US Navy lieutenant and must reconnect with his father, now estranged after a nervous breakdown following the disaster at the plant. They investigate a recurrence of the same seismic activity they experienced in Ford’s youth, which turns out – inevitably – to be caused by giant creatures (called “kaiju” in monster film lingo), enhanced by nuclear fallout, emerging from their long dormancy. They are helped by a Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe, perhaps the only Japanese actor recognizable to Western audiences, and David Strathairn as the US military general who leads the effort to save human lives.

Bryan Cranston in Godzilla
The script scrambles along in the wake of the looming kaiju destruction, meaning it's sometimes cheapened by convenience but logically motivated overall. In a world where giant monsters can (and do) appear to wreak havoc at any time, nothing ever goes according to plan, and the characters’ motives change from preventing the emergence of kaiju, to halting their advance, to destroying them outright, to abandoning all pretense of planning and just trying to survive. This setup strengthens the attempt to portray Godzilla and his brethren as more of a force of nature than characters, which has been a guiding principle throughout the film’s production; the way the human characters react to the events of the film is akin to the response to a typhoon or earthquake – people scrambling to reunite with their loved ones and find a safe place to wait out the disaster. The film’s emotional tension is maintained throughout because any refuge is almost immediately sabotaged by the inconvenience of a giant monster stomping through the ceiling.

Godzilla is paced like a thriller. The buildup of tension is slow, and focus is given to the characters and their relationships rather than CGI monster fights, providing a solid (if somewhat unoriginal) foundation of emotional investment. Edwards certainly tries harder to make you sympathize with his characters than many other directors would in making a special effects feature. Godzilla himself doesn't appear until an hour into the film, and even after that it's only in the last half hour that Edwards allows the camera to settle on him, and let us gaze slack-jawed the way the characters do at his sheer massiveness and power. For the majority of the film, we follow Brody as he struggles to choose between the passive embrace of his family and his duty as a soldier to act, even if taking action means losing his life and stranding those he loves. The extremes to which his father Joe is driven in his quest to avenge his mother leave a mark on Brody; he is repelled by his dad’s mania, but identifies with his dad’s profound connection to his wife. Thus he is terrified by the mere reality of Godzilla, but galvanized to act by the need to protect his family. This is a much more driven character arc than I expected from a kaiju film, and it provides just enough emotional imperative for me to care what happens to the characters. Godzilla presents itself as a decent drama that just happens to have mutant nuclear monsters in it.

But the real reason we pay to see a film like this is for the spectacle. Godzilla’s visual effects, sound design, and music are excellent, well worth the price of admission, strongly imprinting the dread and impotence of the characters onto you. The score is full of brassy, horror-inspired dissonance – in one scene in which Brody and a crack team perform a HALO jump into the epicentre of the kaiju battle, the entire soundtrack is replaced by two sounds: his panicked breathing, and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem, which might be better known to film audiences as the horrifyingly tremulous choral music which accompanies the appearances of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are several sequences – especially one in which the military, posted on a foggy Golden Gate bridge, awaits Godzilla’s emergence from the Frisco bay – that do a masterful job conveying the terror and dread of a kaiju, and the way mist, shadow, and quiet can disguise even the largest of foes and create scenes of visceral suspense. Audiences expecting two hours of monster fights are sure to be disappointed, as that stuff is pushed right to the very end, but every other minute is packed with tension, and I didn’t feel cheated at all.

We can’t go any further without talking about the main attraction: Godzilla himself. His design is classic and expressive, bowing politely to the original Toho Studio designs (lizard-like and heavyset, with a thick tail, stubby legs, jagged dorsal spines, and a squared canine snout), but updating him with a more modern aesthetic feel (eagle-eyed, saurian, distinctly masculine and full of menace). Edwards’ aim is to provoke a feeling of terror at the sight of Godzilla, of an unstoppable creature whose motive is unclear and who is dangerous not only because of his size, but also his anger, and in this the director is resoundingly successful. Godzilla is breathtaking and terrifying to behold on the big screen – his iconic roar rumbles up from the pit of his stomach and seems to shake the entire theatre – but as with the rest of the film, it’s hard to reconcile this truly monstrous creature with what is, in actuality, a truly ridiculous premise.

It’s tempting to cast aspersions on Godzilla’s gravely serious tone (Ken Watanabe’s unsmiling delivery of the line “Let them fight” inspired a wave of giggles in the screening I attended), especially when comparing it to the Toho series, which was often known for its unabashed absurdity. Edwards has been very vocal since the production’s outset about wanting to do Godzilla justice, honouring his traditional roots and making the kind of film Tomoyuki Tanaka and Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s creators, would have loved to see. Interestingly, the only Godzilla film which shares the paranoia, gravitas, and horror of this one is the original: 1954’s Gojira (released in North America in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters!). Toho tasted box office success when Gojira became an international sensation, and spent the next forty years cranking out one shlock masterpiece after another, eventually straying from the post-war nuclear dread that birthed the original. So Edwards is clearly aiming to emulate the original, and not the films which followed. Is he true to its tone and style? Does he make a moral statement, in addition to creating an entertaining monster movie? I think he does, and Godzilla’s grim tone is really only justifiably laughable when comparing it not to the Toho original, but the modern monster movie – films like Pacific Rim, which present the kaiju genre to cynical modern audiences with a sense of winking fun. No matter how effective it is, there’s little “fun” to be had with Godzilla.

I would say I’d love to see more sequels in which Godzilla faces off against some more creative enemies; in which more of the screentime is devoted to what makes a Godzilla film a Godzilla film: giant monsters battling for supremacy. I have to remind myself, however, that what truly makes a Godzilla film may instead be its human element, and its message about the arrogance and folly of mankind. I can identify with that message, no matter how silly a vehicle is chosen to deliver it, and when it’s given a proper sense of thoughtfulness – as it is here – I can hardly complain that there aren’t enough creatures punching each other to disguise it.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently working as a Development Tester at Ubisoft Toronto.

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