Godzilla: Slow, Plodding, and Impressive


At a time where summer movie audiences expect to be bombarded with action, fast-paced cutting, and slim stories, along comes Godzilla with a lot of hype behind him. However…

I’m not sure those summer audiences are going to be on-board with this latest iteration of the classic Kaiju.

Director and at one-time visual effects guy Gareth Edwards made his splash when he created “Monsters” by shooting in Mexico on weekends and acting as director, screenwriter, director of photography, production designer, and visual effects supervisor/artist.  The film was small, controlled, and smart — both in its script and its economy.  Edwards put money into where it would best provide production value.  Now, with an estimate $160M budget, he doesn’t seem to have followed the path of many indie directors who go from working with nothing to being handed a wheelbarrow full of cash and told to make a movie — and then don’t know what to do with themselves.

No. Garth Edwards has retained his ability to focus on a core small theme, but has placed it into an enormous set piece.  Not only that, but he has managed to keep a key component from the original 1954 Godzilla…that the huge radioactive reptile is a symbol for a much larger idea.  The original Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb and reflected the fears of a culture that had faced the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only nine years earlier.  In the 2014 Godzilla, the creatures represent a force of nature.  A tsunami. A hurricane. An earthquake.  Something that has no regard for human life one way or the other.  There is no Machiavellian agenda to wipe out or save the human race.  These creatures exists to do what they do.  There is nothing that humans can do to stop or intervene.  We must simply wait for nature to balance itself. Perhaps, in a way, you could even interpret the film as a commentary on climate change.  Humans may have exacerbated and accelerated a process that would have happened naturally, and now that we’ve set things in motion, there is  nothing we can do to stop it.  We must simply survive, which means turning to what is important: family and one another.  The importance of family is the primary theme of the film — both for our hero as well as the animals.

Another parallel that Edwards draws on his between the hero role of Ford Brody and the “hero” role of Godzilla.  I will let you film-lovers try to pick up on all the qualities that these two characters share.  Diving in further will provide more spoilers that I want to reveal.  I just want to indicate that Edwards script is scratching deeper than most other modern monster movies take the time for.

A criticism that I anticipate from lots of filmgoers is the movie is too slow.  Not enough action.  Not enough Godzilla.  To them, I say, “Just watch the original”  The original is not a fast paced film.  And this kind of film is what Edwards is attempting to replicate — to pay homage to.  His script does abide by Hollywood standards of having something happen in the first ten minutes.  Something big DOES happen, but its not what you think. There is no Godzilla attack.  There isn’t a huge action sequence.  It is the failure and collapse of a nuclear power plant in Japan.  We have suspicions that something strange caused it, but we don’t know what.  It feels like potentially an accident caused by tremors (natural disaster).  But it puts the story in motion.

This is the pattern throughout the whole film.  Little by little, Edwards reveals pieces of the puzzle without providing so much information that we can jump ahead him.  Even when things start going to hell as we move into Act 2, we get glimpses of the whole picture.  Each action sequence builds, on previous ones — as they should.  But, it never goes through intense spikes of action like a typical summer blockbuster.  If one was to chart the action, it would be more like swells of action, which increase over the course of the film, ultimately reaching the apex which is the final battle.  It takes a lot of confidence and bravery to guide your audience down such a long path without injections of adrenaline every twenty minutes.  One must have complete conviction that the payoff at the end is going to be worth this journey.  And, based on the audience cheers, I think he managed to do it.

I have a problem with much of the star-studded cast who feel like they called their performances in.  I’m not even sure why Sally Hawkins was in it.  Ken Watanabe seems to be continually on the verge of a breakdown, barely getting his words out.  David Strathairn does well looking stern as the understanding but dutiful admiral.  Elizabeth Olsen (aka the talented Olsen sister) does a fine job as the worried wife of Ford Brody, played adequately by Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  Oddly, the two best actors in the film have maybe 10 minutes of screentime.

With a $160M budget, I feel that a discussion about production value is redundant.  The budget is sitting there on the screen for all to see.  I love the design of the new Godzilla, as well as his foils.  The photography is gorgeous by Oscar nominated Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Avengers), who paints the world and mood with color.  The warm colors of the destruction of the city contrast with that iconic blue glow that inevitably appears — spurring more cheers from the audience.  And a scene with HALO jumpers feels downright poetic as they fall through the clouds toward the battling beasts.  Those visuals blend perfectly with Alexandre Desplat’s score and the sound work by Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn at E2.  Speaking of which, the sound design is exceptional, with a tall order to replicate the recognizable roar of the titular characters.  The “voices” of the other creatures have what feels like a language underneath, presenting an emotion without articulating specific words.  So go to a theater with a crazy loud sound system.  Don’t frickin’ watch this on your iPhone with earbuds.

Not surprisingly, the visual effects are off the charts with hundreds of artists working between MPC, Double Negative, and ScanlineVFX as well has a smattering of smaller companies.  All of them led by Jim Rygiel who holds three Oscars for the VFX work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The work is top notch across the whole the film without a questionable shot in the lot.  I can’t even imagine being on the FX teams with the crazy amount of destruction and water effects to wrangle.  Additionally , the character animation is a beautiful blend of instinctual, animalistic behavior, intermixed with those anthropomorphic hints to indicate to us how these creatures are feeling.  This is on top of the balance that has to be hit in representing the mass of such huge creatures moving in ways that keep things exciting.  Move them too fast and you lose their scale.  Move them too slow and you lose the energy.  It’s not a easy proposition.  The secondary simulations of skin and muscle jiggle adds dramatically to the believability.   One “knowledgable” gentleman behind me commented to his buddies that  he saw how the director was trying to make it look like “the man in the suit thing” — he’s wrong.  The animators, riggers, and FX/simulation guys were trying to show that all of this fleshy-like tissue has mass, and when you have hundreds of tons of mass, it doesn’t stop abruptly.

Overall I enjoyed the slow burn pace of the film.  I liked the message and the overall plot and storyline.  Edwards has a great style, and he trusts the audience to put things together without dialogue to explain it.  I wasn’t so much a fan of the characters or their dialogue.  But the overwhelming visuals and sound make the wait worth it.

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