Godzilla smartly stays in the background of Gareth Edwards' impressive reboot
Godzilla Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Max Borenstein, based on the character created and owned by Toho Co.
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Victor Rasuk and Juliette Binoche
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 3 minutes
May 16, 2014
(out of four)
That Gareth Edwards was able to get away with such incredible restraint in his (and Warner Bros.') reboot of Godzilla must be some small miracle. Much has been made about the relative lack of screen time for the title character - which might bother those raised on Transformers rather than Jaws - but that fact is revealing in and of itself; the decision to withhold the beast is one that falls in line with the rest of the movie. (Not to mention, it rather fits the character; Godzilla's no showman. In fact, he's rather shy.)
Edwards openly defies the modus operandi of modern blockbusters - which go out of their way to show how much money they're spending - surprising us for what he doesn't show, when he cuts away, what he leaves to the imagination. While seeing widespread destruction was once an eye-opener, it's old-hat now, and Edwards shocks us by cutting away from the devastation just as it's beginning, and returning after it's ended - diving into the charred aftermath instead of reveling in more anonymous buildings toppling and crumbling.
The entire way his Godzilla operates is a rejection of that disaster epic template. We've been conditioned to expect a movie with an almost fetishistic preoccupation with destruction, and with manufactured heroes who miraculously save the day against an unstoppable force of nature. To Edwards, that narrative must come across as conspicuously false, because his version is explicitly about our inability to stop forces of nature that are, by definition, unstoppable. The human characters are at a loss in the face of the monsters that awaken among them. The scientists, the military - they do all they can to explain it, understand it, think of ways to try and stop it. But all they can really do is stare into the sky in fear and awe.
The film gets its point across with a running series of Spielbergian reaction shots - a lost art, by the way - that puts the focus on the inexplicable magnitude of what the world is seeing, rather than on the details of the carnage itself - which, the movie would argue, would probably look about the same as it does in every other movie of this ilk.
The film's unfortunate failing in this respect is that it never gives the characters themselves the time and attention that would really give the reaction shots and existential crises weight, but we'll get to that in a minute. First I want to get back to the Spielberg thing, because in a lot of ways he seems to be this film's key reference point. In its structure, its compositions and its approach to suspense and violence, Godzilla is in league with a now-old-fashioned type of blockbuster you might have seen from the mid-'70s to the early '90s - a style largely defined by Spielberg. This film opens up on an excavation site that feels so similar to the opening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that I practically expected Francois Truffaut to pop out and start explaining things.
The film's visual aesthetic - thanks in large part to the great cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, High Fidelity, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Atonement) - is built on mildly gritty realism (with colors neither too bright nor drastically muted) and piercingly beautiful moments (bright red flares streaking downward out of an elaborate cloud formation; Godzilla himself lumbering inside a smoky brown fog), including at least one scene given added gravitas by the use of György Ligeti's Requiem over the soundtrack, explicitly calling to mind Kubrick's 2001.
The nitty-gritty of the plot is handled with scenes familiar to those of a previous generation's event movie - static medium shots of men and women huddled around computer screens, graphs, monitors and maps, the world outside rumbling with the portentous promise of doom; strategic clashes between the military, the scientists and the politicians - but with different visions of where that plot could or should lead. There's something pessimistic, or fatalistic rather, about Edwards' interpretation of the situation - a feeling that, by the end, turns into something ecstatically joyful. The movie gives us excitement and triumph - it just doesn't come in the form of Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise or Will Smith saving the day.
That being said, the lack of a forced heroic figure doesn't really excuse the piss-poor character work. Edwards and writer Max Borenstein offer up a "main" character - Ford Brody, a bomb disposal expert with the token loving wife and child - who brings virtually nothing to the table, except perhaps the ability to misdirect the audience into assuming he'll be our true hero. Beyond the rote functionality of his character, I can't imagine a less charismatic performance than the one given by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He is the black hole at the center of Godzilla. (He should join forces with Josh Hutcherson, Taylor Lautner, Charlie Hunnam and Sam Worthington to form an Expendables-style rag-tag team of charisma vacuums.)
Worse than that, Edwards has at his disposal three of the best actresses on the planet - Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen and Sally Hawkins - and completely wastes all three of them. One of them is used for two minutes of cheap sentiment. One of them does almost nothing but look around frantically for her husband every 10 minutes. And one of them just spouts exposition whenever Ken Watanabe needs a breather. The cast for Godzilla is, by and large, pretty great. On paper. Pity no one wrote any roles for any of these terrific actors.
But enough about that. Thin script and wasted actors aside, Godzilla remains an impressive and enjoyable new take on the character - and one that, if there were any justice, would also nudge blockbusters into a subtler, smarter direction. The upcoming fourth Transformers movie is 157 minutes long, stars a lead teenage girl who looks like yet another Michael Bay Pin-Up Girl, features at least one intense close-up of Mark Wahlberg dramatically framed against a gigantic American flag as if Bay is gratifying himself to the thought of American patriotism, and, let me repeat this again, is 157 minutes long. So maybe holding out hope that Edwards can make subtlety and smarts the standard M.O. of the summer movie is kind of a pipe dream.