Reverence For Giants: Gareth Edwards' Godzilla
1954's powerful Japanese monster movie classic Gojira established the entire kaiju genre, and set in motion the style that would become known as tokusatsu. The franchise that sprang from it became an international phenomenon within years, the dubbed and often edited western incarnations gaining great popularity in cinemas and drive-ins. Just as importantly, the series lived on in the form of televised creature features which forever imprinted on generations of young science fiction fantasy enthusiasts, or "monster kids", as the Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine crowd are known.
Beyond consistently vibrant, imaginative concepts, the appeal of the films owed much to their distinct practical effects unreality, and a particular flavor bound to the land from which they originated. This inseparable tie to Japan may be why Godzilla took so long to gain dual citizenship (Hanna Brabara's 1978 cartoon show aside), and have a film produced by the West. The first of these, Roland Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla, was seen as a failure, and Toho, the owner of the property, went right back to producing entries in Japan. These concluded with 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, and it would be a full decade before Toho would again participate in a U.S. production, director Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. This time, the endeavor paid off.
Edwards' filmmaking style is perfectly designed to bring life to a story of giant battling monsters. His unwavering focus on the gravity, the weight both figurative and literal, of a civilization and its people coming face to face with beings of incomprehensible power and size is the primary reason for the film's success. Never do characters joke about what is happening, just as they don't in the doom drenched original from 1954. No one would joke about a hurricane swallowing up their town, and humor, if handled incorrectly, can undercut the strange, delicate premise that is a giant monster attack.
By taking the scenario seriously, and showing great care in portraying the devastation and consequence of events, Edwards is able to imbue the movie with another vital trait: awe. One way that he fosters this sense of amazement is by withholding full views of the monsters for much of the film. Just before we can get a good look, the image cuts away or transfers to news footage of the events as seen on television. Many were frustrated by this, but I believe it to be exactly the method that should be used to maintain the mystique of cinematic beasts. It worked to great effect in Nimrod Antal's Predators, and it works just as well here. Once you've seen too much of a monster, it becomes familiar, and therefore less imposing - familiarity can be the antithesis of terror. It's furthermore in keeping with the movie's insistence on watching things unfold in the way that a real person in this situation would perceive them. And when we do see the creatures in action, their frightening scale and impact are present, via the means of superb special effects. Nothing is rushed, nothing seems physically impossible or absurd, and always are we reminded of our frailty in the grand scheme, our helplessness against nature's wrath.
In more than one interview, Gareth Edwards has professed his fandom of Godzilla, and I do not believe this to be mere PR. For one, his first film, Monsters, was made on a truly tiny budget and yet still manages to contain giant alien creatures. He speaks of picking up hard to find copies of Godzilla movies to complete his personal collection. But most telling is the inclusion of Yoshimitsu Banno as executive producer. Banno co-wrote and directed the very unusual Gojira vs. Hedora in his native Japan. The 1971 film took stylistic risks not typical of the series, and conveyed a sincere environmental message. One wonders how much influence he had in the development of Edwards' film, but it is worth noting that it possesses a dire warning about the neglected issue of nuclear weapons, which is largely unheard of in American cinema of the new millennium. The concept of these weapons acting as food for the film's Muto creatures, and therefore drawing them to the U.S. as a result of its stockpile, is very in keeping with Banno's sensibilities, as well as the consciousness of Japan itself, which still feels the wounds of nuclear science to this day.
Edwards' Godzilla is not without its flaws. Much has been made of the blandness of its lead characters, and the inadequate screen time of Brian Cranston. While it could be argued that protagonist Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor Johnson) lacks energy because he is in fact shell shocked by both the inconceivable events transpiring around him, and a tragic personal loss, one can't exactly argue that he is a bit of a blank slate. But this too, may serve a storytelling function by allowing the audience witness the unearthly majestry of Godzilla and the Mutos through him. If he had a more potent character, it might distract from the monstrous battles on display. Of course, it might just result in us caring more for him, but every creative choice is a trade off in some way, the forgoing of another option. I was not blind to these issues when I first saw the film, but a later, second viewing left me yet more impressed with its strengths. It knocks the most vital elements out of the park. The monsters are portrayed as otherworldy beings, not mere animals, and they are beyond man's control. Edwards has said that he wanted to build something that would last with this movie, and I believe he succeeded. His passion for the kaiju legend is apparent in every moment, his thoughtfulness in handling such an icon shows that he has more than just a casual liking for the material and its legacy. He has reverence for it.