"And later, Bob [Ducsay, the film's editor] called me up and actually said,
'You know when I realised I was on a good film? When I had a really cool
logo for my car sticker.' And I was like, 'See?' People say you shouldn't sweat
the details, but films are accumulations of a million details. They all add up."
Director Gareth Edwards,
Telegraph Interview, 13th May 2014
I can hear the air displaced by the vigorous nodding of Ridley Scott. Directors have to care about everything. The moment you let your creative guard down, the moment an executive attempts to best you with his/her logic of profit over inspiration, is the moment you click on hackdom.com and say goodbye to artistic credibility. And it's hard to bite the feeding hand but sometimes it's all too necessary. Yes, you have some responsibility in terms of trying hard not to be Michael Cimino, the Heaven's Gate director who bankrupted an entire studio because, and I quote; "If you can't get it right, what's the point?" Better a Cimino than a Bay but I digress. There is a balance to be struck and Edwards does a stunning job in making a Godzilla film absolutely thrilling, truly awe-inspiring and all for well under the higher budget echelon. Yes, 160 million dollars is a lot of money but Godzilla is a lot of movie and as it's rare for me to triumph anything from Hollywood that seems genetically generated to pluck cash from the pockets of a certain demographic, I will say this; not a significant scene went by when I didn't offer to my son (or he to me) some exhale of appreciation. We were like two school children walking to the car afterwards, chattering about all the great bits of the movie. It was a long conversation. Trust me. I am as surprised as you may be. It's not a classic movie, repeat viewing nourishing-wise; don't be silly but for what it is, it's one of the best.
And I don't seem to be alone, as a lowly member of the critical community, in recognising Edwards' sources of inspiration. Dotted throughout this quite spectacular movie are references big and small (usually big) to echoes of past influences. A certain Mr. Steven Spielberg looms large over Godzilla (no small feat and of course no small feet) and yes, I will resist the urge to wordplay with size puns from now on. The movie is littered with lovely references to movie scenes past (things I usually actively snarl at). The arrival of the Monarch scientists (the ever dependable Ken Watanabe – the cultural casting nod to the big G's Japanese origins – and the wonderfully affecting Sally Hawkins) perfectly echoed the first meeting of François Truffaut and Bob Balaban in Close Encounters. Godzilla underwater, surging under the US aircraft carrier (from a top shot, all the sailors run from one side to the other to see the beast - an absolute delight that made me grin like an idiot) is a direct quote from Bruce (the polyurethane shark) passing under the Orca in Jaws also shot from the crow's nest. These nods are not self-conscious bowing and scraping. They are perfectly judged scene elements in their own right. What surprised me more than anything about this movie is the exquisite timing of almost every shot. No wide orgy of spectacularity is allowed to linger – this isn't Snyder's Man Of Steel that revelled in storey destruction. Demolition in Godzilla is the price you pay to see these behemoths have at it. Hang on. You don't know the plot.
American nuclear expert (Joe Brody – that has to be a nod to Jaws) played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, is suspicious of seismic activity under the Japanese power plant at which he works. His wife (Juliette Binoche – wow, that's a major casting coup) is a fellow scientist. Things go south. Families are rent (as in asunder) and some serious paranoia sets in. Enter a grown up Ford (Cranston's son), a beefed up but entirely credible bomb disposal expert, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, he of Kick Ass hero status. Convinced his father's a stressed out nutball, he bails him out of a Japanese prison only to join him to prove that the Japanese authorities are hiding something in an abandoned, apparently irradiated area. That something is a large (ahem) cocooned creature that is calling for its mate. This isn't Kevin shouting over the din in a pub to see if his friend Mike wants a top up. This is Cloverfield with wings (I wonder if creature designer Neville Page had his talented paws on this movie – it seems he did not despite some striking similarities in monster appendages). Once it's established that the MUTO male (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) has had some long-range pillow talk with a MUTO female, we are not on terra firma anymore and the prehistoric biology rulebook is ripped up. Of course, the birth of Toho's original and serious Godzilla sixty years ago was more to do with the fear of the atomic bomb and the monster itself was intended as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. Japan is the only country that's been attacked by nuclear weapons (that I know of). Although we've lost the relevance and connection to that important underpinning of the character, the dominance over or the submissiveness to Mother Nature is the subtle subtext of the 2014 reboot. And I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the big G could stand for 'guardian'...
There is not a dud scene in the entire movie and Edwards sometimes throws away spectacle like jewels from the disinterested bandit in that Michael Caine story from The Dark Knight. An airport goes up in truly epic fashion - not only is it covered in an almost indolent pan from plane to exploding plane, it's seen from the concourse through soon-to-be-blown out windows and just as these fireballs reach their zenith, we're back with our human points of identification and you're still hungry for more. This is Edward's skill and it must be instinctive. How anyone can still be instinctive given the time it takes working with computer generated images... It has to be a Zen-thing. It must be like having an excellent sense of direction but you're stuck on an oil tanker and have to have great patience and confidence that the hulking vessel will turn in time to get where you need to go. Each of these scenes takes months and months just to render, let alone the actual work that human animators have to do. Almost all the money shots are, incredibly, teases. He always cuts away as our satisfaction and joy is reaching a peak. Let's credit the editor, Bob Ducsay. Someone has to. The action longeurs in Man Of Steel almost holed the movie saved as it was by some sincere performances. In Godzilla, Edwards (and Ducsay) know exactly when to cut and when to reveal. And seeing characters staring at something they don't believe is straight out of the Spielberg box of tricks. What is so astonishing about Godzilla is that when we do see what the characters are seeing, we are in the same amount of awe as they are. This brings me to the special effects. Yes, I know I said this was a capsule review. It's a slightly bigger capsule than usual. Seats five.
The effects in Godzilla, both visual and aural are truly amazing. The cinema is where this monster belongs so treat yourself. Scale is everything. How the CG wizards managed to convey this level of realism is totally beyond my levels of understanding and I consider myself pretty effects savvy. I'd list them but there are a lot of companies and 665 credited individuals that contributed astounding work – and that's just the CG Visual Effects. And the great and surprising thing is that Godzilla looks like Toho's Godzilla but really real. I also take my hat off to the sound designers. The creature sound effects were (I want to use the word 'beautiful' here)... they were just so right and how I can judge that based on the inherent ridiculous nature of the narrative in question is not up for debate. See it in a decent cinema and let senior sound designer Erik Aadahl's work knock your socks off. I know, I know (I really do know) how tired we are with all these super destruction movies. So was I. Going into Godzilla, as I mentioned earlier, I expected same-old, same-old but Edwards understood this going in and tailored his epic accordingly and his strategy has paid handsome dividends not least for this excited punter.
Two more things to rave about and then this capsule splashes down. Alexandre Desplat's score is rousing, suspenseful and appropriately large. It does what a great score should do; gently propel the narrative forward, up the emotional stakes and make us go "Wow!" All boxes ticked. I'm still waiting for composers to start writing themes again but hey, I'm a man out of time with opinions like that these days. Musically speaking, Edwards takes a radical departure from Desplat in the famous HALO scene (no, not the game, the physical stunt - High Altitude Low Open military parachute jumps) and as those red smoke-pouring figures drop what seem like miles with a POV shot cut in to die for (or for some, dying shortly afterwards), we dip into Gyorgi Ligeti's Requiem (what balls, borrowing from Kubrick's oeuvre and the famous Star Gate music too) but by Christ, it works wonders. Seeing these figures fall out of the sky and hearing that music gave Godzilla (hear that? I said Godzilla) a kind of spiritual beauty. I just wasn't prepared for that. And this was the one scene jumped on by trailer critics out there questioning the narrative validity of the extract. Fear not. It's all logical and generated by solid steps in narrative.
Edwards' Hollywood future is assured. Godzilla has only been open a few days but it's doing well - conceivably well enough for a sequel. If Edwards brings his sensitivities to bear on a sequel, it may even be worth the wait. He knew enough to know when to hold back and therefore it makes sense that a Godzilla II may not just be the big G scrapping with other primeval monsters (been there now, done that albeit done that very well). Edwards is a director to watch, a perfect amalgam of cutting edge tech savvy and old-fashioned film craft. By rights, his best friend should be Neill Blomkamp of District 9 and Elysium fame. Edwards' command of scene and in-scene timing is a joy to behold. He made me feel like a child again ogling in wonder at monsters and just the right amount of mayhem. Bravo, Mr. Edwards.