Godzilla Review Part 2: Direction

 Let’s talk direction.

Critic’s disdain for the amount of Godzilla in the film is understandable. Forget the aesthetic Edwards utilized. From a business/enjoyment factor (the balancing act between business and art is in itself an art for the summer blockbuster to master), showing only 15 minutes of Godzilla in a movie which (take away the end credits) is two minutes shy of two hours is not the best choice. Except for Japan, Taiwan, and Germany, Godzilla is truly the “event” film which blockbuster films – specifically claimed by Legendary as their brand – try to achieve the feeling of. A feeling of a rare happening. Japan had had all 29 (yes, counting the 1998 film which is legally called a “Godzilla” film) Godzilla films theatrically released, Taiwan had every Godzilla film leading up to GODZILLA 2000 released in theatres, and Germany got up to GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH in 1991. For Americans, after the theatrical release of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA in 1978, it was a 7 year wait for GODZILLA 1985, followed by a 13 year wait for the first American Godzilla paired with GODZILLA 2000, and then another 14 years since the film being reviewed. So business wise, it is not the smartest. Most countries in the world has not seen Godzilla’s light flicker on the sliver screen in over a decade and before that, two decades. But Edwards chose an approach which has also been praised.

First thing to consider is whether the approach makes sense. Edward’s approach of “wait for it” along with “lets ravel in build up” is Spielbergian in a sense. This aesthetic is usually seen in horror films, which Steven Spielberg did have a hat in with JAWS. Ridley Scott did the same with ALIEN, and arguably James Cameron with ALIENS. Part of what made it work well with those films was that through budgetary restriction predating Roger Corman with 1932’s CAT PEOPLE, such an approach was expected. If a filmmaker decided to show the monster in its full before the halfway mark – such as John Carpenter’s THE THING – the filmmakers are ridiculed. Not to mention, JAWS is just a shark, just a shark. A shark whose life has given it the know how to survive, but just a shark. ALIENS was less horror, but has a device working for it – the big surprise isn’t the xenomorphs, rather their queen. The surprise in Cameron’s Terminator isn’t the Terminator himself, but the exhibition of what the Terminator actually is. James Cameron’s evolution of such is to hold off just a little, not as much, as your predecessors, and then when you got this one creature running amok in the film, present the real antagonist at the end. This is where a sequel to GODZILLA could work. In the TERMINATOR, the differing look of THE TERMINATOR offered a device within the film which dread can continue to build.

Again, the aesthetic borrowed from these films has you wait for the monster, making any time the monster is on screen enjoyable and not redundant, while also building in a building suspense that the audience can really revel in. Does it work? To a large degree, it does. One thing audiences and critics have to understand that the scenes, such as the tidal wave and the dorsal fins cutting the surface of the ocean – suspense building scenes though they may be – are indeed Godzilla scenes. Just because Godzilla is not on camera, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a Godzilla scene. The presence is there. In the Hawaii scene, which lasts five minutes, Godzilla is on screen for about a minute, but the sequence is five minutes long and the audience feels it. In fact, Godzilla’s presence is transferred to the water. When you see a runway worker crouch down to hide only to have tidal wave water pool around him, that’s Godzilla’s presence being alluded to. When we finally see Godzilla roar, his presence accompanied by the first roar is all we get, and for good reason. That panning up shot of Godzilla, and the whole sequence, is given the respect to be its own source of awe. If Gareth had shown the fight, then our attention would be switched from the opening to a fight scene where audiences would start gaining imput as far as Godzilla’s presence while fighting, his abilities, ect. Audiences need to allow their response to Godzilla’s coming ashore and first roar to resonate, like a fine dish, savor on the palate.

Latter on, the second time Godzilla rises up (at the Golden Gate Bridge), Edwards plays with audience expectations. Edwards paints a wide shot of Godzilla’s dorsal fins coming towards a naval vehicle. While Godzilla fans can probably identify which section of dorsal fins are being shown in frame, the regular audience member cannot. Audiences can think that it is Godzilla’s back, but using the element of surprise (not to make the audience jump, but attain a sense of awe), Gareth shows it is actually Godzilla’s tail, and the camera pans up as the tail does. 

This part of the Golden Gate Bridge scene would not have worked if the fight in Hawaii was focused on any more than it already had been. This scene uses the Hawaii scene as a reference point, whether the audience is conscious of it or not. With only so much Godzilla footage being present thus far – particularly a good set of shots of Godzilla’s dorsal fins piercing the ocean – the audience has no other reference point. The audience is made to savor, the audience is made to be in awe, and then be in awe based on a set up which changes your perception of what you were initially at awe with, ect.

Another element of Edward’s direction is the long take. If utilizing the Ridley Scott meathod – using or seem to be using multiple cameras to film one take, you can get a bunch of takes where you can choose it leave the scene as one long take or splice two or three of the takes from different cameras together to form a small scene. Edwards sometimes opts for the long take. Such as the shot below:

Multiple photographic techniques are used. Smoke. Silhouette. A juxtaposition of camera movement – the camera moves smoothly up, but then in rough increments the closer Godzilla comes towards the camera. Not to mention it is a POV shot ultimately. The shot is 23 seconds long. Don’t forget the long wide shot of the flooded Hawaiian streets, which pans right and then up to reveal some of Godzilla. That shot lasts 31 seconds. The average shot length for a blockbuster is around 10 seconds. These longer shots, which start wide in composition and tighten around a subject play a dangerous game. A reason why the normal shot length in a blockbuster film is 10 seconds is because of the average human attention span. Inspiring a sense of awe is harder and harder than it seems.

Putting these great images in context though shows how great some of the SFX directors of the Japanese films cinematographed their shots and scenes. With computer graphics, filmmaking has become a much more painterly medium, making humanity’s ability to replicate what he sees come full circle. Within the context of CG’s limitless possibilities, the thought that say Shinji Higuchi is quoted throughout the film seems natural. With binding stipulation of having to depict fantastic happenings after quantifying the quantum mechanics of such on Earth shows suitamation and analogue effects were not that far off as long as the artists involved knew how to use the tools given to them, were able to conceptualize new kinds of shots, and use the tools given to come up with newer tools to make their new concepts a reality. 

CG has given Edward’s (who is tackling both the monster action and the human drama) an ability to find new spins on old shots. If looking at a kaiju from a vehicle window, the shot can have the kaiju closer to the vehicle, meaning tighter composition meaning a better sense of scale). The clip above of Godzilla roaring for an extended time is an interesting spin – Gamera was only 80 meters in GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE while Godzilla in this new GODZILLA film is 107 meters among slightly different infrastructure. Use of lines and the alleyway is similar though.

Yes, I know about the oragami bird's placing being foreshadowing.

Directing the human drama is a bit different though. Often times, there is nothing completely mind blowing about the human direction. Brian Cranston’s monologue from the second theatrical trailer and the tracking shot introducing David Stratharin’s character are among the more artful. Edward’s knows rhythm though, when to go from shot to reserve shot to a shot showing what a character is talking about. What’s important is noticing when the camera looks like it is on a cameraman’s shoulders, when it is a steadicam, and when the camera is completely still. There is rhythm and a methodology to such, but Edwards could use some improvement here. Such as the phone call scene – there is no pattern here. The lack of pattern isn’t commenting on the chaos of the situation. The camera is moving like its handheld, but that is about it. The use of chaotic/mismatching composition as expressionism would be obvious. Rather, the phone call scene looks like a failed attempt at framing the characters, lining them up with the vertical center of the frame. Wes Anderson has mastered this, but not Gareth. Its not bad, but could be better.

Ever notice how the composition of this shot could be very similar similar to a shot of Godzilla dragging his tail?

Monster Action Gets an A while human drama gets a B-. 


Godzilla Review Part 1: Themes

In lieu of publishing the complete review, I have opted to release it in parts. It has come to my attention that many luminaries of the American Godzilla fandom (both authors of popular texts) have either misread or misread and disliked the newest Godzilla film. In this first installment, observations are made to see what themes are expressed in this polarizing film. 

Lets make clear a couple of basics which audiences who take film going seriously should already be aware of. Multi-layered films, films with multiple themes, have a hierarchy of themes. What that implies is scenes within a film which could mean one thing take on a duality. Two scenes with a shared expression could mesh together with another scene for a reason other than why the first two scenes could be meshed together in the first place. This is the structure of GODZILLA.

In the hierarchy of GODZILLA, the overall theme is “man versus nature”. It is because of this theme that Godzilla has become timeless; that Godzilla is a versatile character; why some critics see this Godzilla film as a nice blending of attributes from the three past cycles the Godzilla films have gone through (Showa, Heisei, Millenium).

Secondly is the anti-nuclear theme. Many viewers who do not pay close attention to the film will think, as Steve Ryfle has so eloquently described it, “whitewashing”. The nuclear theme is the fall back theme for the franchise when the need for a certain realism or darkness is desired for the film. It is a theme which is hard for this film to express because this is an American Godzilla film. America has a hard time accepting nuclear anything as bad. Except for filmmakers like Oliver Stone or Michael Douglas – two filmmakers who have made this a point over and over again (unlike Stanley Kubrick, in which the nuclear theme in DR. STRANGELOVE is not the main focus, nor in many of the Cold War or post-Cold War action films which uses nukes as a plot device) – no one dares to damn nuclear anything. America has the most nuclear power plants. America, for all tense and purposes, won the Cold War. America used nukes to win World War II. Making a film like GODZILLA also means America accepting accountability for certain events. The Fukushima-Daiichi power plant was built with Americans and with American technology. The Fukuryu Maru, so essential to Godzilla’s inception, has to be accepted.

With these two themes working together, there is a spin of time repeating itself in GODZILLA, which gives scenes which express the aforementioned themes, that much more weight. This theme will be expressed latter.

Godzilla’s (the character) ties with the bomb are reconstructed here. Where as many critics say there is an ambiguity about Godzilla’s tie to the bomb in the 1954 original, this new American Godzilla – like the 1998 Godzilla – shows scenes of Godzilla with the bomb. If one stays with the movie alone, Godzilla was awoken when the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, maneuvered its way through the South Pacific. Already man against nature is expressed here – our activities are effecting a planet that, particularly in the 1950’s, man did not fully understand. When Russia and America had discovered Godzilla’s existence, a series of hydrogen bomb “testings” were conducted with the secret intent of killing the monster. The theme of secrets ties into the theme of time repeating itself, which will be described when we start talking about the Brody family. What’s interesting is that the attempts to kill Godzilla, this hidden agenda, exemplifies the real life reason tests were conducted on the Bikini Atoll in the first place – an exhibition of how much power each country had at their disposal. Having the title of “the country that killed Godzilla” would have attested to the power of the respective country’s arsenal a lot more than a bomb explosion on a deserted island with only the aftermath to be studied by the other competing country. Godzilla is also mentioned, like in the Heisei series, to be an animal which feeds off of nuclear radiation – radiation Godzilla freely gets from his habitat at the bottom of the ocean, where the Earth’s core gives off radiation for Godzilla to absorb. If one goes by the prequel comic book’s spin, GODZILLA: AWAKENING, then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the reason Godzilla is awakened. Again, man moving in a world that it doesn’t fully understand. With World War II, man’s capacity for war has gone beyond hurting eachother, war now effects the very thing such wars are fought over – land. Nature is unnaturally affected, and for every action, there is a reaction.

On the other end of the nuclear spectrum are the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, the MUTOs. The MUTOs come from the same time as Godzilla, a time before dinosaurs when the Earth was more abundant with radiation. Not an organism with aquatic adaptations, the MUTOs go after sources of radiation on land – which because of our post-Cold War world (a world filled with the leavings of the war such as a dormant nuclear arsenal, nuclear waste from testings, an increase of nuclear energy reactors), is still available in concentrated doses. Again, human activity effecting an environment that man doesn’t completely comprehend.

Here the human characters come into play. With the first MUTO, the male, taking a power plant as its radiation source, the focal family of this narrative is the Brody family. This is a generational story, part of what makes this film “epic” (to use the term Legendary utilized). The first main character to be killed in the film was Sandra Brody. Russia, Japan, and America are good at keeping things a secret though, explaining the event was caused by an earthquake. Playing into the theme of secrets, Joe Brody decides to spend his final years researching what really happened. Ford, Joe and Sandra’s son, has accepted the official story and moved on. However, Ford still feels for his father, and is lured into going to the Q-Zone, the new name for Janjira, the Japanese city the Brody’s lived in before the nuclear accident. But it is too late, the male MUTO is done maturing and is ready to come out of its cocoon. Because of this secret, Joe Brody is killed. His dying words to his son Ford was to protect his family at all costs. Ford, probably grief stricken over not having listened to his father in the first place, does everything he can to join in the measures the armed forces will execute to rid the world of the MUTOs and Godzilla.

While on his way back in Hawaii, Ford has a run in with the male MUTO while on an amtrack. Right beforehand, he has put himself in charge of a young boy who had been separated from his parents – that which Ford had on his mind before the boy got stuck, him having lost his parents. He saves the boy, and the morning after, tries to help looking for the parents amidst the debris, only to have the child wonder away to just find his parents. That is nature in effect. Nature had spared that child. Time did not repeat it self here.

Yet at the end of his journey, Ford is on the boat, his mission failed, the female MUTO looking over him. This is it. Ford lost his mother, ignored his father only to lose him, and now he is going to die. Ford, having a son himself, knows his son will be just like his father when he has a child, watching from afar the destruction of his parent’s workplace. Luckily, Godzilla comes in and saves the day, and the nuclear bomb goes off without the speculated negative side effects (this was a point of complaint for many, but reviews have to remember that for a good couple of hours in film time, the hundreds of MUTO eggs had been feeding off the energy of the nuclear warhead).

Now, let’s go back to scenes exemplifying the anti-nuclear theme, along with the man versus nature theme. The plan to eradicate, by man’s hands, is to use two nukes – one to attract the monsters off shore, and the other to kill them with the force of the explosion. Man’s hands are not able to do this; though the weapons are more powerful than they were 60 years ago, they are making the same mistake. The character Serizawa points out the folly of such, and the answer he gets is “if you got a better plan, I’m all ears”. Man goes on with his plans, and they are foiled by that which he has unleashed from nature. The MUTOs get both bombs – one off of a train, the other off a boat. Even more vulnerable than the nukes and nuclear power plants is the locked away fall out, supposed to be protected. But something happens, and it is let free. The MUTOs are like an earthquake. Can break down a lot of what man has built. Including what has been built to protect ourselves from ourselves.

Serizawa says “let them fight”. Let nature figure itself out. Luckily, Godzilla – nature’s agent – wasn't going against humanity directly. The fact Godzilla is not direct in his attacks on humanity is cathartic. Critics know that this film uses Fukushima Daiichi as a point of reference for a real life equivalent explaining the dangers of nuclear energy. While not effecting the power plant, the real life Earthquake did cause a tidal wave to wipe away a lot of the Japanese cities like Soma, which saw a 9.3 meter high wave. If critics didn't already know, Japan is a nature-centered culture. To have nature strike so hurtfully is almost like a betrayal. Godzilla being an anti-hero, assumed (think about it hard – assumed) hero, is cathartic. Nature will pull through.

Nukes are bad. Secrets will come back to bite you again and again, even if you reveal it, once it’s too late, that’s it. And nature will strike against humanity if we mistreat it, there is nothing one can do about it, but it will also pull through for us when we need it to.