Godzilla

Director Gareth Edwards, whose second feature film, Godzilla (boy, he got handed the keys to the kingdom pretty fast, yeah?), evokes man vs. nature classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park in most of the best ways, is arguing in his interviews for something he’s calling “cinematic foreplay.”

Watching his first feature, a political allegory called Monsters, one might have attributed his avoidance of on-screen portrayals of his titular monsters for much of the film’s runtime to a mythically low budget. But with all the money Warner Brothers can throw at the world’s most famous giant beast (give or take a Kong) at his disposal, Edwards sticks to his guns.

No one expected Godzilla to be an extended dramatic soliloquy delivered by the creature from the depths, to be sure. But even your lowest estimations of screen time for the mythic Gojira will be stymied by Edwards, who teases us repeatedly with archival footage, glimpses of dramatically oversized body parts, a brilliant cut to news footage that will either make you chuckle or shout in sheer frustration, and an utterly bonkers birth scene that proves to be the origin of decidedly not the creature you’d expect it to be considering the title of the film.

Cinematic foreplay could be what saves our relationship with summer blockbusters in the wake of so many years of filmmakers who are so darn proud of their CGI creations that they take them out of their pants right away and fling them about going “Look! Cool, huh?” (Oh please, every person helming a tentpole franchise is a man. Because Hollywood sucks. So my “compensating much?” implication totally flies!)

Or it could prove too coy for audiences, who’ll pack up and lay down with someone who’ll give them their CGI spectacle without all the withholding. Michael Bay’s always looking for new partners. Either way, props to Edwards for suggesting and bringing to fruition the notion. He’s got balls. (And he won’t show them to you for a reasonable amount of time. Alright, last one.)

Since Edwards leverages his own version of foreplay so effectively in Godzilla, getting his audience so riled up they are fit to burst at the thought of Godzilla-wreaked carnage by the film’s astounding climax (sorry I lied, but hey, Edwards brought the double entendres into play, not me), let’s engage in our own form of critical foreplay.

I know you want me to talk about the monster (or, just as likely, about Bryan Cranston), but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to spend some time considering something that truly sets this film apart: glass.

Glass?

Stick with me my flabbergasted friend, I’ll tie it in with both the film’s star and the “film’s star.” (Godzilla and Cranston, respectively, if you’re curious.)

There’s one obvious reason why Edwards has such an outsized obsession with shooting through glass: by framing his monsters (when he chooses to show them, which ain’t often) through windows, gas mask and skydiving goggles, even an entire glass-paneled Oahu airport, Edwards lends them immense, practically incomprehensible scale – they dwarf every damn thing we have! But by mediating our image of the monsters through frames within the frame, frames that we can understand like a rainy windshield, we are also able to comprehend, and bow down in awe of, the truly gargantuan proportions of the creatures humanity faces – essentially, Edwards work with scale grants us the ability to grasp just how screwed our tiny, squishy species is.

But as much as Edwards loves using glass – especially the frame of a television screen playing news footage that can’t even come close to capturing the grandeur of what actually stands before the camera, that in fact makes the monsters appear petite and action figure-like until they come crashing through the ceiling to much shrieking – to mediate his monsters and put them in perspective, he is absolutely obsessed with the ways glass keeps puny humans, namely families, apart in times of disaster. And that’s where things really start to get interesting for the idle Godzilla viewer.

In 2012, Juan Antonio Bayona directed a beautifully acted, beautifully shot drama called The Impossible, which fictionalized the true story of a Spanish family that, against all odds, reunited in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged the South Pacific in 2004. It was aptly described as a Saw movie if Jigsaw were Poseidon, with the film taking an uncompromising view of a country, and a family, torn apart by nature’s fickle will. And yet, the movie loses much of its teeth as it contrives countless ways for members of the family to keep missing each other by absurdly small margins only to inevitably reunite (true to advertising) and fly out of the disaster zone, returning to their privileged Continental lives, literally rising above the recovery that persists to this day.

It’s not that Edwards, in similarly evoking the specter of not just that catastrophic tsunami but also of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in Japan, does a better job than Bayona of capturing the human cost of a disaster. Bayona’s eye for devastation was poetic and keen, and he was only truly handicapped by the tidiness of the reality his film was tied to; and, all too often, human anything – loss, emotion, relief – is only a secondary concern for the man tasked with making Gojira a viable franchise anchor after Roland Emmerich ruined him for errybody.

And yet it speaks to the power of filmmaking that the recurrence of a visual motif can drill straight to the heart of the matter in ways that make some of Bayona’s family separation tactics seem clumsy by comparison. Edwards only has a fraction of the time Bayona did to deal with the tragedy of the Brody clan (and you better believe that Jaws callout to Chief Brody is intentional, since Spielberg’s touch with spectacle, with family dynamics in the time of crisis, and with cute kids looking at dangerous things with wide eyes is ALL OVER this film), but by simply using glass to the fullest of its potential for tragedy, he says so very much about his human characters, no matter how little they actually say.

Which brings us to Cranston, who is widely considered one of our finest actors thanks to his work on television and who has never headlined a movie. Until now. Except not really.

Suffice it to say that no human star can eclipse the power of Gareth Edward’s kaiju, but if the film has a lead character that isn’t green, it’s not Cranston’s. It’s Aaron Taylor-Jonson’s Ford Brody, the son of nuclear engineers played by Cranston and Juliette Binoche. It’s not spoiling anything (since it appears in trailers) to say that early on, Binoche and Cranston get separated by a door that cannot be opened. They mourn an imminent loss from opposite sides of a pane of glass that only remains transparent for a painfully short few seconds. Where is their son Ford when this happens? At school, where, out the windows of his classroom, he sees the power plant where his parents work crumble to the ground, unable to do anything but wonder if he is orphaned.

He is not, but the film continually echoes the powerlessness felt in those early moments by the Brodys, and in many ways, we feel like he always was abandoned from that disaster forward. Will the same thing happen to Ford’s own adorable child who hasn’t seen his dearly deployed Daddy in 14 months and immediately sees him depart for monster-infected waters after one happy night at home. (I would love this film if only for the line “Daddy’s home equals cake every day,” and the way Johnson delivers it and Edwards films this family unit at blissful rest.)

Cranston, the absent grandfather, is continually framed behind glass, a constant reminder of his wife’s face framed in that closing window. Ford Brody goes to Japan to retrieve his estranged father and sees him for the first time through reinforced glass at a police station. Later, a captured Cranston delivers his showstopping monologue, the one that punctuated this film’s outstanding trailers, while being held in what he calls a fish tank – he calls to the people on the other side of the two-way glass, begging to be released so he can see his son. Most evocatively of all, as he recalls the film’s inciting disaster, his back is turned to us, and we only see his face in haunting reflection, a ghostly presence, framed exactly as his wife’s face was.

In a time of disaster, nothing could be more tragic than a glass partition. You can see through it, is the thing. Even if you, with your frail human body, do not have the power to crash through that reinforced glass and get to the one you love on the other side, you know they are there. Suffering. As Brody moves forward in his mission to reunite with his loving wife (a teary-eyed Elizabeth Olsen who makes what little she has truly sing) and child in San Francisco, he encounters another double for his own tragic past and tries to push through those glass partitions: a young Japanese boy is separated from his family when he walks onto Ford’s airport tram and gets caught inside the doors, crying as his mother and father pound desperately on the glass. Ford can’t wedge that tram door open or break that glass, but through sheer persistence, he gives that little boy the happy ending he didn’t get as a child. Brody, a loyal soldier in a military portrayed as competent but dumbfounded in the face of stuff that isn’t exactly in the handbook, is all persistence and know-how. We never for a second think he could take on a kaiju, but we imagine he might be able to run away from them for long enough to return to his wife’s loving embrace.

Back in San Francisco, Olsen’s Elle Brody, a nurse, waits for her husband’s return as the city is evacuated in preparation for the arrival of the monsters. She puts her son in the care of a fellow nurse, and for a final time, we are reminded of the glass partition: as she says goodbye to her son, the bus doors close, and her smile falters as she disappears from the frame, the view through the glass doors becoming a gray whir.

What is immovable and painful for a human is mere window dressing (literally) for a monster the size of a skyscraper. At various times during the film, we fully expect glass partitions to shatter. During a tsunami, a fleeing family ducks inside a storefront, and the glass cracks, but we cut away before we see the deluge break through. Later, a monster rushes by skyscraper windows, and they too crack but the glass remains intact. And then, in one, glorious moment, glass shards go flying everywhere and Edwards frees himself from his self-enforced glass prison, no longer containing his monsters within frames within frames. Now that he has shown us repeatedly how infinitesimally small man is when confronted with a true force of nature, he soars above the San Francisco skyline and looks down on gods thrashing from a God’s eye view

So yes, glass, gets a character arc in this movie. Maybe a more sufficient one than any actual character in the film. If the way Edwards uses glass to keep human’s apart and the way he uses it to frame monsters don’t quite lend themselves to one fluid reading of the movie, it could be because Edwards hasn’t created a very fluid movie.

The plot will be slightly baffling to viewers in the early going, especially those expecting (as I was) a Godzilla origin story. Exposition comes eventually but it comes after an entire act of guesswork and sleight of hand. On a second viewing (yes, I’ve already had a second viewing), with certain mysteries pre-unraveled, the film plays better as a cohesive whole and it becomes clear that, if Godzilla can’t talk the talk, it can certainly walk the walk. It’s a master class in tone. It makes a call about what version of Godzilla it would like to portray – the kind that neutralizes threats and engenders sympathy from an overwhelmed populace – and it makes that work in a world that convincingly seems parallel to our own. Some will be put off by the way Edwards has decided to portray a marginally benevolent Godzilla, but, considering both humankind and Godzilla-kind are faced with a menace as fearsome as the twin M.U.T.O, terrifying creatures with molten orange eyes and eggsacks, it seems fair that a temporary alliance should form. Mothra-like creatures bathed in twilight black, these marvelous designs steal much of the show from Godzilla. Until Godzilla decides to reclaim his throne as the King of Beasts. When he does, he caps it all off with the greatest mic drop in cinema history, a shot, wreathed in atomic white, that I’ll be thinking about all year, if not all my life. So the tone of the film is perfect even when the plot machinations falter. Ken Watenabe’s character might be the sole exception to this. He is to the tone of this movie what Godzooky is to the Godzilla mythology: a hiccup, to say the least.

Ford Brody, who can leap into any military squadron by announcing that he is an EOD, meaning he can diffuse the nuclear devices put in play by the monsters, earns a permanent spot in front of the camera as the film’s beating heart; its head is Dr. Serizawa, played with quiet, shell-shocked deference by Watenabe, here to remind us that no matter how much we may fall for this monster, he is and always will be a Japanese bogeyman/hero.

A Godzilla movie wouldn’t be complete without its military characters and its scientific characters at odds about how to handle the monster. Here both David Strathairn, as the man in charge of the military option, and Watanabe, as the scientist who is the foremost expert on the prehistoric beasts that lie in wait, underplay this conflict – to nuke or not to nuke — to the point of absurdity. They practically whisper their expert opinions to each other.

Refreshingly, neither is a villain, neither callously makes the call that puts millions in danger for no reason. This is a film free of naysayers and greedy corporate types. No soldiers turn tail. No civilians horde resources. Humanity is shown in its best light in Godzilla, no matter what uniform it wears. And yet, three cities still get leveled. Are we being punished? The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether the humans involved are generally kind or whether they are the Destroyers of Worlds Robert Oppenheimer thought himself to be when he saw the bomb; regardless of causality, humans lie prostrate before nature, not the other way around. In Japan, Godzilla has always been a product of humanity’s darkest nature. In Edwards’ film, Godzilla’s pursuit of the M.U.T.O is as inevitable and destructive as a change in the weather or a tectonic shift, and the film speaks of the monsters in the language of natural disasters, complete with projection maps and spheres of influence. There’s a sense that our reliance on nuclear power fed this menace (the monsters eat nukes for breakfast, literally), which makes for a fair global warming allegory. But truthfully, the dumbest thing humans do in the film is think they can alter what is natural in any way, almost causing more damage attempting to avert disaster than the disaster itself caused.

Serizawa is the mouthpiece for the point of view that nature, with or without human interference, will right itself, but it’s safe to say Watanabe’s performance lacks the charisma of a similar truth-teller role given to Jeff Golblum oh some twenty years ago. If Serizawa is no Ian Malcolm, it’s no matter. But pretty much everything he says after a certain point in the film seems to wrench the audience out of the carefully crafted reality of the film, bringing on fits of giggles, and that does matter. You see, Serizawa is us. The audience. Like us, he wants to see Gojira (when he says it for the first time after a dramatic pause, rushing the name like he’s pointing at the man-in-a-suit monster, he may as well wink, and to most of the audience, he essentially does), he believes in him, and he wants to see him fight. A fine position for us to hold in the cushy velvet seats, but a strange obsession for a respected scientist to have. He is convinced that Godzilla is here to keep us safe, but lacks any real evidence to prove that the world’s greatest alpha predator has any particular care for humanity outside of “snack!” His findings may be a touch outside the realm of the scientific method. His determination that Godzilla is, if not good, maybe not horrible, is a hunch more than anything, but Serizawa acts on it.

It’s a tough call. Ask Honolulu what it feels like to be kept safe by Godzilla. It’s wet. It’s not as if Godzilla is leaping to save falling children. He just isn’t that kind of savior. An ambivalent God, he takes care of his business (kill the threats to his territory, and no “predator” does not mean he wants to eat his prey) and returns to the sea. One shot in the film gives us a sense that there is something behind those eyes: Brody turns a corner and sees Godzilla, laid low by a skyscraper, struggling to keep on trucking. But for the most part, Godzilla seems completely unaware that there are humans underfoot. Killing other beasts is instinct, not an act of heroism.

There’s something awe-inspiring about that – about humanity facing a void and the void shrugging back. Last year I praised Pacific Rim an outlandish amount for having startlingly good visuals and excused, perhaps beyond reason, its wooden performances. As Edwards’ own vision of kaiju eclipses that of avowed kaiju lover Guillermo del Toro, it’s clear that what Pacific Rim earned through splendid production design and cinematography (no cinematic foreplay in that movie!), it squandered by forcing all of that into a story that repeatedly forced broken humans into relationships that seemed untenable. Worse, all that splendor seemed only to exist, once the leads kissed, to enforce that status quo that movies have relationships in which people kiss. It was monster invasion as therapy. It’s refreshing then to see Edwards view humanity as a species that generally has its ducks in a row – no therapy needed – but that is ultimately powerless to do anything if a crocodile eats all those ducks.