The Beauty and Grandeur of ‘Godzilla’

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Gareth Edwards Godzilla hits theaters this weekend (see Germain’s review here). I thought the film was good, but not great. It doesn’t have as much action as other “Big Monster” movies such as Pacific Rim or even Roland Emmerich’s terrible 1998 version; instead, it chooses to focus on the human dramas that result from Godzilla’s appearance. The only problem is that aside from Bryan Cranston’s character of Joe Brody, none of these characters are very compelling, nor do they offer much to root for. Many of them feel like cardboard cutouts, existing only to spout exposition or serve a brief plot purpose before the movie forgets about them until the next time they are necessary.

But one thing that is undeniable is how incredible Godzilla looks.
What I found remarkable about the film was Edwards’ masterful use of what’s not there to communicate parts of the story. In several scenes of mass devastation, the audience is presented with a slowly unfurling tableau with no creature — only the aftermath of what’s occurred. The audience is forced to reconstruct what happened.

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While some may argue that this teasing goes on for a bit too long, I personally found it to be much more effective than showing a large creature destroying stuff while humans watched helplessly. Each one of these tableaus tells a story, and the impact of the aftermath is more horrifying than the visceral thrill of seeing the destruction go down. It also makes the destruction that the film does depict all the more effective.

Edwards (and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) also make great use out of the “over-the-shoulder” shot to convey a sense of scale and wonder. From my recollection, it’s the single most-used shot during the course of the film (the same shot with the opposite angle, whereby we push in to someone’s face whose mouth is agape, is also used liberally with some Spielbergian results). By foregrounding the subjects, Edwards makes them an audience surrogate and allows us to grok Godzilla’s massive size, and to experience the characters’ awe as well.

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As with many other sci-fi films these days, Edwards often opts for a documentary-style approach to filming his action scenes. The camera often looks handheld, barely keeping up with the objects it’s trying to follow — even when shots are done using almost entirely CG.

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In a great interview with Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore, Edwards says of his camera placement, “We had a golden rule, which was the camera should always be somewhere where a real camera crew could be. Typically, that’s on the ground with people. But even if we were high up, often it was a rooftop or through a window. There’s the occasional helicopter moment, but I was trying to avoid crazy camera moves where they go through the creature’s arms.” This style subconsciously grounds the viewer and helps provide some level of verisimilitude to the fantastical proceedings.

Beyond all this though, Edwards just has a freaking good eye for spectacular images.

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As Ken Watanabe’s character Ichiro Serizawa states during the film, ”The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” The best thing about Godzilla is that, by juxtaposing humans with the enormity of their surroundings, its imagery unequivocally conveys man’s ultimate insignificance and powerlessness on this planet.

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