By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 19, 2014 at 3:03PM
Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla” (our review) did so well this weekend (almost $200 million worldwide) that by Sunday they had already announced a sequel was in the works. And of course, with a massive opening like that, it’s to be expected. The monster movie is a triumph, at the very least, for director Gareth Edwards. His directorial career started with “Monsters," a super lo-fi, low-budget monster movie about an unlikely pair of strangers trying to travel from Central America to the United States, in a world (and particularly the border of Mexico), now infested with gigantic creatures, that resembles a police state.
Having little to no budget, Edwards had to rely on characters, dynamics, chemistry and inventiveness: the filmmaker and former VFX helmer had to use his disadvantage—not really able to show his creatures—to his advantage. And cleverly he did, only showing the creatures in small bits, from the characters' POV and playing coy with the monster throughout until the very end (and even then you only got dark, rare glimpses of them). It totally worked, and if you’ve seen “Godzilla” and are reading this you’re hopefully thinking, “Damn, that’s exactly what he did for his new kaiju monster film,” because he adopted the same methodology for “Godzilla.” And good on him for making such a successful leap from small indie to gigantic tentpole; this risk pays off in many respects.
But “Monsters” was Edwards’ baby. He wrote it, directed it, acted as his own cinematographer and was the head production designer on it; this was his world and his vision. Consequently, “Godzilla” is much the same, it feels mostly like a unified vision and from a filmmaker who’s likely going to be ratified with a modern day auteur stamp any minute now if he hasn’t already. But where “Godzilla” drifts away heavily from the filmmaker is in the writing.
When you’re a studio that has a $100 million-plus project on your hands, you bring in the big guns and then it can often become writing by committee or writing to fulfill certain trope obligations. And while Edwards worked closely with his writers, there are quite a few hands that the script passed through. Dave Callaham is credited with the story and Max Borenstein is credited with the screenplay—only one screenwriter isn’t so bad, right? True, but Frank Darabont also did a uncredited rewrite of the film and we've been hearing that at least one more well-known young and popular auteur did an uncredited rewrite as well. And this is where “Godzilla” really starts to lose focus and some of the ballsy gambles in the movies just don’t work. But “Godzilla” is here and not going away. We thought we’d take this opportunity to take a look at what worked and what didn’t in the latest iteration in this movie about the King Of All Monsters. Suffice to say there will be *spoilers*, so please don’t read until you’ve seen the movie.
“Godzilla” has its heart in the right place. This is a would-be intelligent and inventive summer tentpole in the vein of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Rian Johnson. Never does “Godzilla” feel like a cash-in. Its first act is a long set-up and investment in the story; the movie isn’t just about monster fist-fights, and the film, while not always successful, at least aspires to something ambitious and awe-inspiring. In other words, Edwards is a well-meaning, genuine filmmaker who brings a big level of authenticity to “Godzilla.” It (almost) never feels silly, it has an air of drama, real stakes, consequences and global implications. This is intended as serious filmmaking and we hate to bring up Nolan again, but it feels cut from the same cloth; to take a fantastical subject and treat it with honesty and respect in hopes of translating something genuine to the audience. In that regard, “Godzilla” mostly succeeds.
While “Godzilla” DP Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement,” “The Avengers”) has spoken out about 3D recently—“I think it's very much a marketing gimmick. As a cinematographer I absolutely despise it”—he’s done it before. Most notably during “The Avengers,” with McGarvey noting in the same interview that shooting native 3D on the set of that blockbuster movie lasted one day. While “Godzilla” wasn’t shot in 3D, it is being released in the format (converted, of course), and while it’s not particularly enveloping the way films like “Hugo” and “Life Of Pi,” it doesn’t hurt the movie either. “Godzilla” looks appropriately dark in trying to shroud its mysterious, camera-shy monster, but it’s not oppressively dark or tenebrous to an affected degree. The movie looks good and the POV style—you mainly see the monster from the human’s perspective, which means legs and tails and not full view—might be frustrating to some, but it feels natural and realistic.