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Posts Tagged ‘Gareth Edwards’

Something has been a-stirring for some time now. Maybe it’s just my advancing age, or possibly my 60+ movies a year regimen is taking its toll, but it’s actually quite unusual now for me to get genuinely excited about a new movie. Too many disappointments, too much cynicism, I suppose. However, when I learned that Gareth Edwards, director of one of my favourite films of recent years (2010’s Monsters), was to oversee a big-budget American Godzilla movie (a franchise I have enjoyed rather too much for nearly a quarter of a century now), my interest level spiked, and it has stayed spiked ever since.

Godzilla_2014_Poster

It has been sixteen years since Roland Emmerich’s first attempt at an American Godzilla – a film for which the word ‘reviled’ is probably not an overstatement – and ten years since Toho, creators of the great beast, decided to suspend production of Japanese-language Godzilla films following the release of the maddeningly uneven Final Wars, on the occasion of Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary. Sixty years on from the first Godzilla movie, there are clearly a lot of expectations for this film, and if nothing else you have to admire Edwards’ ambition in attempting to combine the requirements of a typical Hollywood popcorn blockbuster with the very special conventions of a Japanese kaiju movie, not to mention producing something with merit as a piece of cinema, too.

Godzilla himself does not show up until well into the film, leaving the job of carrying the story to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays Ford Brody, a young US Army officer whose life has been shaped by the death of his mother (Juliette Binoche, briefly) in mysterious accident at a Japanese nuclear plant some years ago. Brody has tried to move on, but his dad (Bryan Cranston) remains convinced there is some secret to the tragedy, and has been trying to sneak into the quarantine zone and find out what it is, forcing Ford to fly over there and try to sort him out.

They learn the ruins of the plant are incubating an enormous pupa-like object, containing a primeval creature which feeds on radiation. As luck would have it, they arrive just as the creature – dubbed ‘Muto’ by the attending boffins (Watanabe Ken and Sally Hawkins) – hatches out and engages in a little light rampaging. The Muto heads for the States in search of more fissile material, with the armed forces in hot pursuit. However, Watanabe has a suspicion that another, equally ancient predator may still be around, and keen to make lunch out of the Muto. Watanabe calls this creature Godzilla… but with the army and navy in trigger-happy mood, and signals suggesting a second Muto may also be on the loose, it looks as if the King of the Monsters may have a lot on his (glowing radioactive spiky dorsal) plate…

While it is almost indisputable that Edwards’ Godzilla is a vast improvement over Emmerich’s take on the story (a film which even Toho were publicly contemptuous of) , just how much you enjoy it may well depend on how steeped you are in the traditions and lore of Japanese kaiju movies. These are subtly different to the grammar and conventions of the American monster movie, for all that the two share a deep connection.

For one thing, Edwards understands that a classic Godzilla movie isn’t just about a giant monster wreaking havoc and being attacked by the armed forces: it’s about two or more giant monsters, more than likely with super-powers, ripping into each other on a grand scale. The inclusion of the Muto creatures means Godzilla has a couple of worthy opponents to take on in the final reel, which is one base covered.

Beyond this, though, the screenplay reveals a considerable knowledge and understanding of the genre – Max Borenstein’s screenplay puts a new and rather exciting spin on the core Godzilla mythology, and finds a new way of incorporating the obligatory mention of the 1954 A-bomb tests. And both visually and in terms of the general shape of the story, it seemed to me that this movie owes a considerable debt to Kaneko Shusuke’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe – not a Godzilla movie, admittedly, but still one of the highlights of the genre. (There are a couple of tiny shout-outs to the Mothra movies too.)

There are moments here, too, which are as good as anything in past films – the build-up to Godzilla’s first appearance is immaculately handled. Directors often talk about the big G as an implacable force of nature, but Edwards really gets this right – Godzilla’s approach is heralded by fleeing wildlife, storms and tsunamis, and he really does seem like an impossibly immense avatar of total destruction. (Watanabe’s performance – with just the right level of awed reverence – does as much as the CGI to sell this.)

On the other hand, the movie does subscribe to the current genre dogma that all giant monster fights must take place after dark and under conditions of poor visibility, which I found a bit disappointing. God knows what watching this film in 3D must be like, given the light-loss involved: a pitch-black screen and a lot of roaring, I suppose. It also seems for much of the film that Edwards is either being a total tease or trying to make an art-house Godzilla film – no sooner does a monster fight start or a city begin to be devastated than Edwards cuts away to something else. There is a very enjoyable monster battle at the end, but I could have happily watched a lot more of this stuff.

And it is all a bit po-faced, too. Perhaps wary of accusations that a film about an immense fire-breathing nuclear dragon could be considered a touch silly, the tone of the new Godzilla is very earnest. There is no winking at the camera, hardly any jokes, no sign of the more extravagant genre elements (alien invasions, time travel, giant mystic lepidopterae) that distinguish the best of the Japanese films. All Godzilla films are, on one level, absurd, but this film never quite summons up the self-confidence to relax and revel in this (perhaps slightly surprising, given one of the Toho execs credited is Yoshimitsu Banno, who directed the bonkers 1971 movie Godzilla Vs Hedorah).

So we are left with a film which has many of the usual flaws of a Japanese kaiju film – primarily the incredibly thin human characters and dubious plotting – but none of its sense of fun or imagination. Some very fine actors are absurdly underused in Godzilla, especially the women (as well as Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen gets hardly anything to do as Taylor-Johnson’s wife). The first act of the film is very nearly confusing to watch, as well, given this is supposed to be a Godzilla movie yet the plot focuses exclusively on the Mutos (I suppose you could argue that this is itself another sign of the film’s reverence for genre conventions, given how much the later Japanese films focused on their antagonists’ origin stories).

It would be wrong of me to say that this film lived up to my expectations, but then those expectations were immensely high to begin with. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, by any means. Any even halfway-successful attempt at an American Godzilla is always going to be a bit weird, and this film is halfway-successful at the very least. It’s not one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, but its treatment of the character gets so many things absolutely right that it’s almost impossible for me not to like it.

 

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Every once in a while a movie comes along where the actual story seems to get almost overshadowed by the story-behind-the-story: the ‘making of’ is rather more unusual than the plot. Normally these are big-budget, studio productions: it happens a lot with Jim Cameron movies, simply because of their scale and technical innovation, it happened with Lord of the Rings because the shoot was an epic in its own right (the same with Apocalypse Now), and there seems to me to be an attempt in progress to do the same with the Tron sequel on the strength of its CGI-rejuvenation of Jeff Bridges (presented as something wholly new and groundbreaking despite the fact that this sort of thing has been happening for nearly five years on a smaller scale).

At the low-budget end of the scale we have The Blair Witch Project (a film I haven’t seen since it came out, partly because I suspect it won’t be as scary as I remember, partly because I’m afraid it will) and now Monsters, written, directed, and just-about-everything-elsed by Gareth Edwards (a change of pace after all those appearances as scrum-half for Wales, but it’s nice to see him trying something new). The story – rapidly assuming the status of legend – behind this film is that Edwards, the two lead actors, and a handful of others toured Mexico and Central America in a van, basically filming whatever they saw, then came home and somehow edited a movie out of the footage. So far, so experimental, but what makes Monsters unusual is that this isn’t some indie relationship drama but a piece of genuine epic SF.

Monsters has drawn a lot of comparisons with things like Cloverfield and Skyline. It is the story of photo-journalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who’s ordered to escort his boss’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able – who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is about fifteen years older than she looks) home to the USA from Mexico. The only problem with this is that, since an accident with a space probe some years before, the north of the country has been quarantined. It is now home to gigantic molluscine creatures who the armed forces of Mexico and the States are fighting a desperate (and losing) battle to contain – and, unfortunately, it looks like going through this area is the only way for Kaulder to complete his mission…

Well, like Cloverfield this could be said to be a new take on the monster movie genre, and like Skyline it’s a low-budget movie that still manages to incorporate first-rate special effects. Unlike either of them, however, it exudes intelligence and atmosphere throughout. Oddly, there’s a very real sense in which Monsters is not really a monster movie. The creatures themselves get very little direct screen time (when they do eventually appear, they are stunning) and the film is much more about the way the world has changed since their appearance.

The world of Monsters is utterly convincing and in many ways strangely familiar: one can imagine life going on as normal throughout most of the world, with occasional mentions of the situation buried deep inside news bulletins as people just get on with their lives. Edwards inserts fake news bulletins, sign-posts, and other things throughout, most of which the two leads pretty much ignore. This is a road movie, in an odd way, and having travelled a bit in various parts of the developing world, the details of the journey here gave me some smiles of recognition. The naturalistic feel given to an ostensibly very strange situation reminded me very much of the opening sections of 28 Days Later…, which I would say is the film this really reminded me of most.

Can you tell what it is yet?

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Kaulder and Sam. Like everything else it’s rather understated and left to the audience to judge for themselves, most of the time at least. But there is an obvious chemistry between the two who apparently have since got hitched (no doubt Gareth Edwards officiated at the ceremony, took the photos and made the wedding-cake).

I fear this is turning into a list of the things Monsters is and isn’t: it’s not a monster movie, it’s not action-packed, it’s thoughtful and moving and convincing… bleah. In an odd way it covers so many bases it transcends the idea of genre entirely. It’s a genuine one-off (or so one hopes – I hope Edwards retained the sequel rights) but a superbly accomplished one. The legend of the making of Monsters is a remarkable story in its own right, but that shouldn’t distract one too much from the one on the screen: a unique and rather beautiful movie that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. Quite possibly the best film of the year.

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