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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Godzilla: The Monster Movie With A Director Of Modest Origin

From The Guardian

How do you go from a microbudget monster movie with special effects created using off-the-shelf software to a $160m (£96m) Hollywood megalith starring the hottest cult actor in the world in three years? The answer, if you are 38-year-old British film-maker Gareth Edwards, appears to be with plenty of laid-back panache, no small amount of style and masses of geeky charm.

It is very unlikely that any other director in Hollywood – certainly not the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich – would have admitted their first experience of Godzilla was the late-70s Hanna Barbera cartoon version. Nor that when they first watched the Japanese Toho movies on Channel 4 they could not work out why the (heavily dubbed) dialogue seemed so out of sync with the picture.

Edwards was quite happy to play the self-effacing ingenue during a Q&A with bloggers and journalists in London last week, in the course of which we got to see around 20 searing minutes from the film itself. The director, who debuted with Monsters in 2010 and was almost immediately picked up by Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures to revive Godzilla, could probably afford to play down his credentials: if the scenes we saw are anything to go by, his film stands a strong chance of being one of the greatest monster movies of all time.

The irony for a fan of the cartoon is that the preview footage steered well clear of Godzilla's sillier manifestations. Hanna-Barbera's version famously featured a cowardly cousin of the great lizard named Godzooky, with rubbish tiny wings and the not-so useful power of breathing smoke. Some of the poorer Toho films, although not the classic 1954 original that kicked off the whole saga, maintain an unarguable air of man-in-a-monster-suit camp.

Edwards' film, by contrast, has the look of a dark and atmospheric, blood-curdling journey into a world of uncertainty where man is no longer the apex predator and preposterously gargantuan creatures roam through cityscapes with brutal and unearthly insouciance. "As the human race we abuse our position," said Edwards when asked to describe the new Godzilla's dramatic undercurrent. "Our movie is very much themed around man v nature. It's about our abuse of nature and how that can come back to haunt us."

This time Godzilla is far from the only behemoth crashing through skyscrapers with unstoppable destructive force, and some of these other monsters are staggeringly sublime visions from a nightmare plane of existence. I won't ruin the fun for serious acolytes, but there are multiple nods to the Toho films.

The feel and style of the movie closely recalls Monsters, in which Edwards first invited the audience to get under the skin of his human cannon fodder, then plunged them into a fight for survival against hellish extraterrestrial titans in a remorseless display of shock and awe. The director insisted he approached Godzilla in exactly the same manner as his earlier film.

"If you wrote a list of all the pros and cons of making a low-budget movie, when you make a high-budget movie, just swap them over," he said. "Everything that is easy to do when there's just three of you is really hard when there's 400 of you. And everything that's hard when you've only got a tenner becomes really easy when you have millions. So that sort of balances it all back out again.

"The real difficulty, the hardest thing in any film-making process, is telling a good story that you really care about the outcome of. It doesn't matter if you've got 10p, or $200m, it's just as hard for everybody, and that's what we focused all our time on trying to get right."

Aping the intelligent camerawork and cinematography of Monsters, the new film sees Godzilla and his fellow kaiju shot from angles and in light that never gives too much away: we are always straining our eyes to make sense of the vast and savage horrors before us. Edwards also revealed that his version of the monster is the biggest ever at 350ft tall.

"The idea was to make him as big as we possibly could," he said. "We wanted him tall enough for you to be able to see him wherever you are in a city but small enough for him to be obscured at times – because otherwise it's no fun. We did a whole version of options from crazy tall to small to dinosaur-sized and it was quite clear that 350ft was the optimum height. Especially as that would make him technically the biggest Godzilla ever, so we thought 'let's do that'."

Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, playing a nuclear physicist whose life was changed 15 years previously by an earth-shattering event he refuses to believe was a natural disaster, is the perfect actor to express humanity's incandescent fear and rage at the prospect of imminent Armageddon.

Edwards said he picked Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Cranston's military commander son, for his ability to hold audiences through multiple scenes with little or no dialogue. That's a big ask in a movie where the threat of barbarous beasts appears ubiquitous, and the jury must remain out on whether the British actor is up to the task. We'll also have to wait and see whether Godzilla can succeed where so many of its predecessors have failed and avoid descending into final act mega-destruction overkill.

Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla still lingers in the memories of fans as a sad example of Hollywood's inability to find the beating heart of its source material. On this evidence Edwards' take looks odds-on to wipe its predecessor from the map.

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