What I’d Watch 5/16/14: Godz and Monsters

godzilla2012_postermilliondollararm_posterPoor Jon Hamm.  For years he had the misfortune of his performance as Don Draper on Mad Men go head to head with the juggernaut that was Bryan Cranston’s Walter White at the Emmy Awards.  And now he’s facing off against another Cranston-led behemoth that’s likely going to slap his nice little baseball movie to hell and gone.  On the bright side, he still looks like Jon Hamm, so I’m not exactly going to be losing a lot of sleep over this for him.

I’m sure Million Dollar Arm is a perfectly pleasant bit of inspirational fluff.  I’m sure Disney knew people would be looking for a low-key alternative to all the bombast on screens right now.  I’m sure many talented people put a lot of effort and care into the film, and fully believe they’ve created something worthwhile.

And I’m sure it’s going to get absolutely destroyed by the towering majesty that is Godzilla.

When I saw that there’d be screenings of Godzilla as early as 7:00 on Thursday, there was no way I was waiting until the weekend to see it.  Clearly the couple of hundred people crammed into the IMAX theater last night had the same idea.  What we saw was spectacle done right, doled out in small doses until we were ready for the main course.  Too many blockbusters just hammer away with set piece after set piece, with no sense for building tension or pacing their thrills.  It’s all a breathless rush that too often reaches its climax long before the story does.  Godzilla director Gareth Edwards knows what Steven Spielberg does:  the long slow climb up the roller coaster hill is just as important a part of the ride as the drop.

That’s not to say that the film is boring until Edwards unleashes the monster mayhem.  He’s just smart with it.  The first few monster battles are glimpsed, here on a TV news report, there as a shelter door closes.  It’s a kind of striptease, really, offering a tantalizing flash of what we came for, but not giving away the whole show right off the bat.  The result was an audience absolutely ravenous for what Edwards provides in the film’s final third, a thunderous panorama of might and destruction where every move from Godzilla elicited cheers because we were finally rewarded for our patience.

Edwards also does some impressive things with the idea of scale here.  Locations very often dwarf the humans who inhabit them.  Small objects and animals are placed in the foreground, seemingly looming over the background.  Giant monsters are first seen on small screens.  The large is made small and the small is made large.  We’re being primed for adjusting our perceptions, for changing our preconceived notions of size and scope.  So once the monsters are in the same frame as the humans, they become truly monstrous.  We’re constantly shown humans in the foreground with the monsters as backdrop, where we’ve become used to seeing skyscrapers and mountains.  The effect is both exhilarating and humbling; here there most definitely be dragons.

Edwards even manages to do some interesting things with the visual effects.  There’s a definite air of “man-in-suit” to the way Godzilla and his foes move, with none of the slick, computerized gloss prevalent in too many FX spectacles these days.  This gives the monsters a real sense of presence and weight, while also keeping them engaging; they feel like living creatures instead of pixels.  In other places, Edwards allows his CGI buildings and vehicles to have an almost toy-like look.  Not necessarily fake, but highly evocative of the glory days of Toho model-making, when rank after rank of miniature tanks rolled into battle.  This is effects as craft, not technique.

I could quibble that, like nearly every Godzilla film before it, the human scenes slow things down just a bit, but everyone seems to have honed in on the spirit of things, and so the film never completely drags.  Besides, the absolute childlike glee with which Edwards stages his monsters would make them a tough act to follow for even the most scenery-chewing cast.  That glee is appropriate, because it was as children that most of us who love Godzilla came to do so.  He was a case not only of how the very small tend to be fascinated by the very large, he was a monster who fought other monsters, who kept the bad things away.  We could be scared of him yet also root for him.  Edwards acknowledges this in a scene where a little boy watches one of Godzilla’s first battles on TV in wide-eyed rapture, his only words an awed, “Look, Mommy, dinosaurs!”  We in the audience knew exactly how he felt.


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