Review: ‘Godzilla’ Tips the Balance; Can Blockbusters Still Be Art?

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There’s so much ugliness in Hollywood.

We’re bombarded now, more than ever before, with the cacophonous battle cry of tentpole after tentpole, blockbuster after franchise sequel of the same formula of big-budget, effects-driven, fanboy-pandering dreck.

The American film landscape celebrates ugliness in bulk. The meaningless violence, the metallic clangs and clashes of mecha armor and explosions, the suits sitting behind it all and lapping up our hard-earned dollar; there’s simply nothing that champions beauty for beauty’s sake in mainstream cinema anymore.

Now we’re told how to think. We’re told which films are worthwhile (the ones the money is behind, the ones playing at 4,000 theaters, the ones based on an already-popular book series or graphic novel). We’ve lost the thread on adult films and what an “adult” film should be; gone are the days of anticipating a blockbuster from months in advance; we’re no longer permitted to look ahead. We’re forced to exist in the now, to gobble up Captain America while Spiderman 2 is nudging the main course out of the way on a triggered desert plate. These films are built on capitalizing on fanboy investment and returning the monstrous monetary budgets of the studios; it’s nothing more than throwing money around and watching the resulting fireworks of buzz-obsessed culture both onscreen and off. Everyone gets their kicks, but where is the art of it all going?

Godzilla should, by all means, fit in with the other effects-driven tentpoles of the year. It’s a revival of the classic series that defined spectacle for an earlier generation. It’s got a price tag hovering around $200 million. It’s got an aggressive marketing campaign even though its pre-established fanboy and casual audience appeal essentially secures ticket sales on name alone. Godzilla wouldn’t exist through the decades without the support of the same crowd that pushes the comic book films to $100 million weekend grosses.

And still, Godzilla feels refreshingly uncomplicated.

It’s a rarity for an American blockbuster to have a crescendoed artistic pulse throughout, but Godzilla’s is unwavering even in the midst of the film’s heaviest effects-driven scenes. For the most part, Godzilla is not a cacophony of Hollywood bullshit, but rather a delicately beautiful symphony of suspense that taps into a desire we’ve long been conditioned to ignore; to simply gaze upon and marvel at beauty that mystifies us instead of building up and sensationalizing our perception of spectacle.

Godzilla is a film that’s simply about what it’s about, and nothing else; in its world, the human race is careless. They struggle with each other and wage war, carelessly experiment with radiation, inadvertently create monolithic creatures who feed on it, and the earth is left with the burden of restoring order. From what the humans are able to gather, Godzilla is a product of the earth sent to eradicate the parasitic intruders (the “Muto,” which look like a cross between gargoyles, moths, and skinned-and-cooked bird of prey).

The bulk of the film is spent observing the would-be spectacle of the clashing monsters from afar. At its core, the film is merely about juxtapositions and finding a medium between the two. Godzilla and the Muto battle endlessly, though their conflicts are orchestrated with the stroke of a filmmaker who never loses sight of his film’s artistic heartbeat.

The film is peppered with characters that generally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things; there are scientists, soldiers and their wives, nurses, army generals and tourists, but we learn to appreciate the minimal presence of “character” and appreciate the scale of wonderment director Gareth Edwards taps into. He makes humans the least important element of the equation. He reduces us as an audience (as well as the characters in his film) as helpless spectators. All we can do is sit back and watch as powers larger than us have at it with our world, and it’s here that Edwards’ film hones its focus on the mystery of looking on; we’re ever transfixed by an infantile desire to see and engage with what we know so little about, and Godzilla is largely about indulging in that sense of mystery, balancing humble simplicity as we sit in awe of the grandiose scene–never outright spectacle–all around us.

Edwards’ primary strength is that he knows how to restrain himself and his material, even when that material is composed around two 400-foot monsters waging war on the streets of San Francisco. Where someone like Steven Spielberg or Zack Snyder would pull back the curtain and unveil a $200 million spectacle, Edwards meticulously draws it closed. He shrouds his monsters in smoke, in darkness, and the cover of the jungle or water. We see flits and pieces of them from time to time, their full forms only revealed well after the film’s midway point. We’re constantly learning about these creatures as we’re given doses of visuals here and there. Edwards builds a mystery, and we’re fully along for the ride. He builds tension in his scenes, cleverly deconstructing a traditional “reveal” by going back to the basics of suspense; simplicity, silence, long takes, and precise timing tied together with a thread of wit. We focus far more on the build-up than the payoff whereas typical Hollywood films kick back and relax in the mess of pure spectacle.

There’s a playfulness to the way Edwards structures his action, though. There’s a careful discretion at work, and the hand of the filmmaker functions as a companion instead of a prodding sensationalist. Edwards presents us with subjects of epic proportions and frames them gorgeously and cleverly, but reveals so little about them that all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonderment of what we’re seeing. We’re rewarded for our patience by being allowed to fantasize instead of having everything presented to us in cookie-cutter shape.

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In many ways, Godzilla is a response—almost a critique, if you will—of the state of things in Hollywood. It’s at first peculiar that Edwards’ creatures often find themselves battling amidst tourist attractions around the world. One of the Muto ravages the Las Vegas landscape, tearing through faux versions of the Eiffel Tower and Manhattan, we see them duke it out in Hawaii, destroying an airport and interrupting a beach full of lei-laden vacationers; in both locales, our focus is often placed on two small children; a boy at the airport and a girl on the beach. Edwards spends the majority of both scenes focused on the children’s faces as they watch, unsure of whether to be frightened or mystified at what they’re seeing. The adults—whether they pull levers on the slot machines or sip drinks on the beach—spend most of their time distracted, and that’s exactly how Hollywood operates; adults flock to the tentpoles weekend after weekend, fostering a culture of quick-fix fandom that’s never satiated until the next lever that’s offered is pulled, though it never quite yields a jackpot. The only ones left when the smoke clears, then, are the children who dare to explore and hang on to that sense of wonderment, and Godzilla nurtures that curious child inside us all. It’s a film that gives us beautiful images and sweeping vision at the hands of a clever filmmaker with a creative pulse beating through the veins of a film that would have otherwise been about reaffirming the status quo for the action-oriented blockbuster. Instead, Godzilla is able to find harmony amidst the bluster of pots and pans.

Throughout the film, we’re never given concrete evidence of what created Godzilla, though the film’s scientists are pre-occupied with the idea that the earth bore him as a means to restore the balance humans offset by fostering a world that allowed the Muto to exist. Godzilla is not an overtly political film, though it does do something typical Hollywood films don’t; it implicates its audience and relishes in ambiguity, seeing as Godzilla is not presented as a villain or a hero. The beast merely represents the natural order and aims to restore the balance of earth. Ultimately, he exists solely to clean up a mess that humans made. He’s generous for making things easier than they should be for humans, I can give him that, but he ultimately exists unto himself. He is not evil, he is not a saint, and he remains a mystery, and the film relies heavily on pitting the small against the big and the known against the mysterious. Is Godzilla a monster or a savior? Either way, the film’s characters should learn to regard him with respect instead of trying to understand it all. It’s much more beautiful that way, and isn’t that how we see life in general?

Hollywood tries to teach us that accessibility is earned by showing up and paying for a ticket, but it’s all really so much bigger than us. Mainstream cinema barely tries to scratch the surface of what film can be. It reduces things to simple spectacle, and films that value the art of it all have shrunk in size, confined to art house markets and box-office grosses 1/100th the size of the advertising budget for whatever superhero flick is playing this weekend. With Godzilla, Edwards challenges the idea of what a blockbuster should and can be. It’s flashy, it’s big, it’s effects-driven and expensive, but it never loses sight of the beauty that can be found in the spectacular image or that wondrous, fantastical feeling of pondering the immensity of that which we cannot control.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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