Is there even a possibility to attribute a sense of authorship to a modern-day Hollywood production? That, of course, was the crux of the matter for the "auteur theory" French critics launched in the 1950s, and they did a lot to elevate the role of the director as the real creative engine of any film. As Hollywood seems to mire itself progressively more in super-hero or monster movies of gargantuan budgets and state-of-the-art visual effects, though, so does the question ask itself again. Should we take these seriously as works of cinema with a personal voice behind them (much as the Cahiers du Cinéma generation did with filmmakers generally considered entertainers as Hitchcock, Hawks or Ford), or merely as assembly-line products without the least sense of personality?
British director Gareth Edwards' take on the mythic Japanese monster Godzilla, rebooting it for Western audiences after Roland Emmerich's much-derided 1998 effort, lies straight at the heart of that question. A film that seems to have hit the ground running at the box-office, welcomed by an unusually polarized critical reaction that has some writers welcoming it with open arms as the possible salvation of Summer blockbusters, this big-studio, big-budget debut from a filmmaker with only one low-budget feature under his belt is definitely attempting to do something else than just the usual assembly-line thing.
Effacing all traces of Mr. Emmerich's film, and using Inoshiro Honda's 1953 original Japanese film as its template, this Godzilla is a much more ambivalent creature, a mysterious, pre-historic "alpha predator" whose concern is not so much the anthills of humans that are now installed on its stomping grounds around the world, more its role as a sort of nature-ordained quasi-divinity, with a duty to restore balance to a world out of joint. This beast that has mysteriously survived from olden days springs into action when human agency unwittingly reveals the existence of other equally ancient - and much more dangerous - creatures that have also survived.
Working from a script credited to Max Borenstein, Mr. Edwards wholeheartedly embraces the cautionary-tale aspect from the early Japanese films that set the character on its 60-year long-running career; just as Godzilla was once a metaphor of the unforeseen consequences of mankind's dabbling with an atomic power it hardly understood, so are its "massive un-identified terrestrial object" foes the result of our ever-growing requirements for resources, liable to release forces we cannot control. The film's first major setpiece - set in a Japanese nuclear power plant - is unnervingly reminding of Fukushima, at other times Mr. Edwards' striking feel for imagery brings back the Asian tsunami or the traumas of 9/11 in a story that can be seen as resonating with the current climate change debates.
For all that, it's clear that Godzilla does reuse the tried and true monster movie clichés: there's a reluctant hero that must put himself in harm's way as the only way to stop possible catastrophe, surplus-to-requirements female characters, a voice-of-reason scientist, a doubtful but professionally stern military officer with responsabilities and a "truther" who has been right all along. It's a shame these clichés are so blandly trotted out, especially since the major failing of Godzilla lies in its casting: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (the hero) proves distressingly anonymous as the hero, Elizabeth Olsen and Sally Hawkins (the hero's wife and the scientist's assistant) have next to nothing to do throughout except look terrified. It falls to Ken Watanabe (the scientist) and David Strathairn (the officer), in the meatiest roles, and Bryan Cranston (the truther) and Juliette Binoche (the wife), to infuse humanity and gravitas in what are essentially underwritten stock characters.
This is all the more dangerous since Mr. Edwards' trick in Godzilla is to always see his creatures from a distinctively human point of view, delaying as much as possible their entrances (none are seen before the 45-minute mark, and Godzilla itself won't show up until much later), focussing more on the impact of these unimaginable giants on human civilization as we know it. In so doing, he brings back some of the sense of awe and terror that only a very few filmmakers have been able to conjure repeatedly, and none more so that Steven Spielberg, whose War of the Worlds is a very visible influence here, in terms of structure, reveal and pacing. The sense of scale and disorientation is so overwhelming that it almost makes you forget that, in many ways, Godzilla is also a riff on Spielberg's central theme of family - these monsters are what sets families apart yet brings them together, as our hero, the improbably-named Ford Brody (Mr. Taylor-Johnson), lost his nuclear family (Ms. Binoche and Mr. Cranston) to the creatures' first sighting, only to come to peace with them through their reappearance.
For all of that, it's really in Mr. Edwards' tantalizingly elusive, reflective (and reflecting) handling, well supported by DP Seamus McGarvey's nocturnal camerawork and Bob Ducsay's smartly elliptical editing, that Godzilla shines as something that avoids the fast-food sugar-rush of summer blockbusters; a surprisingly muted yet unequivocally emotional take on what a modern-day monster movie could (should) be like.
USA, Japan 2014
Cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Victor Rasuk
Director Gareth Edwards; screenwriter Max Borenstein; based on a story by Dave Callaham; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (colour, widescreen, 3D); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Owen Paterson; costumes Sharen Davis; editor Bob Ducsay; visual effects Jim Rygiel; producers Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent and Brian Rogers, Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Productions in association with Advanced Audiovisual Productions
Screened May 9th 2014 (NOS Colombo Imax, Lisbon)