Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Godzilla and Edge of Tomorrow

There is a scene in the end of the new Godzilla (Gareth Edwards 2014) when the monster is exhausted after a big fight and is lying on the ground, almost covered in dust. Then it sees a human, also lying on the ground, bleeding. They look at each other for a few moments, the monster with a facial expression that combines fatigue, concern and sadness, and then it disappears in the dust. It is an extraordinary scene, and almost completely at odds with the rest of the film.

While there is also a very good scene on a railway bridge in the middle of the night, and a magnificent halo jump, the rest of the film is abysmal. It has no coherence or forward-drive, and its scenes are underdeveloped or haphazardous. There is a scene on the Honolulu Rail Transit system in which Ford Brody, the main human character, is involved, as well as a kid that gets left behind when his parents get off the train. Brody tells the parents that he and the kid will get off at the next station and go back. Then there is a cut to a scene in a jungle in which some US soldiers, including the air force, engage in a fierce battle against a monster. After the monster has triumphed it flies away and decides to attack the train and apparently there are hours of journey time between the train stations because Brody and the kid is still on it. This is not a plot hole or whatever people call it these days, it is bad storytelling, or, rather, bad decoupage. Clearly the scene with the jungle battle should have come before the scene in which the kid got left behind with Brody, so that there had been less temporal confusion.

As an exercise in Spielbergian images and editing style Godzilla is interesting, the influence is obvious and it is uncanny how they have captured his style. Alas it is not enough. Spielberg cares about his characters: such care is not to be found in Godzilla. The human characters in the film are uniformly bland and uninteresting, and the acting is uninspired. Nobody comes out well in that respect, the monsters and the animals have more life and personality. On this everybody seems to be in agreement, whether you read professional critics, online fans, or people on Twitter. The only difference is whether people think that it matters. Many do not, because it is "a monster movie and all we want is the monster". I do not understand that at all. Most of the film there are no monsters, just the people, and why would any fan find this acceptable? There is absolutely no reason why there could not be interesting characters that we care about in a film such as this, and it would not diminish the role or the impact of the monsters. It is an obvious win-win. Yet, although it would be in their own interest (they would get better films)  the fans are not pushing the filmmakers into doing better, but saying that they do not care even though they clearly do. Are they afraid they will be regarded as elitists (in some corners the ultimate insult) if they ask for more? I have no such fear, and so I will ask for more. Had the filmmakers put as much care in the humans as they did on the monsters Godzilla would have been a good film. Now it is considerably less than that.

The success, even partly the purpose, of a narrative could be said to be that the person experiencing it, whether as a film, a book, a story told by a campfire, wonders what happens next and also care about what happens. Godzilla fails on both accounts.*

***

A film that succeeds on both accounts for me is Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman 2014), in which the world is attacked by aliens. It is lean, there are no silly jokes, no detours, and it is very exciting and also well-written. I genuinely cared for the characters and the story has a path that was never obvious or dull. The film is set in the present day, with French president François Hollande seen on TV, and it takes place entirely in Europe. That is unusual for this kind of film where the destruction of famous American cities and landmarks has long been a dull cliché, and it is clear that the filmmakers are taking advantage of the fact that this year it is 100 years since the first world war began and 70 years (almost to the day) since Operation Overlord, i.e. the Allied invasion of mainland Europe, took place at the end of the second world war. Both these events are written into the film so that, although it is set now, it is about the past as well as the present. The main male character, William Cage (Tom Cruise), is killed in battle and then reborn on the day he began combat duty (in a sense) so he relives the whole ordeal over and over again. This, in combination with the invocations of the two world wars, can be interpreted as a comment on us humans being in a state of perpetual warfare, and that there is no way out of it. We are doomed to be at war; that is the loop we are trapped in.

I liked almost everything about Edge of Tomorrow and I am happy to see Emily Blunt, who I like a lot, playing a tough soldier for a change. Her character Rita Vrataski is, in a way, using Cage in order to save mankind. He is in the beginning a smug PR-man, trying to blackmail his way out of combat. She has the skills, the muscles and the brainpower, what Cage brings to the mission is mainly that he is trapped in this time loop, and she teaches him everything he needs to know. He would be lost without her and eventually the two of them go to battle, side by side.


The film reminded me a lot about the first film about Jason Bourne, The Bourne Identity (2002), also directed by Liman, in the sense that they are both serious, gritty and very focused. You could also say that Vrataski is training Cage to become Bourne. (The other two Jason Bourne films, directed by Paul Greengrass, have a different style, but Liman set the tone and it is a bit unfair that nowadays Greengrass gets all the credit.) Liman became an indie sensation after directing Swingers (1996), followed by Go (1999), but his films of late have received less attention. Not unfairly so, Mr and Mrs. Smith (2005) is remarkably lacklustre. But Edge of Tomorrow is not lacklustre, it is really good.

One of the great scenes from Swingers, a guy calling a girl he just met and panic ensues.



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*Tom Gunning is famous for his argument that it is wrong to compare early cinema, in which there was very little storytelling, with what came later. Early cinema was of a different kind, a "cinema of attractions" as Gunning calls it, where the spectacle was what mattered, not characters or story. It is an arguable point but the cinema of attractions did not end around 1903, it continues to our day, in modified form, with Godzilla as an example.

This post is part of an Edge of Tomorrow special among a number of Swedish film bloggers. Here are links to other participants. First one is in English, all the others in Swedish. The Velvet Café, Bilder och ord, Jojjenito, Fiffi, Fripps filmrevyer, Haruintesettden 1, Haruintesettden 2, Filmparadiset, Movies Noir, The Nerd Bird.

10 comments:

  1. Perhaps Emily Blunt could be a female type-of-Bourne in the future. No, not in the future as in sci-fi-future but in the future as in her future as an actress :)

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  2. Great post!

    Godzilla: I agree with you 100%. You nailed it, the confusion I felt when fellow bloggers shrugged their shoulders and started to give love to the monster when I talked about the extremely badly written human characters. With at better manuscript the movie could have been great. Or if they had written out the humans all together, no hero, no human main character, no small lovely family that must be saved (it's only "stakes" if we truly beleive they copuld get hurt), something similar to what Soderbergh did with Contagion.

    Edge of tomorrow: I really liked the concept and the execution except that this potentially dark and brutal film was so bland. Is it a childrens movie? It would have been so much better if it had had a rougher feeling, maybe similar to Children of men, and been tougher, do I dare to point towards Aliens (with Pvt Hudson)?

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  3. Yes, absolutely right about the Spielberg comparison. A lot of peoeple are copying Spielberg but they are copying the wrong things. It's not his monsters that sparkles, it's his characters. Even JJ points this out and still makes the same mistake himself (super 8).

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    1. LOL. True about Super 8, and that is way better than Godzilla anyway!

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  4. What is your diagnosis on Godzilla? What went wrong? Did Edwards get more that he could handle or did he not have enough weight to throw in the game against the wishes from producers and studio?

    And I agree that it was very nice to see Blunt break out of her previously demure characters.

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    1. It's for example possible that the team became so overwhelmed by what the animators and computer wizards could do that they forgot about the rest. Or it could be that with such a big, expensive and vital project they got scared and became paralysed in the filmmaking process, doing script rewrite after script rewrite, constantly re-editing the finished material, and getting lost in post-production. On tentpole films such as this creativity has mighty enemies. But it could also be a case of bad direction. The actors felt undirected.

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  5. The terrible acting and boring story is mostly on Edwards is my guess. I don't think he got the actor directing chops. A shame that Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche were completely wasted. And I wonder what the directions to Ken Watanabe were? I'm totally with you on your critique. Henke, I definitely did NOT shrug my shoulders at the poorly written human characters. They were terrible.

    But Edwards got monster directing chops and in this case, that was enough for me to walk away smiling from the cinema.

    (Trying out commenting with my WP profile since there was such an option. Let's see if it works. Haha, the first attempt did not work. The whole comment disapeared. Second time didn't work. It automatically switched to my Blogger profile. Doing the old way.)

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    1. Are you now using the Name/URL-function?

      Considering the monsters took up about 15/20 minutes in a 125 minutes long film I envy you your patience.

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    2. Name/URL, and it works. It's doesn't work as smooth I would wish but it works. :)

      Yeah, my patience suprprised me too. Really.

      Oh, and good point about Liman being overlooked when talking about Bourne. It's like Greengrass did all three.

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