Monday, 17 November 2014

Gareth Edwards - Monsters and Godzilla

British born Director Gareth Edwards cites Star Wars: Episode IV, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Baraka and Reservoir Dogs as his favourite all time films. So what's not to like?

Writer, Cinematographer, Visual Effects Co-ordinator and now Director in his own right, self confessed George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino fan, Gareth Edwards has hence far directed two fascinating takes on the monster genre with his low budget gem "Monsters" in 2010 and the studio backed blockbuster "Godzilla" in 2014. Following on from the success of these two uniquely cinematic features, Gareth is slated to direct one of the upcoming Star Wars prequels before helming Godzilla 2 in 2018.

Two unique stories follow and as with all of my film blogs I have written these from the perspective of a genuine fan, with little or no plot spoilers and I always aim to give just 5-10% of the film as a whole. I want to give you a flavour for why I love these creations as well as hoping you will see them for the first time or re-watch and enjoy them all over again. Plot spoilers, fact tracks and trivia can be found elsewhere on the internet! Here you will read my genuine and honest appraisals of two wonderful films and I sincerely hope you enjoy my individual take on them.

Monsters (2010)

"I don't want to go home"

Reputedly costing under £500,000 to make with improvised dialogue from non-actors in impromptu scenes and special effects that were entirely devised and created in the bedroom of the Director, Monsters is the archetypal low budget film made good. As well as directing this low budget masterpiece, Gareth Edwards also wrote the screenplay, acted as his own Director of Photography, Production Designer and Visual Effects Supervisor, and in the process created a gem of a film. Dark and subliminal yet in spite of it's title Monsters is in the main a surprisingly quiet and reflective film that plays against both it's simple title and the monster movie genre being more of a science fiction thriller than a horrifying monster film.

Despite the film's title, Monsters is not ostensibly a film actually about monsters and aside from two particular scenes in near pitch black darkness it's also not an especially scary or horrifying film, but this is not to decry or criticise the film in any way. Twisting a rather bad analogy the monsters themselves or "The Creatures" as they are more commonly known, are rather like the world's most unruly children, heard rather than seen as they wreck their devastation on a monumental scale from city to city in the "infected zone" which splits the border between the United States of America and Mexico. Monsters is rather a film of the shocking aftermath following a huge catastrophe and this is alluded to in the film's opening prologue as it details a NASA mission six years ago that went awry, scattering alien samples across a vast swathe of the USA/Mexico landmass. Cleverly, Director Edwards uses their haunting sounds, cries of anguish and calls for their follow aliens as well as using constant television news coverage of the creatures to reinforce the threat posed rather than out and out, full blown shots of the aliens, which when seen are reminiscent of the martians of War of the Worlds but always just out of real focus. The unseen danger though is ever present but again cleverly, the film's real focus is on the overt military presence and response to the emergency situation, with border checkpoints and soldiers on every street, tanks and armaments on stand by to deal with the on going threat as well as fighter jets making regular sorties across the sky.

Monsters is an after the event film and a tale of life continuing as normal amid the utter devastation wrought by this unseen and seemingly uncontrollable force and rather than a clichéd "monster movie" it is in fact an ode to children and family, of familial life continuing and adapting to the worst possible scenario surrounding your lifelong community home and furthermore, at it's heart, Monsters is an accidental love story of two Americans caught on the wrong side of the quarantined border. Aside from a belligerent, opportunistic and rapacious "Ticket Seller" (Mario Zuniga Benavides) the film wholly focuses on the trials and tribulations of "Andrew Kaulder" (Scoot McNairy) a photographer who reluctantly agrees to escort his employer's daughter "Samantha Wynden" (Whitney Able) away from the infected zone, to the coast and home to America. They are both awkward strangers and both have different reasons for returning home aside from attacks from the unseen creatures, with Samantha originally desperate to return and "see my fiancee and live happily ever after" but after being thrown together in a desperate situation and after a drunken night fuelled by Mexican tequila their dynamic changes as well as their well intended plans for returning home. Scoot McNairy, who would follow Monsters with roles in Argo, 12 Years a Slave and Gone Girl is excellent as the conflicted photographer Andrew. He's forever performing his day job of taking photographs and seeking the unique story that will pay well as the couple make their perilous way towards home but equally has to justify his role to a sceptical and tired Samantha but ultimately it's her Father who pays "zero" for happier stories and has to justify his action with "I don't cause this. I document it". Whitney Able would follow her role in Monsters with roles in Straight A's and 2014's A Walk Among the Tombstones and together with her real life husband Scoot McNairy carry the film's tight, tense and ultimate familial narrative very well.

Monsters may not actually be a film about monsters but it's so much more than that and far more than a simple clichéd horror fest. It could be argued as a post apocalyptic road movie, a character study of two desperate human beings seeking refuge from unseen forces and a safe passage home, an accidental love story even or maybe a reflective take on human beings tackling nature, the universe or even immigration. But more importantly Monsters is an incredible début feature film from Gareth Edwards as he employs many obtuse and oblique camera angles that perfectly fit the fractured and unnerving narrative, as well as relying on Colin Goudie's often frenetic editing and his sound department's excellent use of atmospheric creature sounds that are vital to a mostly unseen foe. Above all, Gareth has written, helmed, shot and produced a low budget masterpiece that is visually and aurally effective and a film I'd highly recommend, above and beyond even than his visually stunning and heavily studio financed follow up.

Godzilla (2014)

"I'm going to find the truth and end this, whatever it takes"

Following Gareth Edwards overwhelming success with Monsters he was entrusted four years later with a vastly larger budget but more importantly, he was handed the opportunity to reboot or re imagine one of Hollywood's most beloved franchises sixty years after it's seminal original was released. Taking inspiration from, and paying somewhat of a homage to Ishiro Honda's 1954 original "Gojira" but less so of Roland Emmerich's original reboot of the franchise in 1998, Edwards re-imagining still leans heavily on the success of his début feature with a familial heart at the centre of his narrative, an indictment of the futility of war and especially of meddling with nature and of nuclear weapons and nuclear power whilst giving the star(s) of this particular show far more screen time than the creatures of his previous film. Godzilla may only grace our screens in the phenomenal and literally blockbusting final act but the lead up to this is dominated by a further, radiation absorbing "MUTO" or "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism" but where Edwards' reboot succeeds is by cleverly blending another real human story with an enhanced budget affording such incredible on screen monsters (and surely Oscar nominations in any of the categories for sound design or visual effects through to Seamus McGarvey's cinematography or Alexandre Desplat's wonderful musical score) whilst also encompassing an updated narrative that leans on the events of the Fukishima nuclear disaster of 2011 and, it could also be argued, that of the horrible events of Chernobyl in 1986. This Godzilla reboot is not without it's flaws though, with far too many characters simply left "hanging" with no narrative arc to follow and some lightweight acting in part, however as a cinematic spectacle, Godzilla is another incredible achievement from Director Edwards.

Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham, Godzilla spans the globe (Philippines, Tokyo, San Francisco and Hawaii) as well as a 15 year time period from a seemingly accidental nuclear reactor meltdown to the present day incubation of a MUTO and secret study there of. Suffice to say there is a further "accident" thus freeing the giant flying monster but that is just one small detail of a much larger plot that won't be spoiled further here. Bryan Cranston is excellent as "Joe Brody", lead engineer at the nuclear power station and arch refuser that is was simply an accident and whilst painted as a latter day conspiracy theorist or self proclaimed "maniac" has stark evidence that what occurred was a forewarning of much larger catastrophic events to come. Husband, Father and Grandfather, he is determined to see justice prevail for the sake of his family and for humankind and is ably supported by his now grown up son "Ford Brody" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy Bomb Disposal Expert, torn from his young son "Sam Brody" (Carson Bolde) and wife "Elle Brody" (Elizabeth Olsen). A truly international cast is further supported by the excellent Ken Watanabe as lead scientist "Dr Ishiro Serizawa" and the calmest head amongst the ensuing monster madness together with fellow scientist "Vivienne Graham" (Sally Hawkins) and Juliette Binoche stars as "Sandra Brody". Two further substantial character roles are also worthy of note, being David Strathairn as US Navy "Admiral William Stenz" and Richard T Jones as his naval commander "Captain Russell Hampton" as the USA Navy takes command of the escalating problem and threat to humankind as Godzilla finally prepares to take centre stage.

Minor narrative and character problems aside Godzilla, a "God" and relic from a prehistoric time, is brilliantly realised when on screen and the third act is exactly what a blockbuster monster movie should be, loud, brash, absorbing and a real visual and aural treat. It is a magnificent spectacle at times but where the film succeeds is by never forgetting its roots or indeed its heart with characters in the main, fully developed against an almost real life backdrop. Allusions are made of the nuclear experiments of the 1950's as well as the catastrophic disasters at Fukishima and Chernobyl. There are very definite echoes of Edwards previous and, in this writer's mind, far superior film Monsters, in as much as it's another character study albeit on a far larger scale and with far larger, louder and more imposing monsters this time! However the same key ingredients span both wonderful films, of a familial tale set against humankind's instincts to explore or meddle with nature and whilst I enjoy Monsters far more than his blockbuster and bigger budget follow up, I highly recommend both of Gareth Edwards' first two cinematic features to you, dear reader.

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