A dialogue about Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters” and “Godzilla”

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Christofer Pallú: What the powerful close-up that introduces Whitney Able in Monsters pronounced right from the start, with its exquisite frontality and disconcerting placement, was Gareth Edwards’ interest in filming people, not just the characters they embody, but their perception and reactions to the other and the environment in which they are inserted. The strength of the film, a road-movie on the verge of the apocalypse, was in the detailed and naturalistic development of the couple’s relationship (much helped by the choice of a real couple for the roles) without any commitment to the dramatization of the war between man and the monsters, always left in the background. Yes, it was something crucial to the central conflict, they were stuck in that situation as its consequence, but all they sought was to return to what remained of civilization, outside that chaotic space, and along the way, as they approached the border, the camera seemed gradually more concerned with the moment, not treating it solely as another obstacle on the journey to save themselves. Therefore, in the final scene at the gas station, in the instant they got in touch with the external, civilized world, all the frame’s space valued was the distance between the two as they longed for the past, culminating in the end of this (false) connection when both come together to passively observe the encounter of those creatures, that before represented all the local destruction, the deaths of people they met, with an incomprehensible, sublime manifestation of life among the ruins of the old world. Only then they kiss, having their action and place in that universe, at its most expressive moment, reduced to that which the monsters occupied, seconds before being taken by soldiers who came to rescue them.

Fernando Costa: Monsters was decidedly the surprise that put Godzilla among our most awaited movies this year, giving high hopes of a promising career for Gareth Edwards as a director. The fascinating thing about this first foray into a fictional feature was its irreducible simplicity: the film not only represented a crossing of two characters in precarious conditions, it was realized under the same conditions – it is inferred here the financial investment of the filmmaker himself, his full commitment to a project that literally became a guerrilla sci-fi production. Edwards stepped on territory as dangerous as its protagonists, and such risk element was incorporated in the film as a perfect homology between form, technique and dramatic content. It was the film that expressed his convictions (of filmmaking, specially) amid the most complete uncertainties (above all concerning the artistic success of the endeavor itself). I can not think the filmic result could have been more surprising, from which I highlight two points Christofer already introduced: (1) the human drama here has nothing to do with “character development” bullshit from crash courses for preformatted screenwriting, but a ramification of the path itself taken by the protagonists; it is their crossing through the contaminated area that, at once, unites and separates them, allows them to establish an authentic relationship while affirms the ephemeral and fortuitous nature of that meeting. As if they were, for the first time in their lives, free before a world without the coersions, although without the stable comfort which their previous social commitments offered. The most immediate danger of their route (the monsters) does nothing but mirror the danger entailed by this freedom, and overcoming the risk it imposes also means its supression, the suspension of a choice that dilacerates – the shot Christofer referred to, at the gas station, which frames the protagonists separated as they reestablish their preceding contacts with civilization, by telephone, is a superb image of the crossroad in their way. (2) By not overly instrumentalizing the monsters, by dosing their appearances with great economy, Edwards gave them some sort of dignity that did not reduce them to the status of mere sources of threat to the humans, even less to sentimentalize them: they are not there to be the object of our fears, the simply are there, impassive, surviving on our planet; their menacing character is accidental (as is human loss in face of natural fatality), but not essential. Such is their dignity, that to the monsters is reserved a kind of integral encounter which is fully sealed to the protagonists, who merely observe them, in the final moments of the projection. The conflict of the human characters is not resolved but sublimated in the unity of the monsters, since the last shot appears to further stir up this tension as it induces us to a retroactive reading of the first images in the movie – it is a perfect open ending in its content, circular in its form, which suspends in a blurred image the exact moment of an intersection between a path without an end and another one that have not begun.

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Christofer Pallú: Godzilla, on the other hand, is an awry spectacle, which maintains a clear dichotomy between the (predominant) sequences about the characters and those about the monsters. If one part of the San Francisco sequence, when the humans are running for a shelter, initially reeks of cowardice by denying the great confrontation at its center, this is soon justified and compensated in the next scene, with the paratroopers’ jump in the city right after it has been totally transformed by destruction, establishing a new direction, for the first time clearly denoting the insignificance of human actions before the event, this scene, as well as the one where the secondary creatures attempt to reproduce, is a small (but important) fragment that recalls the beauty found at the ending of Monsters. Unfortunately, this makes all the more incomprehensible the narrative’s resolution with the family hug, whose personality is nil, low appropriations of Spielbergian clichés, characters who exist only to keep the plot going and (as any extra in the midst of mass destruction) to potentialize the spectacle by putting it always through human perspective, which actually comes closer to an easy resource to bring a sense of proportion. For that reason, scenes that strive for dramatic grandeur, as in the abandonment of the wife (the husband’s desperate look to an empty hall) and son (particularly in the shot showing the inside of the bus and the mother’s face through the door’s glass, disappearing with its motion), isolatedly well constructed, end up losing all their meaning because there is no support for this drama, Edwards’ interest in people in this specific project is a shot in the foot, for the almost complete absense of contextual development makes all relationships empty, the script is too poor, barely functional, and his scene-building is not yet mature enough to sustain his intentions in such case.

Fernando Costa: I found Godzilla very irregular, but with a handful of exceptional moments. I consider it wrong, in the case of a young director such as Gareth Edwards, who does not yet possess anything like a body of work, the attempt to excessively level the expectations of a new project based on the preceeding one, but what makes this operation almost inevitable in the case of this film is that everything the director made right and intriguing in Monsters, and to what he aspired again in Godzilla, resulted in a troubled, even crippled exercise, namely, the human drama – here, of the family – that (I entirely agree with Christofer on this point) seems to exist in order to maintain the story in a path that only falsifies itself. I get the impression of an insistence to fling open a certain human value exclusively to create scale to the confrontation of the monsters – a temptation Edwards bravely resisted in Monsters having as consequence both authentic human value and the sheer scale of that world of natural fatality, which was only possible because he chose to focus on one of those poles (characters in a limit-situation) believing, quite rightly so, that exploring it with the utmost perspicacity, making expressive and fundamental their relations with the surroundings, the chaotic environment, the opposite pole could organically emerge: inhuman and monstrous, exposing its deserved imponence. But, in Godzilla, by trying to balance the extremes that by definition can not be reconciled, both are sabotaged mutually: the drama sounds extravagant and fabricated, and the monsters are debased to the level of human interests projected in them. Two examples of this middle ground which vulgarizes the results here: Ken Watanabe, playing the “Toho guy”, taming the monsters with explanations and granting Godzilla a confidence the movie unfortunately insists to confirm; and the attempt to make an easy twist (the death of a character who until then we took as the lead) aiming to shake a dramatic backdrop that henceforth becomes wholly ad hoc. But not everything falls apart in the film, as I believe there are glimpses of greatness starting precisely from the moment that Christofer said was “coward” (and may even appear so, if secluded), but attains its real proportion only in the next scene, as if Edwards said, primarily, that the conflict of these creatures is not for human eyes; and, indeed, it just turns “visible” when that group of paratroopers invades the space the fighting monsters took for themselves, in a sequence that approaches the brilliance of Monsters‘ best moments. At that instant (though not in the movie as a whole), there is a unique understanding of the nature of these colossal beings and also the proof that their grandeur does not need humanoid sentimentality to be plainly communicated. Another aspect of the direction which induces me to not lose hope in Edwards: the clever play between natural and human components present in the movie’s most inspired framings which, in conjunction, register a complex relation of such elements (nature appears constantly reframed by human activities and representations that transforms it or plastically figure in its imagistic composition or, vice-versa, human activities are cropped between natural objects). These are further reasons to believe that if Edwards is not swallowed by effortless projects and concessions, there is still hope he will not only remain just the promise announced in Monsters and in Godzilla‘s really striking fragments.

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Christofer Pallú: I fully agree regarding Ken Watanabe’s character, an example that synthesizes many of the film’s problems. By fitting the production in the most characteristic patterns dictated by contemporary blockbusters, among them a ridiculous necessity to see an entire catastrophe through the eyes of an ordinary man who ends up almost taking advantage of the situation to resolve his personal problems (in this case, the role of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, resulting in the predominance of the “character development” parts, even when it does not lead anywhere), the majority of the projection serves the simple purpose of reiterating ideas, as in the case of Watanabe, whose involvement is reduced to a ridiculous device for exposition of narrative and the filmmakers’ reading of the original movie and what represents the figure of Godzilla. There seems to be a strong disparity between the purpose of the director’s decisions and the confidence of the filmmakers (in general) in the articulation of these ideas, in their ability to formally address the proposed questions. For this reason, that family hug at the end and the acceptance of the monster as a savior seem extremely forced, false ignoring the clear turning point in the sequence we mentioned earlier, it can only be taken seriously if the spectator sees the “substance” of the film in those speeches proferred by the Japanese actor. Even with these reservations, I believe the film has evident merits and am very interested to see where the director’s career goes, including the already announced sequel to Godzilla, because there is no shortage of ideas or talent behind the camera, but occasional bad decisions which decreased much of the impact of a few remarkable achievements in this first film. I also think it is necessary to revisit it on video, since the hideous conversion to 3D released at the cinemas was one of the worst experiences I ever had with the format.

Fernando Costa: The movie’s 3D is scabrous, and I think little more can be said about it. This thing about the disaster as a mean for family reconciliation (as if the whole world needed to end up just so the family of the protagonists can be reintegrated) is perhaps the most perverse legacy of the catastrophe-blockbuster in Roland Emmerich fashion, which yields a very false relationship between the spectacle (the clash of monsters) and the drama. The incoherence of this creeping formulation with the best parts of the film is something absurd, as if the actual content of the film was, at all times, falsified by these concessions to false taste and for the amenities of the conventions of contemporary crowd-pleasing, but encountered, here and there, a few bright ways to express itself. I believe this is the actual content of Godzilla, which Edwards can and must distill in a probable sequel.