When it comes to visual effects, Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has a saying of sorts. “My bad joke is that it’s like being a gynecologist,” the British filmmaker told BuzzFeed. “It just stops turning you on after a while.”
In bringing the legendary atomic creation back to cinemas this Friday, Edwards didn’t skimp on the kaiju battles. But in an age in which we take incredible special effects for granted, what’s most interesting to him is restraint and subverting expectations. “I get strangely more excited about, What if we didn’t do this? That would be rebellious, that would be different,” he said.
Thanks to CGI, just about anything’s possible on screen these days. And so many summer movies have taken advantage of that, with denouements of effects-laden orgies of mass destruction that see buildings demolished by an invading alien warrior races, Decepticons, Kryptonian generals, or crashing warships.
But Godzilla, which features Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Ken Watanabe, is clearly a reaction to the epics that have crowded the multiplex — an attempt to battle what Edwards called “CGI fatigue.” “If this was the first-ever Godzilla movie or monster movie or blockbuster set in a city that might be destroyed using CGI, we would have probably just gone for it in the way that everything else does,” he admits. “But you’ve seen that so many times over the last few years. It’s the default third act of all these movies, and that worked against us.”
Edwards’ Godzilla teases its scenes of awe and destruction as often as it indulges them. And the result is a movie in which the creatures feel unnervingly startling and solid, and that defies many of the usual blockbusters’ beats.
With only one other movie under his belt, Edwards is the latest example of a recent Hollywood trend in which up-and-coming directors have been handed the reins to some giant-sized franchises (think Marc Webb and Spider-Man). He is unusual in that he worked for years in digital effects on television series like Perfect Disaster and Space Race before making his directorial debut with the 2010 indie Monsters, for which he did all the effects himself.
The resulting sci-fi film, which stars Scoot McNairy and now wife Whitney Able as a pair of Americans trying to make their way through an area of Mexico that’s been invaded by extraterrestrials, had a reported budget of less than a million dollars and earned Edwards his place as the man in charge of reimagining Godzilla 60 years after the lizard first appeared on screens.
But Edwards’ biggest fear in rebooting the monster franchise wasn’t leaving something out; it was boring jaded viewers with too many of the same sort of scenes of skyscrapers getting knocked down. “You get battle fatigue quite quickly when you have these fight sequences at the end of the movie,” he said. “And you can easily peak and then hit a plateau and then there’s nowhere else to go.”
Also important to Edwards in rebooting Godzilla was maintaining a sense of scale by keeping the film to a human’s-eye-view of the action. “We had a golden rule, which was the camera should always be somewhere where a real camera crew could be,” he said. “Typically, that’s on the ground with people. But even if we were high up, often it was a rooftop or through a window. There’s the occasional helicopter moment, but I was trying to avoid crazy camera moves where they go through the creature’s arms.”
The result, Edwards thinks, is mainly subconscious. “Most people wouldn’t be able to tell you why, but hopefully the final effect is that it feels more believable because you’re not being a kid in a candy store.”