About four years ago, a young director from Warwickshire made a hugely impressive monster movie on a budget of just $500,000.
Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters’ was a ‘Heart of Darkness’ style tale about a photojournalist escorting his boss’s daughter back to the US through a region of north Mexico after it had been quarantined because of an alien invasion.
A visual effects artist by training, Edwards carefully storyboarded his movie which he shot using $15,000 equipment and added impressive visual effects with the help of off the shelf software packages.
His tense film relied on two unknown actors Scoot McNairy – who has carved out a decent career since and is currently featuring in Lenny Abrahamson’s quirky ‘Frank’ – and Whitney Able.
Anyone who caught the film in cinemas, on DVD or on Film Four will know the illusions Edwards created were staggering, considering the budget.
One scene, in particular, towards the end of the film where the creatures roam around an isolated desert gas station in the dead of night stood out.
Reminiscent of Francis Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Steven Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’, the film was one hell of a calling card for the director who was raised on a diet of ‘Star Wars’, Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino movies.
Hollywood duly rewarded Edwards with a lavish remake of the cult B movie series ‘Godzilla’ which hit cinema screens this week.
‘Godzilla’ cost $160 million – a massive leap from $500,000.
It has a cast that includes one of the most respected actors working in the US today, Bryan Cranston of ‘Breaking Bad’ fame, Oscar winner Juliette Binoche and accomplished US character actor David Strathairn.
With the marketing might of Warner Brothers behind it, it also boasts an acclaimed cinematographer in the shape of Seamus McGarvey from Co Armagh and a booming musical score by Alexandre Desplat.
But you come away from it feeling the scale of the project has simply overwhelmed Edwards.
The plot lumbers along with all the grace of a sumo wrestler with a pompous opening segment about the discovery in 1999 by Ken Watanabe’s Dr Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins’ Dr Vivienne Graham of a carcass of a creature that has been living below the earth in a Philippines mine.
The action shifts to the Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan where Cranston’s nuclear physicist Joe Brody is troubled by unusual tremors that threaten his reactor.
When the tremors trigger a nuclear alert, Brody is forced to make a terrible decision to abandon some co-workers including his wife, Juliette Binoche’s Sandy.
Haunted by her death, he realises the tremors were not ordinary.
He spends 15 years obsessively investigating the devastation in Janjiru from his Tokyo apartment which he believes was not caused by an earthquake and is arrested entering the quarantined zone, much to the chagrin of his sceptical soldier son, Lieutenant Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor Johnson.
The Brodys, however, return to Janjiru to discover the existence at the nuclear plant of creatures known as Mutos that a look a bit like a cross between the monster in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, giant cockroaches and pterodactyls.
The Mutos feed off nuclear power, sucking the energy out of wherever they wreck havoc but they also stir another legendary creature, Godzilla who threatens to cause devastation along with them.
What follows is a mess of a movie which fails to ignite on so many levels.
Max Borenstein’s screenplay is derivative, plodding and cliched.
While Edwards tries to conjure up memories of the Boxing Day Asian Tsunami and 9/11, this standard blockbuster imagery feels worn out.
Edwards’ film is a fan boy’s fantasy and he delivers a mash up of disaster porn from much better monster movies.
So we have retreads of the pounding footsteps of Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ and the wanton destruction of ‘The War of the Worlds’, the hopeless military actions of James Cameron’s Marines in ‘Aliens’, the frenzied panic of terrified citizens in Roland Emmerich’s ‘Independence Day’ and Matt Reeves’ ‘Cloverfield’ and even a hint of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is thrown in for good measure.
And while the devastation imagery is brilliantly captured by Edwards’ visual effects team, it is hard to empathise with the one dimensional lead characters in this film – especially Johnson’s preposterously wooden ‘GI Joe’ lead character.
Cranston, Binoche, Hawkins and Strathairn – all decent actors – are wasted, mouthing cliches ripped out of other disaster movies that border on ‘Airplane’ and ‘Naked Gun’ style parody.
Watanabe is too detached to convince, while Elisabeth Olsen as Lieutenant Brody’s wife has little to do except to look scared.
Edwards, like a lot of filmmakers of his generation, clearly wants to emulate Steven Spielberg.
But his generation and Hollywood studio execs who bombard us every month with a diet of superhero and monster movies would be advised to go back to ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.
If the source material is not strong, if the plot and characterisation is creaky, then it doesn’t matter how many explosions and debris you have.
I recently introduced ‘Jurassic Park’ to my eight year old who loved it.
The effects are breathtaking, the acting is perfect, the editing is whip smart but, most of all, you realise 21 years later that behind all the bombast how smartly plotted it is.
That’s why Steven Spielberg inherited Alfred Hitchcock’s crown as the master mass movie storyteller.
Like Hitchcock, Spielberg at his best constructs spectacle around a strong plot.
Unfortunately for Edwards, ‘Godzilla’ will not linger in our memories in the way ‘Jurassic Park’ has.
It may smash its way to the top of the box office but take away its muscularity and you realise there is very little left.
(Gareth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ opened in the Movie House chain of cinemas and other UK and Irish multiplexes on May 15, 2014)