Mise-en-scene, the art of telling a story through visual composition more than editing, rarely comes up in discussion of Hollywood blockbusters. In the age of green-screen technology and computer graphics, it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish production design from special effects, and even when you can, the settings of these films are typically uninspired. In Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and in most of the Marvel Studios output (to name two popular examples), the environments never look quite inhabitable, however impressive they may be on a technical level. One can easily imagine walking around in the palpable, richly textured worlds of the original Star Wars trilogy, or the musical spectacles produced by Arthur Freed at MGM in the 40s and 50s (Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain). But modern-day blockbusters often seem to exist under shrink-wrap, inviting spectators to look but not touch.
The producers of the new Godzilla remake seem to recognize this common failing of current megaproductions; it’s your standard-issue summer movie, but most of the settings are filled out with quirky bric-a-brac, and many of the flamboyant camera movements (which display a refreshing hands-on quality) encourage visual exploration. These elements reflect the influence of Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters, as does the story line, which hews to the narrative structure of Jaws by splitting audience identification between an eccentric techie (Ken Watanabe), a straight-shooting family man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Godzilla itself, presented here as a heroic fighter of other monsters (a la Godzilla vs. Mothra and numerous other sequels).
When Spielberg’s Jurassic Park first came out, critics decried its many product tie-ins, claiming the director’s commercial instincts had overwhelmed his sense of storytelling. (If only they knew what was coming.) Today, though, the movie feels unusually patient for an effects-driven spectacle; nearly the entire first half is devoted to establishing a sense of wonder before the dinosaurs run amok. Godzilla attempts something similar, denying the audience full view of the monsters until the midpoint; before then, we have to extrapolate from shots of giant footprints, hidden lairs, and the like.
Adding to the anticipation are colorful words of warning delivered by not only Watanabe but also Bryan Cranston as a former nuclear engineer who became aware of Godzilla’s existence while investigating a mysterious reactor explosion in Japan. Driven slightly mad by his research, the old man lives in a cramped Tokyo apartment whose every wall is covered with classified documents and pages of handwritten calculations. Watanabe, a monster expert working for a secret international organization, meets with his associates in a dimly lit office whose strewn-about research conveys his obsession with Godzilla and hints at the chaos the giant lizard will leave in its wake. Compared to the elaborate set pieces that clutter the movie’s first act, these densely conceived frames are far more effective in generating suspense, and they probably cost a lot less.