The Art of the Reveal: Godzilla Edition

I love a good reveal. Done right — think Harry Lime being outed by a splash of light on that shadowy, cobblestoned Viennese street in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), or Colonel Kurtz’s features slowly emerging from the murk as he cools himself with a splash of water in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or a 200-foot alien tripod rising from a town square in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) — they create indelible moments of tension, wonder, surprise and unease.

Alas, such artful examples are few and far between. Why? Because a memorable reveal isn’t particularly easy to construct. Not only does it involve how information is doled out to the viewer, but also when and how much. And I’m not sure this can be taught. Rather, it’s something innate — directors either got it or they don’t, sort of like webbed toes or 11 fingers. Not to say that filmmakers born without this particular gift aren’t going to excel at the craft. It just means they’re unlikely to design and execute a reveal in such a way that it becomes a film’s calling card, something that will be talked about and studied for years to come. Sure, their alternate-universe version of The Third Man might feature a perfectly acceptable moment in which Harry Lime is discovered alive by Holly Martins, but it certainly wouldn’t contain the sublime art of Carol Reed’s unique flourishes: the pesky cat snuggling at Harry’s wingtip, the high-contrast lighting, the irate old woman setting things in motion by flipping on a lamp, the perfectly timed zither cue as the camera pushes in on Harry’s amused face, etc. That, as Steven Soderbergh once said, is “next-level shit.”

Which brings me to Gareth Edwards, a young English director whose micro-budgeted debut, Monsters (2010), fairly oozed that “next-level shit” when it premiered at South by Southwest in March 2010.

Set a couple years after a space probe crash lands in Mexico, the film follows a photojournalist covering the unfortunate aftermath: the emergence of alien lifeforms throughout the Mexico–United States border region, including particularly nasty (and massive) tentacled squid-like thingies. What sets the film apart from your traditional creature-feature, however, is that Edwards barely shows us the aforementioned creatures. His film prefers to hint at them via local graffiti, creepy sounds in the night and government-posted warning signs.

Monsters is a lyrical road movie more than anything else, an exercise in restraint in which the protagonist simply endeavors to help his boss’ daughter escape the region and cross back into the U.S. (via a gigantic wall the government has built to keep the creatures in Mexico). When we do see the creatures, it’s just a fleeting glimpse — a tentacle here, a tentacle there — vaguely lit by a car’s headlight or a flash of lightning. Just as Spielberg did in Jaws (1975), Edwards withholds visual information to allow the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks, an exercise that usually results in elevated levels of dread. He understands that less can be more, a rare bit of insight for a fledgling filmmaker.

Hollywood, always on the lookout for potential, took notice of Edwards’ assured debut. After all, the man in question not only directed the film, but also wrote the screenplay, acted as cinematographer, production designer and visual effects artist — a true savant. Soon thereafter, Edwards found himself chosen to helm Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures mega-budgeted ($160m) remake of Godzilla (2014), the first entry in what the studios hoped would become a MonsterVerse. (A fancy term for a never-ending cash cow.)

Of course, for any Verses to happen, Monster or otherwise, the inaugural film had to land financially — no pressure for a guy whose previous (and only) feature cost well under $500,000. Luckily for all involved, Edwards delivered a movie that made a healthy $530m worldwide, paving the way for film #2, last March’s Kong: Skull Island (directed by yet another green filmmaker, this one by the name of Jordan Vogt-Roberts).

Box office success aside, the 2014 Godzilla remake proved that Edwards’ unique and deft handling of Monsters wasn’t some fluke. The guy has an undeniable flair for movies featuring humungous creatures stepping on shit. He seems to know in his bones how to show us something we’ve seen a million times before in a unique and artful new way. Best of all, and once more returning to that “next-level shit” phrase, he’s an auteur of the dramatic reveal.

Now, in order to take you through what I consider to be a sublime example of the latter, it’s important you have at least a general sense of where things stand in the film before the lengthy scene in question. Thus, I offer up this streamlined synopsis of events so far, each sentence admittedly more preposterous than the last, but…whatever, it’s a monster movie:

A MUTO (acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism…duh!) resembling a giant preying mantis has escaped confinement (from a Japanese nuclear reactor — don’t ask) and is flapping its way east across the Pacific in search of food (nuclear power — don’t ask). In hot pursuit are the U.S. Navy and scientists from Project Monarch, an ultra-secret international organization founded to study prehistoric giants (don’t ask). After some extreme scenes of exposition, the MUTO is tracked to the rainforest outside Honolulu, where it’s discovered by Special Forces feasting on the reactor of a Russian nuclear submarine recently plucked from the waters off Oahu (don’t ask). And if that wasn’t bad enough, all pursuing entities fear that, unless they get a handle on this MUTO critter right quick, an “ancient alpha predator” will rise from the depths to restore the natural order. Which means lots of buildings falling down. The alpha predator’s name?…

So…the table’s been set for a memorable introduction. There are, of course, a million ways to go about this. Most young filmmakers (many old ones for that matter) struggle with any semblence of understatement when faced with a similar situation. After all, the audience is champing at the bit and, with a toolbox full of the latest digital trickery, why not get right to the bombast? Edwards has something different in mind, though; as with Monsters, he prefers a more subtle tack, choosing instead to slowly build anticipatory tension with portents and glimpses — think soft-core v. hardcore disaster porn. His is a phased approach, an unspooling of seemingly disparate strings — ships at sea, the Honolulu waterfront, the airport and the hills outside the city — until he sees fit to tie them all into a neat little bow. Even better, he films his action through the eyes of bystanders caught up in the fray — note how in pretty much every screen grab below (and the clips that follow) there are people in the foreground. Why? It gives each frame a real sense of scale and urgency.

On to the reveal…

On Honolulu’s bustling waterfront (Waikīkī Beach), curious diners watch as helicopters begin disgorging soldiers onto the roofs of the surrounding buildings. At the airport, confused riders seated inside an elevated tram watch as fighter jets streak low across the nighttime sky. From inside the cockpit of one of these fighters, we see the pilot navigate towards that giant MUTO, the one snacking on the Russian sub. The MUTO’s not having it, though; it cripples the pesky jet with an electromagnetic pulse. Before the pilot can eject, he crashes into the jungle. Back at the airport, the same EMP causes the tram to lose power. As it grinds to a halt, its occupants gawp at a fireball rising in the hilly distance: the doomed jet. Back on the waterfront, the onlookers shift their attention from the rooftops to an orange glow in the far distance, yet again that downed plane.

What Edwards has done here is brilliant; with a few quick shots he’s not only moved the narrative logically towards Godzilla’s long-awaited reveal (remember, he’s in charge of restoring nature’s order!), he’s also established the topography of the situation — we now know where the MUTO is in relation to both the airport and the waterfront, which, whether we know it yet or not, will help us make sense of what later transpires.

Back on said waterfront, a little girl whose parents are transfixed by the fire in the hills wanders onto the beach, herself fascinated by something strange: the water has drawn back to expose the seafloor for hundreds of yards.

A tsunami warning sounds, sending people dashing inland. Offshore, in the Navy armada, a massive scaly blur is seen swimming underneath an aircraft carrier. Back on land, the tsunami ravages downtown Honolulu.

From the rooftops, lucky survivors watch as the city loses power. Across the street, a group of soldiers fire flares into the darkness, the descending reddish glow offering a peek at something as big as a building lumbering down the street: our first look at Godzilla!

Or is it? Because, in true Edwards fashion, it just a taste, a tease. It seems he’s got something much more dramatic in mind for the full reveal.

At the airport, power returns, bathing everything in light, including the tarmac, which now features that MUTO from the hills stomping everything in sight. The automated tram begins to move again, the poor slobs inside on a collision course with the MUTO, who, angered by helicopter gunship fire, kicks over the tracks, sending many in the tram to their doom. On the tarmac, baggage handlers and airplane technicians scramble to hide from the marauding creature (again, just glimpsed).

And it’s here that Edwards employs another wonderfully subtle, artful touch: one of these workers, cowering near a landing gear, takes no notice of the gush of water overflowing his shoes. Water? Ah, the remnants of the tsunami reaching inland. A reminder that Godzilla must not be far behind.

And then, finally, the reveal’s proverbial money shot: the irate MUTO knocks a helicopter out of the sky, sending it crashing into a parked plane on the tarmac. The ensuing fireball is seen from within the terminal, which consists of a giant wall of windows. In the foreground, people scream in panic as Edwards dollies his camera left to follow the conflagration developing in the background, a chain reaction of explosions moving from parked plane to parked plane. And then, moving into the frame from the right, Godzilla’s giant foot — boom!

Whereas the gobsmacked crowd goes silent, the MUTO shrieks at the interloper. The camera then pans from Godzilla’s foot up the length of his massive body and settles on his head, which proceeds to let loose a mighty roar. Perfection.

Here’s the whole sequence, in two clips, the first beginning as the jet crashes:

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