' ' Cinema Romantico: The Ken Watanabe Godzilla Reaction Shot Variety Hour

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Ken Watanabe Godzilla Reaction Shot Variety Hour

When I watched Gareth Edwards’s “Godzilla” upon its release back in 2014, I came away thinking the pointed lack of character was a deliberate harmonization with the movie’s overriding idea that nature restores the balance, reducing man, self-impressed man, to gum on Godzilla’s shoe. That’s what the money line – “Let them fight” – so deftly brought home. And yet, as I casually re-watched the 2014 version of the King of Monsters one recent Saturday over coffee, I was reminded of how the murky monster special effects didn’t really do much for me and how one actor, lack of writerly dimension or not, stood out, inadvertently reshaping the movie’s message.

Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa is affiliated with the enigmatic Project Monarch specifically giving rise to Godzilla, yes, but he is mostly on hand to provide exposition so we understand the scientific gobbledygook necessary to keep advancing the plot. He, and Sally Hawkins’s Dr. Vivienne Graham too. Like, someone will say, “What’s this?” And Serizawa will say: “It’s what caused the meltdown.” And Graham will say: “An electromagnetic pulse. That’s what it's building to. Converting all that radiation until it hatches.” They convincingly, joyfully recount this exposition. But exposition is not all Watanbe does. Consider, for instance, the very first scene in the movie, where we find he and Hawkins in radiation suits as their characters make the initial Bad Discovery that will lead to further Bad Things and get this blockbuster show on the road.

Look at that squint. That is a serious squint that Watanabe’s got going on. And that squint is not only his principal mode of expression but the best detail in the whole movie, over and over again.

Like this moment, when he watches the big, bad creature up to no good, lowering those binoculars so we can properly appreciate his regal squint. I mean, that sort of squint renders Godzilla’s CGI havoc as superfluous. That sort of squint tells the whole story.

When a helicopter spirits another one of our characters away at a dramatic moment, Edwards and his editor cut to this wordless shot of Watanabe squinting up at the helicopter as if they seem to sense no matter how dramatic the moment might inherently be its drama nevertheless cannot compete with Watanabe’s squint.

When the crazy guy is starting to talk sense, Watanabe curiously peers over the top of his glasses, which you might think is him refraining from squinting until.....

.....you realize that, no, Watanabe was merely setting us up, the camera cutting closer so that Watanabe can theatrically remove his glasses to really lay OMG squint on thick. 

Here he’s pointing at a computer screen, a shot which foreshadows, I suspect, our movie future, one where computers are so prevalent that movie scene after movie scene is just characters pointing at computer screens. How can such cinematic stiffness possibly be staged to maximize drama?

By cutting to an actor like Watanabe squinting in reaction at what the computer shows him, that’s how. WHAT DOES THE DATA TELL US, KEN???

Heck, Watanabe is so committed that even when he’s in the background you can still see him squinting.

All these squints were adding up in the back of my mind, mind you, before we got to the movie’s most critical moment in which the U.S. Navy’s attempts to take out the so-called Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism doing prolonged battle with Godzilla has gone awry and left San Francisco in direct danger. But it was the critical moment when all those squints stored up in the back of my mind combined and then crystallized. 

The moment begins when an elite unit is enlisted to go find a nuclear warhead in San Francisco and disarm it. As they do, Admiral Stenz (David Straithairn) watches. 

Once they’ve gone, he turns and walks out of the frame.

He walks into this frame, where we see him moving toward Serizawa, his back to us, standing outside.

From the side, we see the Admiral approach...

...and then ask Serizawa if this Godzilla, this Alpha Predator, really stands a chance against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.

“The arrogance of man,” Serizawa explains as the camera pushes in, “is thinking nature is in our control-”

“-and not,” he continues as the camera draws closer still, “the other way around.”

Finally, the camera arrives at its close-up, the eye-narrowing exclamation point, Serizawa squinting into the distance. He says: “Let them fight.” And though he’s technically ceding center stage to the monsters, he is inadvertently, spiritually claiming center stage for himself, his squint overriding any and all CGI, demonstrating the real magic of the movies. Godzilla might be the King of the Monsters, but Ken Watanabe is the King of Godzilla.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

There is no end to the joy I had in reading this post. Absolutely hilarious.