‘Godzilla’ storms into Hall H to kick off Warner’s Comic-Con presentation

SAN DIEGO – For the second year in a row, Legendary and Warner Bros. came to San Diego’s Comic-Con so they could promote one of the biggest films they have on their release schedule, next summer’s “Godzilla.”

As they did last year, Warner Bros. blew everything out to three screens that surrounded the front end of Hall H. It’s a very clear sign that they want to overwhelm the audience that’s gathered here at the start of the day. The presentation began with black and white footage of nuclear bomb tests, filling every screen until a logo emerged from the ash, the single word. “Godzilla.”

Chris Hardwick, the panel moderator for the day, introduced the mood piece that was shown last year. It really is a gorgeous introduction to what director Gareth Edwards hopes to accomplish with the film, with Oppenheimer’s narration placed over visions of mass destruction, evidence of something that has already happened, holes in skyscrapers and derailed trains and bodies positively everywhere. And then, at the very end, just a hint of Godzilla himself looming up out of some smoke.

Hardwick brought out the guests for the panel, with Edwards joined by his cast including Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Bryan Cranston, who is one of those guys you absolutely want to have on your panel if you’re at Comic-Con. There are very few people who appear to have more fun with a Hall H crowd than Cranston, and he was certainly in fine form today.

Edwards seemed to be in a good mood, albeit a wee bit exhausted, as he told Hardwick that they are finally done. “We finished our last day of shooting two days ago. We went to Hawaii, did a night shoot, wrapped, and then got on a plane to come to San Diego to see you guys. I’ve been in a bubble for two years, and then as we’re driving in, I saw these posters for ‘Kick-Ass 2,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s Aaron’s film,’ and then we drive a little further and I see some ‘Breaking Bad’ images. ‘Oh, that’s Bryan’s thing.’ So that’s when it started to feel real.”

He continued, saying, “I know everybody who does this sort of thing comes up here and sucks up to the studio, but honestly, Legendary and Warner have been great. We had creative freedom.” Considering how big a jump there was from his first film, ‘Monsters,’ to this film in terms of size, Edwards seemed comfortable. Hardwick asked the actors if it was strange being part of something this massive.

Elizabeth Olsen, who has made a number of indie movies in the last few years, said, “I actually expected it to be different. It felt small. It felt creative. We never waited around for two hours waiting for a set-up. We would just shoot and we were free to try things. I play a nurse and a mother.”

Aaron agreed with her, adding, “I think what Gareth brings is an intimacy. We were a family. When we first met and talked about it, the way he wanted to shoot it was as a big-budget art film, with a lot of emotion and a focus on these characters.”

That seemed to be the message of the day. Yes, this is a gigantic movie. Yes, there are giant monsters beating the shit out of each other in it. But Edwards seems dedicated to the idea of telling a human story in front of that. When Hardwick asked Cranston if he watched the films growing up, Cranston said he only asked that of him because he’s so old. “”He was always my favorite monster. He was unapologetic. I want to see destruction! I’m a boy! At first, I didn’t know if this was a good project for me to do because it was so huge. Someone once offered me a role in the stage version of ‘Wizard of Oz’ as the Scarecrow, and I thought that was a losing proposition. Then I met Gareth and talked to him over the course of several hours. And then I saw ‘Monsters,’ and it was fantastic because he made a monster movie into a character driven piece. You really invest in these people, and you still get Godzilla all in one package.”

Asked how he accomplished that, Gareth said, “We took a lot of time to figure out what the storyline would be and we didn’t want this to feel like two separate films jammed together. It’s so weird to come up to promote something when they tell you ‘Go talk for 20 minutes, but don’t give anything away.’ We filmed it in Canada.”

Cranston interrupted, smiling. “The Canadian Godzilla is really nice.”

Gareth told a story about when they arrived in Canada and had to go through immigration. They were told to use the film’s code name for the film, ‘Nautilis,” and when the immigration agent asked Gareth what he was doing, he told him and used the fake name. The guy walked away for a few moments, and then evidently looked him up on the IMDb. When he came back, he asked Gareth if he was directing “Godzilla.” Sheepishly, Gareth admitted that he was.

“Well, don’t fuck it up.”

Gareth said that was basically the mantra that he kept repeating for himself while working on the movie. With that, Hardwick threw it to the crowd for some Q&A, and the first question was about the pressure that Gareth felt. “I put more pressure on myself than anyone else could. All my life, I’ve wanted to do this. We worked very closely with Toho, and we’ve had a very close relationship. We want this to feel like part of the Toho legacy. This is a real Godzilla movie. We had a wish list of people we wanted to work with as actors. They didn’t want to do it, though, so we got stuck with these guys.”

Cranston, who absolutely plays to the crowd at these events, pretended to be wounded by Gareth’s comment. Laughing, Gareth said, “The only way to do this is to not think in terms of blockbuster or art film. We tried to make an artistic blockbuster.”

When asked about how much practical effects work they did for the movie versus CGI, Gareth talked about how carefully you have to plan those things. He mentioned how much pre-viz they did, which is basically animated storyboards if you haven’t seen the process, and Gareth laughed about how he got used to the very robotic motion of the human figures in the pre-viz, which set Cranston off again. He started doing the robot to thunderous applause.

Gareth said, “Okay, we brought something to show you,” and Cranston stood up and started to undo his pants to even more thunderous applause.

As he sat back down, Cranston quipped, “That’s my pet name for it. Godzilla.”

Hardwick shot back, “How much of it is practical, and how much is CGI?”

As Cranston once again played wounded, Gareth said they couldn’t possibly have footage to show since they just finished filming, but the crowd started to applaud, knowing full well they weren’t about to walk away without showing something new, and finally they rolled the clip.

I’ll say this… anyone worried that “Godzilla” is going to just be “Pacific Rim” with a different name should relax. What came across most strongly in the footage we saw was that Edwards has gone out of his way to try to capture the physical beauty of his locations and to ground things in a recognizable reality. There were several shots that suggest that Cranston plays a scientist of some sort, and we saw Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a soldier who appears to be part of the first team to encounter Godzilla. We glimpsed Elizabeth Olsen running through a gym converted to hold refugees, scooping up her son, part of an emotional reunion. There was a great shot of Ken Watanabe, then shots of people evacuating underground bunkers as Cranston runs against the crowd, back into whatever’s happening.

And then finally, after all those shots of the actors, our first glimpse of what the giant monsters in the film look like. There’s a helicopter battle against what looks like a giant mantis-type creature. As someone in the comments section here suggested, it appears to be Kamacuras. It’s very close to the original Toho design. It’s interesting that in the last big Toho Godzilla film, “Godzilla: Final Wars,” the Kamacuras were also used as one of the threats Godzilla had to face. Seems perfectly fitting that would be the first kaiju we see in this particular world.

The thing swats helicopters out of the sky easily, and the situation looks fairly hopeless. We saw a long tracking shot from inside an airport, where people are freaking out and trying to get away from the wall of windows, and we can see the giant mantis walking along outside, smashing everything in its path. It’s an amazing shot, and it really sells the truth of the moment. It feels like something captured, not a classically built monster movie shot. And then, just as we reach the end of the airport, we see a very familiar giant green foot step in, blocking the mantis from going any further.

The title came up, and then one last shot of the Kamacuras as Godzilla rises into frame behind it, dwarfing the monster completely.

So even though we didn’t get a long detailed look at Godzilla, we saw enough to be sure that they have indeed taken their visual cues from the classic Toho designs, and it appears that they have him playing the role of Godzilla the protector. He’s the one stopping whatever other giant monsters you’ve got in the film when human simply can’t protect themselves.

All in all, it was an enticing look at the film, and I certainly hope they pull it off. Edwards said all the right things, the footage has a very interesting hand-held low-fi look to it that makes the CGI monsters feel like they are in a real environment, and the cast seems to believe that they are featured just as much as the mayhem.

We’ll know for sure when “Godzilla” opens in theaters everywhere May 16, 2014.