For all intents and purposes, I am the first person to ever discuss Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014) and Dark Waters (dir. Todd Haynes, 2019) in the same context. Edwards’s film is a $160 million Hollywood adaptation of the iconic Japanese monster franchise and Haynes’s film is an underseen, starrily-cast environmental drama that slots well into the “THEY KNEW!!!” canon of films. But, they are films linked by their ability to use aspects of formalist cinema in order to create a sense of apocalyptic dread.
The specifics of Godzilla really need no introduction. A giant nuclear lizard absolutely demolishes cities by just walking straight through them. It’s not complex, but the Japanese films have always had political undertones to its architectural carnage. In the 2014 American Godzilla, that subtext is stripped of its politics and presented as a film about human’s relationship with nature and how we as a society are at the whim of natural crises.
Edwards’s film, being a blockbuster monster film, is an example of a film where formalist elements are traditionally present opposed to elements of realism. In direct opposition to the objective composition of realist cinema, Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey’s camera never gives the audience a full view of the titular monster, only revealing parts of him. A foot here, or a stomach there. Godzilla and the other monsters terrorizing all of these cities are always shot from the human perspective, emphasizing the insignificance of our attempts to stop something on such a massive scale. It’s this sort of framing that lets us know how little we matter in the grand scheme of nature, creating a sense of dread about the inevitability of our demise.
But there’s also other formalist elements that add to the heightened reality of the world. Dark orange and red hues line the sky, creating a hell-tinted world that mirrors our own. Alexandre Desplat’s non-diegetic score is ever present and ominous, allowing the audience to sink into prolonged bouts of anxiety and terror. Godzilla portrays a world that could theoretically be our own, but imbues its frames with an augmented sense of reality that is awash with form.
On the other hand, Haynes takes a decidedly realist, formulaic story of corporate malfeasance and infuses it with the kind of craft he has honed over his celebrated, three decade long career. Dark Waters provides environmental dread on a distinctly human scale, while also showcasing the formalist tendencies Todd Haynes is known for.
Dark Waters is the story of corporate lawyer Robert Bilot and how he took on the Dupont chemical company in regards to their use of PFOAs which resulted in the intentional poisoning of a West Virginia community. It’s the type of film that crops up every December in order to compete for awards. But, it’s the way Haynes uses colors in the film that differentiates it. Most of the tableaus are shot with desaturated hues, making the chemically ravaged town seem almost like an apocalyptic wasteland in the modern day. There’s also a sickly yellow tint that coats scenes not in the countryside, giving a jaundiced effect to a world already damaged beyond repair. In the world of Dark Waters, “respected” American institutions have fostered a country that has become ill due to our own greed and inattention.
Godzilla and Dark Waters couldn’t be more different films in any other circumstance, but the directors’ approaches to formalist filmmaking elevate the work to produce two distinct films about human’s relationship to nature. In the former, monster-fronted destruction is highlighted by conscious framing and other stylistic choices. In the latter, we are experiencing the havoc of the effects we have smote upon the world through the sickly lens of a browbeaten cinematic eye. In both, we feel a sense of dread given to us from expert uses of form.
Godzilla is currently streaming on HBO MAX and Dark Waters is currently streaming on Showtime Anytime.