“Oh, it’s beautiful,” says Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) as he witnesses the first demonstration of the Death Star’s power in Rogue One. Orson is the villain of this “Star Wars story” — a bastard functionary of The Empire — but he’s right for once. From far away, from the safety of space, that brilliant bloom of orange consuming a whole city is strangely beautiful. So is most of the destruction in the doomsday blockbusters of Gareth Edwards, the British filmmaker who directed Rogue One… or a lot of it, anyway.
Just how much exactly remains unclear. Disney infamously wrested Rogue One away from Edwards late in the process; some estimates attribute nearly 40% of the finished film to screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who was brought in to handle reshoots. Yet one look at Edwards’ new movie, the original sci-fi epic The Creator, is enough to put questions of ownership to rest. These two event pictures, along with his 2014 Godzilla, offer a clear continuity of majestic, apocalyptic vision. Taken together, they establish Edwards as an anomaly in modern Hollywood, an orchestrator of genuinely spectacular spectacles. Watching his work, you may feel a sensation that’s gone largely missing in the age of CGI wonderment. It’s called awe.
Few filmmakers earn the IMAX upgrade as much as Edwards does with his wide-canvas science fiction. But his movies aren’t just big. They’re attentive to scale, distance, and perspective — to elements that immerse the audience in the action, and help us feel the enormousness (and enormity). Most of them feature towering forces of death and destruction, and Edwards often shoots these organic and mechanical monsters from ground level, peering up as a godlike kaiju steps out of the smoke, an Imperial Walker appears above the treeline, a vast airborne weapon drifts into view. He puts characters and viewers alike under the massive shadows of giants.
The director is a former special effects artist, and it shows. He demonstrates a downright three-dimensional understanding of how to organically integrate CGI into live-action footage. While the Marvel machine has turned to staging everything it can on a sound stage and against a green screen, which accounts for the resulting flatness of scenery, Edwards largely films on location (he visited nearly 100 places for The Creator, and is said to have adopted a roving guerilla shooting strategy for Godzilla), then carefully overlays the stunning panoramas with effects. It’s an approach that goes back to his indie debut Monsters, a microbudget character piece that stuck frugally generated creatures in the background of the frame.
The effects in Edwards’ movies have weight and presence, like something you could reach out and touch. And his worlds have texture, another lost virtue of contemporary event cinema. Some of that is his habit of working with world-class cinematographers like Greig Fraser (The Batman) and Seamus McGarvey (Atonement), who supply his films with countless arresting images. It also comes down to their environmental detail and clutter. The Creator‘s techno-futuristic “New Asia,” which stretches from breathtaking countryside to glittering cityscape, is of a piece with the landfill galaxy far, far away of Rogue One and the photogenically ravaged fallout zones of Godzilla. It’s all so tactile, so lived in — again, not a compliment one can apply to the weightless box-office behemoths of today.
For as much as Monsters hinged on the conversation between two people, character development has never been this director’s strongest suit. (Just ask his detractors, who nearly always cite the thinness of the human conflict when dogging his movies.) Breaking once more with present-day trends, Edwards forgoes superheroes with big personalities in favor of soldiers on missions, defined almost exclusively through action. They’re ideally single-minded guides through the imperiled worlds he creates. Admittedly, it works out better when the actors are first-rate: Godzilla loses something in the drama department when the focus shifts from an anguished Bryan Cranston to the more blankly driven Aaron Taylor-Johnson, while Rogue One’s ragtag band of archetypes gets by on the charisma of performers like Diego Luna and Donnie Yen.
These are among the most downbeat of multiplex movies. Even the comic relief droid in Rogue One, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is morbidly obsessed with the team’s diminishing odds of survival. In a macro and a micro sense, Edwards’ films teeter on the edge of oblivion, conflating crucibles of grief with the literal end of the world. Just about all of his protagonists are haunted by loss — by a dead mother or father or wife or some combination. Without belaboring the point, the filmmaker makes it easy to see the primary threat as some grotesque exaggeration of their personal demons. In the Spielbergian calculus of Godzilla, for example, the mighty monster becomes a symbol of the familial baggage a damaged son carries into his new family.
Sacrifice is a key theme of his work. It’s there in the recurring tragic image of someone sealed behind a door, accepting toxic gas, imminent explosion, or a brutal light-sabering for the greater good. That scene with Darth Vader, by the way, might be the scariest in all of Star Wars — a long overdue vision of cinema’s most famous heavy fully earning his title by cutting through a hallway of red shirts like a horror-movie phantom. In general, the final hour of Rogue One is a thrilling realization of the series’ dormant fatalism. The big climactic battle, which admittedly might belong to both Edwards and Gilroy, isn’t just the most remarkable, sustained stretch of action in the whole franchise. It’s also a gutsy and surprisingly moving commitment to stakes; seven years later, it’s still a little hard to believe that Disney actually went there.
Godzilla is Edwards’ grandest achievement to date: an oddly structured creature feature that has its cake and eats it too, delivering plenty of burn-the-city eye candy even as it subverts audience expectations for a Godzilla movie. The set pieces, which mostly unfold from the limited POV of the human characters, are astonishingly inventive in conception and execution — they’re built less on the lizard-brain pleasure of nonstop destruction than the suspense of how and when the creatures will loom back into the frame. And for all Edwards delivers in the last act, he also ingeniously withholds. (There’s one hilariously radical mislead that sets up a big monster-on-monster brawl, then cuts away to show it playing on a television set instead.) It’s no surprise that some fans were disappointed with the approach, nor that the sequels abandoned it.
Edwards does draw heavily from other movies. Besides the decades of Godzilla vehicles, the film owes an obvious debt to Steven Spielberg, borrowing its games of anticipation and delayed gratification from Jaws and Jurassic Park. Rogue One, likewise, found the director playing in the sandbox George Lucas built in the ’70s; it may be the most visually striking variation of the Star Wars house style, but it still very much fits into that style. Even outside the intellectual-property trenches, Edwards seems, like his characters, caught in the shadow of giants. The Creator may technically be an original work, but it’s actually, ironically his most nakedly derivative, built as it seems from the scraps of a bunch of other science fiction movies (especially James Cameron’s).
To some extent, Edwards seems to still be in the imitation stage of his career. It would be exciting to see him fully find his own voice. For now, though, he’s a welcome glitch in the Hollywood matrix — a maestro of blockbusters with craft and grandeur and a little ambition, a filmmaker capable of putting his Godzilla-sized footprint on even the most well-known franchises. That his two most high–profile films were both troubled productions, plagued by rewrites, reshoots, or both, is less an indictment of his involvement than proof of his ability to pull something singular from the rubble. Rogue One seems unmistakably his, no matter the percentage that really is.
And is it any surprise that a director so obsessed with perspective in a visual sense would have a philosophical one too? For all their respective storytelling hiccups, Edwards’ movies are linked by a paradox: They make their human characters look tiny and insignificant while acknowledging the important role each can play in a story much larger than them — by choosing to ignore orders in an immoral war, by completing their small mission while titans clash above and around them, by acting as the gears in a rebellion whose success they might not live to see. Edwards knows how to make Goliaths look impossibly, almost unfathomably huge. But it’s the Davids who he really believes in.
The Creator is now playing in theaters everywhere. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is currently streaming on Disney+. Godzilla is available to rent or purchase digitally. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.