Over the past few months, I’ve been a bit remiss on carrying on the “Battle Cry” editorials I’ve been doing for years. I’ve basically been busy with other things–film festivals, CinemaCon, health stuff, etc–but things definitely seem to be slowing down for the summer if only because there are fewer movies to write about on a weekly basis, so it seemed like a good time for me to spout off a bit more than usual.
We’re three weeks into the summer movie season and just as critics seem to be giving the early summer movies a pass as in previous years, moviegoers are getting more nitpicky about the quality of their summer films, creating a really interesting divide.
I saw Godzilla a second time over the weekend, and while I already reviewed the movie, I realized I had more to say about the movie after other reviews and comments about the movie that have popped up in the past week. I’ve decided, perhaps fool-hardedly, to offer a counterpoint to the criticisms and frustrations that people have had with the movie. (If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, then there are minor spoilers ahead but nothing that should ruin the movie for you.)
The biggest overall complaint I’ve heard time and time again was that there wasn’t nearly enough Godzilla in the movie. It’s certainly a fair criticism when the reason people go to see the movie doesn’t appear for nearly an hour, but on top of that, during the first couple of monster battles, the camera cuts away to other things, which seems at the least a bit of a cheat, but it’s something that’s likely to disappoint those who’ve anxiously awaited Godzilla’s first appearance.
But you see, I think I know what the filmmakers were trying to go for with their version of Godzilla–not that I’ve had a chance to talk with any of them to corroborate my theories–and that was to make something far more ambitious than just another monster-destroys-city movie like the ones from Toho Studios with a bigger FX budget.
Essentially, the idea is to make a movie that captures how the world might react to the discovery of giant prehistoric monsters, maintaining the intensity of a monster movie but handling everything in the most realistic way possible. And on top of that, they also wanted to make a direct sequel to the original 1954 Gojira, which was handled in a far more serious fashion than most of its sequels.
Others have tried to create realism within fantastic situations, most notably Steven Spielberg with his movies Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds–only one of them has stood the test of time–but just the fact that director Gareth Edwards was able to create a movie that evokes an enormous scale while still retaining a level of realism while dealing with something as far-fetched as giant monsters is quite an achievement.
What might seem like a simple idea of taking something incredible (and likely impossible) and transplanting it into a real world setting might seem easy, but in fact, it’s probably harder than doing straight fantasy or science fiction. It all has to be believable and that means having human characters through whom you can experience all of the film’s incredible events.
It would have been nice to see more Godzilla fighting the unfortunately-named “MUTOs,” but honestly I’m convinced that the more they showed, the more it would take away from the approach to the material they were attempting. We’ve also seen giant monsters and robots destroying things many times before, not only in the original Godzilla movies, but in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (more on that below) and all of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies. It’s not something that’s particularly novel or new compared to how it was handled in Edwards’ movie.
Until the final battle, the monsters are always shown from the perspective of the humans and honestly, no real person put into that situation would just stand around with their iPhones out trying to take pictures or Vine movies while giant monsters are knocking entire buildings down all around them. No, they would run, they would hide, they would find shelter, and chances are only a few people would get glimpses of the monsters while doing so, much like what we see during much of the movie. The problem is that we’re living in the age of the couch potatoes who just want to sit around in their EZ chairs and watch the biggest spectacle possible, and because the movie isn’t just wall-to-wall Godzilla fighting other monsters, they leave the movie feeling disappointed.
But that’s the thing. If the movie spent an hour showing Godzilla fighting other monsters, it would be pretty oppressive and it would immediately take us out of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve since an extended fight would just drive home the point that this could never happen in real life. For whatever reason, seeing those monsters fighting on a television screen is much closer to how we might experience a monster invasion if we weren’t physically there. (And again, if we were there, we would be running, screaming, hiding, etc.)
Plenty of comparisons have been made to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, also produced by Legendary Pictures, and I love that movie–seen it five or six times, at least–because it’s inspired more by the fun of the original Japan Kaiju films. But from the get-go, the very fabric of that movie was handled less seriously than Godzilla, and it takes place in a world that’s already fully immersed in science fiction, a world that could never exist because so many of the ideas are deliberately meant to be foreign compared to our world today and anything we experience in our day-to-day lives. The same can be said for Ender’s Game, even if that movie was a boring drudge.
The world of Godzilla is our world and it’s meant to be as realistic a take on how we might experience a monster invasion as possible. The humans are crucial in acting as focal points for us to experience these giant monsters as they start destroying entire cities. We’re not meant to be watching their attacks as if we’re sitting in a theater watching a movie, but to see it from their perspective, which is usually on the ground running. Gareth Edwards was able to create such a huge scale for the monsters and their destruction by always showing them in relation to locations we’re familiar with–the Golden Gate Bridge, Las Vegas, etc.–and by showing them from the perspective of the people on the ground. That’s what creates so much tension in the movie, because you constantly feel as you’re just as likely to get buried or crushed as the people on screen.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its problems, including more than its share of “silly science” in terms of the exposition explaining the origin of Godzilla and the MUTOs he’s fighting–and if you look closely during one of the reactor control room scenes, you’ll see a wall made up entirely of what looks like bedside alarm clocks. Because the actors handle that exposition so seriously, you’re never taken out of the movie as if you might in other cases, like when scientist Charlie Day explains practically anything in Pacific Rim.
Sure, maybe some of the human performances in Godzilla could have been stronger to bolster this direction–people seem to like Bryan Cranston’s performance in the first act more than Ken Watanabe during the entire movie while I feel the exact opposite. Watanabe’s open-mouthed gaping at what happens is probably more or less what most of us would do if we encountered anything quite like what we see in the movie. And he does have the most memorable line in the movie, too!
So those are my thoughts on why the lack of full-on Godzilla for the entire two hours of Godzilla makes for a much better movie than it’s getting credit for, even if it’s not quite the Godzilla movie that some might be expecting. It’s also quite a bit better than what we normally get during the summer movie season, too.
Having seen Godzilla twice now, I feel the main criticism that there isn’t enough Godzilla kind of misses the point of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, and it ends up being far more effective by them sticking by their guns and saving Godzilla for the last act.
Then again, who knows? Maybe this will become another movie like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which I also loved and have become somewhat of an apologist/defender for.
I’m sure you’ll let me know what you think, depending on which side of the argument on which you fall.