Godzilla and the Spielbergian Tradition

I just saw the new Godzilla. I have strong feelings about it. Bear with me. Also, there lay SPOILERS ahead. So if you by some chance came across this blog, maybe looking to learn a bit about the new Godzilla before seeing it, then consider yourself warned.

It’s hard to say there’s been a really good American-made kaiju, or giant monster, movie made in recent memory. We’ve had some valiant attempts; Cloverfield was hugely hyped and hugely stupid, the 1998 Godzilla was hugely anticipated – and then people saw it, and even Super 8 had people looking forward to it as a return to the Spielbergian tradition of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind before ultimately disappointing them with a watered down version of both.

Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein, the director and writer of the new Godzilla have evoked Spielberg in interviews in order to explain why Godzilla chooses to withhold its creatures and set-pieces instead of going balls-to-the-wall with them. Where I think they’ve failed with the new Godzilla is that they took the wrong lessons from Spielberg’s films. There are two main points that are made over and over when people talk about what makes Spielberg’s monster flicks so successful, 1.) his emphasis on character and 2.) his restraint. Let’s discuss.

Emphasis on Character

Jaws is credited with ushering in the era of the “Summer Blockbuster.” Because of that it’s been dissected time and again to figure out just what made it so successful. One reason that’s been pointed to is Spielberg’s attention to character. The film spends a lot of time letting you get to know the characters and developing conflicts between them that make watching them interesting. The same can be said of bigger Spielberg films, like Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds. I want to focus on War of the Worlds because I think it’s the most easily comparable to other American monster flicks.

In War of the Worlds we have Tom Cruise’s character, Ray, at odds with almost everyone in his life almost immediately. First its with his wife, whom is remarried, and then it’s with both of his children. When the aliens attack suddenly he’s balancing trying to find his ex-wife, reconnecting with and protecting his two children, and fighting his way through the panicked masses. This leads to some very real, very dramatic decisions that he needs to make throughout the movie. Who to help and who to leave? Can he kill another person to protect his children? At one point they’re in possession of the only working car for miles and people want rides. They can’t give everyone a ride. That’s character-based conflict but, and this is important, too, it’s all part of the aftershocks of the alien attack. That’s why it’s important to the story at hand.

Godzilla lacks this narrative thrust. The closest we get is Brody’s father, Joe as played by Bryan Cranston. They’re at odds for the first twenty minutes of the movie and then, suddenly, they’re good again. Honestly, I didn’t have too much of a problem with that. It felt natural that as Joe learned the truth Brody would forgive him and they might team up. But then Joe dies, and all of that is lost so that we can follow Brody’s attempts at getting home. I didn’t hate that plot as much as others seemed to, but it did lack conflict. If Joe would have stayed alive and become our perspective character he could have dealt with Brody and learning more about the creatures with Dr. Serizawa. Instead, Joe feels aimless and Dr. Serizawa doesn’t do anything but mope around and repeat that Godzilla is natures balancing force.

The lesson that Spielberg teaches us, apart from putting interesting characters in your story, is to surround those characters with conflict. I didn’t hate the characters in Godzilla. I felt like they could carry the movie if there was more conflict surrounding them apart from the mostly intellectual task of dealing with the monsters.

Restraint

This is by far Godzilla’s gravest sin. Spielberg is renowned for his restraint in showing his creatures and both Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein have said that they were attempting to show the same restraint in order to build anticipation with the audience. That’s all well and good but what they failed to realize is that anticipation is different from giving your audience blue-balls.

There are at least four different times in Godzilla where the audience is led to believe shit is about to go down. But each time, without fail, the movie cuts away from the spectacle. No, not even cuts away. Completely removes us from the situation. That, I’m afraid, is unforgivable and not at all what Spielberg does.

Spielberg may only show us bits and pieces of his monsters, but he never wavers from the situation those monsters are causing. It’s true we don’t see the Great White in Jaws until near the end of the film, but what we do see are people being pulled under. People panicking on the beach. Blood staining the water.

I read an interview with Max Borenstein where he said that if you showed one monster fight in the middle of the movie, the audience wouldn’t be as invested in the fight at the end of the movie. For one, wrong. We’ve been watching monster fights for 100 years and they’ve never gotten old. Two, that sounds more like a lack of imagination than a problem with the audience.

Spielberg shows us the alien tripods early and often in War of the Worlds. We see them from the perspective of the characters; giant, invincible things they can only run from. We see them from a godly perspective, dwarfing the landscape and causing massive destruction. We see them from a military standpoint, deflecting everything the military throws at it. And each sequence is effective for a different reason. Not because they’re withheld from us, but because they take a different approach to the tripods each time. I don’t see why Godzilla couldn’t have done that same thing. Other Godzilla movies have.

Just last night, in preparation for seeing the new Godzilla today, I rewatched Godzilla 2000. It’s not one of the most beloved Godzilla movies there is, and in fact was something of a rush job so Toho could reclaim Godzilla after Tristar tried to murder him in ’98. But what Godzilla 2000 does mostly effectively is give us what we came for: Godzilla fucking shit up. The first sequence of the movie is a well-shot rampage sequence. Then we get Godzilla against the military. Then we’re introduced to his foe for the film, which leads to a different type of spectacle. Then we see those monsters face off in different ways throughout the movie.

The new Godzilla does this as well, but it leaves the action just before interesting things start to happen.

Conclusions

Giant monster movies are, apparently, hard to make. The audience wants to see giant monsters fuck each other up, filmmakers want to give the audience something emotionally grounded and compelling. Rarely is the happy medium found.

That’s why American monster movies have been so disappointing. There’s never enough of either. Filmmakers believe that the anticipation furthers the release, but then they forget the release. Pacific Rim came closest, I think, but even those battles were obscured by darkness and rain. Cloverfield was a mess from start to finish, mostly because of its found-footage gimmick that obscured all of the action.

My point is that it’s OK to crib from Spielberg. He’s a spectacular filmmaker. But don’t crib from him without fully understanding why what he does is effective. There is a big difference between building anticipation and outright cheating your audience. He knows that difference.

Unfortunately, Godzilla and those other recent monster movies do not.

1 Comment

  1. Daveler

    You should know I actually laughed out loud three times while reading this.

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