Character development versus widespread destruction.
When was the last time you watched a movie and cared about the characters? For me it was Her, the recent film about Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with an OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
But when was the last time you saw an action movie, or a movie that falls under the blockbuster category, and cared about the characters?
I don’t think I’ve ever cared in that regard. 2014’s Godzilla didn’t break that streak either.
That’s unfortunate, because most of the movie is nothing but character development and the foreshadowing of Godzilla’s actual appearance and size (there’s a reason Godzilla has been compared to Jaws and Cloverfield).
Withholding the full magnitude of Godzilla was a strategic move by director Gareth Edwards – a move that was executed competently. It built an ominous atmosphere, allowing the audience to speculate just how frightening Godzilla would be, but ultimately it was a move that was used to focus on the human characters portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston, along with Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe to a lesser extent.
I cannot emphasize this enough: 66% of this movie – a summer blockbuster monster extravaganza – was focused on getting the audience to care about three or four characters.
Speaking of Cranston, it’s a good thing he was involved because he carried every scene we had the pleasure of seeing him in. His character needed a ton of accumulated angst and that’s exactly what Cranston brought to the table; it might be possible he’s still an underrated actor, even after his Breaking Bad accolades.
What Godzilla does is nothing new, technically. Every movie needs some type of character development, as tenuously done as it may be, and sometimes time in itself can develop characters right before our eyes, which is one of the reasons we usually relate more to TV characters.
There is also nothing wrong with a movie trying to be more than its predecessors and that ambitious endeavor wasn’t intrusive enough to completely wreck Godzilla.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between just being an entertaining film and actually connecting with the audience on a deeper level.
Godzilla is the first movie I’ve seen in a while where entire groups of innocent civilians are shown blatantly getting killed. They drown, fall off precipitous edges, and generally face the consequences of being stuck between not one, not two, but three massive monsters intent on bringing each other down.
Normally, because moviemakers don’t want audiences feeling squeamish and ethically sodomized, civilian casualties are not shown. Damage in a large movie like this is usually shown on a macroscopic level – buildings are leveled, cars explode, and dust permeates the entire city. Basically, the protocol is to do what The Avengers did, and that movie followed the protocol set by the movies before it.
People have seen entire cities getting annihilated for years now on the big screen. We’re used to it and since we know all of it is movie magic, we don’t really care. But Godzilla almost contradicts itself through its desire to make us care about the main cast while also choosing to make multiple visual references to the thousands that died throughout the movie’s action scenes.
The penultimate scene shows the classic reuniting we’re all accustomed to. Taylor-Johnson and his son are in a massive stadium, possibly the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium, and there’s a chance they’ll never find Elizabeth Olsen in the densely clustered masses.
Of course, everything ends up fine.
The son suddenly runs towards the camera, Taylor-Johnson looks up in alarm, and the little kid and Olsen hug emotionally. Then Taylor-Johnson and Olsen do a little making out and it’s time for the next scene.
Everything ends on a good note. But really, we know that’s not the case.
What about everybody else in that stadium, wondering and worrying about their loved ones? What about everybody across two continents and an ocean whose lives are irrevocably shattered?
Just like a movie needs character development, a movie needs to focus its development. Broaden too much and there’s too much to emotionally digest. Focus too much on one person and the movie’s dynamics become skewed.
In Godzilla, the focus wasn’t overly ambitious. The problem was trying to make us care about three people when three monsters wreaked havoc in Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and finally the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
By the way, prehistoric hooligans, don’t mess with Oakland.
The scope of the damage was thrown against the story of three people trying to survive and reunite as a family. It was borderline unpleasant trying to feel good at the end when Godzilla and the two Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms had done enough damage to last at least three presidents.
An action movie should not be conjuring that kind of unpleasantness. It should be focused on being entertaining and generally making the audience forget about its problems in the real world. Godzilla just made me think of misery, but also made me feel bad by getting me to feel good about destruction on a hefty scale, as fictional as it was.
It’s arguable whether any movie would be justified trying to get us to care, using my logic. Her, for example, explores problems that actually aren’t even that important compared to more pressing issues like famine and poverty.
So why should I care about Joaquin Phoenix struggling to understand his love for a nonhuman entity when there are people in that same fictional world dealing with more visceral issues like disease?
I think character development is a basic necessity in every movie, but the context is perhaps more important than the quality. The reason why it’s okay for a movie like Her or, for example, any of Woody Allen’s movies is because the main characters’ issues aren’t framed in such a disproportionate way like Godzilla.
There’s a time and a place for exploring humanity in the microscopic level and after Godzilla, I’m thinking summer blockbusters aren’t the venue for that exploration.
As my friend Kevin said after the movie, the 2014 Godzilla tried too hard and took itself too seriously. It went through the process of putting the main characters and entire cities on the separate ends of a scale, but made the mistake of actually weighing their worth as equals.
You can’t spend the majority of a movie expounding the dynamics of one family only to completely destroy entire generations in the last third of the movie.
You either dedicate yourself to the overall picture, or you choose to dedicate yourself to the pixels.
Godzilla tried to do both and it didn’t work out.
I saw this movie with Kevin and his brother, Sean. While Kevin brought up the overly serious nature of this film, Sean inexplicably thought the 1998 Godzilla was actually better. After some discussion, it became clear what kind of movie would do Godzilla real justice.
1998 Godzilla characters. 2014 Godzilla action.
You’re welcome, Hollywood.
You’ve got a classic in the making.