Destroy All Monsters: Men Plan; GODZILLA Laughs

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Men Plan; GODZILLA Laughs

Not enough Godzilla in Godzilla? Fuuuuuuuck you. Any more Godzilla, and Godzilla (the 2014 American update of the so-venerable-as-to-seem-centuries-old Japanese film franchise) would tip its hand, becoming a visible tragedy. Director Gareth Edwards wisely shoots Godzilla entirely from the ant's point of view, leaving Gojira out of the story and the frame, until the giant radioactive lizard becomes so overpowering that even the ant couldn't fail to notice him - and in this case, the ants are us.

(Read James' review of Godzilla here.)

When this summer is over we will have something to say about post-human-race moviegoing. We, as a species, are introduced in Godzilla in a literal ant farm sequence, as Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) visits a collapsed mining site, the crater's walls crawling with specular humans too tiny to distinguish. The human race as a whole may not yet have the stomach to deal with the overwhelming evidence of our self-annihilation, but Hollywood, ever the pragmatist, has made it a virtue: if you can't convince people that the earth is a stone's throw away from shaking us all off its back like fleas, you can at least sell tickets and popcorn to the main event.

That's what Godzilla is: the main event. It has the eerie prescience of a next-generation filmmaking achievement. The film repositions ancient, awesome Gojira as less a creature of preternatural apocalypse than a kind of Mother-Nature-as-superhero, the Mexican wrestling champion of the natural world, put here to defend the planet against any potential imbalance in the order of things. In this calculus, we are neither the imbalance, nor the stakes. But hey: at least we get to watch.

At the center of the film is Ant #1, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Theoretically, Godzilla is his film, he being the man character in these parts and all.

Except, of course, that Godzilla isn't his film at all. Many comparisons have been made between Godzilla and the works of Steven Spielberg - perhaps because it has been at least since War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park that sublime creature-feature entertainment has been rendered with this kind of dexterity of craft, at least in the West - but Spielberg is, at heart, ever an optimist, and Gareth Edwards (like Hollywood, as described above) is a cold-blooded pragmatist through and through.

He's a pragmatist because for all the degree to which he dotes upon Ant #1's daddy issues and domestic dramas, Edwards knows well enough that he is cataloguing the entirety of Godzilla's action from the point of view of creatures with no ability to do anything but watch.

This is what makes Edwards' framing and cutting so visually magnificent. In a Spielberg film there is a strategy of seeing at play, which Edwards dutifully cues with innumerable dolly-in shots of people staring in wonder at offscreen shenanigans featuring the Big G.

But unlike in Spielberg's work, the payoff for those reaction shots in Godzilla is a purpose-built helter-skelter mess, where the offscreen shenanigans are so gigantic that we might, as an audience, catch an eighth of it, briefly, as a giant reptile fin falls vertically through frame and in and out of a thick mist; or, in the film's most electrifying visual joke, we miss the battle altogether but see the highlights as a CNN post-game report, watched dutifully by a four-year-old but (notably, and importantly) unseen in its entirety by the nearby adult.

This strategy isn't for everyone (as Godzilla reactions have proven out), but Edwards is working from a clever narrative throughput, from both a moral and (it must be said) commercial standpoint. It's hard to describe a movie like Godzilla as "bugfuck insane" when it literally features giant bugs fucking insanely, but if The Avengers represented Peak Onscreen Insanity, the burden upon blockbuster filmmaking hereafter is to do something else, which Godzilla does, at length.

In a Spielberg movie proper (and this, above all, is where Super 8 failed), there is a connection between the human crisis and the supernatural one; Elliott and his mother must come to understand one another, post-divorce, before they can solve the puzzle and send E.T. home.

Not so in Godzilla. Bryan Cranston (as Papa Ant) might have the skills of listening and seeing (another appropriated, updated Spielbergian motif), which allow him to understand that something other than a nuclear disaster is at the core of the shadowy goings-on in Japan. But Papa Ant's awareness does not help the human race when a winged kaiju jumps out of the reactor site and makes for the American coastline.

Elizabeth Olsen (as Mrs. Ant) might find herself in the midst of the city-wide crisis in San Francisco as two mega-sized monsters bear down on her, only to be confronted by Godzilla, but she is there to act only as a witness. She will run and hide as buildings fall to the ground and people (including herself) scream, but she will be no more effectual at influencing the outcome of the monster fight than the idiotic army men who open fire - with rifles! - on Godzilla in Hawaii.

And at the climax of the super-fight, when Godzilla appears to have been bested and falls beneath his foes under a cloud of occluding disaster-dust, we know that Godzilla is ultimately, utterly unconcerned with our ants. Ant #1 sees the super-creature felled. In a regular Hollywood movie, this would be the point where he would, somehow, help the wounded titan. A shared look, a tenuous scientific Hail Mary pass, something.

But no. When Gojira miraculously revives, and throttles and destroys the horrible pregnant mega-bug (thereby saving The Day, though perhaps not The World), the human race's involvement in the victory is so tangential that Godzilla doesn't even bother to explain how or why it could have happened.

Because basically, Godzilla just woke up and won the fight. The outcome would have been the same if the fight had taken place on the moon or in the eleventh millennium A.D. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ant #1 could have been riding Gojira's back, or could have been in Paris. The human race doesn't, and won't, matter, when the true movements of Mother Nature are at play.

This is something terrifyingly like a post-Hollywood Hollywood movie. The myth of the heroic male is here in semi-obligatory form, but Ant #1 is pretty much just there to stand around and gawp at the big fucker as he tore through the city. To an even more disconcerting degree than usual, Ant #1 is there to stand in for all of us: he's about as useful in the world of Godzilla as we are, glaring out at him from our uncomfortable seats behind our dorky-looking 3-D glasses munching on $15 popcorn, and thinking we have our shit together.

We don't. We never did. I'd argue that Godzilla is an altogether scientific-rationalist motion picture, but if you want to go all theist on the thing, there's an altogether more unsettling reading beneath all this.

That reading is helped along by Dr. Serizawa: his claim that in most relevant respects, Gojira is for all intents and purposes a god. And if so, Gojira is God in an unnervingly dispassionate aspect. If He is tending the garden here on His created Earth, He is doing so with the same aloofness as the offscreen creator-being of Aronofsky's Noah - worried about the long-term health of the system as a whole, sure; but about the ants, not so much.

The effect is chilling in either respect. It (probably) won't be a lizard the size of the Chrysler building, but hoo-boy, when this planet's real gods do show up, they won't bother to make eye contact with us either. We're all clinging to one side or the other of a coin flipping in mid-air. When it lands, it's gonna land hard. Pray if you must.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture, and an uncannily well-named one this week. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

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Gareth EdwardsGodzillaSteven Spielberg

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KurtMay 21, 2014 10:16 AM

A companion piece to the above column:

Go to 2:36 point if you must, but you'll thank me. You're welcome.

HighDefJunkiesMay 21, 2014 10:39 AM

That is really fantastic. I knew after seeing the film that I've seen something different then other blockbusters of recent memory and I couldn't wrap my head around it. I've seen it twice now and will again. There's a lot going on here and some of it was hinted at of his previous film Monsters. I also love that Godzilla and the Muto's can really give a flying shit about us. They are doing their thing and we are just there to observe. Powerless. I love how, as humans, we to try to humanize animals or other species as we did at the end of Godzilla and he wasn't having it. Good stuff and thanks.

Stuart MullerMay 21, 2014 2:00 PM

I think a lot of the heat the film is taking boils down the quality of the human performances, which I found uninspiring to put it mildly. Amazingly, the character with the most engaging story arc is Godzilla. Yet, we instead spend most of our time with a host of one-dimensional characters whose performances vacillate between vapid and melodramatic. I know Edwards' reasons for this human focus are sound, and I agree wholeheartedly in the choice he made to shoot this from the ants' point of view, but if you're going to spend so much time with human characters while Godzilla stomps around in the background then you need something to keep your fellow humans interested; character development. I eventually found peace with it all by reminding myself that good ol' monster movies (and many new ones) have always felt this way: the monster is very much the centre of film-making attention, and the human characters play static roles that ping-pong through a series of plot devices in support of the monster's story. It's a big part of what makes B-movies in my experience: one dimensional characterization. But dammit, when you've seen films that spend as much care on their humans as they do on their monsters - The Host and Cloverfield spring to mind - you can't wash away the taste of that awesome sauce, and it sadly leaves me lamenting. In the end, I had a great time in this movie, but that was because Edwards' kept me waiting and then delivered a Godzilla that pressed all the right buttons, not because I gave one iota of a shit for any of the human characters I was compelled to spend 2/3+ of the film with. My wife came out of this film comparing the lead to a bad Keanu Reeves, and this is just sad considering we all know what Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson is capable of.

Less Lee MooreMay 21, 2014 3:01 PM

You're so good at this writing about movies thing.

Less Lee MooreMay 21, 2014 3:03 PM

I loved The Host but in that movie I cared about the humans. Here, I only cared about Godzilla and whether the dogs would make it. And a little bit about Bryan Cranston. I do believe The Host and Godzilla are two very different animals. Pun intended. Still, seeing so much of the humans didn't annoy me; they were just as compelling as they needed to be.

Less Lee MooreMay 21, 2014 3:05 PM

Great point about humanizing animals. I would compare this movie with the new Planet of the Apes movie than other monster movies, but Godzilla does a much better job of portraying the animals as being over humanity. I'm actually curious as to what animal rights advocates (I consider myself one) will think of it.

KurtMay 21, 2014 3:28 PM

I certainly enjoyed THE HOST more than GODZILLA-2014. But I do think that the latter has more interesting ideas on how to frame a blockbuster film, it's just some scripting/acting issues that kind of kill it.

THE HOST is marvelously acted. Godzilla, not so much.

davebaxterMay 22, 2014 5:13 PM

I don't think it's the screen time that Godzilla gets that's the problem, it's the use of him. He's a glorified cameo, with a weird somewhat nonsense reason for being present at all ("the balance!"). This movie could easily have been a sequel to MONSTERS with a surprise Godzilla cameo at the end and it would essentially be the same movie. There are some film making elements to like in GZ2014, but as a Godzilla movie it's still an exercise in desperate deconstruction to justify. Good effort, though.

Pa Kent Says MaybeMay 23, 2014 7:54 AM

Nice premising. Except, um, when you really think about it, you're kind of wrong.

"Ant #1 sees the super-creature felled. In a regular Hollywood movie, this would be the point where he would, somehow, help the wounded titan. A shared look, a tenuous scientific Hail Mary pass, something."

Which, he does. It's called a diversion, and it's a big flaming muto nest of one, which --- did you see the movie? --- allows Godzilla to recover. Wake up, whatever. Granted, you could argue "unintended consequences," "Ant #1 had no way of knowing, blah-blah-blah..." But, I'd just remind you that unintended consequences are a whole lot different than inconsequence.

I'm not arguing that it's not a lousy screenplay, full of coincidences and what-the-fucks. Oh, it is. And the humans may be of the least consequence possible, but they do drive much of the "plotty" stuff.

For example, humans had a choice when a giant staple puller with legs destroyed their nuclear power plant. They could've killed it so it couldn'tdo that again. Or, hook it up to comic-bookish, scienc-y nonsense for fifteen years. One of those choices would have consequences.

Humans could, upon finding out that giant staple pullers like to eat nuclear stuff, put a nuclear warhead on a train and send it through California. That might be kinda consequential.

Humans could stand around and speak the dumbest dialogue since David Goyer wrote a Nolan movie. "I believe Godzilla brings balance. Let them fight."

Oh, yeah. Humans do all of that in this movie.

Now, I'm sure you're rough-drafting your follow-up, to drop when The Planet of the Apes dawns. It's OK.

Millennial humans may be really stupid, but their stupidity is consequential.