A Fresh Look at Godzilla (2014)

Hype can be a terrible thing. Too much of it can induce familiarity and fatigue, so that by the time the ‘product’ arrives (the best of a bad word – the film/TV show/book/whatever) we’re already a bit over it and hence our desire to see or read it is diminished; too little can consign the product to obscurity, forcing it to live in the margins and reach only a cult audience. And then there is hype’s symbiotic twin: expectation. Too much hype can raise our expectations so high that they can’t possibly be met; too little means that our faith in the filmmaker or writer can be lessened. If they don’t believe in their product enough to thoroughly raise our expectations and make us excited to experience their story, then why should we bother with it?

Nowhere is the fomenting and creation of expectation more fraught than when a filmmaker or writer approaches a bygone fiction with the intention of re-presenting it for contemporary audiences, and there can be no more volatile bygone fictions than those that have transcended their genres to become pop-culture staples. In terms of science fiction, think of Star Wars and Star TrekDr WhoKing Kong, and so on. These are fictions whose characters and ideas have become ingrained in our collective pop-culture consciousness: think of the fact that people around the world declare their religion as ‘Jedi’ or that the suffix ‘Zilla’ has been adopted to describe anything monstrous and unstoppable, most notoriously in the derogatory Bridezilla.

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to Godzilla (2014).

Expectations were immediately heightened when it was announced that Gareth Edwards, the director of the serious and thoughtful giant-monster movie Monsters (2010), would be making an American version of this pop-culture icon. There was a feeling that this version would be faithful and that it wouldn’t be a mockery, unlike the Americans’ first attempt back in the 1990s. These expectations were raised higher as its release date drew closer and the hype grew: set photos and teasers and trailers hinted at the potential of greatness, of a sense of scale and menace hitherto unseen. But Godzilla himself is quite a contradictory character, ranging from a destructive and vengeful symbol of humanity’s nuclear folly, to a child-friendly defender of the Earth whose high-kicks, wrestling grapples and karate-chops would be the envy of any MMA master. And so expectations weren’t just high, but were also scattered, unfocussed and ultimately self-defeating. There is no ‘one’ Godzilla, and so there can be no ‘one’ Godzilla movie.

It’s no wonder, then, that Godzilla polarised general audiences, fans and critics. Which is a bit of a shame, because looking back at it now that the hype has died down, Edwards’ take on this icon is insightful, subtle, serious, and truly respectful of the character’s sombre origins.

There are three distinct factors that I believe make Godzilla this way. The first of these is in the subtle insinuation that the appearance of both the MUTOs and Godzilla himself is directly caused by humanity’s interference, domination and despoliation of nature. While this link is a mainstay of Godzilla’s varying origin stories, it is usually explicitly made – after all, in the very first film of the series, he was revived from a frozen-sleep by nuclear testing. But by keeping these causal links subtle, Edwards turns the age-old theme of ‘man plays God’ into something fresh and interesting.

At no point do any characters come out and say that ‘this’ caused ‘that’ in a hand-holding attempt at filling in the blanks for us; instead, we our allowed to come to these conclusions on our own. This is helped along by Edwards’ three-pronged approach to embedding this theme. Firstly, he connects each successive phase of the MUTOs’ evolution and of Godzilla’s appearances with distinctly man-made environments, which we recognise through either direct or indirect experience with their real-world likenesses. Secondly, he juxtaposes these man-made environments with their more ‘wild’ surrounds, as a way of showing just how much environmental damage we can inflict. Thirdly, he shows us the aftermath of the MUTOs’ and Godzilla’s transit through these environments, which forms a further juxtaposition, this time between the environmental damage we can do and the environmental damage they can do.

A good example of this technique occurs in the opening scene, which takes place at an enormous mine deep in the jungles of the Philippines. At first, a wide-shot of the rolling, verdant jungle establishes the scene, which quickly cuts to the cabin of a helicopter flying over it and then cuts back. The deep green of the jungle suddenly disappears before an ugly blight of torn-open earth, towering cranes, flimsy bridges and access roads, all of which are collapsing into a deep cavern. Open inspection of this cavern, Dr Serizawa and his colleagues discover the fossilised remains of a MUTO, as well as two spores, one dead and one empty. The camera quickly cuts to the scene of the second spore’s escape: an enormous trench carved out of the earth on the far side of the mine that leads into the ocean, a trench whose environmental destruction is every bit as stark and total as that of the mine itself.

This technique is repeated time and again. The Janjira Nuclear Power Plant that becomes a food source for the first incubating MUTO is initially portrayed as a mess of smoke-stacks and towers that loom over a quaint peninsula township, and is then portrayed as the centre of a crumbling ghost town after the MUTO takes residence, a ghost town with deliberate echoes of the empty post-Chernobyl town of Pripyat. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository that provides a smorgasbord for the second MUTO to feed on when regenerating and hatching is first framed as a lonely hill in the desert, until we then realise that it is actually a hollowed-out hill, which we then see has suffered worse damage thanks to the MUTO’s explosive exit. The Hawaiian city of Honolulu, which plays host to the first confrontation between Godzilla and a MUTO, is initially obscured by the dense hill-jungle that surrounds it and then revealed to be a concrete-jungle whose high-rises line the beachfront, which is subsequently flooded by a tsunami caused by Godzilla’s landfall.

Each time, the pattern is the same: here is nature, here is what we can do to it, and here is what they can do to it. The implication isn’t just that their existence is our fault – if we hadn’t dug that mine in the Philippines, if we hadn’t built that power station or hollowed out that mountain, none of this would have happened – but also that we aren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain, and that our impact on the environment is no longer the most damaging. And so in accordance with the film’s logic, Godzilla truly is the ‘alpha predator,’ ruling over both MUTOs and mankind alike.

The way that Edwards’ depicts the monster size, and the way he creates a sense of scale, is the second factor that elevates Godzilla above its by-the-numbers brethren and stops it from being just another B-movie. Now, this might seem like a superfluous thing to say – it is, after all, a giant-monster movie – but size only matters if it’s used well and if it has something to say. Otherwise, it’s just eye-candy. Luckily, Edwards is a skilled enough filmmakers to be able to impart reflections of his narrative’s themes into his depictions of Godzilla and the MUTOs – the monsters in Godzilla don’t just do battle and lay waste to cities in an orgy of destruction that is all sizzle and no steak: these moments of action are filled with meaning and subtext, and add another textual layer to the narrative’s implicit messages.

Time and again, Edwards’ sets up two size comparisons in his various depictions of the monsters: a comparison between people and their ‘built’ environments, and a comparison between these environments and the monsters. In those scenes where the natural environment overshadows the built, a third size comparison enters the play: people with the built, the built with the natural, the built with the monster and the natural together. As an example of Edwards’ double comparison, we only need look to the ‘bridge scene.’ Here, Brody and a group of other soldiers are escorting a nuclear weapon that is being carried by a train; coming to a suspension bridge, they scout ahead to check that everything is safe – these scenes establish the first size comparison, between people and the train and bridge. Of course, a MUTO is lying in wait for the train, and it subsequently attacks the train and the bridge itself, which sets up the second size comparisons, between the train/train and the MUTO.

As an example of Edwards’ triple-comparisons, take the first ‘narrative’ appearance of Godzilla himself (his first appearance excluding the opening credits). We first see our characters at the bridge of a battleship. A warning comes to them: Godzilla is approaching, swimming underwater, and will pass beneath them. The characters duly head out to the deck, and the first size comparison is made: they are dwarfed by the infrastructure of the battleship, made tiny by this marvel of human ingenuity. The second comparison then occurs, as the battleship is framed against the empty and horizon-filling ocean. And then Godzilla passes beneath them, his tail and the fins on his back breaking the surface and causing the battleship to rise and fall. We don’t see any more of him than this, but it is enough to confirm his sheer enormity – just like between the battleship and the ocean, the comparison between Godzilla and the battleship is stark.

The meaning and subtext of this type of framing and this sense of scale is that despite all of our efforts – despite the grandeur of our cities and the magnificence of our machines – we are just ants compared to the monsters, and everything that we’ve made and built is just an anthill. Over and over again, people are shown being dominated by the environments that they have created, which themselves end up being dominated by nature and the monsters together. In other words, we are let down in the end by these things that we have created. Instead, these built environments – environments that, in many ways, have come to dominate the natural and act as self-erected monuments celebrating our pride – are now nothing more than playgrounds for the monsters and vacant land for nature to reclaim. Of course, the implication behind this meaning and subtext, once again, is that we are no longer on top of the food and that Godzilla truly is the ‘alpha predator.’

The third factor that elevates Godzilla is its unarguable sense of realism. This can be seen in a number of different ways: in the fact that Edwards at least tries to explain the origins of both the MUTOs and Godzilla himself, and to invest them with approximately-appropriate animalistic behavioural traits; in the sense of scale that Edwards conjures, as previously mentioned, and the level of ‘grit’ belonging to the destruction wrought; and in the way that both the MUTOs and Godzilla himself are often only seen either in glimpses or via screens, a reflection of the idea that characters seeing them first-hand would be more focussed on running away rather than taking a good look, while everyone else would be seeing them thanks to media and mobile footage. But perhaps the most interesting is in the way that Edwards positions his characters as determinedly ‘ordinary’ people. These men and women aren’t larger-than-life heroes; they aren’t supposed to just shrug off the awe and horror that Godzilla inspires, and they aren’t there to make a smart-arse quip before saving the day. The events that they experience affect them deeply and make them behave in ways different from the usual, and they react in much the same way that we would. This makes them a lot more relatable, fosters a genuine sense of empathy and connection, and helps anchor the more fantastical parts of the narrative.

The character of Brody is an excellent example of this type of ‘ordinariness.’ At first, he comes across as reasonably well-rounded: he is shown enjoying time spent with his wife and child, having being given leave from the military; and then shown expressing frustration and anger at his father’s obsessions and compulsions, and then a kind-of resigned acceptance when he is drawn into his father’s schemes. These are fairly ‘ordinary’ responses to these all-too-relatable moments. However, after the appearance of the first MUTO, Brody slowly develops a tendency to look a little blank-faced, to speak in a bit of a monotone, to obey orders almost automatically, and to pare his syntax back to its bare essentials, behaviours that eventually come to dominate his state of being. Now, this could chiefly be explained in one of two ways: bad writing and bad acting, or the realistic actions of a soldier in the field who has been trained to make split-second decisions without a second thought. When we take this line of thinking further and recognise the fact that Brody has found himself not only orphaned but also uncertain as to whether his wife and child are alive or dead, his stilted behaviour starts to make more sense. His slightly robotic movements, flat speech patterns and almost-instinctive reactions start to look more like a kind-of auto-pilot suffered by a soldier undergoing PTSD, a solider who has no choice but to keep on fighting.

A similar dual perspective exists when we look at the character of Dr Serizawa. His transformation from action-oriented character to one that looks on with glazed eyes and a slack jaw could again be attributed to overacting and bad writing, unless we consider the fact that he has suddenly had his life’s work vindicated in the most terrible of ways – he was the one in charge of studying the dormant MUTO, and it was this decision to study it rather than kill it that led to Godzilla’s awakening. If we can imagine what he would actually be feeling – the mixture of elation at being proved right, relief at finally finding an answer after years of searching, and horror at what that answer actually means – then his almost-complete blankness is actually a fairly appropriate and ‘ordinary’ response to what is happening.

Godzilla isn’t a perfect film (if such a thing as a perfect film even exists) – some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the acting is wooden, Edwards’ decision to somewhat obscure Godzilla himself rather than show him outright is sometimes taken too far, and its focus through a military perspective is somewhat limiting. But it is arguably an excellent giant-monster monster, one that becomes better with repeat viewings, especially now that the hype has died down.

Settle in front of the tube and watch it again, and keep in mind the above factors while you’re doing so. I can’t promise that this time it’ll make your socks go up and down, but it just might…

(Originally published on Aurealis Blog, 31/3/2016)

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In Defence Of Ordinary

Nowadays, it seems that most of the fantastical places that exist within science fiction and its sub-genres (post-apocalyptic fiction, superhero narratives, teen dystopias, literary genre fiction, and so on) only serve to to let us explore The End Of The World™, to the point that it almost feels like you can’t sit down to watch a movie or television show without being confronted by yet another variation on the apocalypse or yet another depiction of humanity under threat (written fiction is a different matter, and shall be dealt with at a different time).

Even though these ‘visual fictions’ can use the fantastical places existing within them to frame an exploration of a million different themes and ideas, for many of their creators it seems that the end of the world and threats to humanity have somehow become the sole themes worth exploring. Consequently, these two themes then serve as the default endpoints for their narrative structures – it’s as if the only way to now end a science fiction story is by having the protagonists confront a fast-approaching extinction event or apocalyptic moment. These endpoints, of course, have an ‘echo’ effect regarding the narrative events preceding them, whereby the various characters’ actions, choices, attitudes and evolving psychological natures really only reach resolution in the face of the fast-approaching extinction or apocalypse. In other words, the character development and character-based confrontations that do occur usually serve only to set-up their eventual resolutions during the endpoint. When done well, combining the personal story of characters resolving their differences with the action story of the characters confronting the extinction event or apocalyptic moment can create an interesting textual fusion. Sadly, all-too-often it just adds another layer of ‘noise’ to the mess of action and spectacle, and frequently seems perfunctory and underdone.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. By conflating character development with narrative resolution, these kinds of fictions deny us the very things that allow us to lose ourselves in a story: empathy and connection. By definition, none of us have experience of an alien invasion, or a destructive AI (or any kind of AI for that matter), or a complete ecological collapse, or people who can fly or possess super strength, or a war against robots. Therefore, none of us can ‘directly’ relate to these situations. But what we can directly relate to are character traits that we all share, the things that make us all human, the things that define all of us: love, community, companionship, joy, purpose. And let’s not forget their more negative but equally important correlates: anger, hate, loneliness, unhappiness, ennui and angst.

These are the triumphs and tragedies that make us who and what we are; they represent the wonder, horror, beauty and ugliness that is life. For want of a better word, they are ‘ordinary’ things, so everyday and everywhere that we are often barely even consciously thinking of them.

And it seems like nowadays a lot of people think that ‘ordinary’ equals ‘boring’.

This kind of disdain isn’t only seen in the proliferation and popularity of narratives that revolve around yet another variation on the end of the world or yet another depiction of humanity under threat at the expense of character development or emotional exploration; we also see it in certain critical reactions to those fictions that eschew this fascination with extinction events and impending apocalypses and instead turn their focus on smaller and more ‘ordinary’ themes. Take James Mangold’s The Wolverine (2013), Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) and Drew Goddard’s Daredevil (2015) as just examples (superhero narratives are fitting subjects for examination, as they seem to constantly be one-upping each other in terms of the dangers faced within). While none of these fictions are ‘perfect’ (if such a thing as a ‘perfect’ fiction even exists), Mangold, Reed and Goddard should be commended for restricting the scope of their narratives and focusing on character-driven and emotion-rich stories where the fate of the world isn’t at stake – they are ‘smaller’ and more intimate than their kin, dealing with themes of betrayal, loyalty, family, redemption, guilt and responsibility. Instead, a significant number of critics chided them for their more human focus and less over-the-top approach, bandying about belittling yet superficially polite terms such as ‘modest’, ‘humble’, ‘small scale’ and ‘perfectly fine’. At times, the word ‘boring’ was even used to describe the emphasis on character and development over that of spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; not because the particular scenes highlighted were actually boring but because they slowed the momentum or detracted from the action or didn’t include a fight scene every 15-minutes.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is another film that received this kind of dismissive critical reception, despite Edwards’ declared intention to give his version of the pop-culture icon a sense of realism (and therefore a sense of ‘ordinariness’). While the film does have its flaws – some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the acting is wooden, and Edwards’ decision to somewhat obscure Godzilla himself rather than show him outright is sometimes taken too far – the line between criticism of technique and criticism of style and thematic intent is blurred. Take the character of Brody as an example. His tendency to look a little blank-faced, to speak in a bit of monotone, to obey orders almost without a thought, and to pare his syntax back to its bare essentials, could be chiefly explained in one of two ways: bad writing and bad acting, or the realistic actions of a soldier in the field who has been trained to be proactive and to make split-second decisions. When we take this second line of thinking further, and take into account the fact that Brody has suddenly found himself not only orphaned but also unable to know whether his own wife and child are alive or dead, his slightly robotic movements, flat speech patterns and almost-automatic behaviour starts to look more like a form of auto-pilot suffered by a soldier undergoing a type of PTSD whilst simultaneously having to keep on fighting. A similar dual perspective exists when we look at the character of Dr Serizawa. His transition from action-oriented character to one that looks on with glazed eyes and a slack jaw could be attributed to overacting and bad writing, unless we consider the fact that he has suddenly had his life’s work vindicated in the most terrible of ways. If we can imagine what he would actually be feeling – if we can put ourselves in his head and imagine the churning emotions, the mixture of elation at being proved right and relief at finally finding an answer after years of searching and horror at what that answer means – then we can see that his almost-complete blankness is actually a fairly appropriate response to what is happening.

These men aren’t supposed to be supermen; they aren’t supposed to just shrug off these incredible and devastating events and creatures or make a smart-arse quip or get their flirt on. And yet it’s almost as if people have come to expect just about every science fiction character to be more than human, even in films as avowedly realist as Godzilla. It’s as if they expect these kinds of characters to be able to shoulder any burden and smile while doing so, or be able to patch-up a damaged relationship and fight off aliens at the same time. And so they’re disappointed when these characters are anything less than godlike. The end result? More and more films and TV shows that sacrifice story, substance and emotional weight for action, spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; poorer and far-less immersive narratives; and far fewer characters like those above, who behave in a realistic way in the face of something that’s almost beyond understanding, and either freeze or become automatic.

I know which themes, techniques, characters and styles I prefer. And I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that most of us would respond in the exact same as Brody or Dr Serizawa.

(Originally published on Aurealis Blog, 31/7/2015)

Where’s the Literary Love for Our Kaiju Friends?

Today, I want to talk about monsters. Not just any old monsters – such a discussion could range from Dr. Frankenstein’s creation and its innumerable literary and filmic progeny to the three different versions of The Thing (1951’s The Thing from Another World, 1982’s The Thing and 2011’s The Thing); from the dragons and serpents of humanity’s myths to the creepie-crawlies of drive-in cinema; from the playful and comic Gremlins (1984) to the serious and sombre original Godzilla (1954); from the cheesy stop-motion beasties of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) to the CGI horrors of Cloverfield (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). I want to talk about giant monsters. My question is this: where’s the literary love for this much-maligned genre? In our postmodern world – a world where high and low art are constantly mixing and interacting, and shifting boundaries cultural appropriation are parts of everyday life – revisiting much-maligned genres and lending them an air of artistic integrity has proven to be a boon for a lot of storytellers.

Now, a small caveat is necessary here: serious doesn’t need to mean ponderous, boring, dull, humourless, monotonous, or any of the hundreds of negative words that can be used to dismiss works of art that make us think. By serious, I mean serious in intent and execution; the original Godzilla may have been little more than a man in a suit, yet the film itself conjures up a palpable sense of dread that eluded most of its B-grade creature-feature contemporaries.

To provide just a few examples: Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Batman Begins series (2005-2012), Perry Moore’s Hero, and Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed all use the superhero genre as a springboard for texts that take a serious look at issues of power, masculinity, control, violence, family, relationships, and free-will. Furthermore, if we look at Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Outland (1981), The Proposition (2005), and William S. Burroughs The Place of Dead Roads, we might see nothing more than a disparate set of texts, yet they are all westerns at their core, and are all of a serious nature. Even post-apocalyptic fiction, which is so often criticised as containing nothing more than survivalist fantasies and uber-masculinist behaviours, can act as the bedrock for po-faced and genuinely moving works of art – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Noah (1975), Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series.

Do you notice anything missing from this list? If your answer was ‘giant monsters’ then you’ve obviously been paying attention to the point of this article.

But hang on, I can almost hear you say, wasn’t Godzilla just mentioned as an example of how giant monsters can be used seriously? Well, dear reader, you got me there – in the world of cinema, a significant number of filmmakers have approached the genre with thoughts above and beyond merely crafting vacuous exploitation pictures.

In fact, the films that helped defined the genre were themselves often serious at heart. The depth of human feeling invested in the titular King Kong (1933), the unmistakable nuclear parable that is the original Godzilla, the melancholy sense of loss that permeates Rodan (1956); these are weighty narrative attributes that both touch us emotionally and engage our intellects. And while it is true that the vast majority of texts that they inspired were indeed vacuous exploitation pictures bereft of heart, substance and any subtext worth mentioning, some recent films have bucked this trend – Cloverfield was unmistakably drenched in allusions to 9/11; Monsters (2010) was explicitly concerned with immigration, dispossession, and asylum-seeking; while The Host (2006) managed to successfully (and humorously) blend issues of pollution, environmental degradation and imperial exploitation with a moving story of a dysfunctional family that pulls together in the face of adversity.

It is when we look to the written word that we find slim pickings.

This is surprising, as giant monsters seem a perfect fit for our uncertain times – the variety of metaphors that they can embody dovetail neatly with the shifting artistic boundaries and fluid cultural borders that are a part of contemporary life. In other words, giant monsters can mean whatever we want them to mean, as seen in the fact that they can act as stand-ins for nuclear war, 9/11, climate change, pollution and immigration. But whatever it is that we want them to mean, it is highly likely that it is something that has the potential to overwhelm us, to awe us, to dwarf us and make us feel helpless and small. After all, the only feature that giant monsters have in common is their size. In light of this, the vast potential and rich stew of metaphors to be found underlining giant monsters would suggest a well-spring of inspiration for genre-inclined authors.

But no.

In true obsessive-fan style, I spent untold hours researching, borrowing, buying and reading fiction centred around giant monsters. The results were frustrating; the overwhelming majority of what I read delighted in the crash-bang-bash of urban destruction and favoured it over any emotional weight, while commonplace literary attributes such as narrative plausability and convincing characterisation were dumbed down to the nth degree. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad news – some authors printed in the Daikaiju short-story series took their subject matter seriously, creating convincing worlds and narratives that were truly moving, while longer works such as Mark Jacobson’s Gojiro: A Novel and James K. Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima engaged in playful and unique postmodern games. However, the limited scope of the short stories left me wanting more, and while the games played by Jacobson and Morrow were undeniably impressive, the playful nature of their narratives somewhat drained away the sense of awe that I enjoy in my giant monsters. To explain: Jacobson’s novel is narrated in the first-person by none other than a Godzilla stand-in, who sets out on a quest to find his world’s version of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb; Marrow’s novel (set towards the end of the Second World War) tells the story of the American government’s attempt to create a giant monster which can be used as a weapon against Japan, and is told from the perspective of an actor employed to don a rubber-suit and impersonate said monster in a live-theatre piece of propaganda. As could be expected from such brief summaries, much fun is had by all.

I didn’t find a single novel that took giant monsters seriously, nothing that can compare to the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Cloverfield or Monsters.

Where are they? Are they even out there? Forget creating more works that feature grim superheroes, harrowing end-of-days landscapes, and richly evocative tributes to the western; our writers should be portraying giant monsters as they are meant to be, damn it. Who wouldn’t love a novel that intelligently shows giant monsters as fearsome, terrifying, world-shaking beasts, thoroughly explores the what-ifs of their being, and empathically examines the psychological toll that they might have upon us?

If I don’t find one soon, I might just have to write one myself.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress19/2/2014)