I'm a fan of Gareth Edwards's film Monsters (2010), which brilliantly illustrates the majesty of its massive creatures. In that movie's cosmology, humans are incidental victims of the enormous footsteps of the gods, not hunted so much as crushed without a thought.
In the final scene, as the protagonists await rescue, two of the giant aliens lumber up to each other and caress each other. After the protagonists have been fleeing these things all movie long, they can only watch in wonder as this nearly incomprehensible scene towers above them. You sense the humans are so dumbfounded and feel so insignificant that they are closer to giving up at the sight of this absurd romance than they were when running for their lives.
The big problem with Monsters is simple: the characters don't make any decisions. Except for a romantic misstep at the beginning of the film that seeps one of the heroes in guilt, nothing the characters do has any consequences; the entire plot is on rails. So it's with disappointment that I watched Edwards's Godzilla remake, which has exactly the same problem.
The film sets up a Chicken Little character, made much better than the written part by Bryan Cranston, delivers him painstakingly to just the place and time where he can affect events, and then does absolutely nothing with that setup; the only useful clue he provides to the whole Godzilla mess is one of those clunky, obvious cinematic "insights" like Jeff Goldblum's dad mentioning his cold virus in Independence Day. ("Wait a minute, dad... what did you say?")
Every potentially meaningful moment is stripped of its human power and left with Spielbergian pablum. Elizabeth Olsen, deciding to put her only child on an evacuation bus that may or may not save his life and to stay behind to wait for her husband, and possibly to die, doesn't seem more emotional than, say, a typical helicopter mom on the first day of school. Maybe she's in shock, but no parent will believe the kid would hold it together so well. This is no war-weary, jaded adolescent-before-his-time, but rather a gentle, middle-class San Franciscan. His dad might be dead and he might be about to be killed and so is his mom, he knows all this, and his mom is separating with him, possibly forever, without a clear explanation or plan. He would be, in clinical terms, freaking the fuck out.
Not only that, but you have a bus full of adults and kids, and a driver, who are terrified of being imminently murdered, but they have no qualms waiting for a dithering mom to say her tepid goodbyes before they find out if they will drive to safety or be slaughtered? I see a hundred times more anger and selfishness than that on rush hour buses all the time.
This is a minor quibble, but it's the sort of observation that the finest movies about war and chaos--and the Holocaust, which I kept thinking about when watching Godzilla--make many times. And the loss of these opportunities is all the more glaring because the film is clearly working hard to stay focused on the human level, to make the human drama the entire drama and to view the kaiju battles only in elliptic snippets, as they intersect with human experience.
The most mystifying omission is any real attention to the destructive power of the atomic bomb that is the focus of the endgame. There is a mention of Hiroshima from an offensively Orientalist Japanese sage played by Ken Watanabe, who should know better than to let himself be reduced to cringy lines like "Man thinks he controls nature... not the other way around. Let them fight." But beyond that, the bomb, which goes awry almost immediately and threatens "millions" (in San Francisco, which is a third the size of Brooklyn), incurs no remorse at all. When the hero, an early dropout from the Channing Tatum school of blank stares, embraces his family at the end, it's clear from his face, not only from the screenplay, that the relief he's feeling doesn't include the realization that a bomb he personally armed very nearly killed thousands.
The only two affecting moments were clear echoes of Monsters: two wicked creatures caressing, just as surprisingly and beautifully as before; and the cry of agony when the mother monster sees that her eggs have been killed. It's too bad, really too bad, that there's no movie around these moments to give them weight and rise to their standard.
Labels: criticism, movies, psychology, writing