Bright Lights Film Journal

There Goes the Neighborhood: Godzilla and the Gentrification of Pulp

Godzilla has no anarchy or eccentricity, much less any experimental spirit or Japanese weirdness. Edwards is too preoccupied with turning the movie into something new, serious, and, worst of all, respectable. It’s the gentrification of pulp filmmaking, the process by which properties originally intended to spin light-hearted ridiculous yarns are repurposed, repackaged, and resold as serious adult fare.”

If there’s one thing I always need more of in my summer blockbusters, it’s daddy issues – or, at least, that’s what my therapist, Hollywood, keeps telling me. Far from an old-school monster mash, the new remake of Godzilla is just the latest in a series of mega-budget action movies that in some way revolve around absent fathers, surrogate fathers, and grumpy white men who just need a hug, like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Man of Steel, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Super 8, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They even managed work it into a James Bond movie with Skyfall, albeit muddled with an Oedipal complex. Knee-jerk cynicism might ascribe the prevalence of these dour themes in blockbuster movies to formulaic filmmaking-by-committee, the so-called “human element” that received wisdom says is necessary for a light genre movie to succeed. That’s possible, but there are dramatic clichés other than father-son melodrama that would serve the same purpose. It strikes me more as a Freudian slip, an embarrassing reflection of the macho insecurities and arrested development in contemporary American film culture.

Daddy (Bryan Cranston) and son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)

Gareth Edwards’ reimagined Godzilla is, by my count, the fourth feature film by that name, following the original 1954 film by Toho Studios and director Ishirō Honda (recut for U.S. release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters), Toho’s own 1984 remake (directed by Koji Hashimoto, released in the U.S. as either The Return of Godzilla or Godzilla 1985), and Roland Emmerich’s universally loathed 1998 Hollywood remake. The raison d’être of Edwards’ film is that it will pay homage to the original, respect the original’s sequels, and erase the memory of Emmerich’s infamous flop, which means that it starts with a lot of agonistic paternal baggage right out of the gate. The shoes it’s trying to fill are too big and too numerous, and its lack of confidence bogs it down at every step.

If you followed the film’s marketing campaign, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bryan Cranston played the lead in the film, perhaps a reworked version of Raymond Burr’s role in the bastardized American release of the original. Cranston actually plays a supporting role as Dr. Joe Brody, the father of Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the real protagonist, a nondescript Navy lieutenant torn between his duties to his father and his own son. It’s not just a bait-and-switch of marketing: the film opens with an impressive prologue that seems to establish Dr. Brody as the everyman hero, giving him tragic backstory, complex motives for participating in the plot, and several good scenes for Cranston to exercise his acting chops and establish the character’s arc. Then, strangely, Dr. Brody disappears less than halfway through the film and is completely replaced by his son, who tries, without success, to live up to his father as an engaging character. The desire to “live up to” characterizes the entire film.

It’s difficult to tell if the film is aware of this metatextual irony, or if it’s just the symptom of too many hands on the screenplay. As is, there is no functional reason Dr. Brody could not have been the hero of the film – and, by extension, no reason why Ford Brody needed to exist as a character at all (for instance, even though he’s established as a bomb disposal expert in a plot that surrounds several nuclear bombs, it never actually comes into play). The script as a whole would be torn to bits in a Screenwriting 101 workshop, but messy writing in a monster movie isn’t worth scrutinizing. However, given that Godzilla clearly wants to be taken seriously as something more than a monster movie and that little screen time is actually spent on the monsters themselves, the poor storytelling is startling. Nothing the human characters do affects the story in any meaningful way, and the problems they resolve – or attempt to resolve – are problems they create for themselves. This may have originally been intended as a vague commentary on environmentalism, one of the film’s many gestures at a political conscience, but it feels more like a script for a non-monster movie suddenly had monsters inserted into it late in post-production. For all intents and purposes, the human plot of the film, which constitutes a majority of the run time, is a separate movie altogether, with the monster fighting business happening somewhere off in the distance.

Godzilla (2014)

Edwards was presumably tapped to direct this film after his first feature, Monsters, made a stir on the independent film circuit by being both a giant monster movie and a focused personal melodrama. It was somewhat lackluster in both regards, but it’s a solid piece of low-budget genre entertainment, in the same vein as other recent independent science fiction works that hybridize classic B-movies with film school dramaturgy, such as Moon, Primer, and Europa Report. At times, Godzilla feels as much like a remake of Monsters as it is a remake of Godzilla, with several key images directly replicated, such as shots of monsters from ground level with people looking up at them in the foreground and two monsters with numerous legs engaging in a mating ritual. Both films also borrow heavily from the films of Steven Spielberg, and his two Jurassic Park films in particular. Emmerich’s Godzilla caught a lot of flak for copying Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs in terms of monster design, but Edwards lifts entire scenes from those films and passes them off as his own, such as a scene in Monsters where tentacles search for a woman in a convenience store and a dangling monorail car in Godzilla.

Oddly enough, Edwards also used the same techniques he used in Monsters to hide the poor CGI (which he reportedly did on his laptop) to hide the monsters in Godzilla, even though the budget was two hundred times larger, resulting in a lavish Hollywood production that is often obscured from view. Most distracting is a recurring motif where the monsters are shown on a television screen rather than in the flesh. The movie is so embarrassed by its giant monsters that it has to constantly show them on the news to make it seem real. Perhaps no scene is as revealing of the film’s identity crisis as when one of the monsters, called a MUTO (short for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), attacks Las Vegas. This is a film that features an enormous tarantula destroying the Las Vegas strip, and the visual gag that Edwards uses to dramatize it is to show the MUTO on a television inside a casino just before it breaks through the roof. It is shown longer on the TV screen than the movie screen.

The TV screen within the movie screen

There’s a moment in the film when a scientist, exasperated by the military efforts to kill the monsters, says “Let them fight,” but Edwards doesn’t. He doesn’t really believe in the monsters, nor is he particularly interested in them. He’s interested in watching people watch monsters on television, the act of watching surreal disasters on television being the most visceral form of reality to a cynical post-9/11 sensibility. With a few exceptions, the monsters’ appearances are fairly brief, sometimes little more than an afterthought. They could be almost any disastrous event, and the film is lousy with references to real-life nuclear and natural disasters, both past (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima, the Bikini Atoll tests) and present (Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). The cable news mentality treats all these as equally interchangeable with the monsters, and with each other, and the film has no interest in them beyond their immediate rhetorical value.

Among other things, the film is trying to “live up to” Godzilla’s reputation as a metaphorical force of nature, but this aspect of the character has been overblown. It’s true that the original Godzilla treated the mutant dinosaur as a metaphor for nuclear holocausts, but much of the Japanese film press at the time, perhaps correctly, criticized the film as exploitative. Sixty years of Godzilla movies have made us forget the initial audacity and crudity of trying to seriously represent the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a man stomping around in a rubber dinosaur suit. It would be difficult to argue that the first Godzilla was not the best of the series, but it’s a simplistic and ham-fisted movie, more along the lines of Glen or Glenda than Hiroshima mon amour, and subsequent sequels made the intelligent retreat into more kid-friendly cheesiness.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Regardless of what revisionist critics try to say about the original film’s supposed merits as a “commentary” on nuclear weapons, the long-term success of the Godzilla series has always depended on its charming simplicity and popularity with children. Kids have the imaginative power to accept the rubber suits and cardboard cities as reality, and part of the appeal is how all the films blur together into a single interactive experience spanning years. Which one was it where Godzilla did a flying kick? Which one had King Ghidorah getting stomped on the neck? Which one had the space aliens that looked like monkeys? I saw most of them as a kid through some combination of video rentals and late-night TV, and I misremembered and reimagined them by re-enacting the monster battles as I saw fit. Most of them had a distinctly Japanese weirdness that jives with the anarchy of childhood play: giant robots, fairies, extraterrestrial cockroaches, psychedelic camera effects, Star Trek color palettes, inexplicable musical segments, random gunfights, lasers, etc. Rewatching several of them as an adult reveals a lot of influence from the so-called “Japanese New Wave,” especially the early work of Yasuzo Masumura and Seijun Suzuki, but they are also eccentric (and eccentrically awful) in their own way. Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 film Pacific Rim, which had about as many screenplay issues as Godzilla and some poor monster designs, at least captured this experimental spirit and had a lot of fun with it.

Godzilla has no anarchy or eccentricity, much less any experimental spirit or Japanese weirdness. Edwards is too preoccupied with turning the movie into something new, serious, and, worst of all, respectable. It’s the gentrification of pulp filmmaking, the process by which properties originally intended to spin light-hearted ridiculous yarns are repurposed, repackaged, and resold as serious adult fare. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are crude facsimiles of film noir where the Joker doesn’t even tell jokes. The new James Bond films are brutal affairs that forego awesome gadgets in favor of bloody knuckles and plots about world water shortages. Man of Steel recreated the September 11th attacks and a proxy murder of Osama bin Laden, and Star Trek into Darkness did more or less the same thing. Even gross-out sex comedies, once a fringe market for teenagers and midnight showings, have turned into mainstream marriage farces. Now Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, has been stripped of personality and dressed up in a taciturn action blockbuster just like any other, perfectly acceptable for a middle-class audience to enjoy without feeling low-brow. It even has Bryan Cranston fresh off the success of Breaking Bad, and middle-aged character actors David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, and Juliette Binoche show up in bland cameos to give it some arthouse credibility. It’s just like a “real” movie!

Arthouse credibility: Ken Watanabe and David Straitharn

Dr. Brody spends most of his time on-screen not only stuck in the past and unable to “move on,” as his son says, but frantically seeking vindication for doing so. The film happily provides it in the form of a giant monster that kills him, an ambiguous betrayal of the insecurity at the heart of these gentrified pulp films, an anxious, primarily masculine desire to justify our juvenile tastes and unwillingness to grow up. The likes of Batman, James Bond, and Godzilla, once matinee idols for kids and guilty pleasures for adults secure enough in their adulthood, are now in the most mainstream films Hollywood produces, garnering Oscar nominations and discussed alongside The Godfather and Alfred Hitchcock. In presenting itself as serious cinema, Godzilla often feels like a schoolboy – perhaps myself at age 10 – trying to explain that Godzilla movies are just as good as anything you watch, dad. This may seem elitist, but I find the film’s implicit critique that previous monster films weren’t serious enough (i.e., good enough) more so. A grim and serious Godzilla film displaces not only a more politically conscious disaster film, but also a Godzilla film that’s actually fun, and those of us just looking for a good time are met with yet another puffed-up sourpuss in need of bourgeois approval.