Bright Lights Film Journal

The Monster Is Dead: On Godzilla and the End of Spectacle

“The monster movie has always been predicated on some anxiety about technology – whether it’s nuclear bombs or genetic engineering – and we may now wonder if this isn’t an irrelevance in an age where constant technological revolution is totally pervasive and our fears have become less tangible.”

Before the cinema came to stomp all over its terrain, dreaming must have seemed like a profoundly strange experience. What would it have felt like to search for sense in the remembrance of a nightmare without any recourse to the language of film, where the unreal is rendered so masterfully as a moving image, and so safely as fiction? Perhaps children tend to suffer more from nightmares because they are yet to temper anxiety with expectation. Perhaps children suffer more because they are yet to have their nightmares stage-managed by the banal tropes of the horror film. Hollywood classifies and assimilates our fears just as the lassitude of age makes us sleep so deeply that we forget our dreams.

Buñuel famously said that he would choose to dream for twenty-two hours a day if he had the chance. A similar deal, cut at current exchange rates, for twenty-two hours of cinema would never be an equivalent trade, though, as it would mean sacrificing the surreal for the spectacular. The pyrotechnic extravagance of the monster movie, for instance, would be far beyond even the wildest dreams of the most deranged surrealists. In this sense, it is in the multiplexes where the illustrious link between cinema and dreaming is troubled most by the mechanics of modern entertainment. The likes of Godzilla and King Kong in particular are purely inventions of spectacle rather than fear, because seeing the big monster up on the big screen offers an encounter with the immensity of the sublime that is particular to the experience of cinema.

Perhaps the monster movie has remerged recently due to the particular type of spectacle that it’s able to offer. In a market dominated by the small screen and home entertainment systems, all the multiplexes really have to capitalize on is scale. In 2013 Guillermo del Torro’s Pacific Rim was released as a major summer blockbuster, and this year Gareth Edward’s Godzilla has stormed out behind it. Both films have been commercial successes, but critics have panned them for being the cliché-leaden blockbusters that they are. To judge these films’ failures on their narrative quality alone, however, is as misguided as judging a film like Stalker purely on Tarkovsky’s use of special effects. The real problem with films like Godzilla and Pacific Rim is that they ultimately fail to live up to the genre’s promise of offering an adequate spectacle, which is not so much a failure of the films’ content as a flaw in their technological appeal.

Whether it’s the classic Toho Godzilla films or the kinds of schlock Hollywood B-movies they helped create, the monster movie’s appeal comes directly from the ingenuity (or sheer audacity) of its technical execution. A film like Godzilla fails in this regard because, despite the attention to detail that’s been lavished on it visually, we see nothing new. It can no longer function as a spectacle in the same way a film like Jurassic Park was once able to. When audiences first saw Spielberg’s T-Rex, what they were thrilled by wasn’t just the shock of seeing it brought to life, but film’s ability to pull off such a stunt with new levels of veracity. This is essentially what links the genre to pioneers like the Lumière Brothers and cinema’s beginnings as a sensational showcasing of technological innovation.

Godzilla, 2014

However, Godzilla doesn’t simply fail because we’ve grown used to CGI. One particular trope that appears constantly in the film is the flood of enveloping smoke and debris that serves to mystify the monster after key scenes. It’s impossible to see this effect and not to think of the devastation wrought on New York after 9/11. The link makes it possible, and entirely significant, to ask, in an age where we’ve seen cities devastated from New York to Baghdad live on television, is it still possible to feel anything beyond the fatigue of excess when we see cities crumble up on the big screen? Ultimately, these images have lost their ability to quicken the heart because they no longer belong purely to the realm of nightmares. If our experience of the sublime is predicated on shock and awe, then in times when such a phrase has come to signify something far more visceral, maybe a film like Godzilla fails because our nightmares have been sterilized, not just by cinema, but by reality itself.

In light of this shift, it may also be worth asking if the symbolic power of the monster hasn’t been outdated by the fears it was designed to represent. The monster movie has always been predicated on some anxiety about technology – whether it’s nuclear bombs or genetic engineering – and we may now wonder if this isn’t an irrelevance in an age where constant technological revolution is totally pervasive and our fears have become less tangible. Our experience of terror in the twenty-first century (if you live in the West at least) has also been hyper-personalized: the nuclear bomb presented a universal threat, but a terrorist presents a local one. Maybe this is the secret to Cloverfield‘s beguiling success. In framing the action through a hand-held camera, where it’s always localized, the film reinvented the experience of the monster for our time. There’s also rarely any graphic bloodshed in monster movies, which again shows how its appeal to the horrific has been abstracted from the personal. This may also be why zombie films are now so successful, because they are all about alienation in a world that is not razed but ruined.

Godzilla, 1954

It’s interesting too that the big beasts should all be released at a time when Hollywood itself seems to be ailing. The monster’s fall might be symptomatic of the wider ecosystem. The critical emphasis is now squarely on television, which represents yet another technological change. In this sense, Godzilla‘s complete lack of complex characters is actually key here. It’s not for nothing that Bryan Cranston, a symbol of TV’s superiority in mass entertainment, is a major figure in the film. Complex characters are clearly nothing new, but with the broad appeal of shows like Breaking Bad, maybe we now expect them to be firmly in the mainstream. One only needs to think of how superheroes always have to fall on the spectrum of antihero if they are to be deemed interesting since Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. The huge success of a film like The Avengers (2012) may also be down to the superhero franchises’ ability to replicate something of TV’s approach to complex serial narratives. In being able to establish all its major characters in earlier films, The Avengers had all the punch of big cinema with none of its dead weight. As such, Godzilla is already being touted for a sequel, but maybe the old lizard should finally be put out for extinction now that we need monsters who look more like humans and nightmares that are no longer made trivial by reality.