Godzilla, Spielberg and Cinematic Foreplay
Godzilla was a resplendent failure. While it transcended its roots of mostly terrible Japanese films featuring bizarre plots and cheap costumes, failure stemmed from director Gareth Edwards’ Jaws comparisons. Numerous Spielberg homages are in Godzilla, but the story, pace and style are undeniably Jaws. It’s forgivable to not reach Spielbergian heights. It’s unforgivable to model one’s film after Jaws for success, yet violate many of the ideas and techniques that made it great.
Brody, We Hardly Knew Ye
Jaws’ main character Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) was a classic everyman who viewers could easily relate towards. A family man berated by his bosses for making a hard decision (closing the beach) and has to deal with the everyday hassles of a wife and son. He has no special abilities or training. When he’s face-to face-with the shark viewers feel his anguish because he’s vulnerable. Godzilla almost got this right with Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston): a family man berated by his family and military personnel for making a controversial decision (closing the nuclear power plant) and struggling to juggle work and raising his son. He also has no special abilities or training. He was a perfect fit… For about 20 minutes.
Once Joe dies early on, then comes his son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – a bland, invincible marine action hero with an even blander family. Joe carried none of the dramatic weight of hard decisions nor the aura of an everyman as his father (and Chief Brody). He shares one brief scene saying goodbye to his wife and son, with none of the wit or charm Joe’s early family scenes contained. Ford also has special military training, advanced weaponry and an absurd ability to survive certain death situations (like falling from a crashing subway and falling from railroad tracks hundreds of feet in the air). A character’s vulnerability is crucial to suspense. Just watch Jaws as Brody is defenseless and alone on the boat battling the shark. Masterful storytelling. A one-dimensional marine bouncing from one convenient plot location to another defying death at every turn? Not so much.
And if someone is thinking comparing these films’ characters so closely is erroneous. Consider Godzilla’s main character has the surname Brody, just like Jaws. The two films are inexorably and purposely linked by the screenwriter’s and director’s intention.
Can you see me now? How about now? Now?
See too much and the monster loses its magic; see too little and it’s frustrating. Considering Godzilla is in less than 8 minutes of a 123 minutes run time – mostly shrouded in shadows as well – it’s frustrating. Spielberg cleverly sidestepped this issue by having point-of-view shots from the shark; it was like seeing the shark without actually seeing it. Not to mention the use of bloody water, victim splashes, music and the iconic shark fin. All of this teased the audience just short of frustration but also allowed for one of cinema’s greatest climaxes at the end when the shark was fully visible.
Godzilla apparently had two sidestepping strategies: cut away from Godzilla often and show different monsters (MUTO) instead. Every time Godzilla’s scenes gain momentum the film cuts to Ford running on the ground, who has been running around for the entire film already. It doesn’t help the narrative is primarily driven by the MUTO and not Godzilla; they even have a third more screen time than Godzilla. Worse yet, viewers see the MUTO up close early on with little teasing.
Godzilla also switches from terrifying lizard to superhero who causes collateral damage. No doubt a nod to Jurassic Park’s T-Rex who saves the day in the end. The problem? The T-Rex was still scary at the end of Jurassic Park. It had terrorized and eaten the human characters for nearly two hours hitherto. If the shark in Jaws or the T-Rex in Jurassic Park weren’t scary, those films wouldn’t work. Godzilla at his worst smashes a few buildings and breaks part of a bridge while killing no one. He doesn’t work.
To accurately summarize how Godzilla’s story failed, let’s pretend Jaws followed the same storytelling:
Brody dies the first 15 minutes, Quint becomes the new main character and then there are some boring family scenes. A new squid monster nobody came to see, but yet spend most of the movie with, is introduced. Quint boats around fighting the squid for 40 minutes. During the climatic shark/squid fight, the film suddenly cuts to Quint boating around the ocean some more. At the end the shark kills the squid and is the hero of the story. The end.
The exposition scenes are also worth noting. In Jaws they involved the intellectual Hooper’s (Richard Dreyfus) and tough guy Quint’s (Robert Shaw) clashing ideas about sharks, which simultaneously added depth to their characters. Jaws also had one of the greatest bromance scenes in all of cinema as the three main characters chat about scars and shark stories. Godzilla’s exposition was military strategists strategizing strategies and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, as a Hooper type character) dramatically saying “Godzilla” and staring blankly.
Suspense is Like Sex
Edwards has mentioned he wanted Godzilla to feel like “cinematic foreplay” with a huge delayed climax. If we follow this lascivious logic, just when Edwards should have been pumping the action faster and harder towards climax, he pulls out – and leaves viewers waiting several minutes to get back to the good stuff. The Hawaii airport confrontation scene is akin to fully undressing, laying down with that special someone and then that special someone leaving the room for 40 minutes. A frustrating time indeed.
Spielberg, however, follows all his teasing with continual escalation. Sure there are brief breathers; they’re needed after lots of action. Then Spielberg pushes the pace harder and faster: the shark overwhelms Hooper in the cage, devours Quint and wrestles with Brody in the sinking boat. And just when things can’t get any more intense… BOOM! Spielberg ends things with a beautiful explosion that sends Brody and the viewers shrieking in delight. Viewers nearly need a cigarette after it’s over – hence its lasting appeal.
Godzilla II is due 2018 with Edwards returning as director – and hopefully a new screenwriter. Be optimistic. As anyone will admit: four years of practice and a new partner can drastically improve performance.
What do you think? Leave a comment.