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.

Brody, the vulnerable hero, fights the shark in Jaws.
Brody, the vulnerable hero, fights the shark in Jaws.

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.

Demi-god Zilla

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.

Godzilla roaring... Right before disappearing for 40 minutes
Godzilla roaring… Right before disappearing for 40 minutes

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.

The Sequel

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.

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  1. The original had a better message about man’s place and atomic power. Pac Rim had more humor and action. Cloverfield had originality and ALL had better writing/direction/characters. This was a colossal bomb for me and it is my mission to save everyone from wasting their time and money.

    • Brett Fletcher

      Ha, I agree with your comparisons! Of the recent big monster movies Godzilla was probably my least favorite, but I still found it entertaining. Now, Godzilla meets Pac Rim could interesting…

  2. Mar Vang

    Jaws is about the best film of all time.

  3. Spielberg has said on a few occasions that the key to making a good monster movie is to show as little of the beast as possible. Build tension, suspense.

    • Brett Fletcher

      Agreed. Edwards was successful for the first quarter of his movie with that idea. But the full exposure of the MUTO kind of ruined my appetite as a viewer for being hungry for monster action.

  4. Godzilla mostly worked, for me.

    1. Tight, disciplined filmmaking, excellent control of pace & tone. The film plays it straight and takes its time. I was into it the whole time.

    2. Relatively intelligent script that unfolds at its own pace and doesn’t always take the easy route. Unfortunately, the dialog is often leaden and cliche (compare with a film like “Iron Man,” which is sillier in many ways but has a crackling, witty script).

    3. Elizabeth Olsen. She doesn’t have much to do but at least she’s convincingly sad and scared whenever she shows up. I certainly cared more about Elle than her husband.

    1. Empty characters. The lead is a lunk who also *just happens* to be a military bomb expert and also, apparently, a paratrooper, boat captain, and all-around stud. Again, imagine (or don’t) this film with a Robert Downey in the lead.

    2. Absolute lack of humor. I’m not talking about the annoying “wink wink nod nod” hipper-than-the-room kind of bullshit that infects so many modern blockbusters. But couldn’t the characters be more fleshed out? Real people in crazy situations can actually be funny along with scared and terse.

    The good far outweighed the bad, for me, but don’t go in expecting anything on the level of “Jaws.”

    • Brett Fletcher

      Interesting points, thanks for the comment!

      1. Agreed, mostly. The pacing was a little off for me as I didn’t care about the MUTO nor the characters so their scenes dragged for me.

      2. Agreed.

      3. Ha, Elizabeth Olsen did the best she could with what she could. I’m waiting for her breakout role.

      1. Agreed, except for Bryan Cranston character. He had depth and motivation… For 20 minutes.

      2. I couldn’t agree more.

      Overall, I found it entertaining but considering how much it borrowed from classic films, it should have been much better.

  5. Delfina

    interesting connection

  6. Flossie

    It was a horrible, horrible, boring flick with no characters or plot.

  7. At least with Jaws, everyone knows that there really are sharks. I knew going in that it was a fake monster movie, but I really thought these looked silly, with their saliva drooling mouth-hooks.

    • Brett Fletcher

      The monster design is a very interesting discussion between Godzilla’s voluptuousness and the MUTO who look akin to Cloverfield’s monster. I’m more of a fan of animatronics like the early T-Rex scenes in Jurassic Park, which still look realistic.

  8. C. Slack

    “Godzilla” is far from the a great action picture since the greatness we remember as “Jaws”. In fact, it’s not even close.

    For about 90 minutes it lumbers along without gathering any kind of dramatic tension. Bryan Cranston is a fan favorite to many of us. Here he’s made to be that guy in the famous movie convention where one character is onto something but nobody believes him. And yet it’s just wasting my time because the Ken Watanabe character and his crew actually NEED Cranston, so why are they shutting him out in the first place? So dumb.

    Mr. Zilla looked great, but he deserves a better and more fun movie.

    • Brett Fletcher

      I think they shut out Cranston to provide more drama. Jaws had the beach closure and money problems to provide drama while we didn’t see the shark. Godzilla needed something early on – I’m guessing.

      Here’s hoping Godzilla II learns from its first film’s mistakes.

  9. “Pacific Rim” made far better use of CGI to render behemoths doing battle and wreaking destruction. All that without the sappy, superfluous, fake human interest stuff. “Godzilla” was a major disappointment.

    • Brett Fletcher

      I have seen Pacific Rim multiple times and will probably see it again someday. I have no interest in viewing Godzilla again.

      But there is some sappy human interest story elements in PR; it’s just better done than other monster films.

  10. best godzilla. hands down.

  11. poor kid in Godzilla. his parents didn’t care about him at all. they put him on a bus all by himself during a giant monster attack.

    • Brett Fletcher

      Yep, as if the characters weren’t bad enough they make stupid decisions like this. In Jaws Brody’s son provided the motivation to hunt the shark: so everyone’s child could be safe.

      In Godzilla, Ford Brody’s kid is just a piece of luggage.

    • I was gonna say the same thing! Seems like they just left the kid to fend for himself

  12. GantCowley

    Ponderous movie, with too much focus on the human characters, too much screen time for the MUTOs, and not nearly enough Godzilla. I do appreciate that what little action there was was not frantically shot, but I’m still waiting for the CGI movie where everything doesn’t happen in the dark. Better than Zilla, but on the Jaws scale, somewhere between II and III.

  13. Movie was a ponderous wreck capped by an excellent end fight. Director needed to have his licence to use small children and animals revoked. More empathy shots than any movie I have seen in living memory. Also main character, if you can call him a character was so boring and oorah inconsequential that an entire dinner party couldnt remember his name.

  14. The characters are largely uninteresting and struggle to be two-dimensional.

  15. I went to see Godzilla. “Lackluster” is the nicest thing I have to say about it. Uninspired and predictable dialogue, sometimes silly – why was the bat creature referred to as a parasite on Godzilla? No humor, no sparkle. And apparently, no one in Japan or San Francisco has a smart phone; there were no images of people filming the destruction or texting. Was this supposed to be the 1990s?

    No character was memorable or interesting. Juliet Binoche had a small part, still playing a 35 year old; it was not enough to save this film.

  16. Daniel

    It’s interesting to see how much the summer blockbuster has evolved over the years. Despite its shortcomings, Godzilla still owes a lot to Jaws. Too bad Godzilla couldn’t pull together enough heart to make it seem like the project really has any value, like Jaws did.

  17. Godzilla was looking more like King Kong, Sorry I just had a look at him, Because in whole moview I was eagerly waiting for Godzilla, But all I seen is 2 geometrical bizarre creatures who were designed in cheap softwares, and they were gray and dark black in color, and guess what actions in the movie was in night mode, soyou can see the black creature in black background, This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen..

  18. FreemanLinn

    This movie was not nearly as good as people claims. Flat characters and just generally flat writing. There were a few well crafted scenes, but too few to save this dull movie.

  19. There are probably movies as viscerally exciting — Jurassic Park comes to mind — but none of them are remotely as visually engaging.

  20. ramirezalej

    Agree. The Bland Generic Marine character was the movie’s undoing, especially since he drew focus away from Godzilla, who really got bottom billing for this film.

    I will say one thing: Japanese Godzilla was a clever fighter during his goofier years. I like they kept some of that cleverness/playfulness during his fight with the MUTOs (the tail swipe and the final beam blast).

  21. the trend in Hollywood is to make a movie called transformers or Godzilla but then force you to watch 20 something year old guys chase after some girl for an hour.

  22. Lilian Brice

    I liked the other one that was made a few years ago also. They are what I call popcorn movies, fun and it takes you away from politics.

  23. Seth Childers

    While there are parts of this movie I enjoy, Godzilla to me was the biggest disappointment of 2014 for me. The marketing made this movie look incredible, and the actual movie did not live up to the hype. It is at least leagues ahead of the god-awful Roland Emmerich Godzilla film, but even with its incredible effects, it does not hold up against either Jaws or the original Godzilla film.

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