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Gods and monsters

At times, Godzilla comes off like a mash up of Spielberg films. The general feel is that of War of the Worlds. The scaly creatures – Godzilla and MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) – look, in close-ups, like dinosaurs, and their faceoff resembles the Jurassic Park showdown between the T Rex and the raptors.

A fake quarantine angle, designed to keep people away from a site where top-secret work is going on, is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and there is an abundance of father-son plotting – the child and the single (or distant) parent thing that Spielberg is so fond of. There’s the hero and his conspiracy-theorist father. There’s the hero and the boy he assumes temporary guardianship of, in a train. Even the inevitable scientist character is given a filial moment, courtesy his father’s watch that stopped when Hiroshima was bombed.

Another way to look at Godzilla is as a superhero origin movie refracted through the onlookers’ prism. We usually see these movies through the eyes of the ordinary bloke who will turn special at the very end, after a very long build-up, when he puts it all together and vanquishes the villain. This is that movie, but from the other end. The superhero is already fully formed, and he (it?) knows what he has to do to counter the supervillains – but the people in the film don’t know that. They think the superhero is a supervillain. And they are proved wrong.

Godzilla is very much in the vein of the recent spate of “serious superhero” movies, where the focus isn’t on fun or the kitsch elements of a man in a form-fitting dress but on what a drag it is to be a deliverer. There’s even one of those scenes where the superhero hangs his weary head, tired of shouldering the burden of saving mankind — or at least the United States. (Sample TV headline: “America under attack.”) When the hero calls Godzilla a monster, a scientist lowers her voice in awe and calls him/it a god.

With my critic’s hat on, I had fun mulling over these aspects of Godzilla, but with my audience-member hat on, I was underwhelmed. This isn’t a bad movie, but one that doesn’t strive to be very good. Like a lot of the global-audience blockbusters these days, it’s happy to be average, following tried-and-tested tropes.

The one surprising thing is how little there is of the creature whose name is the reason for this film’s existence. Only at the end do we see the creature fully, and even then it’s a night-time scene and there’s so much murk that it hardly counts. He/it doesn’t even get an “entry scene.” Where the film could have really used a touch of Spielberg — a camera slowly taking in the full extent of the creature, as onlookers widen their eyes — it shies away.

One way to compensate for the absence of “creature feature” dimensions would be to have solid human interactions, like the father-son friction in War of the Worlds. This isn’t the greatest example of screenwriting, but within the context of a popcorn movie, this tension tosses another ripple into the pond. In Godzilla, the family is simply a unit the hero needs to get home to, as in the case of Ulysses. The wife and the child have zero personality — unless “weep for far-off husband who may be in trouble” counts as a character trait.

And except for the finale, there aren’t any memorable set pieces either. Peter Jackson’s King Kong reboot was a problematic film (not to mention overlong), and it had its “serious superhero” moments too, but it also had so many moments of loony grace, like the girl doing cartwheels in front of the big beast. A light touch, I think it’s called. There’s none of that here.

In Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Peter Biskind writes of the creatures in the 1950s monster movies as a representation of America’s fear of the Other. He writes, “The idea of the alien was profoundly influenced by the Manichean Us/Them habit of thought that was an occupational hazard of the cold-war battle of ideas.” But those movies were made primarily for American viewers and they reflected the singular fears that White Americans had of Indians (in the Westerns) or Russians (in the anti-Communism dramas), while today’s monster movies are tailored for the global marketplace, for consumption by whites and browns and blacks.

How, then, might Biskind regard this Godzilla (who may be a Japanese creation, but in this avatar, is very much an American pop-culture product)? Perhaps he’d say that in this assimilated, multicultural world, the Other is more insidious, not so easy to point out. And because these fine distinctions aren’t easy to translate into a popcorn blockbuster, it’s not surprising that this Godzilla is no longer Them but Us – if not one among us then at least out to protect us, save us. He was a monster. Now, he’s a god.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 3:43:33 AM |

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