Destroy All Monsters: Men Plan; GODZILLA Laughs
Not enough Godzilla in Godzilla? Fuuuuuuuck you. Any more Godzilla, and Godzilla (the 2014 American update of the so-venerable-as-to-seem-centuries-old Japanese film franchise) would tip its hand, becoming a visible tragedy. Director Gareth Edwards wisely shoots Godzilla entirely from the ant's point of view, leaving Gojira out of the story and the frame, until the giant radioactive lizard becomes so overpowering that even the ant couldn't fail to notice him - and in this case, the ants are us.
When this summer is over we will have something to say about post-human-race moviegoing. We, as a species, are introduced in Godzilla in a literal ant farm sequence, as Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) visits a collapsed mining site, the crater's walls crawling with specular humans too tiny to distinguish. The human race as a whole may not yet have the stomach to deal with the overwhelming evidence of our self-annihilation, but Hollywood, ever the pragmatist, has made it a virtue: if you can't convince people that the earth is a stone's throw away from shaking us all off its back like fleas, you can at least sell tickets and popcorn to the main event.
That's what Godzilla is: the main event. It has the eerie prescience of a next-generation filmmaking achievement. The film repositions ancient, awesome Gojira as less a creature of preternatural apocalypse than a kind of Mother-Nature-as-superhero, the Mexican wrestling champion of the natural world, put here to defend the planet against any potential imbalance in the order of things. In this calculus, we are neither the imbalance, nor the stakes. But hey: at least we get to watch.
At the center of the film is Ant #1, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Theoretically, Godzilla is his film, he being the man character in these parts and all.
Except, of course, that Godzilla isn't his film at all. Many comparisons have been made between Godzilla and the works of Steven Spielberg - perhaps because it has been at least since War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park that sublime creature-feature entertainment has been rendered with this kind of dexterity of craft, at least in the West - but Spielberg is, at heart, ever an optimist, and Gareth Edwards (like Hollywood, as described above) is a cold-blooded pragmatist through and through.
He's a pragmatist because for all the degree to which he dotes upon Ant #1's daddy issues and domestic dramas, Edwards knows well enough that he is cataloguing the entirety of Godzilla's action from the point of view of creatures with no ability to do anything but watch.
This is what makes Edwards' framing and cutting so visually magnificent. In a Spielberg film there is a strategy of seeing at play, which Edwards dutifully cues with innumerable dolly-in shots of people staring in wonder at offscreen shenanigans featuring the Big G.
But unlike in Spielberg's work, the payoff for those reaction shots in Godzilla is a purpose-built helter-skelter mess, where the offscreen shenanigans are so gigantic that we might, as an audience, catch an eighth of it, briefly, as a giant reptile fin falls vertically through frame and in and out of a thick mist; or, in the film's most electrifying visual joke, we miss the battle altogether but see the highlights as a CNN post-game report, watched dutifully by a four-year-old but (notably, and importantly) unseen in its entirety by the nearby adult.
This strategy isn't for everyone (as Godzilla reactions have proven out), but Edwards is working from a clever narrative throughput, from both a moral and (it must be said) commercial standpoint. It's hard to describe a movie like Godzilla as "bugfuck insane" when it literally features giant bugs fucking insanely, but if The Avengers represented Peak Onscreen Insanity, the burden upon blockbuster filmmaking hereafter is to do something else, which Godzilla does, at length.
In a Spielberg movie proper (and this, above all, is where Super 8 failed), there is a connection between the human crisis and the supernatural one; Elliott and his mother must come to understand one another, post-divorce, before they can solve the puzzle and send E.T. home.
Not so in Godzilla. Bryan Cranston (as Papa Ant) might have the skills of listening and seeing (another appropriated, updated Spielbergian motif), which allow him to understand that something other than a nuclear disaster is at the core of the shadowy goings-on in Japan. But Papa Ant's awareness does not help the human race when a winged kaiju jumps out of the reactor site and makes for the American coastline.
Elizabeth Olsen (as Mrs. Ant) might find herself in the midst of the city-wide crisis in San Francisco as two mega-sized monsters bear down on her, only to be confronted by Godzilla, but she is there to act only as a witness. She will run and hide as buildings fall to the ground and people (including herself) scream, but she will be no more effectual at influencing the outcome of the monster fight than the idiotic army men who open fire - with rifles! - on Godzilla in Hawaii.
And at the climax of the super-fight, when Godzilla appears to have been bested and falls beneath his foes under a cloud of occluding disaster-dust, we know that Godzilla is ultimately, utterly unconcerned with our ants. Ant #1 sees the super-creature felled. In a regular Hollywood movie, this would be the point where he would, somehow, help the wounded titan. A shared look, a tenuous scientific Hail Mary pass, something.
But no. When Gojira miraculously revives, and throttles and destroys the horrible pregnant mega-bug (thereby saving The Day, though perhaps not The World), the human race's involvement in the victory is so tangential that Godzilla doesn't even bother to explain how or why it could have happened.
Because basically, Godzilla just woke up and won the fight. The outcome would have been the same if the fight had taken place on the moon or in the eleventh millennium A.D. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ant #1 could have been riding Gojira's back, or could have been in Paris. The human race doesn't, and won't, matter, when the true movements of Mother Nature are at play.
This is something terrifyingly like a post-Hollywood Hollywood movie. The myth of the heroic male is here in semi-obligatory form, but Ant #1 is pretty much just there to stand around and gawp at the big fucker as he tore through the city. To an even more disconcerting degree than usual, Ant #1 is there to stand in for all of us: he's about as useful in the world of Godzilla as we are, glaring out at him from our uncomfortable seats behind our dorky-looking 3-D glasses munching on $15 popcorn, and thinking we have our shit together.
We don't. We never did. I'd argue that Godzilla is an altogether scientific-rationalist motion picture, but if you want to go all theist on the thing, there's an altogether more unsettling reading beneath all this.
That reading is helped along by Dr. Serizawa: his claim that in most relevant respects, Gojira is for all intents and purposes a god. And if so, Gojira is God in an unnervingly dispassionate aspect. If He is tending the garden here on His created Earth, He is doing so with the same aloofness as the offscreen creator-being of Aronofsky's Noah - worried about the long-term health of the system as a whole, sure; but about the ants, not so much.
The effect is chilling in either respect. It (probably) won't be a lizard the size of the Chrysler building, but hoo-boy, when this planet's real gods do show up, they won't bother to make eye contact with us either. We're all clinging to one side or the other of a coin flipping in mid-air. When it lands, it's gonna land hard. Pray if you must.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture, and an uncannily well-named one this week. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.