Godzilla Without Soul

By Saturday, May 24, 2014 0 , Permalink 0

I have a soft spot for The King of Monsters that goes way back. During my childhood, the NYC stations would run blocks of B-movies, a mix of Sci-Fi, horror flicks, kung-fu, and monster movies. WNEW had Creature Feature and Drive-In Movie, WPIX had Chiller Theatre, WOR had Supernatural Theatre, and WABC had The 4:30 movie.

Godzilla was a recurring star on all of these, and the story goes I would call my mom’s lab about an hour into a film, crying because Godzilla was dying. No one understood he was the good guy and it was the Biggest Tragedy Ever.

I anticipate and watch every re-launch of Godzilla with a certain childish glee I have no intention of ever letting my inner adult squash. However, I am aware that Godzilla is a franchise stretching back 60 years, often made on the cheap, and has been wildly inconsistent in quality. Indeed, the people making Godzilla have obviously had diverse views on what Godzilla is supposed to be about. (In this it resembles another property I’ve been a fan of since childhood, Doctor Who.)

There have been three major themes in Godzilla over the years:

  • Metaphor for the atomic bomb, nuclear power, science or progress in general.
  •  Big Monster Fights.
  • Camp silliness

Every Godzilla movie hits at least one of these, and you’ve probably got to hit at least two in order to be a really good Godzilla movie.

Last weekend, Godzilla returned in a beautiful, big-budget spectacle that rings hollow, too afraid to embrace the parts that truly make Godzilla great.

The new film does an amazing job with the monsters. Both Godzilla and his enemies look beautiful, while still somehow evoking the odd aesthetic of guys in rubber suits and puppets in both how they look and move. There are even scenes shot with the trailing smoke so often used in the old films to give a sense of motion to the flight scenes. The first debut of Godzilla’s atomic breath is simply spectacular, building slowly through his dorsal spines in a combination of nostalgia and growing anticipation. For most of the film, the monsters are shot from eye level, lending them weight and power. When they are revealed in full shots for fighting, they own the screen for the few moments they are allowed to shine.

And there’s the problem, for the few moments. The film isn’t willing to go camp, and is absolutely terrified of using any of Godzilla’s more serious history as a metaphor for the age of nuclear weapons, all they have is the monster fights.

And if that’s all you have, you better go all out with it.  In the end, there isn’t enough Godzilla in Godzilla.

Many have defended this, pointing out that holding off on the monster reveal builds tension, and is a classic approach to suspense. All true, but to do that you need the rest of the film to hold up, and that’s where this film is a disaster.

In place of camp or metaphor, the emotional center the audience is supposed to relate to is “Generic White Guy Protagonist #5” – military edition. Brody is a cookie cutter leading man with a cookie cutter pretty wife and adorable kid who the script writers seem to think we should care about for the simple reason that he’s on screen. I understand the desire to give narrative focus through a character, but you either have to write that character to be compelling or have an actor who is compelling by sheer force of screen presence. This fails both. (And considering the film has Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston floating around the fringes, it just highlights how uninteresting the lead role is.)

If the film needed a human scale perspective, there were options to give small, meaningful roles to any number of people who cross paths with the monsters. It is possible to make a single character facing an impossible situation sympathetic in a short scene, and a series of these moments would have been more powerful than some guy who is just too boring to care about.

While Brody is boring, and renders more than half the movie a chore to watch, the other problem is more subtle and more tragic. The film runs away from anything that matters about the origin and presence of Godzilla himself. I am fine without long explanations on the origins of monsters (the film rather admirably just sort of throws up its hands and says “monsters exist, let’s move on”), but there is no escaping that Godzilla is intimately tied to the atomic bomb.

While long stretches of the Godzilla franchise thrived on camp and spectacle, it never hid from the fact the original film is a dark metaphor of nuclear power. Here that background is swept under the rug. Godzilla just sort of woke up with the first nuclear submarine. The Bikini Atoll tests are explained away as just an attempt to kill Godzilla. Hiroshima completely vanishes from the Godzilla narrative, appearing only as an oblique reference for Ken Watanabe’s character’s motivation. It’s a cowardly decision, and robs Godzilla of some of his mythic power and given the pro-military choice of Brody, it smacks a bit of not wanting to remind anyone of the anti-military origins of the story. When the other monsters arrive, Godzilla comes to fight them, and the Watanabe’s scientist (who has apparantly been studying Godzilla by never finding him) claims Godzilla is a force of balance and a predator. How he knows this isn’t explained. It’s a reference to the role he often played in the Toho films, but with no background to earn it. Even the sense that he is a force that can’t be controlled, a last-ditch attempt to drive out other monsters – one that will result in more destruction in your city, but maybe save the world – is lost here. There’s no sense unleashing Godzilla is a risk unto itself, here.

In the end, none of that has to matter. Godzilla has existed as an excuse for a popcorn film for much of his run. But if all you have going for you is “Let them Fight”, then you should really let them fight more.

True Detective – Episode 8 (finale)

By Wednesday, March 12, 2014 0 , , Permalink 0

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

That’s the surprisingly upbeat end of the story. And, as anyone who has heard me pontificate on Angel knows, it’s one I am ok with.

I wanted a “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” moment. I expected one. I thought it the logical end of the story. And that was only if both lived. I would have been fine with both detectives dead; or my anticipated scenario, Marty dead and Rust forced to live on.

Not a lick of it. They survived, and reconciled with each other, with their families, and with the Universe itself even. It was a buddy flick all along, about two men finding that in a messed up world, all you have is each other.

All of that worked, and worked well.

Unfortunately, it seems Nic Pizzolatto subscribes to the current belief that the character arc is all, and the plot doesn’t actually matter except to get you the character beats you want. It’s a common mindset these days, and it certainly does seem to satisfy the majority of audiences, but it sits uneasily in any genre where the plot and world building details are actually important. (Which is why I think things like Battlestar Galactica and Lost went so terribly wrong in the end.)

Here it was the mystery itself that failed to match the promise of its build up. On one level, that was the point.

They were only ever going to get a small piece of the puzzle stopped. But it just felt… sloppy. They get a stereotypical backwoods psycho (although one with an admittedly awesome mini-labyrinth aqueduct). One who conveniently seems to be the one who killed both the girl in 1995 and the one in 2012. And has hundreds of other bodies on his land, even though he never publicly displayed them, just the two needed to get Marty and Rust into the case those two times. There’s no evidence any of the extended family they’ve implicated have ever been there, ever associate with this lone nut, and no sense of an old shrine or anything else that implies the larger conspiracy.

I don’t mind they couldn’t get to the larger conspiracy, but this just felt like an excuse to give them a fight scene, and to indulge in some creepiness from an evil hillbilly. It felt lazy, not clever. They needed to have a climactic fight to have their near death experience. They needed to stop one part of it in order to feel they lit one star against the dark. So we got that, and just sort of dropped the rest.  Yes, I can construct a backstory that fits the plot holes if I really try (although some are a pretty serious stretch) but that’s not good writing. That’s adequate to get to the part he wanted to write, and nothing more.

So call it a solid B. It’s not the blow away story it could have been (and not just because it wasn’t what I would have done) but it failed on that final test of weaving the plot arc and the character arc together to a climax that reinforces both.

Even more disappointing however was that in the end, the women really were just props in the story of Marty and Rust’s friendship and internal growth. I really had hoped, in the careful way it was obvious that the show was critiquing Marty and Rust’s inability to see the women in their lives as much more than props to support them that we were going to make that blind spot important. The hints at something having happened to Marty’s own daughter, in particular, seemed relevant – that the detective’s curse of not seeing the evidence right under your own nose would matter because what was blinding them was their own views of masculinity.

But we got none of that. The family briefly shows up to sort of reconcile with Marty the hero, and frankly didn’t need to be there at all for all they did. Nothing came of it, it was just refrigerating for their personal growth. It’s justifiable in that the whole show is really all about Marty and Rust, but it’s tired.

There have been rumours that season 2 will feature women leads, which would be nice, but I get the feeling that Pizzolatto doesn’t really get why it’s an issue. The main characters had their catharsis, and that’s what matters – mood and emotional beats for the main characters. If he ends up writing women, I do suspect we’ll get two good female characters out of it, but that again everything else will just be built the same way.

Final recommendation – it’s worth watching, especially for the two lead performances, but in the end it falls short of its potential greatness due to some glaring blind spots in the writing.