Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla 2014

This past year has been all about Linda Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation for me. I spoke on it twice, once at MacEwan University, the second time at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. I designed an entire course around it for Winter of 2015. I am solidly on board with Hutcheon's idea that we need to stop treating adaptations as second-order products, and let them be their own thing. This is difficult for the fan of a franchise to do, especially one like Godzilla, the longest running film franchise under one studio--well, make that two studios (three if you count that adaptation of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with Matthew Broderick in it from the 90s), now that Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures (damn, make that 3-4 studios) have released their reboot of the series. You're looking at 30 films, 31 if you include the cameo dream sequence from Always: Sunset on Third Street 2, to say nothing of the Bandai toys, the Marvel, Dark Horse, and IDW comics series, the Hanna Barbera Cartoon from the '80s, and the video games.

Such a franchise produces what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling, where multiple media convey the narrative universe of a character, or world. And sixty years of storytelling in Godzilla's case sees the monster made hero made monster again, hero again, and then ambivalent antihero. Derek McCaw of Fanboy Planet addresses the massive challenge director Gareth Edwards faced in bringing Godzilla to the screen in 2014, given the wide range of expectations amongst Godzilla fans:
"Edwards has tried to balance many different types of expectations. Some people really want a scary movie about a giant monster destroying landscapes and punishing us for crimes against nature. Some have fond memories of guys in rubber monster suits pummeling each other. And in the 21st Century, it's kind of hard not to really start to be devastated by the devastation."
I fall firmly into the first category: for me, the original 1954 Gojira is the greatest daikaiju film ever made. Unless you're incapable of conceding that improvements in special effects render the original ridiculous by modern standards, Ishiro Honda's direction, Eiji Tsuburaya's creature design and effects (especially in the attack of Tokyo by night), and Akira Ifukube's haunting score combined to create a film fully worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection. And for those fans, the first third of Gareth Edward's Godzilla is for you (and me). Brian Cranston's performance dominates this portion of the film, which is rife with references to the original movie (Ken Watanabe's character is named for the heroic Dr. Serizawa of the original film), and the real world nuclear tests in the South Pacific that inspired it. When Edwards' Godzilla is in Japan, it remains true to its Japanese roots. Once it moves to America, it heads in other directions.

If I were the sort of fan who demanded his expectations be somehow divined by Gareth Edwards (I'm using Edwards metonymically, to stand in for the writers, producers, etc.), then I could say something like, "sadly, once Cranston leaves the picture, the film goes off the rails, along with several trains." But I'm not that fan. The opening setup seems to be the portion of the film which addresses the expectations of the first type of Godzilla fan McCaw identifies, before moving on to the second type, the ones who either have fond memories of daikaiju WWE, or whose only perception of Godzilla films is based upon the word versus.

Once Cranston passes the focalizing torch to his onscreen son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the film shifts to the expectations of the versus fan: Godzilla will fight other monsters. These fans also fall into two camps: those who want Godzilla to still be the villain while laying the smack-down on benevolent daikaiju like the giant moth Mothra, and those who like Godzilla to be the hero, laying the smack-down on the villanous monsters like King Ghidrah. Edwards tries to fall in the middle here, to create an anti-hero of Godzilla, but leans decidedly in the direction of the heroic.

So much so that I couldn't help but make a number of comparisons to the Gamera series from the '90s directed by Shusuke Kaneko: from the origin of Godzilla as primordial force of nature meant to restore balance to the planet to the design of his opponents, the MUTOs, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Gyaos, flying nemesis of Gamera (the female MUTO was also reminiscent of Cloverfield's giant monster). Some say ripoff, I say homage, since Edwards' film is abundant in intertextual references to other Godzilla movies and daikaiju films (and its fair to say that anything Godzilla rips off from Gamera is fair play, since Gamera was, at first, an unabashed rip-off of Godzilla).  

But the movie works beyond the debt it owes to the Godzilla franchise and the larger daikaiju tradition. The friend I attended with had never seen a Godzilla movie: not one. And for him, the film was an enjoyable experience, made more sweet by the wait for the full-contact versus act. Detractors have panned the slow pacing of the first two-thirds, but many of these were the same who panned Pacific Rim for being too loud and bombastic. If Edwards had gone the route of unremitting mayhem, they'd likely have criticized him the film for empty spectacle. Others have cited a lack of character development or acting chops, but I never know what the hell people mean when they say this in a film: they didn't like the characters? Would we really want character development over more monster mayhem in a Godzilla movie? Isn't that the purvue of real-world disaster films like The Impossible? On that note, I want to address McCaw's last category, of those who find devastation devastating.

Susan Sontag's 1965 article "The Imagination of Disaster" decried  the SF films of the 1950s and '60s for their lack of an intensive view of disaster: this is the view that a movie like The Impossible takes, focusing on the lives of people affected by devastation. Modern blockbusters are not the first to relish the spectacle of destruction: that honor goes to Biblical epics. Instead, most films featuring devastation take the extensive point-of-view, the wide angle that permits us to see buildings crumple, but not people dying. Critics of Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness were righteously indignant at the faceless devastation of whole cityscapes.

But I challenge the notion that these sorts of films can really address such concerns. Would anyone even want to see a Godzilla movie where Godzilla is only seen from a distance, causing tidal waves which segue to Naomi Watts striving to keep her child alive while she hopes to be reunited with Ewan McGregor? C.S. Lewis said we should evaluate something for what it is - we need to know the genre before we can assess. Godzilla is a giant monster movie. There are but a bare handful of giant monster movies that do anything the intensive view of disaster, and Gareth Edwards made one of them in 2010 with Monsters, as I have argued here. He's capable of a monster movie with the intensive view - but that's not what he's doing with Godzilla. With Godzilla, Edwards has made a blockbuster, which has moments of intensive focus, but is primarily about the extensive spectacle. And while other daikaiju films such as Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys and The Host are able to do something with the intensive view, the reason we flock to these films is to see the world end. Anyone who goes to a Godzilla movie prepared to complain about the representation of devastation is a bit of a hypocrite.

Quality will always be in the eye of the beholder, and I will not make pronouncements of Edwards' filmmaking brilliance here. This new Godzilla is not what I had hoped for, but neither is it anything approaching a disappointment. In truth, I think it is a lovely pastiche of giant monster movie moments, both Japanese and American. It is also a visual spectacle, and more and more, I must argue that this is one of the things cinema is for. Anyone superciliously poo-pooing the spectacle has forgotten what it was like to see Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, or The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. There is something to be said for the eye candy of Pacific Rim coming from the deft hand of the man responsible for The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Ishiro Honda was responsible for the original darkness of Gojira, but also the technicolor satire of King Kong vs. Godzilla (the Japanese version is a revelation). If nothing else, Edwards' film has one of the best moments of Godzilla KOing an opponent with tail and radioactive breath. And for this Godzilla fan, those moments alone were worth the price of admission.

Intertexts: A comparison of Edwards Monsters with his Godzilla wouldn't be amiss, if only to note the way in which news footage and television screens are employed in both as tale-telling devices. As noted in the article, I think Kaneko's '90s reboot of the Gamera franchise would also produce some interesting moments for comparison and contrast. Edwards' Godzilla shares much with Kaneko's Gamera - a giant monster who's on your side, but is unaware you're there to be stepped on or crushed when a building collapses. The study of kaiju collateral damage in Kaneko's films was very innovative in giant monster films.

Secondary Sources: 
For scholarly work on the original Gojira film, check out “Japan's Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla” by Peter Brothers or “Godzilla’s Footprint” by Steve Ryfle.
Some would recommend William Tsutsui's work on Godzilla, but I prefer David Kalat's A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, which investigates every Godzilla movie made prior to Edwards'. Even though I don't agree with all of Kalat's assessments, he makes some great observations. This book is a must-have for serious Godzilla fans, or scholars interested in understanding the franchise better. 

Teaching: I'm nearly done writing up my approach to teaching Godzilla and Hiroshima for an upcoming post, which I'll link here. For now, suffice to say that the secondary sources I've listed above are all used in the course.

Potpourri:  I'm going to list my favourite daikaiju films:
1. Gojira (1954)
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
3. Monsters
4. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys
5. The Host
6. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
7. Pacific Rim
8. Godzilla (2014)
9. Trollhunter
10. Cloverfield  

1 comment:

  1. When did u become so insightful with regards to movies?? Oh ya, ALWAYS! Is a treat to hear all ur thoughts regarding movies/literature as I get an honest opinion and also a reference point to the movies and books I have read/choose to read...keep up the GREAT work!!