Peter Travers at Rolling Stone has a short review of Godzilla. He’s right about the “human” side of the film. I’d agree that the script is strange. I would ask this question, though, what would the human story be?
Chekhov could write a story about love. Gurov, for example, becomes a character who realized that he has it right in front of him. But the reader should be careful not to conflate Gurov’s story with other kinds of stories about love. Chekhov’s story is not about enduring connection, faithfulness (who know what Gurov will think later in his life), or giving or about how love is so fantastic. It’s about a moment of knowing, a realization in the moment that what he’s chased after so long has been with him in the form of Anna all along. In the same way, Connie’s story in Joyce Carol Oate’s famous tale is not about death or violence. It might be about growing pains or naivete. Figuring what “the story” is is a question I pose to students all the time and they struggle with it. They most of time fall back on plot summary as a response. Well, the story is about a kid who leaves his planet and goes on a romp with a pirate and a giant sloth.
I remember as a young teenager worrying whether a shark would crash through the shower wall. The space between the shower wall and the next house going measured about 6 feet or less. How a shark would punch through via air was hard for me to understand. Still, the fear was amazingly palpable, and I would rush through sometimes with soap in my hair during dry-off because I knew that the attack would come during the closed-eyed rinse-off. Jaws had this effect, a lingering fear or haunt of irrational event. Indeed, one of the lingering fears that followed out of my experience with Star Trek was not the wonder of space travel or a longing for world peace, but a fear of living amidst the spirit of totalitarianism and Hitleresque urban reality, where Nazi soldiers are relentlessly hunting down the “other” with no conscious thought. Star Trek taught to me to fear the relentlessness of bullshit.
Godzilla tries to follow two stories in its first hour. The cover-up story and the story of obsession due to personal loss. Both lines are killed pretty quick. Because the cover-up was benign–it doesn’t amount to the level Cranston envisions in a speech–and the obsession fruits nothing avertable other than a belated “Wow, you were right” from his son, Ford; the obsession has an a priori causal function: Brody wants to know what caused his wife’s death. But uncovering the cause has absolutely no consequence to the film.
The cover-up had no corporate, political, or Star Chamber etiology. Joe Brody’s wife Sandra is killed because a famished Monster needs to eat; whether this is known before hand or as an effect doesn’t really matter other than to understand that Monsters require nuclear fueling (but that’s pretty loose). This leads to a “proliferation” narrative where the hunger for nuclear power reveals an imbalance in the forces of nature, at least as viewed by Dr. Serizawa, and therefore requires a rebalancing. The balancer, of course, is guess who? But a proliferation backstory here doesn’t really make a lot of sense (there are too many real stories of this). The power of such a narrative doesn’t unify because the “gee, if we’d just left Godzilla alone in the first place” . . . then what?
And so the real story unfurls: survival and a story of “Gee, I hope Godzilla doesn’t hold a grudge because of our historical mistreatment of him.” The evolved Godzilla story is always the same, in other words: will he win the battle and save the day? That’s the grand narrative of sport without the save the day part.
The turnabout in the “real” story comes from Admiral Stenz, who finally relents to the good Dr’s plan: let Godzilla take care of the MUTOs; we can’t do it. This is the “let nature take it’s course” story. But that’s not a story; that’s a theme; nature will right itself if left alone. It’s a shorthand for plot devices and human retreat. Okay, let’s watch em fight now. In a way, cliche kills the potential storytelling in Godzilla because I don’t think many writers have put a lot of thought into what the story should or be as an alternative to the typical: will he triumph? Even in the older Godzilla films, story never really took significance. We wanted to see monsters and we wanted to see them fight. In the series, theme is more significant than plot, which is bad for storytelling but sufficient for seat time in the theater. People might argue the real story already happened or exists in the mythological ether and so Godzilla becomes psychological emollient, therapeutic elixir, cathartic spectacle, echo of dooms to come, or a symbol of the horrendous residue of war and irrational exuberance.
It seems to me that’s it’s difficult to sustain or write a “human” story in the context of disaster. When the Poseidon turns upside down, the story becomes “we have to get out of here,” a simple story of escape and survival. I find that The Poseidon Adventure and Willy Wonka have a lot in common. Both tales know what they want to accomplish. Not everyone is going to survive. The bad people will get what’s due them and that’s always satisfying. We smile or pump fists when the “bad guy” is spattered blind with acid by a fan-headed lizard and his pathetic can of shaving cream disappears in the mud.
There are no “bad guys” in Godzilla. There’s no force for the sake of it or evil to shine out of its hole, no henchpeople, jackboots, Smaug or Sauron, no veils of secrecy to disrupt. There are, however, unintended consequences to avert in their rawest form albeit of mysterious cause. No message exists in the film that says we’ve learned anything or that, yes, we should dump more funds into solar panels to avert the next disaster. Maybe people will interpret the preposition of imbalance in the film; maybe they will read climate change or human arrogance, or read something akin to “Let’s not revive the Tyrannosaurus.” I dont see it. What I see is human fatigue, sadness, and sense of ineffectualness.
When the tsunami comes, when the buildings crash down, when the dictator rallies, when dopes protect their political friends, when drought displaces and kills, thousands of human stories end just as the Cranston and cover-up stories end. Godzilla wakes from his fatigue after the fight, fatigued still, and requires recovery in the water off San Francisco. This monumental fatigue is a lingering image (it provides the most powerful juxtaposition in the film): the indefatigable monster. Maybe that’s good enough.