Godzilla's Godzilla Problem: It’s Not the Screen Time, It’s the Focus

Should Gareth Edwards have shown more of his titular monster? Not necessarily. But he shouldn’t have made him a narrative afterthought in his own reboot.
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In my mostly negative review of Godzilla last week, I cited as a principle cause for my disappointment the relatively small role the King of the Monsters plays in his own movie:

[W]hile the requisite Final Battle with Godzilla is a fair amount of fun, it makes up a tiny portion of the film, which is mostly concerned with the MUTOs stomping their way across the globe (Honolulu, Las Vegas) toward the City by the Bay.

Indeed, until the closing act, Godzilla himself is strangely peripheral to the proceedings….Thus the central irony of Edwards’s film. Godzilla can handle everything the military hurls at him: ships, guns, planes, rockets, even a squadron of HALO paratroopers. The only thing that can cut him down to size is being relegated to a supporting role in his very own movie.

I was not alone in this contention, and it’s led to some interesting discussion of how little Godzilla is too little Godzilla. Over at Slate, Forrest Wickman points out that far from being some kind of unusual throwback, director Gareth Edwards’s decision to largely withhold Godzilla until late in the movie is in keeping with a longstanding trend of introducing principal monsters later and later, from Godzilla to Jaws to Alien to Cloverfield to Super 8. In a similar vein, Moviepilot quoted from an interview Edwards gave Screencrush in defense of the limited screen time afforded Godzilla:

When we sat down, we talked about what kind of movie we were thinking about and we talked about ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Jaws’ and a lot of Spielberg movies like ‘Close Encounters’. Also, ‘Alien’ and ‘King Kong’. And, they all have one thing in common: it’s about an hour into the movie before you see the creature…. So, that was always the consideration. To try and build slowly and tease and pull the audience in, and then when they get it, it’ll be more powerful.

A number of commenters to my review made similar points, including one who went so far as to cite the slow reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, a strong candidate for my favorite film.

But I agree with all of this. I’m entirely in favor of introducing a monster or villain slowly and inferentially. I even made that point it in my review. (“Edwards introduces the monster gradually—a glimpse here, a glimpse there—as Ishiro Honda did with the original Godzilla 60 years ago.”) My complaint is not that we needed to see more of Godzilla, it’s that we needed to see less of the MUTOs, who are, for all intents and purposes, the principle monsters of the film.

From the beginning, the plot is driven almost entirely by the MUTOs. It is a MUTO who destroys the Janjira nuclear power plant, killing Sandra Brody and setting her husband on a 15-year quest to determine what happened. It is the same MUTO that later breaks free and begins wreaking havoc across the globe. And it is the discovery that this MUTO intends to mate with another MUTO (itself wreaking havoc across the American Southwest) and create many, many baby MUTOs that forms the central dilemma of the film. For at least its first two-thirds, the movie is about the MUTOs. Godzilla is relegated to serving as a deus-ex-machina, who conveniently shows up in the final act and solves the problem posed by the MUTOs.

Compare this to the many examples that have been cited as models for Edwards’s film. Yes, we don’t meet Kong until well into his 1933 film. But Denham, Darrow, and Driscoll don’t travel to Skull Island in search of a Tyrannosaurus, and the natives don’t worship a Pteranodon. From the start, the movie is always about Kong.

The same is true with Jaws. Brody, Quint, and Hooper aren’t trying to save beach season on Amity Island from the depredations of a man-eating killer whale, only to later stumble upon a Great White. No, however long it may take for us to get a good look at our Carcharodon carcharias, Jaws is always about Jaws.

Ditto Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla, as well as Close Encounters, Alien, Cloverfield, Super 8, and so on. However long it may take for the respective creatures in these films to show their faces, they always drive the central plot. And yes, the same holds for The Third Man. Holly Martins doesn’t wander through Vienna investigating the death of some other apparently dead friend, only to run into black marketer Lime by accident.

No, as I and others have noted, Edwards modeled his Godzilla—deliberately or not—less on the structure of these films than on that of the many inferior Godzilla sequels. In those movies, like this one, some new monstrosity rears its ugly head (Ghidora, the Smog Monster, Mechagodzilla, etc.) and rampages across Japan until Godzilla shows up to restore balance. Sound familiar? For the record, I love these movies for their campy grandeur. But they are not the model I would have chosen for a $160 million reboot (nor, for that matter, the model Edwards seems to think he did choose). For a sequel? Maybe. But to reintroduce moviegoers to Godzilla as a wholly reactive figure in a movie whose plot is overwhelmingly dependent on some new, not particular interesting monsters seems a mistake to me.

But that’s just me. Obviously, many, many people liked Godzilla a lot more than I did, and I’m not trying to persuade anyone that they were wrong to do so. But as long as some discussion had arisen on the question of whether Edwards used his Godzilla too sparingly, I wanted to clarify my critique: It’s not the lack of Godzilla screen time, it’s the lack of Godzilla focus.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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