'Godzilla' vs 'Pacific Rim': Please, no more Serious Blockbusters
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I never really had my Godzilla moment as a kid. The closest I ever came was a Godzilla franchise marathon one Saturday afternoon. I watched while everyone else was outside doing outside things, and my main memory of the marathon was thinking to myself, “Geez, these movies really drag when Godzilla’s not onscreen.” I think I was 10?
Now, I don’t begrudge anyone their peculiar childhood fixations; I can’t be in the same room as anyone who speaks ill of TaleSpin. But I do find it hard to believe that anyone who self-describes as a Godzilla “fan” has watched an actual Godzilla movie in decades. Really, the best thing that ever happened to Godzilla was Roland Emmerich: He gave the fan base a helpful example of Pure Badness against which everything merely mediocre vibes “authentic.”
All of which leads to why I skipped the new Godzilla movie opening weekend. I liked Gareth Edwards’s debut film, Monsters, a movie that keeps the physical devastation mostly offscreen. The trailers for neo-Godzilla promised that Edwards had gone in the precise opposite direction, showing monsters and devastation from as many interesting camera angles as possible. It’s like someone saw Jaws and thought that the movie really could’ve used more shark, which in fairness is what every dumb studio exec of the last forty years probably thinks when they watch Jaws, which is why every big-budget action movie is Jaws 3-D now.
I might’ve been more interested if the movie starred somebody I cared about, but the devolution of Aaron Taylor-Johnson from the wiry, scrappy star of Kick-Ass to the blank-faced muscle-slab of Kick-Ass 2 is an eminent example of how the Hollywood Fitness Plan can turn even the most distinctive up-and-coming actor or actress into a hot blandroid. (See also: Emma Stone post-Easy A, Jeremy Renner as action hero.)
Then the good buzz came in. “New Godzilla is pretty good!” said everyone. “Really?” asked me. “Well, the characters are boring, but the monster stuff is great!” responded everyone. In May, that counts as a rave. I saw Godzilla. The characters were boring. The monster stuff was boring and then fun and then boring again. I guess that you could compare Godzilla to Jaws in the sense that we didn’t see very much of the titular monster — although when we did see Godzilla, he was basically a well-meaning dude who just wanted to kill the bad Cloverfield monsters and then have a moment with Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Jaws didn’t have a moment with Roy Scheider. Jaws wanted to eat Roy Scheider.
Of course, the key contrast is that Jaws has actual characters doing character things, and Godzilla has Aaron Taylor-Johnson frowning and long-ago Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe frowning and recent Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins frowning. It has Bryan Cranston — Bryan Cranston! — and then kills him in the most boring way possible. (Spoiler alert: Who cares?)
You could replace every “boring” in that last couple paragraphs with “serious,” because that is what the new Godzilla is. So, so serious. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mom dies and his dad dies and his wife is a nurse and his son misses his daddy. Godzilla is probably the first movie to not even have fun when it destroys Vegas.
The weird thing is that nobody I know actually liked Godzilla — a couple weeks later, it already feels ancient — but everyone walked out with a positive vibe. This is the polar opposite of a film that came out last year, a film that shares a basic structure and micro-genre with Godzilla. A film that — anecdotally — people either loved embarrassedly or considered the absolute stupidest thing they had ever seen.
Pre-release buzz identified Pacific Rim as last year’s Original Blockbuster: the big movie of the summer not based on any pre-existing material. “Original” defined loosely; Pacific Rim was Guillermo Del Toro’s Toho monster movie. Like Godzilla, it’s a film made with rapturous devotion to a very hyper-specific sort of movie.
Unlike Godzilla, Pacific Rim doesn’t try to be serious even when it’s being serious. Characters have names like Stacker Pentecost and Hercules Hansen. The film requires you to believe that the best way to battle a giant monster is to build an even larger robot to fight that monster.
Much of the Act 2 drama derives from inter-pilot tension airlifted from the Val Kilmer scenes in Top Gun. It’s the polar opposite of the Godzilla school of drama, where everyone is a total professional who has absolutely no personal goal besides Saving The World. In Pacific Rim, Idris Elba is Rinko Kikuchi’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, and two of the last Giant Robot-pilots in the world frequently get into sneering fights over who’s the bigger badass, and Charlie Day is a scientist.
So, for all these reasons, Pacific Rim is a movie that I’ve heard perfectly smart people describe as “stupid” or “silly.” The problem with this line of thinking is that, really, that every blockbuster is pretty “silly,” in the context of Things Adults Should Care About. Godzilla is not less stupid than Pacific Rim just because people frown more. Skyfall and Moonraker are both movies about an unkillable drunk with commitment issues. The Bourne Legacy is one of the stupidest movies ever made by someone who thought they were doing something very smart — Bourne Legacy being the movie in which Renner runs halfway around the world so he can get drugs to make him not stupid. (All together now: “I NEED CHEMS!”)
The difference, I think, is that Pacific Rim glories in its own silliness. There’s a flashback scene where Idris Elba rescues a little girl, and when he emerges from his giant robot, the sun shines upon him like he’s the catharsis in a biblical epic. There’s a moment when one giant robot swings an oil tanker like a sword. Then it grows a sword out of its wrist. Then it falls from space to earth.
There are real complaints to make about Pacific Rim, I guess, all of them fair and most of them pedantic. I know a lot of people who have issues with the story. (“Why didn’t they use the wrist-sword earlier?” is a popular one.) Conversely, I don’t really know anyone who minds the story in Godzilla, possibly because everything stupid that happens is prefaced by Frowning Watanabe saying “This is why the stupid thing that’s about to happen makes sense.” Godzilla wants so badly to make sense. Pacific Rim wants so badly for Ron Perlman to wear golden shoes.
What I mean is that this whole vogue for seriousness has become a tic: For the filmmakers, but also for the studios, for the marketing teams, for the whole apparatus behind Hollywood blockbusters. And for us, the audience, too. There’s a tendency to throw this seriousness on Christopher Nolan’s doorstep, but mainstream geekstuff was turning in that direction long before Batman Begins. You could start with Bryan Singer’s moody X-Men. Or you could point to Peter Jackson’s decision to de-Bombadilize Lord of the Rings. Maybe it’s George Lucas’ fault, devolving Star Wars from a fun-times space adventure to a mopey-faced parliamentary melodrama. Maybe it’s all Frank Miller’s fault; let’s go with that. Certainly, you could point out that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is just The Road Warrior for people who don’t like mohawks but think cannibalism is deep, man.
Or maybe it started with us. I grew up nerdy; I had to defend my love of Star Wars and Metal Gear Solid and Doom 2099. The natural instinct was to argue for their seriousness. Star Wars was Joseph Campbell! Videogames were the future of entertainment! These comic books belong in a museum!
Somewhere along the way, that mentality became de facto. We made villains of creators who Didn’t Take The Material Seriously. (Richard Lester ruined Superman II!) The subtle messaging on the new Fantastic Four movie will be that it’s better than the crappy Alba movies because it’s more “realistic,” that it “honors the material.” But the problem with the Alba movies was badness, not a lack of realism. And some of the best Fantastic Four stories feature a character named The Moleman.
There’s hope along the margins. Drive built a cult by giving a Michael Mann movie a John Hughes soundtrack. X-Men: Days of Future Past gave more time to the (fun, sexy, colorful) retro-X-Men than the (stolid, frowning, miserable) present-X-Men. The upcoming Snowpiercer starts out as Children of Men on a train and then skews into a more surreal, madcap direction. (I guarantee in a month, the lamezoids will be complaining that there’s no way a train could be that big.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is selling itself as the Good-Times superhero movie — if nothing else, it could be the ska to Amazing Spider-Man‘s emo. Twenty years ago, comic books were in the midst of a Serious Renaissance that mirrors where we’re at now; maybe twenty years from now, mainstream blockbusters will resemble the recent work of Matt Fraction or Jonathan Hickman or other young creators fond of lysergic dimension-hopping anti-realism.
We can help, though. We have to stop giving bad movies a free pass just because they self-justify with self-importance. And Hollywood has to stop forcing great actors to play boring villains who vibe “topical” because they occasionally burst out Tyler Durden speeches. We can’t let Michael Bay get away with turning the Transformers into illegal immigrants or whatever. Jesus, people, we live in a world where someone decided to make a Battleship movie — with aliens! — and play it straighter than Saving Private Ryan.
Like, imagine Edgar Wright directing either of those movies. Wright is a proudly silly filmmaker: He identifies the movie version of Flash Gordon as an influence. That’s not to say that Wright’s movies have no themes, just that characters don’t tend to trumpet those themes in hushed whispers or a Bane voice. Wright cast actual superheroes Chris Evans and Brandon Routh as douchebag superheroes in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a movie that actually taps into the anarchic spirit of old-school Marvel Comics much more than any of the Marvel movies. Blockbusters could use more anarchy and less declamations.
So how exciting that Edgar Wright was making Ant-Man, and how exciting now that he gets to make something that’s not Ant-Man! Nobody knows anything official about Wright’s departure. Maybe it’s just evidence that Hollywood doesn’t do silly just now, because Hollywood is your teenaged cousin that just read Catcher in the Rye and thinks everything symbolizes everything. You want big Hollywood movies to be brilliantly silly. Right now they’re seriously boring.