Mar 1, 2018
Godzilla: Best Consumed With Small Children
I don’t even think I care about movies anymore. I’m mostly interested in how my consumption of movies has evolved with time. When I was 10, I wanted movies to have Bill Murray in them. When I was 13, I wanted movies to be exciting and full of cuss words. When I was 15 I wanted them to give me a pleasant illusion of enlightenment that lingered for a couple days. At 20 I wanted surrogate friends. And now that I live with my 8 year old brother, I just want him to smile for a couple hours.
This can be difficult, because I’ve subconsciously put so many qualifiers on what he’s allowed to smile at. It’s the small victories that count. Getting him to have fun outside without toy guns. Getting him to read books without pictures of guns. Getting him to draw something other than robots with guns for arms.
But he’s a wistful child and it can be a struggle. He has an old camera with pictures of Christmas 2012, the last time all his brothers were home for the holiday. He’s always talking about how his friend down the block moved away, or how his friends at school are leaving. When he wants to watch a movie, he wants me to be there with him, or he starts getting worried and anxious. So a couple times a year I’ll forget my qualifiers and take him to a loud PG-13 movie with a bunch of guns in it, because it gives him some escape.
I saw the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla in theaters because my dad had the same ambition. I liked it because two guys from The Simpsons were in it and I enjoyed the novelty: “Wow, that’s what those guys look like.” But I also got upset as the movie wore on, before I knew I had an aesthetic filter, because Godzilla was suddenly a bad guy, and it made everything about it tonally wrong.
Because I like Godzilla. He isn’t governed by the laws of man, he exists totally outside of society, and he has no friends – this is the kind of character I gravitate toward. I relate to Godzilla’s MO. And Emmerich’s version was firmly anti-Godzilla. I took it as an assault on my way of life and mail ordered a copy of Godzilla 2000 as soon as it became available. It was horrible, of course, but at least the moral code of Godzilla was treated with some dignity. And I took the boy to the 2014 reboot fully expecting the thing to be just as horrible but hoping it’d get rid of his worry for awhile.
Seeing a movie is high-risk when it’s for this purpose. If the movie fails, you just blew $20 that could have been spent on a pizza or some other, safer social distraction. If the kid is squirming in the seat then the car ride home is hell, a fumbling attempt to recoup a failed investment. But if the movie succeeds, then the joy of the child truly is indescribably better than any ephemeral entertainment. I’d take the feeling of the ride home after a good family movie over every single movie I’ve ever seen. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to unqualified happiness.
So we get to the theater. Packed house, because we went on opening weekend instead of the “oh no, it’s closing on Saturday and we’ll forget it exists after” matinees we usually go to. And it’s a success right away – the scenes are steady and deliberate, the dialogue clear without being patronizing. Campy in a way that makes people holler (like when “Godzilla” is said for the first time). And every “the scientist drops his coffee” moment is done with affection.
And the boy keeps asking me wide-eyed questions, trying to solve the plot complications before the characters do. The message of the movie seems good: man is weak and powerless in the force of nature, and the military can’t save us from our eventual doom. And he’s thoroughly overinvesting in all of it.
There’s lots of stuff wrong with Godzilla,of course. It’s a movie that needs to make a billion dollars, so it can’t truly succeed at being anything other than discount Disneyland. None of the characters seem like people, which is a shame. That doesn’t mean they can’t be stock characters. The guy from Breaking Bad can still be the lone gunslinger conspiracy theorist. But his kid and his family – they’re like one of those imaginary Orange County nuclear families that smile in car commercials because they make $150,000 a year. It’s not that we need to care about them, they just need to seem like people you would meet at the grocery store. And the movie fails at this.
The locations feel fake, too. It’s the same problem Pacific Rim had: even when shooting on location with no special effects, even the real stuff somehow looks plastic. The only thing that looks real is Godzilla himself. But that’s probably enough, really.
I always struggle with evaluating movies I wouldn’t see of my own volition. I feel uncomfortable even mentioning Pacific Rim, because I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. If I was in charge of a Godzilla movie, I would show the entire 15 year journey of Bryan Cranston clipping newspaper articles and muttering “something big is gonna happen.” I would have Godzilla be revealed at magic hour in Wyoming 5 minutes before the movie ends. I’d spend the entire second act showing Cranston becoming estranged from his loved ones. “I have too much conspiracy shit to do this Christmas,” he’d say over a shot of Jack Daniels. “I’ll see you when I’m done being lonesome about pretend monsters.”
But Godzilla is probably as good as it could be, really. It takes a long time for the Godzilla reveal, and he strolls onto the stage like the headliner who knows he’s better than his opening act. After he does, it’s a triumph. Unapologetic populist iconography, for as long as a movie can get away with such things.
Here’s why Godzilla unequivocally succeeds and why I’ll remember it fondly, long after the boy steals my money and steals my car and starts his own life somewhere. At the end of the movie, there was a single moment where the entire theater started laughing and cheering. And the boy stood up on top of his seat and he cheered and clapped and he wasn’t worried about a thing. You know, I’ve never seen him do that before.