Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla vs. Henry James

"What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"

Those words are possibly the most famous written by American novelist Henry James (1843-1916). They have been read and the concept they express has been studied by nearly every veteran of a college-level literature or creative writing class. They are from his essay titled "The Art of Fiction."

James is saying that the events of a story arise from the personalities of the people involved.  Their desires, fears, jealousies, loves, etc., cause them to act.  Those actions, their consequences, and the following reactions constitute the story.  Conversely, we often times understand those personalities through the actions taken by the characters.  The characters may describe their sentiments with words, but sometimes they do not; so the audience must infer those sentiments from a character's actions. Also, a character may express a sentiment that contradicts his actions -- and the audience will generally trust the character's actions more than his statements.

This relationship between character and incident holds true for monsters, too.

Take the MUTO from Godzilla, which opened last weekend. These giant creatures -- their name is an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism -- have very clear motivations.  They want to find sources of radioactivity so they can eat it, as that seems to be their only nutritional requirement. The two in the film seek each other out so they can mate and lay eggs.

These motivations drive their actions and therefore the story. The damage they cause to Las Vegas and San Francisco seems incidental; they are not out to kill humans or ruin property values.

Godzilla has a strong motivation that less clearly arises from his character.  For some reason he hates Mr. and Mrs. MUTO and goes to great lengths to kill them.  Even though the film describes him as the best predator of his long-gone era of Earth history, he does not hunt the happy couple in order to eat them.  He kills them and then returns to his home at the bottom of the sea -- perhaps not far from Spongebob's pineapple.

Perhaps he kills them because, as one of the film's scientists tell us, the MUTO are parasitic, laying eggs inside other giant creatures of their original era.  Or perhaps he kills them because, as Ken Watanabe's character tells us, "Nature has an order, a power to restore balance."

Regardless, Godzilla has a motivation -- ruin the MUTO honeymoon -- and he acts accordingly.  His actions and theirs create the events that lead to other events that eventually lead to a resolution of the story's fundamental conflict.

This conflict resolution is an important concept not clearly expressed in James's oft-quoted lines. The incidents that illustrate character are expected by most audiences to cause, alter, or resolve conflict. And the audience generally expects a final resolution to the story's central conflict by end of the tale.

In this regard, the humans in Godzilla present a potential problem. They have character that is illustrated in incident, but those incidents have little impact on the central conflict of the film. That is, we could pretty much remove the humans from the movie, and the battle between Godzilla and the MUTO Family might play out in a similar fashion.

Some of us are familiar with this dilemma of the irrelevant hero from an episode of The Big Bang Theory. In "The Raiders Minimization" (follow the link to a clip) Amy ruins Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the gang by pointing out that Harrison Ford's character has little to no influence on whether the Nazis find the Ark and what happens to them when they do.

I left the theater thinking about this problem. The humans in the film served two functions for the most part: they explained things to the audience by explaining things to each other and they attracted audience sympathy or identification. With the exception of some father-son conflict between the characters played by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (which is quickly resolved), there is little to no conflict among the human characters. Since they can have little influence on the fight between the monsters, that leaves them little to do (except explain and emote).

Christopher Orr at TheAtlantic.com also makes this observation in his commentary titled "Waiting for Godzilla."  However, his desire to be emphatic makes his statement inaccurate: "Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot."

SPOILER ALERT: Orr is wrong in at least two ways -- Taylor-Johnson's character destroys the nest of MUTO eggs in San Francisco; this not only saves the city from baby MUTOs, it distracts Mrs. MUTO from the beat-down that she and her husband are giving Godzilla. That break gives our lizard hero time to recover and defeat Mr. MUTO mano a mano. We could say that Taylor-Johnson's character influences the plot in a third way: He is taking a nuclear warhead out to sea as bait, and Mrs. MUTO follows it; she turns her back on Godzilla long enough for him to take her out.

In other words, no Taylor-Johnson, no Godzilla victory dance, no more San Francisco.

And yet, for most of the film, the humans do not influence the "inexorable mechanics" of the fight between monsters, and that hampered somewhat my enjoyment of the film. The characters talk a lot and explain a lot, and the happy family that must by some unwritten law be threatened by the central dilemma of so many films are present and expressing their love for each frequently. (We have seen them so many times, do we really care anymore?) But there is hardly any conflict among them, and that makes for boring scenes.

As the drunk and high Swedish persona of the blogger at "Behind the Proscenium" says it: "Worst thing on a movie that the makers can do - make the thing so that my brain sleeps before I know that I am asleep. Suck, suck, suck, suck."

Other movies have faced a similar dilemma, but they have solved it more satisfyingly. The characters played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister cannot do anything to stop the tornadoes; but they can work to survive them, and in the process of that they can deal with the personal conflicts between them (their marriage is falling apart). An apocalyptic favorite of mine, 2012, also has a central problem the humans cannot alter -- Earth's crust has come apart at the seams. But we have several groups of humans to track as they try to survive the mayhem, and each group has conflicts among various characters that must be resolved.

In Godzilla, however, the humans have little interesting drama among themselves. The scientists and Naval officers following Godzilla through the Pacific on his way to California have little to do other than that. There is no conflict on the ships between the military officers and the scientists.

The wife and child of Taylor-Johnson's character must survive the monsters in San Francisco, but that is not presented as a very interesting or complicated challenge, and there is little dramatic conflict involved. She pretty much stays in place at the hospital. She puts her son on a bus to escape the city and that bus (so wisely) drives across the Golden Gate Bridge just as Godzilla shows up. The child escapes, but the audience never senses he is in danger (as I suggested before, is the child ever really in danger in a monster movie?  Teens who have sex definitely are. The 5-year-old son of the protagonist? Not so much.)

If Steven Speilberg had directed the bridge scenes, we would have had a different story. Look at how often children are endangered in his movies. We may know they are going to survive, but Speilberg devotes a great deal of cinematic energy threatening the young ones and giving them interesting obstacles to overcome on their own. (Jurassic Park, for example.)

Some people have said the helplessness of the humans in Godzilla is part of the film's message. Godzilla and the MUTOs are symbolic of the forces of nature unleashed by irresponsible actions of humanity, and nature is a force larger than humanity, so we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. I agree. Presenting the humans as helpless to alter the combat between Godzilla and the MUTOs conveys a fine message. (In my opinion, the humans get off much too easily in the movie.) But if they cannot resolve the film's conflict, then they must given some conflict they can resolve so the audience can become more invested in their presence on the screen.

If you cannot make the humans more interesting, keep them off the screen and give us more monsters destroying things!


  1. Nicely done, Scott. I agree, for the most part, though I'm probably a bit more sympathetic to the argument that the point about human helplessness justifies the way the characters are portrayed and interact. Even conceding that, though, I think the film does spend more time on the humans than it needs to. If Edwards really felt that he needed to include so much inconsequential human activity (vis-a-vis the monsters) he should have found some other strategies to make their interactions more consequential at the human level. In the end, I think that probably would have been a mistake, in terms of what Godzilla films are supposed to be. So in the end, also, I'd second the call for more monsters on screen. Maybe that's what we'll get with the (now) inevitable sequel.

  2. I think the point about human helplessness was conveyed through the failed attempts of the soldiers to counter the beasts. That helplessness could have been conveyed, too, with the civilians somehow, and with less of the rather uninteresting family relationships it attempted to show. I think Cloverfield did a better job of showing the humans as ineffective in their efforts to fight back or escape. In Gojira there is a love triangle that has some impact on the main conflict, so when the monster is not on screen there is human drama to be interested in (not to mention the drama of the atom bomb parallels being acted out).