In order to convince David Straithairn’s Admiral Stenz not to use nuclear power to annihilate the giant behemoths quickly approaching American soil, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa brandishes a deceivingly quotidian object: a stopped pocket watch. It was Dr. Serizawa’s father’s during the bombing of Hiroshima, an instructive moment in history now literally frozen in time as a cautionary token.
Though Ken Watanabe looks nowhere near 70, my (I thought, reasonable) assumption during this scene of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was that Dr. Serizawa’s father had immediately perished alongside tens of thousands of others during the infamous 1945 atomic bombing. But regardless of this emblem’s status as a memento of death on a massive scale, that Dr. Serizawa’s father survived Hiroshima and Dr. Serizawa is a healthy mid-50s man now seems far more likely considering this film’s view of tragedy.
Despite its keeping with the summer movie tradition of mass destruction, despite its conflagration of images evoking recent tragedies from the Fukushima to Katrina, and despite updating a film 60 years its junior that was in no way afraid of dealing with violent devastation head-on, 2014’s Godzilla is not a monster movie about understanding tragedy. It is instead a rather strange film about survivors, and it demonstrates how disingenuously low-stakes studio summer movies have become.
Godzilla’s advertising campaign attempted to distance the reboot as much as it could from the Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version. Gone are “Mayor Ebert,” Puff Daddy, and the monster’s considerable overbite, replaced with ease in a fan trailer by a Robert Oppenheimer voice-over and a Ligeti piece featured in Kubrick’s 2001.
All indications pointed to the likelihood of a serious, solemn, politically conscious blockbuster, a Nolanesque treatment using a fantastical narrative and all the trappings of big summer entertainment to reflect on topical concerns typically unbefitting fun diversions at the multiplex.
Consider me a bit surprised, then, when Edwards’s Godzilla re-crafted the ideal Emmerich formula in structure and tone – not his 1998 non-hit hit mind you, but rather Independence Day. Like that 1996 magnum opus, Edwards’ film follows a group of intersecting characters across the northern hemisphere as they deal with a massive transnational threat, complete with a firsthand look at high-level decision-making and a military-garbed protagonist. The only thing lacking was a US President in need of redemption.
The major difference between Godzilla and Independence Day, however, is that Edwards here lacks Emmerich’s enduring fascination with the circumstances of death in the process of unprecedented global peril. Most major developments in ID4’s alien invasion are structured around the scope of death, from the introduction of the aliens’ considerable threat when their ships blow up major city landmarks and streets – enveloping their numerous willing greeters and street-level passers-by – to the escalating statistics of the aliens’ comprehensive path of destruction. All of this is realized in a PG-13 scale of violence and spectacle: death is not gory, but it is certain.
Godzilla, by contrast, explores the spectacle of destruction without its cost. The movie’s first on-screen death (that of Juliette Binoche’s Sandra Brody during the film’s inciting power plant breach) is ultimately an off-screen one; it makes a great deal of difference on which side of that protective door the camera remains. And this structures the film’s approach to death as a whole: as something alluded to and deeply felt, but never actually seen or dealt with (the early demise of Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody signals the diligent completion of a narrative purpose).
Compare the Honolulu airport attack to nearly any sequence in Independence Day. A MUTO opens up a shuttle full of passengers and lifts it airborne, spilling humans out indiscriminately. Edwards’ camera, however, remains closely locked on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody and a kid that he’s taken into his care. As the bystanders meet their deaths by not so much plummeting outward but off-screen, Edwards’ priorities are evident if subtly realized: this is not their story. The kid, shortly after, is immediately reunited with his family amongst a conflagration of wandering and confused crowds, his destiny of certain survival having been economically completed.
Godzilla is about survivors but not the complications of survival — its tactics, its traumas, its witnessing to history. It’s about the incidence of survival (because how much agency do these characters have, really?), yet it treats that incidence as a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t meet the circumstance of enduring a mass tragedy with the other side of that coin – the probability of death is rarely a factor that generates any questions about survival. A strange choice for a film ostensibly about the imminent consequences of climate change.
Godzilla is a paradoxical film in which destruction runs ubiquitous but the outcome is never, even momentarily, in question. It is a film with bluster to spare in its depiction of IMAX-scale ruination. But despite its topical and historical allusions, it never even matches the dramatic stakes and narrative tensions of the stimuli-and-charisma fast food sandwich that was Independence Day, a film that sought little extracinematic resonance beyond Emmerich’s idiosyncratic brand of nationalism.
Godzilla’s dramatic bankruptcy speaks a great deal to the current dire state of event films whose “events” are ultimately inconsequential: death is meaningless in Marvel movies, blockbusters regularly stage gargantuan third-act devastation while losing all sense of dramatic scale, and now a character recounts his father’s witnessing of Hiroshima and we’re meant, as an unstated foregone conclusion, to assume that father had lived. Under the shadow of the 1954 original’s topical themes, and with iconic cable news imagery and a strained climate metaphor in tow, Godzilla evokes the greatest and most striking scope of destruction Hollywood can buy, yet the stakes the film imports do not actually exist in its execution.
What to do with serious summer entertainment that doesn’t take itself seriously?
That’s why I see Godzilla’s more honest counterpart as Jon Favreau’s Chef. Superficially speaking, the films have some notable similarities. Both films
- Depict the mending of a father-son relationship
- Track a small ensemble of characters in a journey across the Great American Coastline with decisive pit stops in several iconic American cities
- Thrive on a fleeting visual spectacle befitting summer consumer entertainment: kaiju fighting in the former, food porn in the latter
- Take considerable screen time fixating on the protagonist’s girth (a topic of frequent comment amongst Chef’s supporting cast and Godzilla’s Japanese fanbase)
- Would stand to benefit from the IMAX 3D treatment (financially in Godzilla, aesthetically in Chef — don’t tell me you don’t want to see that food in all its salivation-inspiring detail)
But more importantly, Chef exercises openly what Godzilla practices disingenuously: thoroughly predictable and ultimately low-stakes entertainment. The central question in Chef is whether Favreau’s Carl Casper will be able to restore his professional reputation and artisanal autonomy in the face of a public social media meltdown, a question that is answered early on with a first act Downey-ex-machina. The destination is essentially the same as Godzilla: the certain lasting reunion of parents with their one child despite – and because of – a few days strewn apart.
Obviously Godzilla by design has “bigger” stakes than Chef in scale and premise, but both films are, at their core, frivolous and light as a feather. The difference between them is that Chef is the only one that knows this, and succeeds by unapologetically embracing a certain tension-free charm that can only really fly this time of the movie calendar year. This is a film about gastronomic tourism, Twitter fights, and watching Jon Favreau tell Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt to fuck off. Chef is so stake-absent that it features a scene in which Casper gifts his young son a sharp kitchen knife to zero consequence, a reverse Chekhov’s gun that every ‘90s family dramedy would have resisted.
Chef is not the best film I’ve seen so far this summer, but it is one of the best “summer films” in that it understands the simple skill of how to please an audience, a skill that studio films have struggled to recover as of late. Prospective blockbusters, with their fraught and diminishing search for Nolanesque thematic weight combined with ballooning budgets and synergistic corporate demands, have failed to recognize or embrace what they, more often than not, still are: necessary precisely because they are predictable, unenduring, and rarely profound.