What the Monsterverse can learn from Jaws (1975)
We all love action movies. But there is a guilty pleasure in watching gigantic monsters battle it out on the screen. I say guilty pleasure because unless you are a purist, you would always enjoy graphically created giants in a Hollywood movie, which always guarantees you the pleasure and excitement of the destruction, despite the quality of other cinematic elements. So nowadays, these movies have stopped caring for those other elements altogether. I say this not only as a criticism but as an observation of how good the action sequences are presented to us when other components are not cared for. So it may not be unfeasible to continue going down this way if everything the viewer wants from the genre is provided. That is what the Monsterverse has done.
Now I may appear a stickler for some, but let me try to mitigate that as much as possible by using another movie as an example. It is perfectly fine to keep making these movies. But if you are trying to build a universe, the viewer should get familiar with that. I also understand that when the size (both by geography and scheme) is larger, only representative engagement is viable with human characters. The inclusion of authorities is also unavoidable. Expositions by character will be more than a usual movie in this case.
All of this being said, it has failed to involve us in the world of the film. The world is not merely monsters, not the military that exists only to cause more explosions on-screen and scientists to give ‘visibly shocking’ information about them. It is more than that. Moreover, the elites (military and scientists), as I call them, are only being a hindrance to the worldwide decimation we have come to witness.
To remedy this in the future, let us take a look at one of the classic examples of movies where humans faced a threat from other species that are not extraterrestrial: Jaws directed by Steven Spielberg.
I am not going to talk about that movie here but what one can learn from it.
The primary requirement of movies with other creatures is that they should invade and disturb the established world of yours. For that to take place, there should be a brief but firm establishment in the first place. Only then, when it is brutally broken down, the catastrophe will have any form of meaning to it. In Jaws, Spielberg does a magnificent job of giving us the lay of the land, taking us through the town with the protagonist Chief Brody ( Roy Scheider). We are allowed to listen to the background conversations of the townspeople, complaints from them to the Chief, and the preparation event that is part of the plot point (4th of July celebration). Then we hear more about the town from people who are not actually relevant to the story. But they are definitely paramount to the establishment mentioned earlier.
Also, later people are not in agreement with the temporary ban of swimming activities stating that it will affect the revenue of their business. I am not suggesting implementing this in the future of Monsterverse or other movies of this kind. Because the threat level is extinction and you cannot have people protesting over regulations. But that is not what the scenes in Jaws convey (or at least not its only purpose). It reaffirms that this Shark is invading the land, the peace, and the routine of the people. The graveness of the threat is not dependent only on the massiveness of the destroyer or the cataclysm it renders, but how much of an impediment it has been to the life of common people.
I am not here to suggest how to direct, because that would be pretentious at the least and obnoxious at the worst. But I can say what I missed in the Monsterverse. We shall leave out Kong: Skull Island movie because it is the opposite of Jaws; humans trespassing the base of another species.
The two Godzilla movies, before the arrival of the monster in the first movie and the havoc it wreaked, and after the knowledge of the hazard it poses to humanity in the second movie, I know absolutely nothing about the world this movie sets itself in. If your ambition is to build a universe, this a shoddy one you have built. Fine, you did not have time to show the world in the first movie as expositions about the science and mythology of the creatures have occupied space. But what about the second one? A news clip at the beginning is enough? I do not know what happened to the people of the city that was obliterated. I don’t have any connection to the aftermath of the first film to bring myself to care about any of the chaos that happens in the second movie. Therefore Jaws needs to be revisited. The commercial demands may not exactly be in line with my issues regarding the two Godzilla movies, but that does not mean there is no necessity for consideration. The monsters should not be the only takeaway of this genre of movies.
English Mother******, do you speak it?
A crucial scene placed between shark hunting which incongruent, given the danger they are facing. But the entire second half of the movie which is spent in complete action or chaos to be precise, used this as a temporary reversal to human bonding. It is a monologue from one character, Quint ( Robert Shaw). But not just the monologue, what precedes and succeeds is also important. Because those are idle conversations of drunk men. In their idleness remains the knowledge about the world. It provides a buffer to all the full-throttle action. You can also see characters who are not even named appear on the screen and utter a sentence or two. Apart from helping world building, this also serves as a tether to the world and not merely the shark (selling point of the movie)
The power of dialogue is invaluable. What these two movies do is have the characters utter dialogues either to explain something or turning them into fans for the monsters by having them say what we see clearly on screen or some ‘crazy revelatory information’ with awe that none of the viewers feel. I am not saying that by doing this, they are not committing an error of any kind. But dialogues relevant to only the subject of the movie make it a long string of slogans for their product (At least slogans are catchy). Have someone other than the authority or the scientists say a damn word. The scientists and military say what both types (those not relevant to the plot and those relevant) should be said separately. The random conversation between those on the street should be about the grandiosity of the monsters or how it has affected them (but not restricted to these alone). But we do not get those. What we have are dialogues that spoof the movie. Unnecessary humor where it borders on making a meme of their movie. Military commands, using jargons of the same to refer to the threat, scientific terms are thrown around all over the place. What this does is, it fails in its primary objective of creating a universe. This monotonous writing makes this just another bunch of movies with the same actors and beasts. There is nothing unique about this except the humongous non-human species. That defeats the purpose of a cinematic universe.
I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.
Let us take the first scene of Jaws. You follow a girl running and a boy chasing her, as both of them sprint towards the sea to swim. The boy, who is drunk, falls short. As for the girl, she has strayed away from the shore by a significant distance, captivated by excitement. Now enters the shark. We see the camera rising from the bottom of the sea towards the girl, imitating the POV of the shark. Then the shark pulls down the girl gradually. Here she flaps frantically, screaming and hyperventilating. What Spielberg does is arrest her within the narrow field of view of the camera to capture only the girl. We get two cuts. One to the boy who is lying drunk in the ocean, leaving the girl helpless and hopeless. Two is after the shark has pulled her into the water, it cuts to the same boy and back to the landscape view of the ocean with only the bell sound. There is no music before the arrival of the shark and after it has caught its prey. Only silence with diegetic sounds. This is how you show hopelessness.
Now another example from the same movie. This is not about a scene but the entire second half of the movie. It should be noted that when the three characters⸺Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper ( Richard Dreyfuss)⸺set out on a mission to apprehend or kill the shark, the dynamics between them are different, the attitude of each of them towards the mission and each other is different. As the hunt progresses and the enemy appears to be more formidable than predicted, their psyche takes a hit. The fear of losing his macho image and probably a thirst for adding the skull of this elusive beast in his frightening collection especially gripped Quint, the old-school expert in the hunting of sea animals,. This pushes him to make irrational decisions which ultimately results in his demise. The other two who are at first apprehensive of this savage man observing from their upper-class vantage point, soon bond with him. Then the skepticism creeps back in as the situation starts to become dire. Then Quint himself, knowing that this animal cannot be killed by his primitive methods, abandons his reluctance and notions about modern technology and literate rich young men, and seeks help from Hooper. There is nothing extraordinary happening here if explained by taking into the assigned meaning of extraordinary in this context (monster movies) as there are no enormous explosions or the shark wreaking havoc. But the human susceptibility to becoming desperate when facing unforeseen and insurmountable problems has been vindicated. Also, it does not remain static. The characters act almost like hypocrites, but it is a necessary contradiction to distill the essence of the malleability of the human psyche.
There are two important lessons here. First, let me take the one that the long hunting sequence teaches us. Just because it is Monsteverse, human characters need not remain static. Humans are highly susceptible to irrational behavior under stress. Erratic is not restricted to illogical, but it mostly means inconsistencies that events of the movie have influenced. Subtlety is the right way, but everything is hilariously explicit. While in this movie, the behavior of the characters remained robotic, responding to a set of algorithms that served as FAQs to the mythic lore and scientific mysteries. They did not distinguish themselves from any other characters in not just other monster movies, but movies in general. It would not be any different if they had inserted texts between those wrecks, expounding that which has to be said out aloud and ignored the existence of these characters entirely.
The last point of this post and the most important probably is the second piece of advice we need to take from Jaws. It is related to the scene with a girl in the sea. Godzilla is a savior. A proxy warrior for a feeble species. How would his achievement be memorable with no representation for the tribulations of the weak species?
Homo Sapiens face the greatest menace since Neanderthals in the form of these ancient monsters. Along with that, their greatest hero (if you consider it as being pitted against the greatest threat) has saved them. But you don’t feel triumph as a viewer. Sure, the battle was exhilarating to watch, but if that is the sole reason, they should have made it as a short film with the monsters beating the radiation out of each other. Something is lacking here: The gravitas.
People crushed like an elephant crushes a watermelon is not a sign of seriousness. There should be emotional consequences to the unseen collateral damages. Give the viewer a reason to root for Godzilla other than that they like him (mostly because they have experienced the character in previous iterations).
I am aware of the fact that being too serious may ruin the fun for a few. But it provides a foundation for the colorful air of atomic breath.
There is no effort in presenting the helplessness and hopelessness of the masses. Focusing almost entirely on elites (scientist and military) and sequestration of the plebs to be mannequins and stick figures to destroy for fun is silly. The fear of being killed by the beings is not palpable. A good portion of the movie is treated as a hagiography about these monsters. I understand it is perfectly reasonable to do this if you are making a solo movie about Godzilla. After all, all people want is to have their eyes lit in awe and their adrenaline pumping in intense anticipation.
But a cinematic universe is different. You should not rely on the variety available in the monster lore alone. There should be a reckoning for all the damages. And depending upon the tone you want the movie to have as a creator, the mode of reckoning is determined (financial, political, or emotional). But having none of this is why the movie never leaves the theatre. (neither does the fact that this is an extended universe).
I am not oblivious to the possibility that I may have sounded like an insufferable puritan. I assure you my priority from these movies is what everyone else wants; to see these creatures, explosions, and anything related. With the Godzilla vs Kong movie coming up, what I expect (and will probably be satisfied with) is having combat of unprecedented proportions in a scale and size never attempted before, between two monsters occupying the same screen for the first time in Hollywood, keeping in mind all the epic stories and other movies a lot of us have read and seen about them.
That being said, it would be justice for the characters we love, if we put more effort into the characters we are not so fond of in this context, that is, humans
Originally published at http://thevicariousview.wordpress.com on March 30, 2021.