Godzilla stomped its way to a $93 million domestic box office launch, far exceeding its expected $75 million domestic gross. These numbers are normally reserved for super hero films, animated family movies or epic sequels. While Godzilla is a familiar property, nobody expected the film to perform this well. Many will argue its success is due in part to a weaker Spider Man film and a brilliant (but misleading) marketing campaign by Warner Brothers. While I will not disagree with that, I think it has more to do with how the film was made itself: it’s a classic Blockbuster.
Godzilla takes on the feel of Jurassic Park at times, with Gareth Edwards being the closest thing to a young Steven Spielberg I think Hollywood has seen to date. This film was not just a CGI-constructed set piece extravaganza like so many other blockbusters released. The film actually emotionally resonated with audiences, in both the chilling trailer and the film itself. American audiences want quality cinema, not just blow-’em-up cape fare light on character exposition and story. Despite being a monster movie, Godzilla delivered. Godzilla is that 1990s-style Spielbergian blockbuster that had you feeling like a kid again while appreciating the human element at the center of the fantasy story.
So what did Godzilla do right that other blockbuster films so often do not? Why is this film outperforming Spider Man? It starts with the man they chose to helm the project: Gareth Edwards.
In 2010 Edwards broke onto the scene with an independently produced film, Monsters. The film was set in Mexico where two young people were trying to escape back to the United States through a quarantined area under invasion by intergalactic monsters. While the whole premise sounds like a B-Movie, the tone was in fact much more serious. The execution, despite being produced on a budget of only $500,000, was near flawless. The world Edwards built was not only entirely believable, but brilliantly crafted with a painstaking attention to detail. The biggest shock of all was when people found out the young British director did all of the special effects on his own personal laptop!
What ultimately made Monsters so captivating was that he created tension using the two main characters; he built up to that monster reveal using appropriate pacing. That is what so many of these modern blockbusters get wrong — they just throw everything out at once, no drama or tension is built up. So often in blockbuster movies we move quickly from set-piece to set-piece without ever feeling that our characters are in danger. Of late blockbuster films have been more about the universe itself rather than the characters fighting or living within it. The human element has been all but wiped out. There is no reason to keep sitting in the theater when everything is given away in the first act of the film.
Like Spielberg, Edwards shows a talent for being able to construct a world on a blockbuster scale, but still have grounded human interest at its core. When Edwards was offered the opportunity to direct Godzilla he stressed the importance of keeping a single human interest at the core of this monster movie. He was a fan of the monster, but also understood that in order to build up suspense and make him more menacing we needed to have humans to relate to. Bryan Cranston’s chilling voice-over in the trailer created a genuine terror. You felt an emotional connection to the seriousness and fear in his voice throughout the trailer. While the film itself eventually deviated in tone from the one portrayed in the trailer, it still kept true to the pacing and human element advertised.
Unlike Pacific Rim (another Kaiju film released by Legendary), Godzilla was only on screen for fifteen minutes or so. Edwards brilliantly built up to the third act finale. When the final fight happened, my theater erupted in applause! THAT is what a blockbuster is supposed to do, elicit that kind of “heck yeah” reaction. There is a reason we have a three act structure, and that is to appropriately build a dramatic story arc. That is what other monster films like Pacific Rim (not nearly as successful with American audiences) failed to do.
So how does Godzilla get the dramatic structure right?
*MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
In the first act, we are introduced to the human element and actually do not really see any monsters at all. Contrast that to most super hero films where you would already have had some kind of battle with the main villain or monster. The first act wasn’t slow either, it was very action packed, but it kept you waiting for more. The first act didn’t throw everything at you. Most blockbusters throw the entire kitchen sink away in the first act, build to a downfall (that never actually feels like one) in the second and then works its way to a giant set-piece for the third act. It’s boring, it’s predictable and you get worn out by all the inhuman CGI by the mid-point of the film. I never feel like any of these superheros or characters are in any sense of danger or fear for their lives. In Godzilla on the other hand, the film was not shy about killing off main characters (even in the first act). As a result it made you feel like the characters were in constant and direct fear for their lives.
Even by the time we get to the second act, we still have not seen much of Godzilla, we only know that our characters know he exists. By the first major reveal of the monster, we have seen a number of crafty set-pieces, but ones that quickly come back to the human element. Right after we destroy a city, we are left to see the consequence of the devastation. So often in blockbusters we see the city get destroyed, millions die, but we are never treated to the visual and emotional result of that set-piece action. Not only did we witness the destruction of the city, standing tall in a beautifully shot ghostly silhouette, we hear on the news “millions feared dead.” The director understands that this is not just a monster Kaiju film, but a disaster movie. What would it be like if Godzilla actually were real? That is what this director actually bothered to show, especially so in the second act. He got up close and personal with human subjects in the foreground of devastation. It wasn’t just CGI destruction porn. In Godzilla we learn to appreciate the consequences of the action so much more than in the average blockbuster.
With appropriate pacing in mind, by the time we arrive at the third act we are not yet exhausted. We still need to see what will happen to our characters and what will happen to the city. Edwards hasn’t even allowed our two monsters to fight yet! Most super hero films would have already had several fights by this point between the hero and villain, exhausting the viewer. The third act battle as a result has to be so much more epic, laced with CGI abuse and devoid of human interest to separate itself from all the set pieces that came before it. It is a narrative error in my opinion. You cannot just expect people to feel anything for the characters in most third act blockbusters because you have removed all tension with battle-fatigue and the whole film just feels devoid of any sense of danger, drama and tension. You always know the good guys are going to win. It never feels like the good guys are going to win in Godzilla. In fact because of the way wanton destruction is treated in this film, you feel you might for the first time in a long time be treated to a bittersweet or bad-guys-win (for now) ending. In a way, this film leaves open the potential to return to this universe the way it should: without a totally obvious cliff-hanger. It was a great stand alone film.
So why did I choose to title this article ‘Godzilla v. Hollywood?’ I did so because I feel that this style of blockbuster needs to show Hollywood executives who choose to give the greenlight to large-scale projects that story and pacing is the most important part of any film. This film wasn’t just attracting a niche demographic either, it was a general blockbuster. It was a film about a giant monster but one whose story and pacing could appeal to any audience member. It takes all the algorithm reliant story-structuring and throws it out the window. Godzilla didn’t feel like every other formulaic film in theaters and that is why it earned $93 million on opening weekend.
American audiences will go back to theaters again if you give them reason to. If every film feels like the same, why would I go to see the same film every weekend? Godzilla ought to show that a blockbuster film can be both epic in scale and yet indie-at-heart. That is why Steven Spielberg is so successful. Spielberg understands this style of blockbuster film-making, and has repeatedly called to Hollywood to stop the formulaic tent-poles and get back to proper stories. When a movie is just a giant set-piece people stop caring. It is why The Amazing Spider Man 2 got panned in reviews and is currently loosing out to Godzilla with domestic audiences. Americans are tired of lazy film-making. As a result, I’m hoping that Godzilla will take on Hollywood. I am hoping that after this blockbuster, it will leave audiences begging for more films done right.