With the release of director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 update of [Godzilla](movie:45291) a few weeks out, it’s safe to say that we have a hit on our hands—financially speaking, of course. Critically, however, it seems to be a bit of a mixed bag with the ever-reliable (I’m half-kidding) Rotten Tomatoes score sitting at 73%. Regardless of the dollars and cents, or the critical consensus, the main success of Edwards’ Godzilla just seems to be the way it tells the story of everyone’s favorite gigantic rampaging monster. There’s no camp value, it has the perfect tone, and has a great assorted cast that put us right in the mix of the kaiju battles. But, as with all big summer blockbusters, there have been some majorly nitpicky complaints. People have griped that there’s not enough Godzilla in Godzilla, or that the cast is bland and unlikeable. The biggest objection to the film, though, is that it stretched on far too long without any action; it was all buildup with far too hasty of a payoff. Everybody has opinions, and they’re quite right to be entitled to them, but considering how much I find Godzilla to be one of the best summer blockbusters to come along in a very long time I find these complaints to be fairly troubling, and indicative of a larger problem with contemporary movie-going audiences. In short, audiences have forgotten how to watch—and enjoy—summer movies.
We’ll have to set some precedent here if we’re going to talk about summer monster movies, but right off the bat I should specify that precedent is certainly not last year’s Guillermo del Toro robots vs. monsters extravaganza, [Pacific Rim](movie:204401). I haven’t seen it since it was released, but I must say I loved Pacific Rim when it came out because it embodied a certain giddy niche of broad, cartoonish spectacle (plus, come on, it’s giant robots fighting giant monsters). It was great fun not just because it lacked a legitimate narrative subtext to back up what was happening, but also because it embraced its solely straightforward adventure story to the core. The only real reason people have jumped to compare Godzilla to Pacific Rim (other than the latter’s obvious use of homage based on the former’s 60-year franchise history) is for the superficial fact that giant things fight each other in both. No, the precedent is not Pacific Rim, but rather a few summer movie classics from the man who started it all: Steven Spielberg.
Godzilla has been compared to the works of Steven Spielberg because of the way it handles themes of awe and wonder, but mostly because of the expert way the film adopts Spielberg’s tendency to favor the sense of what you don’t see onscreen instead of just immediately letting the cat out of the bag. The three best comparative examples of this from Spielberg himself are Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park (a strong case could be made for his 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds as well, but we’ll leave it at the aforementioned three). Edwards’ film keeps you at bay for most of the runtime, offering short glimpses of his titular monster. But when a full creature is finally revealed it isn’t even the main attraction at all, it’s one of the “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms” that Godzilla must battle in order to preserve the so-called MUTO pecking order. It’s a tease followed by tease upon tease. But then when we finally get sort of a good look at the big guy, he lets out his updated but still somehow iconic roar and it cuts away to show the rampaging play out on TV screens in the background. This is the kind of maneuvering that has pissed a lot of people off, but to me it’s the best kind of Spielbergian tease—one that keeps you wanting more simply because it perpetuates the tease in order to maintain that sense of awe, wonder, and terror.
In order to make the case for the veracity of the tease, I remind you that the Bearded One has been doing it for quite some time. The first real glimpse of the shark in 1975’s Jaws happens 1 hour and 2 minutes into the film, while the first real look at the shark—prior to Roy Scheider’s famous “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat” line—happens 1 hour and 21 minutes into the film’s roughly 2-hour runtime. In his most egregious tease, Spielberg withholds the aliens in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind until ten minutes before the entire 137-minute movie is over, and even then a blinding light emanating from the alien mothership obscures them. 1993’s Jurassic Park doesn’t hold back for long, and shows a dinosaur 20 minutes into the film, but it’s just a glamor shot of a harmless brachiosaurus eating leaves off a tree. The good stuff—when the deadly T-Rex attacks the helpless group along the roadway—happens 1-hour and 4 minutes into the roughly 2-hour movie. This all means to say that keeping the very thing you came to see obscured for so long is a great way of building excitement until that pent up feeling is unleashed once the spectacle and the hero shots kick in. The audience cheered multiple times during my screening Godzilla for this very reason.
Audiences nowadays seem put-off by this delightful waiting game because they want everything and they want it now. It’s a feeling typified by the films of a man who has (sadly) become the most influential blockbuster director working today: Michael Bay. I don’t mean to specifically blame Bay himself, but rather the way in which his films have propagated the “More, more, more” mentality in what has essentially become a cinema of excess and impatience. Bay’s films—most of all the Transformers movies—put everything out there and more, stressing an eye-candy-above-all mentality that has jaded the modern viewer into thinking that building characters or holding out for the big payoff is somehow boring or ineffectual. It should be said that it’s strange that such a thing circles back to Spielberg, who has executive produced every Transformers movie, though his active participation seems to have waned with each successive, bloated installment. He’s effectively had a hand in both the good and the bad.
Thankfully Gareth Edwards has brought it back. He’s delivered a blockbuster that moves away from pushing itself too soon and instead relied on a classic frame of reference towards a tantalizing grasp of gradual spectacle. It makes me think we need more summer blockbusters like this instead of the expensive dreck quickly forgotten a week after you see them. If you hold things back a bit - or at least you’re somehow more likely to remember it.