Mass Entitlement

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First off, prayers and support to the students, family, and faculty of UCSB and especially to the victims of the May 23rd 2014 shooting. This was an atrocity, and I’m sorry that your loss and time of mourning has become a battleground of gun control debates, misogyny, and media frenzy. The way we internalize tragedy, as a country, is deeply, deeply screwed up.

With respect to the victims, their friends, and their families, I’d like to address the shooter’s apparent motivation: entitlement. His thoughts, detailed in a 141 page manifesto and numerous twitter posts, point to a man believing himself entitled to women, bound by some arbitrary requirement to get laid, shamed for having been rejected by women, and ostracized for his nerd interests. To my great embarrassment, the subhumans on twitter leapt to the shooter’s defense, blaming the victims, citing how hard rejection is, and suggesting that women should just “give that one kid some pussy” for the greater good.

I’ll give you a moment to stop gagging.

Before I even get started with my principle idea –and how lame is it that I come up with a game idea from this?- let me say that, like all the tragedies that have come before, I don’t believe, from my reading, that entertainment drove the shooter to his crime beyond portraying a set of unrealistic expectations that any sane 22 year-old should’ve realized were the products of fantasy. I don’t say that to trivialize his misogyny and gross objectification, which are the points here, but to highlight that, to whatever an extent, culture –informed by entertainment and/or outdated traditions- may not have been the cause, but they were certainly influences.

This is not as simplistic as an A to B causality, but our society is inundated with innumerable shitty tropes that objectify women: The Smooch of Victory, the Woman in the Refrigerator, the Maiden in Distress, etc. As Anita Sarkeesian brilliantly argues in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, these tropes may not be malicious in intent, but they normalize and trivialize disempowerment and objectification, which can have an impact on the way we treat people. And that’s shitty. Arthur Chu’s brilliant article shows nerd culture revolving around all of this: often crafting narratives as women as rewards. Nowhere is this more transparent than in video games. It’s easy to hit the low-hanging fruit –Mario & Princess Peach, Dating Sims, Japanese porn games, etc., but what about one of gaming’s golden calves?

What about the romantic sideplots in Bioware games?

Full stop. Bioware makes some of the best games on the planet, period. Jade Empire is freakin’ astounding, Mass Effect 2 is on my pedestal of favorite games, and Dragon Age: Origins’ Morrigan is my one and only video game crush. Still, I have to admit, I’ve always been a little leery about the “romantic” elements” in their games. Could they be strengthened to feel less like entitlement narratives?

Of course.

In Mass Effect, if you’re playing as male Shepherd, Ashley and Liara, the female characters, presuppose sexual interest in you. Simply talking with them is enough to drive up their affinity meter. After all, why else would a dude talk to a chick? Hell, Liara starts the game with a tentacle-hair hard-on for male AND female Shepherd. Complete a key story mission or two, and even if you’ve shut down one of the girls, they’ll still shoot each other daggers in debriefing and squabble over who gets to date you in the middle of the damned war room. So after you pick your manly prize –and you chose Liara, because Ashley’s racist as hell- she shows up in your room before the final mission for a romp in the hay, at which male Shepherd is apparently preternaturally skilled. Suddenly the Xbox 360 notifies you: “ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: PARAMOUR.” So the endgame of any relationship or character investment is to get laid, I take it?

Seriously, the space-army gives metals for this.

I agree that to a certain point, this is an oversimplification. Why wouldn’t lovers make passionate love before a potential suicide mission? What’s to stop them from having a fruitful, egalitarian relationship after the mission, supposing they live? Countering that, why can’t they just be two consenting adults who need relief? All fair points, but that wasn’t the point of the sensual lovemaking scene in it or in Dragon Age: Origins, was it? It was intended to be emotionally rewarding. Awesome that Bioware crafted a romantic subplot, but when the only way to advance it is, essentially, to say “yes” to whatever your intended says/asks, it’s not really a relationship and it’s not really a seduction of any meaningful kind. If they’re trying to have a long, meaningful relationship, why not let the characters act appropriately? In Mass Effect, Liara’s people are promiscuous, and that’s fine, but sex clearly isn’t her endgoal, but it’s treated as such. Nobody’s holding hands after the showdown at the Citadel. With Ashley’s traditionalism and Kaiden’s trust issues, neither seem the type to hop in the sack after just a handful of missions. Afterall, they’ve got to look at Shepherd if he/she survives the final mission. Above all else, if this is not meant to be objectifying, why does the sex have to be earned, and why do you unlock a goddamned achievement for it? If people just want to get laid, why can’t they just get laid?

Y’know, like in Prometheus.

Again, much love for Bioware. They weren’t out to craft a watertight dating sim, but an interactive experience… but the dating minigame, as I’ll call it, is present, and has a handful of issues, principally that they don’t feel like true dating or a true relationship, insofar as such conventions could exist in hyperspace or in a medieval fantasy.

Now here’s the kicker: think back to all the characters you’ve ever romanced in games (supposing you have, naturally). When did any of these characters have a choice? NPCs, I know, and perhaps a silly question, but why is it that literally every possible romanceable character WILL go for you if prompted? You look twice at a supporting character in a Bioware game, and they’ll be in Shepherd’s herd. If it’s a game, what are the stakes? If it’s there for a reward, why do I need that specific reward? If it’s meant to be emotionally fulfilling, why does it skip over the human elements that make relationships and sexual encounters so deeply rewarding? Why does it lack the ability for characters to decline? Why is it just a checklist of “yes?”

Sure, you might argue Samara in Mass Effect 2 will decline “romantic” advances, but not because she has any real agency or is turning you down because she isn’t interested; it’s because taking another mate is against her Justicar code. That’s just another kind of entitlement power fantasy.

Another quasi-exception from Mass Effect 2 is Jack, a punk-rock space pirate with a traumatic past, who’s convinced that everyone is deeply exploitative and presumes that male Shepherd’s interests in her are wholly coital. A conversation or two after she literally tells you fuck off, she asks if he just wants to screw and get it over with. If male Shepherd accepts, coitus occurs, and Jack will forever close herself off to him. He got what he wanted and took advantage of her, just like everyone else. He was just being a Nice Guy. However, declining those early sexual assumptions will lead to a deep relationship where Jack opens up to male Shepherd emotionally and authentically. I say quasi-example because, like every other romanceable crew member, Jack will readily accept Shepherd’s romantic advances, regardless of whatever traumatic history she might have at the hands of military and paramilitary personal.

The only character I’ve ever encountered in a Bioware game who will resist sexual advances without narrative rationale is Mordin, the joke character from Mass Effect 2, who presumes your sexual interest after a few conversations and tells you that he’s really not interested in screwing a human, but if he was, he’d totally screw you. Take a second for that to sink in: Even the character with the agency to say no renigs on it.

Ok, we’ve established that it’s way too easy to romance (read: bed) characters in Bioware games; that the qualifications for doing so are eerily simplistic; that the rewards for doing so are a bit unsettling; and that romancing some characters appears to work against their characterization. What might be a solution?

Deepen the dating mechanic.

1. Make conversation less of a binary and make the “right” things to say less obvious. In the Mass Effect series, there are five ways you can say something: a nice way, a neutral way, a mean way, a nice win way, and a mean win way. The last two are automatic conversation victories and award you positive or negative “points” accordingly. It’s very clear that at least 3 of the five answers constitute a “yes” from you, and often, 4 of the 5 are. The problematic thing about this kind of conversation dynamic is that the game always tells you what the nice or mean answer is for everything, leaving no room for the natural flow of conversation and the growth of emotional intimacy. Instead, it’s very much a game of points, saying enough nice things to a character so they inevitably sleep with you. You can deride them about their heritage, parentage, personality, or philosophy at the onset of talking to them, but so long as you have more “nice” points, they’ll cheerfully join you in the sack, whether or not that’s a deal-breaking slight. Make it less about seduction and more about forming a bond –make love the goal; not sex. Sex can be a part of that, sure but don’t make the act –or the cutscene depicting it- the prize.

2. “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested.” Seriously, introduce a mechanic where romanceable characters randomly refuse the protagonist. Shepherd might be God’s gift to the universe, but Sexy/Handsome Alien #85 just isn’t interested. He/She/It doesn’t have a significant other; they aren’t only attracted to the opposite sex; they just aren’t interested in the protagonist. This shouldn’t be a situation where the protagonist can “wear them down” a la Steve Urkel, but the player has to accept that this person, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in them. Not because the player made a bad decision (though that could be a part of it), or because of any other factor… sometimes, it’s just not in the cards.

But I’d cry if this sexy bastard ever turned me down…

2.5. The player’s reaction to that might have an impact on the gameplay. Get angry at a person for turning you down? Yell at them or get passive aggressive for wasting your time on them? Perhaps they do worse in combat. Perhaps your teammates admire you a little less. Mock-shoot/stab that character in combat? Maybe you lose affinity with the entire team. In a game like Mass Effect 2 where affinity is everything, that could be devastating.

3. Make the relationship real. Maybe instead of the relationship culminating in sex, why not have “going steady” be the midpoint in romancing a character, and the maintenance of that relationship be the rest of the game? In the Mass Effect series, once you’ve “romanced” (again, bedded) a character, all commitment ends. You barely start a relationship in Mass Effect before the game ends. In Mass Effect 2, you either start a new relationship altogether, or you might kiss a character from the last game, stating that yes, you are still interested. In Mass Effect 3, you can potentially spend the game with your “partner” but there’s next to no actual relationship maintenance. You don’t work through the good times and the bad times. You don’t accidently snap after a long day on the battlefield, you don’t kiss and make up… you just talk about how there’s no time for love, you eventually screw, and you eventually have one of thee differently-colored space explosions. Without that kind of real emotional investment, relationships and sexual intimacy is nothing more than ornamentation.

3.5. Make the hookup real. If it’s just a one night stand, make it so. Maybe one-and-done is good enough for the both of them, and it’s just this nice memory, but nothing more. Maybe they both got drunk, screwed around, and now giggle about it from time to time, trying to keep things normal. Maybe Shepherd comes off as pathetic for propositioning a teammate the instant their feet hit the ship. Make the characters have an awkward conversation about the tryst -friendly, but awkward. Maybe Shepherd wants more out of it, but that’s not what the teammate has in mind. They can be colleagues… but maybe they shouldn’t talk anymore; it’d just be too weird for the teammate. Hell, you could turn entitlement on its head and have the teammate admit that they only wanted Shepherd for one night and really not for anything else. Maybe if Shepherd sleeps around, the teammates who want real relationships don’t take Shepherd seriously in that regard. Not “slut-shaming”; their long-term goals are different from Shepherd’s. Maybe Shepherd has to overcome that authentically to pursue a committed relationship.

Conversely, maybe Shepherd has a really good friend with benefits.They sleep together between missions, put together his spaceship models, etc. Friends, sex, but no strings attached. Their endgame wouldn’t be “making it official,” but just maintaining their friendship in the face of universal annihilation. Maybe that friend with benefits decides to call things off after a particularly harrowing mission, and Shepherd has to deal with “no, I’m done.” It’s trite as hell, but maybe one of them gets pregnant and they have to decide what to do.

All of these suggestions are about highlighting that relationships are an equitable joining of two human beings that transcends the physical and the sexual. That’s not to say that the physical and sexual aren’t a part of that, indeed, they’re a part of a balanced relationship, but they’re not the sole focus, and nobody is entitled to them. Even in the case of one-night stands and friendship with benefits, these suggestions hammer home that you’ve not slept with an object, but a person with just as much agency and dignity as you.

For the third time, I’m not hating on Bioware. I love their rich storytelling, I love their worlds, and I love their games. I realize full well that Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins aren’t meant to be perfect dating sims, but sci-fi/fantasy adventures. That said, their romantic side plots are strong enough and artful enough to draw question, especially in the face of current issues of male/gamer entitlement.

And they had the dumb luck of being my favorite examples of relationships in games. Afterall, I’m sure as hell not going to use Pandora’s Tower.

Sexual Servitude and Fellatio: The Game. Really.

Liara image retrieved from fanpop: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/mass-effect-rp/images/33419316/title/dr-liara-tsoni-wallpaper

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Godzilla: A Monster Disaster

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I feel like this is the start to a Plinkett review: “Godzilla (2014) is the most disappointing thing since Man of Steel.”

Hell of a statement considering the wild acclaims for the movie on its opening weekend. Make no mistake, the movie’s got a lot going for it: Gareth Edward’s realistic visual style, which attempts to keep the story grounded; nostalgia for Godzilla as a character and as a franchise; a superlative score; and an apparent message about the nature of man’s helplessness against nature. With Godzilla having so much potential, why am I so pissed?

Because nearly every aspect of the story is broken and wrong. It’s plagued by the same kind of story shorthand and plotholes that crippled Man of Steel and Prometheus.

To really get into this, I’m going to have to spoil the living hell out of this movie and Gareth Edward’s previous film, Monsters (2010). You have been warned.

1. The Good

Let’s get the good out of the way. The first 20 minutes are nearly perfect. The opening credits that blend kaiju imagery with redacted documents felt like the perfect way to make the viewer privy to the same paranoia and wonder that the characters would soon feel. Ken Watanabe’s introduction as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa investigating the signs of a kaiju waking from half a century of dormancy has the same wonder as the opening of Jurassic Park or Prometheus. Following that, we follow Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody, absent minded professor/father & chief researcher at a Japanese nuclear power plant, along with his fellow researcher and wife, Sandra Brody, played by Juliette. Brody’s neglectful parenthood lays the foundations of what could be an interesting arc. Following an unseen kaiju attack, Brody is forced to let his wife die by radiation. A earned and grounded moment, if it was still putting the woman in the refrigerator. CJ Adams, Young Ford Brody, watches the destruction of the power plant from school, an image that harkens immediately to 9/11 and to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant catastrophe.

In these twenty minutes, we organically learn all we need to know about the characters in a fluid, organic way. Serizawa is some kind of specialist when it comes to giant monsters and radioactivity, and he’s just discovered that something’s woken up. Brody recognizes electromagnetic spikes as signs of impending disaster and futily to avert them, at the loss of his wife. In these quick character intros, we see how they are both irrevocably tied together and to the kaiju, whatever it is. It establishes an appropriate pace, and it further establishes the would-be theme of helplessness against the elements. We’ve not seen the monster yet, but we’re already excited for when it will eventually happen.

I say nearly perfect as there are a few mitigating factors to all this. Much as I love Bryan Cranston, why is he and his equally American wife in charge of a Japanese nuclear power plant? It creates a subtle vibe of “those silly Japanese people aren’t listening to the wise white American.” The rationale is obvious: the Godzilla franchise is of Japanese origin, and we have to pay homage to that, regardless of how uneven it will eventually make our plot.

There are other isolated moments of awesome: the Halo drop into kaiju-torn San Francisco; A toddler remarking that there are “dinosaurs” on the news; Katrina imagery; fighter jets falling out of the foggy skies after being hit by an unseen monster’s EMP; kaiju ignoring the gnat-like military; Godzilla Skyrim-yelling a kaiju to death; …and that’s about it.

Don’t worry, I’ll talk about why I’m crazy and didn’t like the kaiju fight later.

So yeah, the first 20 minutes are awesome and promise an excellent movie. Outside of a handful of moments, the movie only goes downhill from there.

2. Slipping

“14 Years Later,” the movie proclaims.

“Why?” I ask. “What was wrong with the story you were telling? You mean you don’t want any of this to have any immediacy? You don’t want to have a simple, buddy movie with Serizawa and Brody railing against their respective superiors to make their message of impending doom heard? You don’t want them to join forces and be the only hope humanity has against the kaiju threat? You don’t want them to learn the hard way that they’re powerless against the forces of nature, and that all they can really do is enjoy the time they have with their friends and family and hope for the best?

“You don’t want to tell the simple story that would organically lead to action and conflict and naturally play out your themes?”

“14 Years Later,” the movie insists.

“You asshole,” I reply.

14 years later, Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Ford Brody, now a military bomb squad expert on leave in San Francisco with his wife Elle Brody, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and his son, Sam Brody, played by Carson Bolde, when he receives a troubling phonecall: His father, Joe Brody was jailed into Tokyo for sneaking into the Nuclear Plant’s quarantine zone.

Reluctantly, Ford flies to Tokyo and bails Brody, and from that point on, the movie seems to have the makings of a father/son story. Brody, the paranoid father who nobody listens to; Ford being the selfish son who thinks he’s moved on. There’s some clear structural things at play here: Ford “refuses the call” to help his father sneak into the quarantine zone to find his records of the EMP 14 years ago, but his father challenges him that he’s running from the truth of what happened to his mother. He’s ignoring his grief.

Astute readers will note that this is the clear break between the movie’s stated theme, “we’re helpless against nature,” and its assumed theme (for now), “reconciliation with family.”

Sloppy, but whatever, I’ll go with it. The Chernobyl-esque imagery is cool enough, and Ford & Brody have some subtle but impactful moments in their abandoned house: Ford finds his old toys, signaling that he’s remembering to love his family while Brody finds a picture of his wife and a birthday message Ford once left for him, signaling his regrets for how business-focused he’d been.

From there, Ford and Brody get arrested by a shadowy government organization that studies kaiju. We learn that a kaiju cocoon has taken up residence at the destroyed nuclear power plant and that Serizawa has been studying its electromagnetic signals for quite some time. While Brody becomes indignant during his interrogation, so did I:

Why is all of this happening now? The opening sequence showed the kaiju breaking out of its cocoon to go to the Japanese nuclear facility, where we learn it feeds on nuclear energy. Why would it break out of its cocoon just to cocoon up again? The movie tells us that it’s been eating nuclear energy for 14 years. Why? Was it waiting for the script to tell it that the protagonist had arrived? When it “wakes up,” why doesn’t it just hunt down another power plant to feast off of? Why does it physically eat nuclear warheads when it absorbed ambient nuclear energy before? What are the rules?

Brody is killed in the resulting kaiju attack (this one’s called MUTO 1 [Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), but not before Serizawa tells a random American Navy guy that he wants Ford and Brody on his team. Ford’s only purpose? To tell Serizawa that the Muto cocoon was using electromagnetic echolocation to communicate with an as-of-yet-unseen second monster. After that, he’s off what I’ll laughing call the “Godzilla Taskforce.”

Let’s be clear here: Godzilla has just killed off Brody, the character with the greatest motivation, agency, and scientific expertise.

Serizawa knows what kaiju are, but he doesn’t know how to deal with them. He fumbles with every detail and new piece of information and generally wobbles about the movie exchanging secrets with his secretary, acting scared and harrowed. Ford is just a bomb expert whose emotional stakes, his family, are tertiary to his story. Ford is also not a part of the Godzilla Taskforce; after relaying his father’s information, he’s put back on leave. Later in the movie, when he tries to join another unit on a bomb jaunt, other soldiers pointedly tell him that they just don’t need another grunt.

So why the hell is Ford, the blankest, most boring character, in the story in the place of Brody? Because Godzilla wants to have lots of soldiers on the ground and wants us to have some emotional investment in them. Well, we saw Ford’s wife and son and his half-hearted arc with his father, so we’re presumed to now care about him, when he never does anything so interesting again.

No character drives home how simple this movie could’ve been than Ford, who’s every scene is egregiously unnecessary. If the human stakes are railing against the impossible, why not have Brody and Serizawa struggling to work together and convince an arrogant (instead of no personality) Admiral William Stenz, played by David Strathairn, what tactics would be most effective against the kaiju and what the base minimum of soldier & civilian casualties they’ll have to accept. Seriously, ham-fisted as it was, Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus understood this better. Marginally worse movie, but still.

After Ford relays his father’s teachings about echolocation, which seem pretty obvious when you get right down to it, Serizawa reveals that the nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 50s were attempts to kill another kaiju: “Gojira” he says.

The audience bursts out laughing.

No bullshit. 9:35 screening on opening night at the Pacific Theater in Culver City, and everyone broke out in nervous laughter. Hell, the girls behind me had been laughing all the way up until that point. Why?

Because Gareth Edwards doesn’t understand that when you make a movie attempting to be deadly serious and “realistic,” the slightest genre-acknowledging moment creates unintentional camp. WHY does Serizawa and the Japanese call the big water lizard Gojira? Unexplained and without context, it comes across as silly. You can’t pay homage to camp if you’re not going to be camp. This was one of Man of Steel’s mistakes. Gareth made the same mistake in Monsters.

That dissonance set the stage for what was to follow.

3. Mandatory Digression

It has to be noted that Serizawa is the only person who refers to Godzilla as “Gojira.” Admiral Stenz and his crew all refer to him/it as “Godzilla.” This is never discussed, lampshaded, or explained. I’m not sure if this highlights American ignorance or American arrogance, but it certainly gives America preference.

I never thought I’d be defending Godzilla (1998), but its method of revealing the creature’s name was far more organic and (appropriately) playful. After Godzilla’s initial attack, a nearly-catatonic Japanese fisherman can only hauntedly whisper, “Gojira! Gojira!” The protagonists uniformly refer to the monster as “Gojira” or various other words for monster. Only the movie’s antagonistic news reporter refers to Godzilla as such, to which the heroic reporter seethes, “It’s Gojira, asshole.” This lampshade not only highlights the campiness of the movie, but gives the cultural nod to the Japanese instead of taking it away from them.

Anyway…

4. Downfall

Serizawa decides that Gojira/Godzilla is the natural predator of MUTO 1 (way to deflate the tension before it begins), and that he’s the best chance of defeating it. On cue, Godzilla shows up, swimming heroically under the Taskforce’s Navy ship.

Why? Where the hell did he come from? Didn’t we have to unbury him from stasis like MUTO 1? How do we know he’s not going to destroy the Navy? What guarantee is there? Don’t give me that Godzilla’s-usually-the-good-guy bullshit. I know that. I’ve seen a few of the old movies and I’ve read a few of the comics. I’m talking about this movie now. What do we know about Godzilla and why the hell should we care? Given how destructive MUTO 1 is, why shouldn’t we just blow the living shit out of Godzilla while we have the chance? And 20 minutes later, why the hell are we traveling in formation with it?!

“WHO CARES!” The movie says oh-so-seriously.” MUTO 1 just crashed a nuclear sub in Hawaii which just so happens to be where Ford is transferring to his next flight!”

“I hope you die in a fire, movie,” I grumble. “And why did you swap your theme again to ‘fighting fire with fire?’”

“Don’t pay attention to that!” The movie broods. “Check out these insert shots of kids, my fetish with gas masks, and the worst character reveal ever!”

Seriously, the reveal of Godzilla in this movie underlines everything that’s wrong with Godzilla (2014).

So soldiers attempt to fight MUTO 1 as it eats nuclear warheads from the crashed sub, but its passive EMP ability causes fighter jets to fall out of the sky and power outages throughout Honolulu. MUTO 1 rampages to the Honolulu airport and attacks the stopped monorail where Ford is watching after a lost Asian kid JUST so Ford can have a pointless action scene. As the narrative has established that MUTO 1 only cares about devouring nuclear energy, there’s zero reason for him to attack the monorail, of all things. Just as things look bad for Ford, Godzilla shows up. He rears up, and bellows his signature roar, scattered applause from the audience—

And the movie cuts away. In San Francisco, Sam Brody watches the news which shows snippets of Godzilla fighting MUTO 1, but doesn’t actually have the fun or indulgence to show the goddamn fight. After this cut away, all we know is that Godzilla and MUTO 1 fought, and for whatever reason, the fight ended. We’ve no idea why they fought, who won, and what the consequences were.

I’ve heard critics liken this kind of pacing to Jaws, where you didn’t actually see the shark until late in the movie, and the anticipation made it all the sweeter. The difference? Jaws had interesting characters who meaningfully advanced the plot; the story was about them dealing with Jaws, not arranging a cage match between Jaws and a T-Rex. What’s more, Jaws’ killings weren’t half-assed. They showed EVERYTHING they needed to and didn’t set up setpieces only to walk away from them. This makes the climactic end of Jaws earned. The climatic end of Godzilla just feels like someone’s been repeatedly offering us candy and snatching it away. By the time we get the candy, it’s wet and clammy from their sweaty hands.

Serizawa determines that MUTO 1 wasn’t trying to communicate with Godzilla through echolocation, he was trying to communicate with a female MUTO (MUTO 2), whose cocoon had been stored at the Yucca nuclear waste facility in Nevada. The soldiers arrive to contain the cocoon, looking into each of the nuclear waste vaults until they discover that one of them had been blown open. An exterior shot reveals that MUTO 2 had burst out of the mountain and was already halfway to Las Vegas.

How. The. Fuck. Do you not notice a hole ripping through your mountain? How do you not notice a giant monster loping across the desert? Yucca is a HIGHLY manned station under the strictest security, and you’re telling me nobody fucking noticed? This would’ve been fine, but silly in a campy Godzilla script, but it sticks out like a sore thumb here and damages the credibility of the universe.

5. Fugly Monsters

Can we talk about how awful the MUTOs look? Six loping arms, all of which seem to be in the way; the male MUTO has wings on its not-aerodynamic body; the female has a massive-ass baby bump that nobody thought to shoot for some reason; and their heads are an oddly technological mix of a lion, an eagle, and Predator. Nothing about the way they move suggests grace or that they were ever meant to walk on the planet, swim in the sea, or take to the sky naturally. They sort of look like if a brain-damaged spider and a mutated bat got drunk one night and forgot to use a condom. MAYBE they look arboreal, but they never seem to climb like their bodies would suggest.

How the hell would these things be dangerous to Godzilla, who, although desperately needing time on the stairmaster, has a very simple and functional design. They seem barely able to balance, let alone pose a real threat to anything. They’re so incomprehensible, they make the goddamn Cloverfield monster look good.

6. Train Ride to Stupid

Serizawa and Admiral Stenz decide that the best way to kill Godzilla and the MUTOs before they reproduce is to blow them up offshore with the biggest nuclear bomb they have “that makes the Nagasaki look like a firecracker.” The projected radiation shows that most of California would be rendered inhabitable. Despite Serizawa’s protests that the monsters feed on radiation, Admiral Stupid thinks that the force of the blast alone will kill the three kaijus. By that logic, why not just assemble the biggest “clean bomb” every constructed? Also, have we not considered using nerve gas, white phosphorous, or anything similar? Do we really only have bullets, missiles, and nukes?

Disturbed, Serizawa hands Admiral Stenz his father’s pocketwatch, which stopped when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, changing the theme once again to “anti-war.”

Ultimately Admiral Stenz decides to ship the warheads by train from Las Vegas to San Francisco, because lumbering monsters can easily catch up with a train and Ford couldn’t fight with them if they’d just flown the warheads to San Fran. He also chooses not to protect the train with anything more than a handful ground forces. In practice, this is about 8 people.

As predicted, MUTO 1 stops the train and stalks Ford on a valley-spanning bridge, obviously ripping off Jurassic Park’s classic T-Rex vs. jeep scene, but with none of the tension. Why no tension? We’ve already seen MUTO 1. He’s destructive, sure, but he’s not scary anymore. There’s some sense that Ford could die, but with thousands killed already, who cares? I cared way more about Brody and Serizawa. Furthermore, MUTO 1 has ignored humanity completely up unto this point. He shrugs off bullets and missiles and doesn’t seem to notice fighter jets when they crash around him. Why the hell would he bother to stalk an insignificant human when the nuclear warheads that he seeks and can sense are so very close?

Anyway, MUTO 1 destroys the bridge; Ford falls 10 stories into a river and somehow doesn’t die; the train seems to fall on him, somehow not killing him; and MUTO 1 makes off with the nuclear warhead.

Slow clap for the U.S. military.

7. The Movie’s Greatest Character

Meanwhile, this whole time, Elle Brody and her son Sam have been petrified about Ford’s fate, presuming him dead in Tokyo. With the MUTOs closing in on San Francisco (the nuclear warheads never made it there. Why are they STILL meeting there?!), Elle and Sam plan to evacuate with the rest of the city in the slim hopes of being relevant outside of Ford’s emotional stakes. Elle loads Sam onto a bus, which runs into a police roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, hilarity ensues:

Godzilla is swimming in to fight the MUTOs, but his girth creates a bulging effect in the water, throwing Navy ships to and fro. The Navy panics, firing on the ally they had just been traveling in formation with, causing Godzilla to go berserk.

Now we focus on the movie’s greatest character: The Bus Driver. The Bus Driver has a problem: he has to get this bus of kids to safety. And he’d like to live through it. The police tell him that he cannot go any further, but if he doesn’t movie, a giant fat dinosaur will destroy the bridge. Bus Driver chooses to accelerate, speeding down the bridge and honking his horn, narrowly avoiding the police and military. Moments later, Godzilla crashes down where the bus had just been. A small victory for the Bus Driver, but he’s kept himself alive and kept Sam, the emotional stakes icon, alive, if just for a little longer.

Why is he the best character? Because I know what his goals are. I know how he’s feeling scene-to-scene; he’s not blankfaced like everyone other than Serizawa. His story makes sense to me and doesn’t waste my time. He renders a gigantic situation small and sympathetic. I may not care for him outside of that sequence, but I don’t have to; he’s not here to carry the movie. Those that are have already failed miserably.

8. Monster Silliness

MUTO 1, carrying a nuclear bomb in its mouth, meets the very-pregnant MUTO 2 in San Francisco, just outside of Chinatown, where they nuzzle, cooing softly to each other.

This reminded me of the ending of Edwards’ Monsters, which also had me crying with laughter. The MUTOs weren’t boning over a gas station, but close enough.

So what’s my beef with the kaiju fight in Godzilla? Shouldn’t it be enough for me that Godzilla fights the MUTOs, leveling buildings in their wake, just barely seen because we’re from the humans’ perspective?

No. When your whole goddamn movie’s building to the monster fight, I want to see it play out. I want it to be the focus of your story, not a Halo drop with some shithead characters I care nothing about. Who was I supposed to be rooting for at the end? Ford? Fuck him, it’s not his story. He has very little understanding of what’s going on and he’s ostensibly being moved around by the plot. Godzilla? Sorry, Godzilla, you spent your movie cockteasing Godzilla, not characterizing him. I don’t give a shit about him? Serizawa and Admiral Stenz? Don’t make me laugh. If ANY characters appeal to me at this point, it’s the MUTOs. They have primal, easy to understand goals: eat, screw, reproduce, rinse and repeat. Ford has the goal of (I think) getting back to his family, but he’s not acting on it, which I’ll talk a little bit more about later.

So I care more about the MUTOs going into this fight because I know what their stakes are: defend themselves and their young against a predator. Sounds legit. Here’s the problem: Godzilla is the hero in this fight, who I’m supposed to care about. How do I know this? I paid $12.50 to see Godzilla. How else do I know? The musical score assumes that I’ve been with Godzilla the whole time, and thus begins a kickass and ultimately tragic beat as the hero-monster Godzilla fights against an overwhelming threat of two deformed orangutan-monsters. Beaten down, stabbed multiple times, Godzilla falls, much like Christ. The two MUTOs prepare to deliver the killing blow when an explosion seizes their attention. Godzilla rights himself and unleashes his radioactive breath upon MUTO 1.

Let’s stop right there. The movie has practically screamed that these monsters feed off radioactivity and nuclear energy. They can do this ambiently or by digesting it. Shouldn’t this empower MUTO 1? WHAT ARE THE RULES?!

So Godzilla tail-whips MUTO 1 into a building, killing it via building-impalement. This is a creature that has destroyed multiple buildings like they were tissue paper and he was impaled by it? WHAT ARE THE RULES?!

Said building then collapses upon Godzilla –and I shit you not- He looks up at the building, distraught, throwing out his arms, all but screaming, “What hell hath my hubris wrought?! ALAS!” And the building collapses on him. This is as forced and laughable as Superman spreading out his arms like Christ as he drifted back to Earth in Man of Steel. It’s forcing emotion and metaphor upon something that has earned neither.

While this building had impaled MUTO 1, it failed to impale Godzilla, who was just momentarily incapacitated by its weight. Again, I ask: WHAT ARE THE RULES?!

Apparently our theme changed again while I was facepalming: “sacrifice.”

9. Sacrifice?

I guess. It’s not like Godzilla’s sacrifice matches Ford’s or whatever, despite them being soul mates.

No, I’m fucking serious.

So Ford Halo drops into the boring kaiju battle with the plan of defusing the nuke MUTO 1 had stolen so it wouldn’t detonate in a populated area (didn’t everyone evacuate already?). The Halo team finds the nuke, but somehow only Ford sees that MUTO 2 has laid enough MUTO eggs to wipe out humanity. With nobody able to unlock or defuse the nuke, they agree that the only recourse is to take it out to sea and hope the MUTOs follow. The soldiers carry out the nuke, but Ford stays behind to pop open a gas tanker and explode the eggs. Ignoring the fact that Godzilla was losing the fight and there was no longer ANY reason not to just leave the nuke there to (presumably) destroy all three monsters and their eggs, what guarantee did Ford have that blowing up the tanker would destroy the eggs? The MUTOs have proven resistant to explosives thus far.

::sigh::

Somehow, MUTO 2 intuits that Ford, this little ant she hadn’t noticed before, was responsible, as opposed to any random underground gas line she might’ve cut. Godzilla frees himself from the rubble to distract MUTO 2. Barely hanging together, Godzilla shares a poignant look with Ford, who’s equally beaten to shit. Godzilla blinks sadly, equating himself to Ford, before he’s swallowed up in fog.

Yep. Godzilla is Ford’s soul mate in the movie’s second most laughable moment.

So why doesn’t Godzilla’s sacrifice match Ford’s? Because Godzilla is torn between the stated theme of nature and the forced themes of dominance and sacrifice, while Ford seems awash with the stated theme of nature, the forced themes of family and sacrifice, and the only theme he’s actually embodied: duty. Neither he or Godzilla have any kind of throughline whatsoever. Neither undergoes an emotional arc of any kind and neither of them really have any stakes in this farce.

10. So How Does This Shit End?

As mentioned, Godzilla saves Ford from MUTO 2 by blasting radioactive breath down her throat (again, which should empower her, but whatever), and a Navy helicopter saved Ford from sea after he sets the nuke adrift. God knows how the helicopter managed to escape the blast radius and shockwave of a nuclear bomb “that makes Nagasaki look like a firecracker,” but I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know anything.

Ford reunites with Elle and Sam in a football stadium-turned refugee camp in some of the most heavy-handed Katrina imagery since Man of Steel’s obvious 9/11 imagery. One presumes that Ford has learned the meaning of familial reconciliation, the helplessness of man, fighting fire with fire, the wrongfulness of war, and the meaning of sacrifice, but one can’t be too sure.

Godzilla, meanwhile, lays in the middle of Chinatown, apparently dead from his kinda toneless kaiju fight. However, he wakes up, and waddles his fat ass triumphantly back to see, women crying behind him in thanks and wonder. The news proclaims Godzilla “King of the Monsters – Savior of the City.”

Like he’s not going to be hungry tomorrow, you idiots.

11. Women and Racism

I can’t help but think that despite Monsters, Gareth Edwards might’ve been the wrong choice for Godzilla. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense: Edwards made an incredibly thrifty and critically acclaimed kaiju movie about two photojournalists going north through Mexico’s monster DMZ to reach the United States. Although it had mind-blowing ambition and impressive production values for being made on the cheap, Monsters shared Godzilla’s problem of uninteresting and unlikable characters. Arguably, its second act lagged much more than Godzilla’s, but that’s up for debate. I’d argue that Godzilla’s hid its structural flaws better, but was similarly paced.

Edwards brought with him the troubling themes present in Monsters. Intending to be the District 9 of America’s immigration laws, it characterized its tentacle monsters as Mexicans –problematic when they were absolutely destructive. Edwards portrayed their entry into America using imagery of Katrina’s destruction. The two protagonists later hid in a gas station while the kaiju copulated outside. Every shot of Mexico was seedy, backwater, and dirty, save perhaps for a bar where Americans were partying and drinking. Gas masks were worn at every opportunity, much like in Godzilla. While Godzilla did not share its predecessor’s troubling undertones, subtle racism was present in whitewashing the chief researcher at the nuclear plant to Joe Brody; in trivializing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster; in invalidating Serizawa’s naming of Gojira/Godzilla; and it drawing a direct comparison of Godzilla to Chinatown –two very different cultures/nations. The wish to pay homage was there, and that was appreciated, but it consistently chose the most obvious and wrong ways to do so. In my mind, these missteps were just as grievous an error as it was to equate illegal immigration to Hurricane Katrina in Monsters.

There were fewer women in Monsters than in Godzilla, but those present were portrayed as seedy prostitutes, and the female lead was characterized as little more than a pretentious, irritating drama queen, not that the male lead was any more likable. Godzilla follows this with no relevant female characters. Sandra Brody dies horribly of radiation poison to advance Joe Brody’s story, which ultimately changes/d nothing. Elle Brody is only in the story to make us care about Ford, her greatest display of agency being evacuating San Francisco, and her greatest relevance being alive at the end. Serizawa’s assistant, Vivienne Graham, played by Sally Hawkins, displays no agency or agenda, and is in the story exclusively so Serizawa doesn’t exposition to himself and so there are more people talking expositional briefing scenes. MUTO 2 might be the movie’s “best” female character, but she’s still a stereotypical vengeful/obsessed mother. Why couldn’t Brody or Serizawa’s character be played by a woman? Why not Ford’s, although she would’ve been equally useless? Why not as Admiral Senz, who had no personality to begin with?

Godzilla, like Monsters, seems to say that it’s meant exclusively for white men.

12. Closing

Edwards may have an eye for visuals, but he certainly doesn’t for scripts. I sincerely hopes that he becomes aware of these pernicious elements in his features and weeds them out of his directorial style.

I don’t begrudge anyone who likes Godzilla, but I’m disappointed that a movie with this much potential was so hampered by a bad script. I wanted to love this movie with every fiber of my being, much as I had adored Pacific Rim. I’m not sure if the takeaway is that we’re still in a mindset where “gritty and realistic” still trumps “lighthearted and fun,” but either way, it depresses me that movies like this and Amazing Spider-Man 2 are our first taste of the blockbuster season.

Peace out.