Cinefantastique wishes all its readers a Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with a Sense of Wonder!
Koichi Kawakita, the special effects director who updated Godzilla for the ’90s, helping to spur interest in an American remake, has passed away. Kawakita died on his 72 birthday anniversary, December 5, 2014; the cause of death was liver failure. You can read an obituary by August Ragone here.
Kawakita took over the special effects for the GODZILLA series with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), a film which saw a new generation of behind-the-scenes craftsman reinventing the character for a new generation. Directors and writers came and went, but Kawakita remained with the series throughout the 1990s, recreating many of Godzilla’s most famous opponents in GODZILLA VS KING GHIDORAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993). He also directed special effects for OROCHI, THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON (1994, aka YAMATO TAKERU) and the Mothra spin-off series that began in 1996 with REBIRTH OF MOTHRA (aka MOSURA).
Kawakita helped return Godzilla to his roots, abandoning the comical hijinx of the 1960s and 1970s films in favor of a more serious approach, with the monster depicted as a destructive force of nature, though not necessarily evil. The Godzilla depicted in his effects work was an enormous beast with shark-like rows of teeth and more facial expression than in the older films; the design of the suit remained mostly consistent from film to film, though it did evolve gradually, the bulky proportions helping to hide the human anatomy of the actor inside. Awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening, Kawakit’as Godzilla was an anti-hero – dangerous but sometimes preferable to the alternative – perfectly suited to a series of screenplays that consistently played around with the question of whether we should root for or against the monster.
Though not realistic, Kawakit’as work was imaginative and colorful, and it was filled with spectacular, memorable images: Godzilla decapitating one of Ghidorah’s heads with a blast of atomic breath; the shock wave of Rodan’s flight creating miniature explosions in the ocean beneath him; Mothra’s wings gracefully unfurling as she emerged from her cocoon; and Godzilla himself going China Syndrome at the end of GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995).
Kawakit’s work was filled with a Sense of Wonder. He brought a beloved fantasy character back to life for a new generation, and his legacy lives on in the films that followed, including this year’s American remake.
“It’s no accident that the word sabotage was invented by the French.”
One of the interesting aspects of last month’s theatrical release of GODZILLA (2014) was the critical reaction, which turned out to be both gratifying and frustrating. How did it manage to be both? Well, let me explain…
On the one hand, it was gratifying to see GODZILLA taken seriously by the mainstream press. Yes, many of these critics disliked the film; however, their criticisms were, by and large, based on dramatic shortcomings, not on the mere fact of its being a monster movie. For good or bad, they assessed what was on the screen, and did not mock the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a somber, more realistic version of a character often (if unfairly) associated with camp.
On the other hand, it was frustrating to see GODZILLA summarily dismissed by critics who specialize in cinefantastique. Yes, some of these viewers liked the film; however, their criticism was sometimes based less on actual flaws than on the fact of seeing an unfamiliar adult rendition of a familiar, childhood icon. They were less interested in what the film actually achieved than in faulting it for not conforming to their mental template of what a new-millennium Godzilla film should have been.
That’s right: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the famous radioactive reptile got a fairer shake from mainstream critics than from genre specialists. Many viewers with a Sense of Wonder seem to have checked that sensibility at the door, replacing it with symptoms of Early Onset Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (also known as: All You Kids Get Off Of My Lawn Syndrome).
Of course I’m over-generalizing here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve done a statistical analysis of every critical comment, fair or foul, lobbed at GODZILLA. Nevertheless, I am interested in the sensibilities underlying these reactions, which I see as another example of the Tribalism that permeates modern film-going, in which the actual quality of the film is frequently less important than how well the film acts as a Tribal Identifier that helps “Us” define ourselves as different from “Them.”
GODZILLA FILM COMMENTARY – THEN AND NOW
Before delving into those murky depths, it might be instructive to look at the reactions to the previous Americanized adaptation of Japan’s most famous monster: Sony Pictures’ GODZILLA (1998), from Dean Devlin and Rolland Emmerich (the team who brought you INDEPENDENCE DAY). Back then, we were still at the dawn of the Internet era, and Hollywood, with its lock on old media, thought it could sell audiences anything by keeping a lid on it so that viewers would purchase tickets before realizing they had been hoodwinked.
In this case, Sony kept the Godzilla design under wraps, lied about it when it was leaked online, and avoided press screenings. Nevertheless, within minutes after the premiere at Madison Square Gardens, word was out on message boards and forums, informing fandom that their hopes and dreams had been betrayed.
Mainstream critics were in agreement about GODZILLA’s low quality, though for different reasons. For instance, Owen Gleiberman, who gave the film a mixed but mildly positive review in Entertainment Weekly, dismissed the the subject matter as a “$120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash,” suggesting that the very concept of Godzilla, as much as the handling, was at fault.
This is what Hollywood has come to, the Disgruntled Critics seemed to say: Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie about a giant monster destroying a city. Which rather overlooks the fact that to do a film like GODZILLA well, would require a substantially larger budget than that of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.
With this kind of attitude, it is understandable that fans might have looked elsewhere for insightful critical commentary, from people who actually knew and understood the subject matter as something more than Saturday matinee kiddie fare. I like to think we provided a little bit of that in Cinefantasitque magazine (thanks to a review written by Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star), but there were other venues available, thanks to that new-fangled world wide web thingy, where you could find such site as Barry’s Temple of Godzilla and Monster Zero News (lamentably gone since web-master Aaron Smith passed away in 2006).
Sixteen years later, we are in a very different landscape. Critics at major print outlets no longer have a lock on the national conversation; insightful voices are everywhere on the Internet – on websites, on YouTube, and on social media such as Facebook. If you want to read a review of the new GODZILLA, written by a confirmed Godzilla Geek or at least a dedicated sci-fi fan, you have a multitude of choices.
Unfortunately, this advantage is somewhat mitigated by another shift in the cultural landscape: the rise of Film Tribalism. I date this phenomenon to the release of STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, a film that was obviously awful to everyone who saw it and yet earned billions of dollars anyway, because the faithful Lucasoids bought tickets again and again, to prove their fealty to their Tribal Leader, George Lucas.
Now, I know what you’re saying: This “Film Tribalism” thing is just another term for Fandom. But it’s not. Fans watch movies because those movies satisfy their love for and devotion to particular styles, genres, or artists. These movies may not be very good, but at least they deliver what is expected of them, whether it’s amazing special effects, exciting action, or beloved performances.
Film Tribalism does not demand such satisfaction. It’s all about proving one’s bona fides as a card carrying tribe member. In fact, there is a certain advantage to an unsatisfying film, because it helps weed out the fair-weather friends from the true believers. What better way is there to prove your Geek Cred than to dismiss someone who dislikes a film by insisting, condescendingly, “You just don’t get it”?
The flip side of Films Tribalism is that, whereas it absolves all flaws in a film that adheres to Tribal Orthodoxy, Tribalism reviles perceived iconoclasm and even minor doctrinal deviation. Being a “Good Film” is less important than being “Our Kind of Film,” the latter determination usually based on whether the filmmaker is considered “One of Us.” Thus, fair to middling works such as THE AVENGERS and PACIFIC RIM are embraced because directors Joss Whedon and Guillermo Del Toro, respectively, are deemed Fans Like Us (making Films For Us), whereas the superior STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is dismissed because director J.J. Abrams is regarded as an Outsider Who Does Not Adhere to the True Meaning of Star Trek.
All of which, brings us, in a roundabout way, to the new GODZILLA from Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures, which has provoked a critical response somewhat the opposite of that which greeted the 1998 film.
MAINSTREAM GODZILLA REVIEWS
After months of anticipation, including an effective advertising campaign, fans were eager to find out whether they would be burned again, as they had been by the 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Would the early reviews confirm their hopes or reinforce their fears? Would mainstream critics give the film a chance or dismiss it as a second attempt at something not worth doing the first time?
The “Bottom Line” assessment from Todd McCarthy’s review in Hollywood Reporter succinctly states: “On a second try, Hollywood does the behemoth justice. Almost.” The review itself sums up the film’s strength’s and weaknesses: great production values, good pacing, serious tone, on the one hand; and ho-hum characters and performances, on the other. McCarthy praises director Edwards for not over-exposing Godzilla but does suggest that the film could have used just a bit more of its star on screen. If you want the basics, McCarthy tells you what you need to know, and really, none of the negative reviews have much more to say on the subject, other than to emphasize flaws already noted by McCarthy.
Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is aware of GODZILLA’s shortcomings but manages to look past them, giving an even more positive assessment:
There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of “Godzilla” works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.
Wow. Two mainstream critics, one for a trade publication and one for a consumer publication, think GODZILLA is a good movie, flawed but well-made and entertaining. Who would have believed it? These are not fan boy gushings but sober reviews by professionals. Considering how much ill will and disrespect fantasy and science fiction films have received over the years, this is rather impressive.
You would think we could all sit back, relax, and enjoy the radioactive glow of a good Godzilla movie. But not quite…
As a transition into the response from science fiction specialists, I next want to mention “Waiting for Godzilla,” by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic Monthly. Although writing for a mainstream publication, Orr claims (in a response in the comments section) to have loved the Toho Godzilla movies for forty years, and his article has been approvingly linked by Godzilla experts disappointed with the film, so presumably it expresses their opinions.
Essentially, Orr complains of Godzilla’s limited screen time, without giving the film credit for carefully building up to the the monster’s revelation or pacing the action to increase its impact (unlike Phillips, who noted that director Edward gave his creatures “room to breath and bide their time between clashes”).
In a follow-up article, Orr clarifies his first response, noting in the headline: “It’s not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.” Here, Orr expresses sympathy for Edwards’ stated strategy of attempting a slow revelation of the monster, a la JAWS, ALIEN, or the original GODZILLA (1954), but faults the director for focusing too much attention on the MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which drive the plot – a criticism endorsed by my esteemed colleagues Steve Ryfle and Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), who sarcastically called the film “The MUTO Movie” and “MUTO Love Song,” respectively.
Orr notes that JAWS is always about the shark, even before the audience sees the lethal creature, and the same goes for other films that sought to keep their monsters under wraps till late in the running time. This is true more or less, but when you think about it, even ALIEN isn’t about the Alien from start to finish. It’s initially a rescue operation, responding to what the crew of the Nostromo believes to be a distress call; and the early sequences are filled with sights of other creatures: the famous and mysterious Space Jockey; and the Face Hugger, which is not the alien per se but its progenitor. Which leads to my next question:
Haven’t Orr and others who share his outlook ever heard of an opening act? One that primes the audience for the headliner, who stays backstage as long as possible, building anticipation to the point where the audience erupts with joyful applause when he finally takes the stage? This is the strategy that Edwards uses, and it is not exactly new. In fact, Godzilla’s flying cousin gets similar treatment in RODAN (1956), which focused its first half on over-sized insects attacking miners, before eventually revealing the titular terror midway through.
Orr at least notes that the new GODZILLA is not so different structurally from the monster-battle sequels he enjoyed in the past, but he loves those films for their “campy grandeur,” suggesting that nostalgia has blurred his vision and that he is holding the new film to a different standard. He is not exactly a Grumpy Old Man complaining “they don’t make ’em like the used to,” but you do get the feeling that for him GODZILLA is failing to live up to some illusory yardstick that mis-measures the current film’s qualities while inflating the virtues of its antecedents.
I suppose this is all a matter of opinion, so I should cut Orr and his acolytes some slack, but Orr’s initial review displays a symptom plaguing other negative commentary: mis-statements of fact that make the film sound worse than it is. In this case, Orr claims:
Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot.
Apparently, Orr missed the sequence in which Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fries the MUTO’s egg sack, saving San Francisco from being overrun by monstrous insectoid off-spring. Not only that, the explosion distracts the female MUTO, who along with her mate has been double-teaming Godzilla. This distraction allows Godzilla, who has been on the ropes, to make a comeback, besting his male opponent with a well aimed tale-strike. And as if that were not enough…Ford gets the ticking nuclear bomb (a bungled strategy by the military to defeat the monsters) onto a boat headed out to sea, before it can detonate in downtown, where it would kill tens of thousands of people and irradiate countless more. I’d say Ford has more than a little impact on the mechanics of the plot.
My point here is not to diss Orr (who is actually quite complimentary to those who disagree with him in the comments section of his review). Rather, it is to express my surprise that genre experts, especially those with an appreciation for Godzilla, would point to his review as if it perfectly articulated flaws to which the rest of us were blinded by our overwhelming fan adoration.
As we will see, there is blindness involved, but it’s mostly on the other side of the aisle.
THE GENRE PRESS AND GODZILLA
Okay, we’re finally getting closer to my point, such as it is. But first, a brief recap: A major Hollywood blockbuster, based on a beloved genre icon not usually taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics, marches into theatres to the tune of a $93-million opening weekend while simultaneously earning a 73% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics (72% from audiences). It seems, for once, that viewers and reviewers are in accord, and everyone is happy if not ecstatic.
Everyone except for the Godzilla Experts, that is. Their reactions are a bit peculiar – unless you recognize Tribal Film Criticism when you see it.
I’ll start with “Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office,” by Annalee Newitz at io9, which despite the implication of the title is actually a Tribal Shout-Out to Guillermo Del Toro’s disappointing and inferior film from last year. Newitz’s essential point is that PACIFIC RIM is “arguably a more original and complex movie than GODZILLA,” the latter of which “succeeded because it treated its audience like kids.”
Yes, you read that right. According to Newitz, GODZILLA’s success is really a symptom of its inferiority; in this case, “inferiority” roughly translates as “accessibility to a mainstream audience.” The alleged superiority of PACIFIC RIM lies precisely in the fact that many viewers didn’t like it or didn’t get it – which suggests that those who did get it are smarter and more perceptive, able to appreciate a film that is “more interesting” and “complicated.”
To be fair, Newitz’s analysis of the difference between the two films is accurate and even insightful, and she does use the word “mistake” to refer to some of PACIFIC RIM’s elements, but it is clear from her description that these mistakes are actually not bugs but features that appeal to a more sophisticated science-fiction-savvy audience.
Yes, My Tribe is smarter than Your Tribe.1
Less overtly tribal, but still telling, is Evan Dickson’s “How Does Godzilla Stack Up Against Pacific Rim” at Bloody Disgusting. Having given GODZILLA a straight-down-the-middle review (2.5 out of 5 stars), Dickson returns to answer readers seeking a comparative evaluation of the two films. Evans notes a few ways in which GODZILLA is superior but winds up proclaiming “As it stands now, PACIFIC RIM beats it out for me as a movie” – without offering a tangible reason.
Ironically, the combined impact of the i09 and Bloody Disgusting articles is to convince me that GODZILLA is the superior film precisely because it does not provide fan-service at the expense of good filmmaking. Instead, it plays against expectations, synthesizing elements familiar to fans but using them as if for the first time – in other words, working them into the story so that they fit, instead of simply throwing them up on screen so that the Tribal Members can feel validated when they recognize their favorite tropes. That reluctance to offer nothing but dedicated fealty to Tribal Orthodoxy is what diminishes Godzilla in the eyes of True Believers.
PACIFIC RIM, on the other hand, gets a pass, precisely because it pays homage to the Tribe. Sure, the film has intriguing ideas, such as “The Drift,” but those ideas are drowned in a repetitive series of mindless monster battles, and ultimately Del Toro’s film hews closer to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, right down to giving the Idris Elba character a rather weak variation on President Whitmore’s rousing pre-battle speech from INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). But you won’t see that acknowledged by either Newitz or Dickson.
GODZILLA, on the other hand, lets Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) say all that needs to be said in three simple words: “Let them fight.” Let’s award a few points for a level of understatment that avoids hokey melodrama. And while we’re at it, for all of GODZILLA’s dramatic faults, let’s note that PACIFIC RIM is not exactly loaded with credible characters. The two scientists (rendered in hammy performances) are less characters than on-screen avatars for geeks in the audience, and the male lead in is even more forgettable than the one in GODZILLA; in fact, he embodies one of the worst cliches in the history of cinema: the reluctant hero who drags his heels while we wait for the inevitable plot device that will finally motivate him to fight, which is what we know he’s going to do eventually if we just wait long enough. It’s a colossal and stupid waste of screen time – the kind of nonsense that GODZILLA wisely avoids.
In “Godzilla Whitewashed: A Special Report,” which posted at World Cinema Paradise a couple days after GODZILLA opened, Steve Ryfle takes the film to task for subverting the metaphor of the original GODZILLA, directed by Ishiro Honda, which presented its beast as a walking embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear age. Unlike the other negative reviewers I’ve mentioned, Ryfle has a point worth considering, and truth be told, I too would have preferred a new film hewing closer to the powerful and dramatic original, one that boldly confronted our legacy as the only country to use nuclear bombs in warfare (on a civilian population, no less).
However, Ryfle’s justifiable concern leads him to underestimate the extent to which the film does question the wisdom of America’s nuclear arsenal, which is portrayed as ineffective at best and counter-productive at worse (to put it mildly). The scenario tells us that nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s was a covert attempt to destroy Godzilla – an attempt that failed. When the MUTOS and Godzilla converge on San Francisco, the military, in the form of General Stenz (David Strathairn), concoct a plan to eliminate all three radiation-hungry beasts by luring them out to sea with an atomic warhead, which will then be detonated. Dr. Serizawa points out that this tactic failed repeatedly in the past, and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) storms out in frustration over the futility of the plan, leading to a key moment.
Serizawa then tries to spur Stenz’s conscience by displaying a watch that belonged to his father – a watch that stopped when his father died in the blast at Hiroshima, its hands frozen forever like a fateful reminder of that terrible day. Stenz understands the point but proceeds anyway, for lack of a better (or indead any other) military option. Even so, in a later scene, Serizawa begs him again not to go through with the use of a nuclear warhead.
Despite this, Ryfle conclueds that Serizawa and Stenz “share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil.” Having seen GODZILLA a second time, I can say with certainty that no such scene exists in the film, which in no way pushes that message that Ryfle attributes to it. In fact, the watch scene is a far more direct indictment of the Hiroshima bombing than anything in Honda’s GODZILLA, which was more focused on H-Bomb testing in the Pacific than on the A-Bomb attacks on Japanese soil.
Rather than necessary evil, GODZILLA portrays the use of nuclear weapons as unnecessary insanity – a point driven home when the military’s plan goes horrible wrong, with the male MUTO2 hijacking the warhead and giving it to his mate as an offering, which she then uses as a “food” source for her eggs. Clearly, nuclear power is adding fuel to the fire, making a horrible situation exponentially more catastrophic.
Though Ryfle insists that GODZILLA “is about nothing” and that the film does not meaningfully comment upon its scenes of destruction, I find the meaning perfectly clear: nuclear proliferation has come back to bite the U.S. on the ass; the weapons that exist allegedly to protect us actually attract more trouble than they repel, and by creating and using them we have set in motion events that we are powerless to stop – unless we get a little assistance, in the form of Godzilla, to reset the balance.
Underscoring this theme, our hero Ford Brody is not a conventional warrior; his specialty is defusing bombs. The human story of GODZILLA’S third act (as opposed to the over-sized monster battle) focuses on his attempts to stop the bomb from detonating or, failing that, to get it safely out to sea, where it can do no harm to the inhabitants of San Francisco. This is definitely a movie that advises us to start worrying and stop loving the bomb.
On another level, it is significant that only the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla save San Francisco from nuclear annihilation.
Which brings us to…
JOE BRODY IS GODZILLA (SPOILERS)
One aspects of GODZILLA that seems to be universally disliked is the death of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is killed when the dormant MUTO hatches; ironically, Joe’s death confirms the conspiratorial ramblings that have alienated him from his son Ford but severs any possibility of father-son reconciliation. Or does it?
Cranston gives the best performance in the film, emerging as the most (some say only) memorable character. So why kill him off? Before advancing my argument, first let’s hear director Edwards on the subject:
[…] we tried versions in the screenplay where he survived. And in every one we did that with, there was nothing else that character could do without being silly. If he sticks with Ford, it becomes Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the tone of the movie becomes fun, but not the tone we were trying to do. And if he sticks with the military guys, he’s like a fifth wheel. His job was done in the story line there.
“We did try to make it work. […] But as a story beat, he becomes redundant once he’s handed over the baton to the rest of the cast.
Edwards explanation is good as far as it goes, but he leaves deeper questions unexplored: Exactly why does Joe Brody become redundant, and to whom is he passing the baton?
As you may have guessed, I have a theory, and it goes like this:
Joe Brody is Godzilla.
Okay, I do not mean to be taken seriously – or at least not literally. Previously, the Toho production GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE (1989) depicted a monster infused with a human spirit (through gene splicing). That is not what is happening here. Rather, Joe Brody has to disappear from the narrative because his role is being assumed by Godzilla; it is to the mysterious sea beast, rather than to the human characters, that he is passing the baton.
Unfortunately, the film does not do as much as it could to support this reading. I would like to have seen Joe perish by disappearing into the ocean shortly before Godzilla emerged from beneath the waves; perhaps a few familiar character tics – gestures, expressions – could have been imbued into Godzilla to drive the point home.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints:
- Joe makes his exit before Godzilla enters the picture. Except for brief news reel image of dorsal spines in the Pacific during a nuclear blast decades ago, Godzilla is off-screen until after Joe dies. Only then do we learn that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOS, which is not, I think a coincidence, because…
- The MUTOS are responsible not only for the death of Joe’s wife but also for the death of Godzilla’s ancestor. In the traditional action scenario, it is the hero’s duty to exact vengeance for this kind of thing. Godzilla takes out the MUTOs, doing what Joe would have done if he could.
- At one point, referring to his late wife, Joe tells his son that she is “still out there,” suggesting a continued spiritual presence even after her death. This hints that, even after his own death, Joe is “still out there,” though now embodied in Godzilla. Not literally in the sense of taking possession, with his intelligence intact, but metaphorically, his goals fused with those of the prehistoric apex predator.
- Ford and Godzilla share a strangely intriguing moment of eye-contact, suggesting some kind of bonding. Interestingly, Godzilla’s looming face disappears as it is engulfed in billowing clouds, almost as if the creature were de-materializing – a guardian angel evaporating into the ether.
- Godzilla very pointedly saves Ford’s life at the end – again, something Joe would have done if he could. This later point is particularly significant, because the film starts with a nuclear catastrophe that Joe fails to prevent, loosing his wife in the process; the conclusion neatly bookends the opening, with another nuclear disaster, this time averted without loss of life.
In effect, Godzilla takes on the mantle of protective parent after Joe’s demise. Earlier in the film, Vivienne Graham refers to Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes,” which dove-tails nicely with a quote from Sigmund Freud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly to suit the occasion:
“A personal God[zilla] is nothing more than an exalted father-figure.”
In GODZILLA, the King of the Monsters assumes the father-figure role, but that role has greater resonance when you see him as the embodiment of Joe Brody’s need to protect his family, to succeed where he failed previously. Again, this is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
Generally, I think reviewers have not given the film enough credit for a solid structure that makes sense of elements like this, regardless of whether the dialogue and characterizations are as compelling as we might like. Joe Brody is a nuclear safety expert; his son attempts to diffuse a nuclear bomb at the end; individually, they fail, but united (at least insofar as Godzilla represents Joe), they succeed.
Sure, the getting-back-to-my-family story line is banal, but it serves a function as a microcosm of the larger problem: nuclear radiation has not only upset the balance of nature on a large scale, but also split the nuclear family; the reuniting of Ford’s family is a small scale symbol of the restoration of balance.
One last point (I can hear you sighing, “Finally!”). Ryfle objects to the conclusion of GODZILLA, which sees the purloined warhead detonating harmlessly out to sea, with no threat of sickness from what should be massive fall-out. This is clearly in line with America’s myopia about nucleaweapons, which we prefer to regard as high-yield explosives while we ignore the insidious effects of radiation poisoning, which continues to kill long after the smoke has cleared (a pointed made with disturbing poignancy in Honda’s film).
However, I am going to give the new film the benefit of the doubt, because it has laid the groundwork for an explanation. Earlier in the film, we learn that Dr. Serizawa and company have been nurturing the dormant MUTO because it has been absorbing the radiation from nuclear plant it destroyed; the surrounding area, which should be toxic, is actually clean.
Godzilla, like the MUTOs, feeds off radiation. After defeating his opponents, Godzilla collapses, exhausted and spent, apparently dead (in a nice touch, his fall to earth after a heroic victory mirrors Ford’s slipping into unconsciousness, the actions synchronized to once again emphasize the connection between Ford and Godzilla). The next morning, with people swarming the beach around the fallen titan, and Dr. Serizawa gazing in wonder upon what is for him the equivalent of the Holy Grail, Godzilla’s starts to breath again, rising in triumph to head back to the ocean.
I think this is why there is no danger of radiation poisoning: as the MUTO did with the radiation from the reactor, Godzilla has absorbed the fall-out from the warhead; this is what brought him back to life. As he returns to the depths from which he came, the implication is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists between humanity and Godzilla. Just as plants live on the carbon dioxide that we exhale, purifying the atmosphere for us, Godzilla is taking our nuclear poison with him and leaving a purified world behind.
It’s not all that far removed from the ending of GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (a.k.a. GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER), whose writer-director, Yoshimitsu Banno, serves as executive producer here. The difference is that Edwards’ GODZILLA takes a potentially silly idea and presents it with a straight face, free of camp or irony. We may chuckle to ourselves after the curtain has dropped and the theatre lights go up, but while the film is actually unspooling we can enjoy the delicious experience of taking Godzilla seriously.
- I would be a little less snarky here if some of Newitz’s points were not so specious. For instance, she praises PACIFIC RIM’s “bold decisions,” such as starting the film ten years after the first appearance of the kaiju. Actually, this not so much bold as safe: it gives the film an excuse to start with monster mayhem from the very first frame, to capture audience attention before boring them with the exposition and “drama” that follow. GODZILLA is bolder in strategy, daring to tease its audience along, resisting the urge to go full-on monster mayhem from beginning to end.
- By the way, Ryfle objects to acronym, referring to the “laughably named M.U.T.O” and expressing pity that “the fine actor David Strathairn had to utter those words without chuckling.” I just want to say that MUTO sounds quite like UFO (Unidentified Flying Object, pronounced “YOU-FO”), a term coined by the U.S. military and used for decades (in official documents such as Project Bluebook) without provoking laughter.
In which the approaching release of WORLD WAR Z prompts me to ruminate on the history of cinematic “zombies” and point interested readers to some worthwhile articles in the Cinefantastique archives.
With WORLD WAR Z about to open nationwide, we all seem to have zombies on the brain this week. A handful of outlets (Johnny-come-lately’s, every one) have presented their lists of Top Ten Zombie Films, five years after I presented the definitive list here (well, maybe not definitive but at least I know what a zombie is). The irony of this mainstream media attention – indeed the irony of a star such as Brad Pitt appearing in a big-budget zombie summer blockbuster – is that for decades zombies were the poor man of the horror movie pantheon, consigned eternally (or so it seemed) to low-budget B-films and indie flicks.
The reason for this is obvious enough: zombies came cheap. They were basically just people shuffling around as if in a trance; traditional voodoo zombies do not even decay, so relatively little makeup was required. Sure, the same thing could almost be said about vampires, but those cinematic creatures of the night usually required fancy costumes and lavish ancestral castles; zombies just didn’t require the same production values.
The other problem is that zombies were seldom scary, except in the abstract sense: their mere existence called into question notions of the clear demarcation between life and death; their mindless state foreshadowed by decades the debate over keeping a body artifically animated after brain death had occurred. These elements, along with intimations of the strange supernatural powers that resurrected the dead, could yield unnerving, atmospheric films (WHITE ZOMBIE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), but there was little visceral threat in the shambling zombies.
All that changed when George A. Romero and company unleashed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) on an unsuspecting public. For the first time, the walking dead consumed the living. And they were no longer under the control of some houngan (voodoo priest); they came back from the dead because…. er, radiation, or something.
Please note my shift in vocabulary when discussing Romero’s seminal film: “those things,” as they were termed in the dialogue, were sometimes called “ghouls” but never “zombies.” Outside of the fact that they continued to perambulate after death, they had little in common with their traditional antecedents. (Voodoo zombies, for example, cannot eat meat – or salt for that matter – because they would regain their self-awareness and return to the peace of the grave.)
The new cannibalistic tendencies were coupled with another significant change – one more assumed than stated – which goes to the question of just what defines a “zombie.” If zombies are the “walking dead,” in what sense is something that can walk “dead”? The assumption underlying the traditional zombie is that the body is alive but the soul is gone. By ditching any reference to the supernatural and resorting to a science fiction explanation about reactivating the brain, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD blurs the line between the living and the dead (a point Romero emphasized in 1985’s DAY OF DEAD, in which we are told that the zombies are just humans functioning less perfectly). The implication is that, if a zombie is a soulless walking body, then all of us are zombies; some of us are just a little higher-functioning than others.
Regardless of the terminology, the rules laid down in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (e.g., kill the brain) became a modern movie mythology. Almost everything that came after was influenced one way or another, either directly or indirectly.
Exactly when the confusion between traditional zombies and Romero’s flesh-eaters took place, is hard to say. The earliest reference (that I can find) to “zombies” in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is in Alan G. Frank’s 1974 book Horror Movies. Romero himself picked up on the idea in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which abandons the radiation theory of NIGHT and references the the word “zombie” in dialogue voiced by Peter (Ken Foree), whose grandfather was a voodoo practitioner, leading to the famous sentence: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.” Perhaps tellingly, DAWN OF THE DEAD was retitled ZOMBI for release in Italy.
In its own way, DAWN OF THE DEAD was every bit as radical a reinvention of the zombie genre as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been a decade earlier. Whereas NIGHT had introduced the concept of cannibalism, DAWN gave us the first Zombie Apocalypse (an idea transfigured from Richad Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, in which vampires bring about the demise of human society). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been zombies a visceral threat to individual victims; DAWN OF THE DEAD made them an existential threat to life as we know it.
The conflation of cannibal corpses and zombies took another shambling step forward with ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, 1979), in which director Lucio Fulci transposed the graphic gore and gut-crunching mayhem of the Romero film into a West Indies setting, blaming the resurrection of the dead on an off-screen houngan. ZOMBIE was known as ZOMBI 2 in Italy – a misleading suggestion that the film was a sequel to Romero’s. Curiously, the ending of ZOMBIE actually works better as a prequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD, suggesting the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse in America, which would segue rather smoothly into the opening scene of the Romero movie.
Since then, the word “zombie” has become fairly interchangeable with “walking dead,” “living dead,” and any other variation thereof. In fact, the definition has expanded to include the brain-eating zombies of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and also people who are not dead at all but merely infected by some virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. Since these “zombies” are a good deal healthier (i.e., alive) than their predecessors, they are also much faster, making them difficult to outrun. The mounting fear of slowly approaching but inevitable death has been replaced by the more immediate fear of being caught, but in the end it makes little difference. Slow or fast, the zombies will get you eventually – or at least claim enough victims to destroy society at large. Think of 28 DAY LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER, not to mention the horror-comedy ZOMBIELAND.
The success of some of these films, along with AMC’s excellent series THE WALKING DEAD, has helped mainstream the zombie concept. Romero himself kept the apocalypse going with the relatively big-budget LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), which was given a high-profile release by Universal Studios. The RESIDENT EVIL films quickly left the confines of the Umbrella Corporation and Racoon City behind, to focus on worldwide destruction, earning big box office rewards in the process. Other films, such as FIDO (2008) and WARM BODIES (2013) have even suggested that zombies are not all bad; a glimmer of humanity may remain inside, waiting to be nurtured back to life.
Whatever their differences, what these films and television shows have in common is the threat of global annihilation. Our world is going down the tubes, although we may be able to keep up appearances within a tightly confined and well-guarded city – an exaggerated, satirical take-off on today’s gated communities.
WORLD WAR Z, based on Max Brooks’ fictional oral history of a zombie war, follows directly in this line – offering the by-now familiar apocalyptic scenario on a larger scale than ever before. The fear invoked is not so much the fear of being eaten alive but of staring into an empty black abyss, from which nothing stares back – not God, not the Devil, just an empty void. When we lost our souls, we lost the key distinction between us and zombies. Now it all boils down to a simple question of survival, and the odds are not in our favor. How can they be, for a species apparently so hellbent on self-destruction?
As the ailing, one-legged priest in DAWN OF THE DEAD says, “When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or lose the war.”
By the way, I thought this photo from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4 would suit my headline rather well, but I didn’t have anything to say about the film, so I tucked the image down here.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
- Top Ten Zombie Films
- Anatomy of a Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead
- Night of the Living Dead and the Riddle of Racism
- Night of the Living Dead – a Retrospective
- Dawn of the Dead – a Retrospective
- George Romero Documents the Dead
ZOMBIE FILMS WORTH CHECKING OUT
- Automaton Transfusion
- Return of the Living Dead
- Evil Dead 2
- 28 Weeks Later
- I Walked with a Zombie
- The Beyond
- Dead Snow
While visiting a Los Angles courthouse last month to testify at the murder trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, I had a strangely irrelevant epiphany: Those of us with a Sense of Wonder are living in the Golden Age of Gods and Monsters. This revelation had nothing to do with our legal system and everything to do with the location: with Chinatown and Little Tokyo within walking distance of the courthouse, a trip like this would, once upon a time, have been an opportunity to stock up on items difficult if not impossible to obtain elsewhere. There used to be – and, to some extent, still is – an almost literal cornucopia of videotapes, laserdiscs, DVDs, and action figures related to Fant-Asia, Anime, and Kaiju cinema in the family-owned shops downtown. If you wanted to see POKEMON with its Japanese dialogue or check out the SUPER SENTAI series in its original form (before being cannibalized for POWER RANGERS), or if you wanted VHS tapes of the 1990s-era Godzilla films (which went unreleased in the U.S for nearly a decade), this was the place to go: such an opportunity was not to be missed; leaving empty-handed was not an option. However, on this occasion, when searching my memory banks for hard-to-find horror, fantasy, fiction science fiction films and memorabilia that I should seek out in the nearby stores, I came up blank. Because, you see, fewer and fewer cult movies are hard to find these days; almost anything we want is available at the push of a button.
Heading home, I registered a certain disappointment, much as many people mourn the passing of their favorite local video stores. But unlike the doom-sayers who think this as something akin to a huge chunk of our cultural heritage disappearing down a black hole, I realized that just the opposite is true: we now have instant access to even the most obscure elements of our cinematic heritage. The search for little-seen films no longer forces us to search through dusty shops like Allan Quatermain delving into King Solomon’s Mines; we need no longer wait for the occasional airing on late-night television or – even more rarely – a screening at a revival house.
Anyone old enough to remember the early days of Cinefantastique magazine should appreciate this. Those old back issues are loaded with capsule reviews of foreign fantasy films and cult exploitation horror that never received nationwide release. Some odd-ball opus would open at a single theatre in New York City or at a mid-west drive-in, never to be seen again. You would read the review of the latest Mario Bava film or of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and wonder, “When will I ever have a chance to see this?” And the answer usually seemed to be: Never.
Beginning in the 1980s, the home video revolution changed that, making hundreds of unreleased or barely released titles available. However, beneath the deluge of cinematic sea creatures, Aztec mummies, and grind-house gore, there lay buried an unfortunate truth: it cost money to manufacture tapes and discs, and not every lost title was potentially profitable enough to justify a release.
To a great extent, our current era of ,video on demand, digital downloads, and streaming video has changed that, by eliminating the costs of manufacturing and distribution. Yes, most of the titles on Netflix or Amazon Instant View have been restored and remastered for DVD and/or Blu-ray; nevertheless, the streaming options offer an additional source of revenue and little additional cost. Moreover, with public domain options such as Archive.org and Pub-D-Hub, many older titles that have gone out of copyright are now available for free viewing. Fans can even post these films, in their entirety, on YouTube.
This overload of obscure cinefantastique may mean little to viewers interested only in the latest box office blockbusters. However, a Sense of Wonder can find expression in many strange ways ways, not all of them likely to appeal to a wide swath of the ticket-buying populace. Fans eager to revisit old favorites or to seek out previously unavailable films for the first time are benefiting from 21st Century technology in ways almost unimaginable even a few years ago. To wit:
- You want J-Horror? JU-ON 2 is currently available on Netflix, along with SHOCK CORRIDOR and dozens of other Asian scare shows. If that is not enough, head over to Asian Crush.
- You want Kaiju? Check out the Godzilla titles on Sony Pictures’ Crackle.com. Also, Gamera is flying all over Pub-D-Hub.
- You want anime? Check out Crunchyroll.com or Starz’ Manga channel.
- You want obscure Hammer horror? SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) – a film long available only in bootleg DVDs – is up on YouTube.
You want Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters? IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) are up on YouTube. You can watch the colorized version of the latter on Amazon Instant View. THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) are available in high-definition at the Warner Archives instant viewing service.
- You want Euro-horror? ZOMBIE LAKE (1981) and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1982) are on Netflix. Fans of Paul Naschy’s doomed werewolf Waldemar Daninsky can catch ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1970) on Flixstream.com’s Drive-In Classics; even better is LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS (a.k.a. THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN, 1971) is on YouTube – uncut, widescreen, in Spanish with subtitles. (You can buy this one on Amazon Instant View, but it’s the shorter, English-dubbed version.)
- You want an eclectic mix of vampires, aliens, and giant monsters? Creepster.tv has a little bit of everything: COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE (1973), ALIEN CONTAMINATION (1980), GORGO (1960). One particularly obscure item is HORROR CASTLE (a.k.a. THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG, 1963), with Christopher Lee, which combines Gothic horror with a post-WWII murder-mystery.
- You want classics? THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) is on Netflix and several public domain sources; so is WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) and SVENGALI (1931) are on Pub-D-Hub. The brilliant, silent docu-drama HAXEN (“Witchcraft,” 1922) is available on Archive.org. Warner Archives offers such titles as FREAKS (1932), CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), SOYLENT GREEN (1973), THE WITCHES (1990), UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991), and many others.
- You want something new? New theatrical films from Magnet Releasing and other independent outfits frequently show up on Amazon Instant View and iTunes downloads weeks before they reach the big screen. An excellent film like THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2012) – which once you would have had to track down on import disc in some specialty store – made its U.S. debut that way; now it is available on Netflix.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If some of these titles are not familiar to you, that is the point: these are low-profile films long buried in obscurity that, zombie-like, have been revived by the modern wizardry of the Internet. And now, like vampires who can cross the threshold only when invited, they are waiting for you to open your video portals and let them in. Some of these outlets are available only on the Internet; others are accessible through your Roku box, PlayStation, or XBox. All of them allow you to watch movies instantly – movies that you once would have waited months – even years – to see. Why not take advantage of this new virtual world of Gods and Monsters?
You can find many of these titles available for instant viewing in the Cinefantastique Online Store, powered by Amazon.
Having spent the better part of the morning posting new articles about Ray Harryhausen, and digging up old ones from the CFQ archive, you would think I had nothing more to say about the revered cine-magician, who passed away today at the age of 92. Yet even after writing an obituary that attempted to asses Harryhausen’s contribution to cinefantastique, I feel compelled to offer a slightly more personal take. Harryhausen’s death has brought me to realize, more than ever before, the debt I owe him for the Sense of Wonder that not only drove me to write for Cinefantastique magazine, but also enriched the psychic space in my mind that interfaces with the so-called real world.
If that sounds a bit abstract and philosophical, let me put it a bit more simply: how we experience life depends very much on what is inside us. For example, depending on our mood, a ringing phone can be either an annoying interruption or a welcome respite. On a larger scale, how we feel about ourselves and the world, on a day to day level, is very much a matter of our own private inner world, from which we look out upon external reality. Mine, I am happy to say, is filled with magic, and much of that magic was summoned by Ray Harryhausen, in the form of myriad monsters and mythical creatures that paraded across the movie screen during my youth – and continue to parade across the mental movie screen that exists inside me.
Harryhausen’s work has been a part of my psychic space for so long that it seems almost from birth – as if an integral part of my DNA – but in truth I can recall that my first encounter was through JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, which screened as part of a summer series at my local theatre when I was in grade school. No one who has ever seen that film, especially at a tender young age, can ever forget the astounding adventures, which include a giant walking statue, the gods of Mount Olympus, a multi-headed Hydra, and a virtual army of sword-fighting skeletons. Decades later, my mind recalls few details of that long-past afternoon, but I know I loved the film and never forgot it; years later, when I started to read about film, the name of Ray Harryhausen passed before my eyes, and I made it my business to catch his work whenever and wherever I could – which in those days was mostly on television and at the occasional revival screening.
Not all of the films are great. It is an acknowledged fact, even among fans, that Harryhausen’s films emphasized his special effects over story. And yet, they all have their charms, because Harryhausen’s effects truly were special. Emphasizing them may have been an example of the tail wagging the dog, but it was never an example of technique trumping artistry. For Harryhausen truly was an artist – a puppeteer, a performer. Like a diva, for whom the opera’s story is just an excuse to get to the arias, Harryhausen dazzled us, but his virtuoso technique was always hidden behind an ineffable layer of magic that was equal parts arcane craftsmanship and exuberant showmanship.
Harryhausen’s creatures had energy but also grace and even personality. Almost every character – whether a mythical monster or a prehistoric beast – seemed to have something distinctive. Even the allosaurus in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI – not the most expressive or sympathetic creature – betrays the occasional character tic (such as scratching its chin), giving the impression that this is not just any dinosaur but a very particular dinosaur – certainly like none you will see in any other film (unless that film features stop-motion effects by Harryhausen).
I don’t believe that any individual Harryhausen film matches the impact of his inspiration, KING KONG (1933), but the cumulative impact of his oeuvre is tremendous. Harryhausen never quite understood that Kong was impressive not merely because he was a giant ape but because he was a compelling combination of savagery and sympathy – a brutal killer that could chow down on a hapless human one moment, then go starry-eyed and sentimental over Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) the next.
Harryhausen’s films worked on a simpler, more child-like level – but the key point is that they truly did work on that level. In a strangely paradoxical way, the limitations of the stop-motion technique (single-frame photography renders a moving image that is somewhat stroboscopic) yielded an amazing dividend in Harryhausen’s hands: the unreality of the image increased its fantastic appeal, rendering it slightly unbelievable yet perfectly and timelessly appropriate for an incredible world of the imagination that appeals to children of all ages.
When I think back upon all the wonder that Harryhausen bestowed upon me, all for the price of a few movie tickets, I suspect that, between the two of us, I am the one who profited the more. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, along with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, remain among my favorite films, their magic undimmed by the cynicism of my now much older eyes.
I guess that is the legacy of Harryhausen that will endure – the ability to keep alive the inner child within us, so that we may continue to see his films as we did when we were young, regardless of the more sophisticated demands our adult selves may make of other movies. For me, this legacy will always be best expressed by Tom Hanks’ enthusiastic declaration, during the presentation of Harryhausen’s lifetime Academy Award:*
“Some people say CASABLANCA or CITIZEN KANE. I say JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest film ever made.”
Was Hanks completely serious? Probably not. Yet he spoke for the child, wide-eyed and amazed, who lives inside everyone who has ever enjoyed the magic of Ray Harryhausen.
For a perhaps more eloquent reaction to Harryhausen’s death, I heartily recommend Tim Lucas’s post “He Moved Us” at Video Watchblog.
- In passing, I have always felt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Gordon E. Sawyer Award for “technological contributions [that] have brought credit to the industry” was a bit of a back-handed compliment to Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s greatest contribution to cinema was not the technique of stop-motion animation, which had been pioneered by his mentor Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen’s contribution was using the the technology to achieve an amazing artistry.
Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2001, in response to the scandal that erupted when it was revealed that advertising campaigns from Sony Pictures had included favorable quotes from a critic who did not, in fact, exist. The studio wound up on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit from angry customers who had been hoodwinked into seeing these movies. In 2005, the Associated Press reported that the company settled the suit for $1.5-million, allowing customers who had purchased tickets to VERTICAL LIMIT, A KNIGHT’S TALE, or THE PATRIOT to get a $5 refund.
Sony Pictures did not admit any liability, even though two executives were temporarily suspended when the scandal first first erupted. The lawsuit began when two ticket buyers in California claimed that an ad for KNIGHT’S TALE fooled them into seeing the film by quoting “David Manning of the Ridgefield Press” as saying that Heath Ledger, the film’s lead, was “this year’s hottest new star!” The Ridgefield Press, a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut, had no such film reviewer. Other ads to feature phony quotes were for films like THE ANIMAL and HOLLOW MAN.
Although Hollywood studios are no longer attributing quotes to fictitious film critics (as far as we know), they continue to employ other techniques mentioned below, in an attempt to squeeze a few good words out of reviewers who should know better.
The American public was shocked—simply shocked—when they found out in 2001 that Sony Pictures publicity had invented a fictional film critic by the name of David Manning to praise some of their less praise-worthy films (such as the Rob Schneider comedy, THE ANIMAL and director Paul Verhoeven’ HOLLOW MAN). Well, maybe they weren’t shocked; perhaps “amused” is a better word. After all, what’s more fun than to have your cynical suspicions confirmed by objective evidence?
We all know that Hollywood is a huge hype machine that will stop at nothing to promote its films, so the fact that the studio would stoop to outright deceit (as opposed to exaggeration and spin-doctoring) is not very surprising in and of itself. The real question is why the publicity department felt it was useful to invent a non-existent critic. What was to be gained?
The answer to that question requires a little back-story, which reveals that Sony’s actions were really just the logical extension of a pattern that has been evolving over the course of the past 25 years. Not that this makes their actions excusable, just understandable.
A long time ago (i.e., before there ever was a film about events in a galaxy far, far away), major motion picture studios would premier their films in exclusive or limited engagements, opening them in only a few theatres in major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles (a little bit along the lines of what Walt Disney Pictures does today with their major animation features). A film would open in some luxury theatre downtown, and all the major critics would weigh in with their opinions in print and on TV, while word-of-mouth would spread from those viewers who just had to see a film during its exclusive run instead of waiting for it to move into their neighborhood theatres.
The reactions a film received would then help determine how it would be released to the rest of the nation. Advertising campaigns might be tweaked for different regional markets; a film might be re-edited into a shorter version for mass consumption; sometimes, if a film fared extremely poorly, a national release might even be avoided altogether.
However it worked, the bottom line was that the film was given its chance to generate word-of-mouth and critical buzz before it appeared in the vast majority of theatres around the country. No matter how much hype went into the marketing, the film ultimately had to stand on its own two feet.
Two films in the 1970s changed all that: JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) proved that you could make a financial killing by opening a summer blockbuster nationwide instead of in limited engagements. With a film playing in hundreds or even thousands of theatres on opening weekend, it could reach a sizable percentage of its audience before word-of-mouth could kick in. Therefore, the pre-release hype became even more important.
This did not eliminate the publicists’ relationship with critics, however. Although many potential viewers might not read a complete review before seeing a film, almost inevitably they had to look at an ad, if for no other reason than to check out where the film was playing. And those ads sure looked better when they were full of positive sound bytes lifted from critics. After all, film critics supposedly represented an objective opinion; everyone expected the studio to hype its efforts, but if a dozen critics all said that the film was great, then it must be worth checking out, right?
Therefore, the goal for publicists was to find ways of getting the press to say good things about studio product. You could bribe them in subtle ways—invite them to the set, fly them to exotic locations to view filming, give them lots of free food and liquor at gala premiers. How else to explain the way the opening of PEARL HARBOR was treated like a major historical event by network television news outlets—did journalists really expect great things from the movie, or was it that they just could not pass up that trip to Hawaii for the premier?
But those premiers do not come cheap, and they are not always 100% effective. A far cheaper and easier way to get good quotes was simply careful editing: you pulled out the one or two favorable sentences from an otherwise unfavorable review. Technically, you don’t need permission to do this, and presumably the writer cannot object since he did, after all, say what he’s quoted as saying. (Theoretically, permission is supposed to be obtained if the quote is paraphrased or altered in anyway that might be misleading, but there is no official body to enforce this.)
This method is fine; however, there still may be times when you come up empty-handed or, worse yet, embarrassed. After all, there is some risk involved. You don’t want to print “Achieves Greatness!” at the top of the ad, and then have some article come out a week later pointing out that the original review actually said, “The film almost achieves greatness, but ultimately stumbles into awfulness.” So, what’s the next step?
The answer lies in those ratings charts that some newspapers and magazine used to run, which allow all of the regular staff to give numerical ratings (such as one to four stars) to each film in release. A glance at any chart like this will reveal that almost any film, no matter how bad, has at least one supporter at each publication or outlet who will give it at least two stars, maybe three, and sometimes even four. If you are a studio publicist, your tactic is clear: bypass the critic who wrote the printed review, and call up the one critic who gave your film four stars.
This led to the ‘90s phenomenon known as “Quote Whores,” those journalists so eager to see their name in print that they could always find something good to say. The situation was tainted by the fact that writers were no longer required to actually write anything in order to be quoted; they simply said something nice over the phone, and the publicist would tailor it to fit into the ad.
It’s easy to see why a journalist would fall into this trap. If you’re writing for a publication but your editor asked someone else to review the weekend’s major new release, obviously you’re not at the top of the pecking order. How to increase your cache as a critic? Well, the more your name is seen in advertisements, the more you seem to be the voice of authority. Of course, these so-called writers knew they had to say something favorable, but many rationalized this by telling themselves that there is something good to say about almost any movie, so they were not really lying, just giving an honest opinion that emphasized the positive. If they had been asked to write the review, they would have said the exact same thing, and they would also have pointed out the film’s shortcomings. At least, that was the excuse.
The problem for publicists, of course, was that outside of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, there weren’t that many film critics with nationally recognized names, so the only way to lend authority to these quotes was by listing the name of magazine or newspaper after the name of the critic. This led to the bizarre phenomenon of quotes being attributed to publications in which the words never actually appeared.
I first encountered this while working as the West Coast Editor for CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine. I was surprised to open my copy of the LOS ANGELES TIMES one day to see an ad for BARB WIRE with an extremely favorable quote attributed to one of our free-lance writers. Unfortunately, he had not written the review that actually appeared in the magazine, which was overwhelmingly negative. At my instigation, we immediately instituted a policy which prevented free-lancers from handing out quotes with the magazine’s name attached; they could say whatever they wanted over the phone, but the quote could only be attributed to the magazine if it was from a review that had actually been published in its pages.
Now maybe you’re starting to see how this led to a fictional film critic. Most journalists’ names are not that well known. If you can’t get something good from the top critic at the major publications, and if the publications are not letting their other writers hand out the magazine’s name to any publicist who asks, you’re into a situation where you’re increasingly relying on unknown names. It no longer matters who said it; the only important thing is what was said.
This combines with another fact of life: writers should be literate, but they are not necessarily articulate. You can’t always get a great-sounding piece of hyperbole over the phone. So publicists found a method to save these Quote Whores from having to think up their own quotes: they started sending out what looked like a multiple choice quiz. When a film was about to be released, a journalist would get one of these in his fax or e-mail, with the film’s title at the top and a list of perhaps 10 choices, preceded by the question, “Which of these most nearly describes your reaction to the film?” Needless to say, all the options were overwhelmingly positive (e.g., “Best Film This Year!”), so if anybody bothered to check off one and fax it back to the publicist, they had a guaranteed usable quote.
At this point, we get into the science of statistics and probability. If you provide 10 choices and all of them are positive, it’s only a matter of sending out enough faxes until someone gives you the response you want. If you’re diligent enough, it becomes more or less inevitable that you will get a positive hit on one or maybe even all of the choices provided. Human nature being what it is, we like to take short cuts when we know the outcome is inevitable. It is rather like the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel,” in which every book that can be written has been written; it’s just a matter of finding it somewhere in the infinite chambers.
This is probably why the Sony publicists opted to create a ficitonal film critic and put their words into his mouth. Why bother with the time and trouble of faxing out multiple-choice questionaires when you know that, inevitably, someone, somewhere, will say what you want? Having put pre-written words into the mouths of real (if unknown) journalists for years, the publicists decided to skip a step. After all, did the names of these unknown critics carry any weight with the public, or was it simply important to see something good said about the movie? And if the author and outlet are not important, what’s the point of searching for a parrot to repeat what you say, when instead you can have a ventriloquist dummy do the job for you?
After a diatribe such as this, which identifies a problem, typically one is expected to offer up some kind of solution. “Don’t believe everything you read,” is one obvious lesson, but that does not really rectify the situation. I suppose we could call on Hollywood to behave itself a little bit better, but are we really naïve enough to think that that will happen anytime soon?
There are a couple things to do. First, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and websites that review films should instigate policies like the one we adopted back at CINEFANTASTIQUE: the only time the outlet’s name should be allowed in an ad is when the quote actually appeared in that outlet. Furthermore, all of us webheads should do a better job of policing Hollywood. When you see some hymn of praise for an abysmally bad movie, go online and do a search on the name of the critic and his outlet. If no such person or outlet exists, write to the studio, and let your local newspaper know.
Best of all, maintain a healthy skepticism about the quotes you see in ads, and realize that the Hollywood pre-release hype machine has been at least somewhat undercut by the existence of the Internet. The goal of studio publicists is still to get onto thousands of screens for opening weekend, so that they can make as much money as possible before word-of-mouth warns ticket-buyers, but nowadays that word-of-mouth travels almost instantaneously online. No matter how tightly the studio press machine keeps the lid on a film, no matter how many phony quotes and critics they invent, you can get the real story from outlets you trust, and you can get it in time to save you from wasting your $8.00.
Copyright 2001 Steve Biodrowski
Hopefully, the above headline needs no explanation, but in case you have any doubts, we’re talking about cinefantastique the genre, not Cinefantastique, the online magazine of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. Although there have been a few exceptions in recent decades (e.g., a Best Picture win for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally under-represents imagi-movies at each year’s Oscars, and the 2013 ceremony was no exception – and no surprise, since few horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were even nominated.
It is not as if there were not some worthy contenders from 2012: CLOUD ATLAS, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, ROBOT AND FRANK (especially Frank Langella’s performance), THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – to name a few. However, even in categories that traditionally offer a glimmer of hope (technical areas such as special effects), the genre went ignored.
The only solace, such as it was, took the form of two borderline titles that won in several categories: ARGO and LIFE OF PI. The former is a fact-based political thriller, but its plot is based around using a phony science fiction film as cover to spirit hostages out of Iran, and the film actually uses the concept of sci-fi fantasy heroism in pop culture as a yardstick by which to measure real-life accomplishment. The latter uses effects-heavy imagery to recount one person’s lonely trek aboard a lifeboat in a way that questions the reality of the events, which may be just a personal fantasy.
ARGO took home the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Film Editing (William Goldenberg), and Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio). I cannot exactly argue with ARGO’s Best Picture win – it is a great movie – but I would have preferred to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (obviously impossible) or at least LES MISERABLES.
LIFE OF PI won for Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Directing (Ang Lee), Music (Mychael Danna), and Visual Effects (Bill Westernhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, Donald R. Elliott).
The win for Visual Effects is not a big surprise, but it is something of a disappointment since this is one of the few categories in which outright science fiction films have a shot at the gold statuette. This year’s nominees included THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, THE AVENGERS, PROMETHEUS, and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. Presumably, THE HOBBIT and PROMETHEUS lost because voters felt they had seen the effects before in LORD OF THE RINGS and ALIEN, respectively. THE AVENGERS looked too much like TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. And SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN lost because it was simply a bad movie, and the Academy seldom singles out isolated pockets of quality in otherwise undeserving films.
In the Animated Feature category, voters apparently could not decide on a good film, so they gave the award to BRAVE for being a Pixar Production. Personally, I think nominee FRANKENWEENIE is seriously flawed in the story department, but even so, it far surpasses Pixar’s latest step into mediocrity. Easily the best animated film of the year – THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY – was not even nominated, nor was the worthy RISE OF THE GUARDIANS.
At least PAPERMAN took home the gold in the Animated Short category – the film was the only good thing about having to sit through WRECK IT RALPH, which incredibly was nominated in the Feature Animated category, along with the equally unworthy PARANORMAN. (I have not seen the other nominee THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS, so I will reserve comment.)
SKYFALL, the latest James Bond adventure, is less science fiction-oriented than many of its predecessors, but it still straddles the borderline of the genre. The film earned several nominations, including Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound Editing, and won for Sound Editing (Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers) and Best Song (Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth). Adele (who goes simply by her first name) performed the song during the ceremony – the first winner for a franchise noted for its memorable theme songs. (Shirley Bassey was also on hand to perform the title tune from 1963’s GOLDFINGER, which really set the standard for 007 songs.)
The Best Song win for “Skyfall” is one of the few decisions I can truly applaud for the 85 Annual Academy Awards. The song is the best thing about the film – and one of the best James Bond them song in over nearly two decades.
THE HOBBIT, Peter Jackson’s disappointing prequel to his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, failed to impress Oscar voters. Nominated in three categories – Makeup, Production Design, and Visual Effects – the film went zero for three on Oscar night.
The terrible SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN was had to chances to win – for Costumes and Visual Effects – but lost out in both categories.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (another borderline effort, which includes some fantasy creatures) was nominated in categories for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Directing but came away empty handed.
So there you have it. It took AMPAS only 76 years to finally award a Best Picture win to a fantasy film (the aforementioned LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING). Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another seven decades for history to repeat itself.
Wow, they really rolled out the red carpet on THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA, which supposedly opens in theatres today: the closest location to me is in Ontario. Well – Ontario, California rather than Ontario, Canada, but still. It turns out that the film is simultaneously available for streaming on Amazon. Didn’t anyone tell the distributors: the Video on Demand release for films that no one wants to see on the big screen is, traditionally, three weeks before theatrical?