Charlie Hunnam says he feels Pacific Rim sacrified character development for spectacle: but when you decide to focus your big budget kaiju movie on “character development” instead, you get Godzilla, a muddled mess of a monster movie featuring barely any monsters and, despite lots of screen time devoted to humans, barely any characters either.
Mr Hunnam, I think, is falling prey to a pretty common error, equating number of lines delivered with character development. Now, it is no secret that I think Pacific Rim is basically a perfect movie, divinely inspired, without significant flaw, and with a whole lot more than eleven measly minutes of bravura kaiju versus robot fisticuffs. But here’s the thing about film that people seem to forget: it’s a visual medium, with spoken dialogue and music where necessary to support the visuals. Practically all of PR‘s character development is visual, without a word being spoken. (I would argue that next in importance, at least in PR, is the score, and dialogue is actually the least important component, but I am getting myself distracted here.)
KAIJU-SIZED SPOILERS for Pacific Rim and Godzilla ahead.*
So then there’s Godzilla, which proves (in case there was doubt) that time spent does not equal depth. Godzilla spends loads of time with its characters, especially the military bomb disposal tech played with all the depth and range of a cardboard cutout by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. This is not Taylor-Johnson’s fault, but the material’s. There is simply nothing there for him to work with (and we know, from Avengers: Age of Ultron, that the man can act, if he’s given something to do). The rest of the excellent cast is equally wasted. Me, I would have liked a movie in which Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston’s scientist characters teamed up to do something awesome re: Godzilla, King of the Kaiju, but both of these men mostly grimace and scowl and mug, and at the end of the movie we know no more about them than we did at the beginning.
The audience learns more about Raleigh Beckett in the first few minutes of Pacific Rim than we learn about … sorry, I can’t remember Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character’s name … in the entire two-hour run time of Godzilla. I haven’t the time to do a full analysis (nor do you have time to read one, probably!), but much of this difference comes from the visuals: not only how the character talks, what he says, how he says it, but how he moves, his facial expressions, the lighting and the colors of the surrounding environment, how he is framed in relation to the other characters and to his environment.
In a written work, one of course has narration, and can show the character’s inner life through words. In a film, the visuals must do the job instead, with the support of the musical score to give the audience aural cues on what the character is feeling or what aspects of the story the audience should be focusing on right now.
The visual language of Godzilla is pretty de rigeur Serious Action Movie these days, down to the predictability of the shots used to try to convey the emotional beats.
It’s all pretty paint-by-numbers stuff; this viewer, who gets emotionally invested in cat food commercials, didn’t get much more than a vague lift when Soldier Boy is inevitably reunited with Nurse Wife and Cute Moppet. (I was relived that Gojira was okay, though. Three cheers for Gojira! … Hey, if they really do a Pacific Rim/Godzilla crossover, will the King of Kaiju team up with the Jaegers? Cause that would be rad.)
Compare and contrast with the end of Pacific Rim, which contains characters rejoicing, and gives a sense of the heroism and sacrifice necessary to earn their celebration. In Godzilla, almost no named characters die (and the one who does is so pointless, one wonders why he was in the film at all), and despite loving shots of wrecked cities, one never really feels there was a cost to all the mayhem. With two wordless shots–not of wreckage but of characters–PacRim brings home the feels.
Keep an eye on Marshall Hercules Hanson (at about 1:54 if you don’t want to watch the whole thing), whose brave boy did not come back from the final battle. We get two shots: of his son’s bulldog, and then of Herc’s face, and in those two shots, without any words being spoken, we understand Herc’s grief in the midst of the general rejoicing. See how everyone around him is cheering and hugging and smiling? His stillness, contrasting with all the movement around him, underscores the pain he carries, in spite of the victory.
Now, I’m not hating on Godzilla; it had a lot of good things going for it. The kaiju looked cool, a lot of the shots were well framed, and it had a heck of a cast. But I do think it proves without a doubt that how much time you spend with your characters is less important than how well you spend it.
*I know, one is two years old and the other a year, but still. I hadn’t seen Godzilla until yesterday.