I'm in the midst of doing one last big revision of THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, which comes out next year from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books. Among other things, this means I have metaphors on my mind—and it's no doubt why I am not a thunder-lizard size fan of the new "Godzilla" movie.
There's a lot to like about it, especially great performances from Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, neither of whom are on screen as much as I would like.
If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want me to wreck it for you, stop reading now. (And have fun at the the theater, because movies are awesome.)
But if you're a writer and want to find out why this story didn't satisfy as much as it might have, pull up a chair.
The original "Godzilla," in case you've never seen it, is a Japanese movie released in 1954. On its surface, it's about a dinosaur-like thing that ravages the country. Metaphorically, it's a story about nuclear destruction. In the end, they don't beat the monster. He just walks away (to return later).
With nuclear weapons and nuclear power in general, we really did create a monster that is impossible, or nearly so, to kill. The movie works on both levels, which is a hard thing to pull off. A metaphor can't get in the way of the story. It has to make it resonate more deeply; otherwise, it's like putting a pinwheel on a top hat.
This latest version, which thankfully is better than the 1998 monstrosity starring Matthew Broderick, brings back Godzilla and modern-day giant moths. It's a good idea, to be sure, and the effects were great.
But this time, instead of working as a Cold War metaphor with the giant moths and lizard reaching a stand-off, the struggle between the two ends with a deux ex machina, which means "god from the machine" and refers to a story that ends when a divine force fixes things.
This is a total spoiler, but in the end, Godzilla kills the monsters because he wants to "restore balance" to a planet despoiled by nuclear power. So the moral of this environmental tale: Just get out of the way, humans. Mother Nature—the god in Godzilla—will take care of you.
Never mind that there's no such thing as an animal that exists to "restore balance." Sure, some serve that function, but that's a byproduct of evolution, not their intentional gift to the rest of the world. Living things are motivated to stay alive long enough to reproduce, and they'll generally do what it takes for that to happen.
I might have bought the magical balance monster if the story had contained a metaphor with meaning.
But the metaphor of this movie is reckless. Unlike the original, which said something profound, this movie says something stupid and dangerous.
The environmental story of the generation is the pending disaster of climate change caused by human activity—a fact supported by 97 percent of the scientific community, no matter how badly the mainsteam media has failed to communicate this, no matter how much the propaganda artists at Fox News would like to deny this.
According to the metaphor of the movie, the giant moths of global warming are the result of past excesses. But we don't need to worry about them. Nope! It'll be OK if we just do nothing! In Godzilla we trust!
This is what only the most uninformed and short-sighted politicians would have you believe: that climate changes are part of the natural cycle and that the planet will regulate itself as it always has. It's not true, even if it is a more comfortable story than the alternative.
I don't know if the filmmakers thought about this one bit as they made their movie. I suspect they didn't, and wouldn't want to be part of a propaganda machine. Nonetheless, this is how I interpreted the movie, and one reason it disappointed me on an artistic level.
My second disappointment with it was that it felt in many places like a piece of entertainment plotted according to the Blake Snyder "Save the Cat" school of screenwriting. If you haven't read this book, it outlines a storytelling method that responds to audience expectations about character, plot, and pacing. It's a really useful starting point, and a great way to understand what is happening on screen and why it affects us. This is what all stories want to do: entertain us by creating an emotional experience.
But it's not a really great way to write a story if your underlying metaphor isn't sound, and your characters are more pawns than fully realized humans.
Godzilla suffered a lot from this. At times, I coul dfeel the checklist of details contrived to manipulate my emotions: the death of a mother, the separation of a father and his child. Some of these moments worked—a scene where the Bryan Cranston character sees a gift his son had made for him 15 years earlier. This is a testament to his skill as an actor, at the least.
But other manufactured emotional moments. One such example: the one where the hero saves a child on a train. We didn't know the kid, we didn't get to know him, nor did we get any deep satisfaction of seeing him reunited with his parents, because the camera panned away before the hero interacted with them.
This is what can happen when you plot a story based on key moments instead of on the harder-to-predict, harder-to-craft moments that come from having really well-developed characters. In my experience, you can really only create these moments well when you know your characters deeply, and when you have put them into such emotionally harrowing situations that their response feels both like a surprise and an inevitability. Of course the good guy is going to save a child on a train. A great movie will make this feel a whole lot more special, especially if the good guy sacrifices something meaningful in the process. They tried here—in fact, the good guy gives up a toy soldier from his own childhood, ostensibly something he would have given to his own son. But if you were struggling to live, would you really care about a toy soldier? Probably not. It feels more like a manipulation than an authentic emotional moment.
For me, the writer's lesson in all of this is that it's hard to write a high-concept story with genuine emotional and metaphoric reasonance. For some people, this doesn't matter. A big enough lizard, loud enough explosions, and charismatic actors are enough.
"Godzilla" is getting great reviews so far, which means the movie is working for its intended audience. Being good, though, doesn't mean people will still be thinking of your story 60 years after it first comes out.
I don't think there are many writers out there who don't, at least in their dreams, hope of creating something that still means a lot to people decades later. You might not hit great with your work. You might only hit good. But no one's ever going to create anything truly great by relying on anyone else's formula, or by building a story from the outside in.
It's a fine place to start, but where you finish has to come from someplace deeper, someplace you can only find in yourself. It comes from the deep, like Godzilla. And it's hard work bringing it to the surface, but it's worth it every time.