This is Not a Film: Godzilla and the Hollywood Doxa
Despite its being displayed in movie theaters across the country, Godzilla is not really a film. I don’t mean in the practical sense; it was filmed digitally, as most blockbusters are nowadays, but that’s not what’s at issue here. I mean film in the artistic sense. Though it is comprised of moving images and synched sound, Godzilla draws more from the structure, logic, and aesthetics of television, videogames, and movie trailers than it does from film. With this in mind, I believe the designation of “film” no longer holds — it would be more accurate to call it a Synthesized Multimedia Entertainment Product. In the spirit of Godzilla’s pseudo-scientific jargon, let’s give it an acronym: SMEP.
As a SMEP, Godzilla is very successful. Indeed, it fulfills every conceivable criterion of success for SMEPs. It’s got good looking actors who pretend to be good looking real people; it sustains its images and sounds for a duration of between 90 and 150 minutes; it features three giant monsters, which alternately fight and copulate; it’s got some explosions and lots of destruction of buildings and cities; millions of people are killed during it, but none of them are the good looking ones we’re rooting for, and there’s hardly any blood; the list goes on, but I’ll stop here. Although calling it a SMEP may seem derogatory, I would argue that the classification benefits Godzilla — it’s one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, but it’s 2014’s best SMEP so far!
But maybe you’re not sold on the SMEP idea. So let me try to outline how Godzilla is opposed to the idea of film.
To make a broad generalization, fiction films tell a story. And however one defines “story,” the essence of story is conflict. But despite the overt conflict of giant monsters against humanity, Godzilla is marked by a dedicated avoidance of conflict. At the film’s — sorry, SMEP’s — opening, our young hero Ford Brody’s (Aaron Taylor-Johson) mother dies in an accident at a nuclear facility. Before the boy or the SMEP has to reckon with this, we jump to 15 years later. In this way, her death ceases to become an event, and transforms into a character trait, a trope to be implemented at the SMEPmakers’ will. Similarly, when, 15 minutes later, our hero’s father (Bryan Cranston) dies, we experience his death as a series of clichés (zipped-up body bag, a teary eye), before Ford is called by big military and science-type brass to help catch the monster, and the SMEP never returns for a moment to a thought of Ford’s dead father. When a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) and Godzilla (Godzilla) first clash, we cut away from the fight to a news broadcast of their fight, which we only see for a few seconds from some distance away. Not to mention that Godzilla, our titular monster, doesn’t make an appearance until an hour into the SMEP.
In this, Godzilla is indebted to the art of the film trailer. Anticipation is the soul of the trailer — you’re meant to see just enough to want to go see the movie, but not enough that you feel you don’t need to see it. Similarly, Godzilla always seems to be leading up to something that it never gets to, that it, in fact, is committed to avoiding.
Structurally, Godzilla also resembles television more than film. The whole thing is broken up into distinct, self-contained beats that have just enough in common to comprise a whole, but could be easily separated by commercials. When you consider that movie studios’ biggest source of profit is TV licensing, this starts to make sense. The organization of the SMEP also parallels that of video games. Each little episode, especially within the action sequences, function as independent missions in a video game story arc. Skydive from a plane; get to the pit; diffuse the bomb; escape from the monster; rescue the little kid. It goes on and on, a series of discrete but interconnected tasks that our hero must complete. And, like a video game, as long as the hero makes it through, you win; the destruction of cities, the devastation of an entire populace, the killing of loved ones, is all glossed over with minimal emotion and bloodshed, and we move on to the next mission. It’s no surprise that a video game tie-in, Godzilla: Strike Zone, came out at the same time as the SMEP.
The SMEP also operates on a pretty slim conception of “character.” These are not fully developed, or even partially developed, people, but collections of familiar traits and vapidities. Ford is a handsome, blue-eyed, strong-jawed soldier with a dead mom, pretty wife, and young son; his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is a pretty, blue-eyed nurse with a young son and a husband at war, a husband whose return from saving the world she helplessly awaits; his father is a scientific genius with a dead wife who’s gone crazy over a conspiracy theory that no one believes until it comes true; you get the idea. These traits are not developed or complicated throughout the movie, but rather serve as stock signifiers of already established types. The SMEP depends on our own pre-programmed knowledge of movie/TV/video game character types as much as it does on its own establishment of the characters.
Essentially, this SMEP is not a unique entity, but a collection of incrementally smaller tidbits of widely recognized and already established cultural signifiers. There’s a word for this: doxa. Doxa comes from a Greek word meaning common belief or opinion — as opposed to certain knowledge — and was used by the Sophists to persuade people. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used the word to refer to what is taken for granted in a particular society, something that “goes without saying because it goes without saying.” Godzilla is made up of countless doxa which build upon and nest inside one another in a hierarchy of assumptions and pre-supposed knowledge. There are large doxa — such as the knowledge that the monsters will not destroy humanity, that our hero will not die — and small doxa — Ford is a soldier, so we know that he’s noble and righteous; military operation headquarters must look very blue and have lots of maps and radar screens — but they all function to produce a series of things that you know are going to happen, images that you know will look a certain way, and characters whom you know will act the way they do.
What this all comes down to is that Godzilla doesn’t operate on a principle of artistic expression or entertainment, but reassurance. Built brick by doxic brick, Godzilla constructs an edifice of total banality. We are lulled into a rhythm such that each detail is so derivative and familiar that we know what is going to happen the instant before it does, and are thus satisfied with ourselves every moment. This SMEP is not meant to intrigue, challenge, or delight us, but to make us feel at home. What more could you ask for from a SMEP?
The movie industry is, more than anything, an industry; and as such, it runs on money. Movie studios make their money not from people going to see their films in the movie theater, but from all sorts of ancillary operations like DVD sales, TV licensing, video game spin offs, amusement park rides, etc. (for a slightly outdated example, from the article linked to above, consider that, in 2004, the six major Hollywood studios had revenues of $7.4 billion from box office sales, $20.9 billion from DVD sales, and $17.7 billion from TV licensing). Seen in this light, a film is not so much a film as the beginning of a chain of commercial enterprises, all of which have higher rates of return than the film’s theatrical distribution.
The most successful commercially released Hollywood film, then, will not be successful based on its aesthetic merit, but on its ability to establish itself as a brand, a franchise, a multifarious commercial entity. And the grand goal of these entities is to become themselves doxa, something that we take for granted as always having been there, as continuing to be there in perpetuity. The reassurance you feel in the theater, after all, will only be profitable if it continues to reassure you as a poster in your bedroom, as a DVD on your shelf, as a video game you play on your phone. This is why so many mainstream releases are sequels or based on pre-existing material; if something already exists it is much easier for it to become doxa than if you’re starting from scratch. Since the Godzilla character, the basis for 33 films and 25 video games since 1954, is already doxa, Godzilla is in a prime position to become doxa itself, or at least to latch on to and leech off of the already established doxa.
If a film, then, is actually a film, it is a failure, because it has no place in this continuum of profit. Only a synthesized multimedia entertainment product can fulfill the polymorphous function that the modern Hollywood release requires to sustain itself. Godzilla is a SMEP of the highest order. But it is not a film.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.