Reviews Too Late: Solemnity

by wjw on November 18, 2014

While I was traveling, I caught up with some recent pop-culture blockbusters (by watching them on airplanes), and now I have a question: Where did all the damn solemnity come from?

When you watch a genre film, there are certain things you have a right to expect from that genre.  And when you find that these things are not only missing, but replaced with a lot of tedious claptrap presented with the solemnity of a state funeral, I think you’ve got a right to complain.

Let’s look at Godzilla 2014.  There’s some first-rate acting by the first-rate Bryan Cranston, as an anguished nuclear engineer suffering from the loss of his wife and home.  (The first-rate Ken Watanabe is also in the film, but largely wasted.)  The main characters are well drawn, psychologically complex, and sympathetic.  The story is fairly original, as movies about giant radioactive lizards go.   The special effects are incredibly impressive.

What the movie doesn’t have is what you go to a Godzilla movie for.

Firstly, you go to see a Godzilla movie to see Godzilla, but in this latest interaction the title character gets very little screen time.  You only see Godzilla for maybe ten minutes.

But more importantly, you watch Godzilla to see him kick the living shit out of the Army and lay a major city to waste.  That’s what Godzilla is for.  I mean, he may also fight Mothra or Megalon or whatever, but the reason he’s there is to thrash the armed forces and flatten a lot of skyscrapers.  And that doesn’t happen in the 2014 film.

So what we have is a very well-done movie that completely misses its own point.  And is also dreadfully, dreadfully solemn and portentous.  It’s more solemn than a Biblical epic, more solemn than a late Bergman film.

Godzilla even dies at the end, and then returns from the dead.  Just like Jesus!

Solemnity isn’t out of place in film, of course, but you’ve got to have something to be solemn about: some revelation about the human condition, some statement to make about the universe.  A revised version of a classic movie lizard doesn’t qualify.  The CGI version of a guy in a rubber costume does not justify a solemnity equal to that of the revelation of stone tablets from Sinai.

This is pop culture.  Let it be what it is.

Which brings me to X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Holy cripes, this one is serious.  Though it borrows the plot of The Terminator, pretty much, with a character sent back in time to prevent an assassination, it’s really about genocide, with side trips into Professor Xavier’s drug addiction, the sacrifice of mutant warriors in Vietnam, Beast’s depression, Mystique’s obsession, and Richard Nixon as a sympathetic character.

You watch superhero movies in order to see people in long johns thump each other.  DoFP gives us mutants vs. big robots, but it’s just not any fun.  It’s all so pontifical and grim.  The special effects don’t cause awe and wonder, they’re just there to pound us into submission with their massive self-importance.

It’s not like there’s a huge, important message here.  “Big evil fighting robots are bad” is not a proposition that will keep philosophers up late at night.  “Let’s all have tolerance for super-mutants” is not a cause that will bring a million people to demonstrate on the Washington Mall.  Whyfore all the angst?

I blame the Dark Knight.  Now our heroes all have to be grimdark an’ stuff.  I think this fine essay on manpain shows you how tedious all that is.

And then there’s the movie that actually prompted this essay, My Name is Modesty (2003), a low-budget film based on Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise.  Apparently the film was made— and went straight to video— because the studio wanted to keep the rights to make a future Modesty Blaise film, with Quentin Tarantino, that was never actually made.  Which makes perfect sense, if you’ve ever been in the picture business.

Even granted that the film had no budget, a single set, and was shot in 20 days, the film is a disappointment.  It doesn’t deliver what you’d expect from a Modesty Blaise film, which is a lot of style, glamor, intrigue, and action based largely on eccentric weapons skills.  That’s because Modesty isn’t yet Modesty Blaise— the film is a prequel to all the comic strips and novels.  She only turns into the kickass heroine in the last ten minutes, after spending the rest of the film narrating her life story while being held hostage by a gang of thieves led by Jaime Lannister.

Isn’t that an exciting idea, boys and girls?  Having someone narrate her backstory for almost an entire film?

But Modesty’s backstory is treated with utmost solemnity, as if this were the childhood of the Virgin Mary or someone equally important to the universe.  It is, after all, the whole point of the film— it’s the backstory to another, possibly better, film that never got made.

Modesty Blaise, like the X-Men, like Godzilla, is a classic pop culture artifact, but somehow that isn’t enough for some people.  They want their pop culture wreathed in the bells and smells and self-importance of religion, or the Great Books, or the most pompous kind of High Art.  They want it all invested with Meaning.

Modesty Blaise isn’t High Art, she’s a great character!  Godzilla isn’t Jesus, he’s the King of the Monsters!  The X-Men aren’t the 47 Ronin, they’re super-powered people in tights!

Let pop art be pop art!  Let Godzilla be Godzilla!  Let him smash Tokyo!

I’d totally pay to see that.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Renninger November 18, 2014 at 10:07 am

Remember the good old days when pulp characters didn’t even have back story? They were just plopped down into an over-the-top situation and did their thing.

Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) November 18, 2014 at 11:19 am

Godzilla even dies at the end, and then returns from the dead. Just like Jesus!

My friend the writer and horror expert David Annandale has pointed out the Jesus and resurrection motifs in a number of monster movies…

Phil Koop November 18, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Damn straight! I want my Godzilla movies to match the camp of the Blue Oyster Cult song:

Oh no! There goes Tokyo,
Go go Godzilla!

TCWriter November 18, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Isn’t depression and angst the New Black in the literary world too?

Amusing Side Note: A couple friends and I were wondering what the Ferguson protestors (the one who are sure to pop up after Wilson is cleared) could do to offset the hyper-militarized police presence that’s already in place.

I pointed out that *Deep State* (written by some semi-reclusive nutjob from New Mexico) offers more than a few ideas.

They may have tear gas and rubber bullets, but the protestors get drones, wi-fi, wall-to-wall video and the ability to bypass the relatively lame mainstream media channels.

Dave Bishop November 19, 2014 at 11:47 am

I’ve always assumed that all of this solemnity and arty ‘human interest’ waffle in contemporary genre films is because the writers don’t understand science or SF or genre tropes. If you could dig down into their psyches you would find that they think that SF is trivial and that anyone can just make it up as they go along. What they’re really writing is portentous soap operas with superficial, make-it-up-as-you-go-along SF trappings.

Oz November 19, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I can’t imagine any remake of Modesty Blaise standing up to the crazed film that was made in the 60’s. talk about your pop.

MaoTzu November 19, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I remember going to see Jurassic Park with a couple of my friends in Seattle when I lived up there. They couldn’t get over just how shallow it was. “I mean it was just a love story with dinosaurs…”, “…argh, it’s a monster movie! How deep should it be? Did it make you jump, was there suspense?” They looked at me like I was a country bumpkin. Sigh

PrivateIron November 20, 2014 at 8:31 pm

To be fair, X-men did have the “Time in a Bottle” sequence and that was enough fun to float most of the movie. As I had already guessed and the movie makers have admitted, they could not have Quicksilver in the entire movie because he would have just solved all their problems in ten minutes. The movie is also a lot funnier in context as you realize it is erasing and fixing all of the bad things and continuity errors from the first four films, right up to the final reality slap to the overly mopey Wolverine.

Hopefully, they will not try to make Deadpool solemn.

John Appel November 21, 2014 at 3:26 am

I’m going to hazard a guess that you haven’t seen “Guardians of the Galaxy” yet. “I’ll see your grimdark emo-filled angstfest, and raise you with a talking tree and a racoon with a machine gun.”

wjw November 21, 2014 at 4:28 am

Oh, I =have= seen Guardians of the Galaxy. You’ll note that I didn’t spend a whole essay criticizing it because it was fun.

I also didn’t complain about any of the non-X Men films, because they knew how to play more than one emotional note.

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