Monster movies are not inherently action movies. While there may be action and destruction in a creature feature, specifically scenes of chaos and havoc in a populated area, this is not always the intended purpose. The prime function of a monster movie – as with any movie – depends on who is behind the camera and what message they want to share with the audience. Maybe Steven Spielberg wants to tell a tale of men playing God and how “life uh… finds a way” or, hell, maybe Ridley Scott just wants to explore the depths of the horror genre through the lens of expertly crafted science fiction. It’s all about what the cast and crew are trying to present to us.
The truly great monster movies have one thing in common: less is usually more. This summer’s Godzilla used that tried and true formula to spectacular effect. Allow me to use a food metaphor to help you understand. Imagine you went to your favorite restaurant. Now the restaurant is serving a three-part meal. You get your water to quench your early thirst (Prologue at Power Plant). An appetizer is brought to you to set the mood, prep your palate so to speak (Act 1: MUTO escapes). It was a pretty heavy appetizer so you’re going to take it easy on the second portion, perhaps a little amuse-bouche (Act 2: Hawaii with brief glimpses of Godzilla). After all, you don’t want to get full too early. Then we have the main course and it’s just beautiful. Your eyes start swelling up and you might just cry because it’s so fucking delicious (Act 3: San Francisco showdown). It hits you in just the right spot. It’s foodgasmic. You ask for the check, drive home, and don’t do anything else for the rest of the night. The buildup to the King of Monsters is just a finely portioned meal. Appetizers are established early in the movie (The MUTO) before bringing on the entrée of Godzilla doing his best interpretation of “Opening your mouth and shitting down your throat.” There’s also an undercurrent theme solidified by a line from Dr. Serizawa “The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in their control and not the other way around.” The main reason for not showing you Godzilla upfront is because you don’t start a truly great meal with the main course. You build up to it, you let the anticipation grow. Trust Godzilla. It knows what it is doing and it does it very well.
This isn’t a Godzilla review (We already have one of those) so I’ll bring up some classic monster movies.
In Ridley Scott’s horror classic Alien, the titular creature is never given more than 15 minutes of actual screen time in a 117 minute long movie (Really. Go back and watch it. You can hardly tell). Not only does the Alien not receive much screen time, it evolves for the first few encounters (egg, facehugger, chestburster, to full-grown xenomorph) all before the final half of the movie. We get a few prolonged glimpses of the chestburster once it attaches itself to John Hurt’s face – around 4-5 minutes. We get a single scene – maybe 30 seconds long – where we see the chestburster. Then the rest of the movie is devoted to hunting the fully grown xenomorph – 10 minutes at best. Even by that point the creature stays relatively in the shadows and only hops out to take a bite out of someone’s head. There is maybe a single minute where we behold the xenomorph in all its creepy glory. But we don’t want to see this creature anymore. That’s the whole point. It’s terrifying. It’s a creature that kills, eats, and doesn’t stop until it’s blown out of an airlock.
In James Cameron’s sequel Aliens (Simplest sequel title ever) the xenomorph is established as a formidable threat in the previous movie. This is us going back for second helpings. Now we get to go all out with action from the ground running. And even that movie still takes its time before kicking up the thrill ride.
Or how about Steven Spielberg’s mastery of the monster genre? Jaws and Jurassic Park are not only standards for the genre, they’re standards for movies in general. Guess what doesn’t have more than 20 minutes of screen time in both? The shark in Jaws and every dinosaur in Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park handles the minimal creature screen time better than most (notice how I didn’t say it was a problem?) by spreading it out throughout the movie. There’s an early glimpse of the ferocious velociraptor, a jaw-dropping shot of a brachiosaurus standing over Sam Neill, and the earth-shattering entrance of the T-Rex breaking out of its cage. Minimalist approaches can be far more gratifying than having action spoon fed to you. You can have too much of a good thing. Ever eaten a whole pizza by yourself? Doesn’t feel good at all. (If you have mastered eating a pizza without feeling guilty please contact me and tell me your secrets.)
The simplest example of “too much” is Michael Bay’s infamous Transformers series. Why do you think the first one is decent entertainment? Okay there’s plenty of reasons. However, the main reason is because of a somewhat reserved take on the Transformers and action (granted, reserved for Michael Bay is balls to walls, but it’s still reserved). The full assembly of autobots, including Optimus Prime, doesn’t show up until almost an hour into the movie. It is more patient than most Michael Bay action flicks (loose use of the word ‘patient’) and as a result the action feels more exhilarating. There’s a component of the movie that deals with “a boy and his car” that gives you just enough of an emotional investment into the characters as well (Even the best mindless movies aren’t truly mindless). Apart from terrible scripts, his Transformers sequels have been non-stop explosion assaults on your senses. There’s no context, no character, and no story to speak of. You’re better off giving yourself a concussion than watching those movies.
Then you have something like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which is the best live-action anime since The Matrix, and openly indulges the audience with giant Kaiju fights with mechs piloted by human partners. The movie still has a thematic undertone. It’s all about people coming together for a common good. It’s a different monster movie as the monsters are obstacles for our heroes to overcome – just replace the awe and majesty from watching giant monsters with watching giant mechs use freighters as baseball bats.
I don’t like to speak in generalities, but we’re entitled assholes on the internet. We live in a “give me thing now” culture. When it comes to movies, we don’t have to be. We just have to realize that there’s a time and place for different types of movies. There are movies to appease the “give me now!” part of our brains. You know, the ones that long for the “Boom! Bang! Pow!” (I’ve seen Pacific Rim like a dozen times). But there will always be a place for the patient movie experience. The one that treats you with respect before giving you exactly what you came for. Godzilla was the latter and is a better movie for it.