“Let them fight.”
As we see in the “Asia trailer” for Godzilla, at some point Ken Watanabe’s character says the above line, and it’s definitely a meta moment for a monster movie featuring a ton of human characters. Godzilla in action is what audiences are most interested in seeing. But is it the only thing? Do they want a human angle, too? What if there were no people in this new reboot, or at least none that had any narrative arc or dialogue? Would we be interested in a nearly “silent” film in which the King of Monsters destroys cities for our enjoyment while ant-like military men shoot at him anonymously? What if another monster is thrown in there so there’s some discernible “plot” entailing a battle between the giant beasts, both of them just roaring and screeching at each other?
Unfortunately, I don’t think Hollywood would ever allow for a blockbuster that doesn’t have movie stars spewing worthless words or at least a voiceover narration providing exposition. Yet a lot of moviegoers tend to agree that the humans in movies like Godzilla just get in the way and slow the thing down. Why must we care about a handful of characters when thousands of unnamed other people are stomped on and we aren’t meant to bat an eyelash for them? And who cares why the monster is heading toward San Francisco? These rhetorical questions fit with a discussion prompted by David Ehrlich on the latest episode of the Fighting in the War Room podcast, in which he asks if characters are necessary in movies primarily serving spectacle. It’s something I’ve wondered for a long time, though my interest is more in the idea of a blockbuster without dialogue rather than characters.
Sometime more than a decade ago, I thought we would get such a thing. The announcement of an Alien vs. Predator movie arrived with a claim – or was it a hope, or a rumor? – that there would be no humans anywhere on screen. Just aliens versus predators, like in many of the comics. Then the first AVP was made, and of course it had people. I get it, we should have someone to identify with on screen. It’s the same reason we can’t have a movie about human monster Idi Amin without a fictional white guy from the West as our entry point. That kind of gateway means we don’t have to rely on subtitled foreign dialogue, either. Likewise, an Alien vs. Predator movie could be made without humans and still have the predators talking to each other, but I feel like studio execs would be even more wary of a summer blockbuster with only subtitled dialogue than one with no dialogue at all.
I knew that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was going to feature human characters, as it’s an origin story in which a pet chimpanzee eventually becomes the leader of an army of fellow primates. Therefore I was, as many critics were, both surprised and delighted by there being a long section focused on the apes, none of whom could speak vocally. Technically there is dialogue, their signed communication being subtitled, but it shows how well a movie of this sort can be done without a lot of extraneous words. Even more perfect is the brief moment with no dialogue at all, when escaped chimps are racing through the treetops and all we hear are the rustling and falling leaves and some inaudible screeching. Humans are there only for perspective as speechless observers. Spectacle is cinematic, and vice versa, and director Rupert Wyatt trusted in us to follow the visual language of both.
The way Rise ends with the near-extinction of humanity, I wish that a sequel could be even more trusting in the audience. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be centered only on the chimps, gorillas and orangutans out in the woods as they build a new civilization and have drama amongst themselves as any new society does. But alas the upcoming movie appears to have more than a handful of human characters (played by Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Kerri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and others). Hopefully there are at least a few moments like those in the previous movie where those humans aren’t around and we are treated to purely visual scenes. But it looks like we have to wait for the third movie for what I’m truly looking for. Of course, by that point, Fox will insist that the apes have developed ways of speaking proper English to one another like in the old PotA movies. Or they’ll all have ASL-translation arms like Amy the gorilla had in the movie Congo.
Relatively dialogue-free blockbusters have actually been made in the past. There is The Beast of Yucca Flats, a B-movie from 1961 starring Tor Johnson as a man who becomes a speechless monster wandering the desert. It’s not a good movie, though, and it relies on narration from director Coleman Francis. Then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opens with the lengthy Dawn of Man sequence, which is completely dialogue-free. And there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue during the Discovery One section, either. Not everyone can be the maestro of cinema that Stanley Kubrick is, but his attention to visual storytelling should be an even greater influence on today’s blockbuster filmmakers than is apparent. When do we get a movie where AIs have completely taken over and there’s no need for spoken dialogue? Oh wait, that’s Wall-E. How about something live-action?
One promising project on the horizon seemed to be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Dinosaurs vs. Aliens, based on the Grant Morrison comics. Morrison has stated that at least the dinosaurs will be very expressive yet free of dialogue, like silent film characters. However, the aliens will probably speak to each other and that dialogue will likely be audible and translated to English for the sake of the audience. If that’s actually the case, this movie is barely different than a Jurassic Park installment. It might as well just be “Dinosaurs vs. Humans.” Then what else can we look forward to? Does anyone want to make a movie in which Godzilla fights xenomorphs, apes and speechless robots? Or, I’d even settle for Godzilla vs. a mime.
All that said – and in spite of all that’s said in Godzilla, I do want to acknowledge that while Gareth Edwards has a definite interest in putting humans in the foreground of his monster movies (both literally and figuratively), and his latest isn’t that different in its POV from his sci-fi indie breakout Monsters, he delivers a summer blockbuster this year that is impressively more cinematic than anything we’ve seen in a long time. Just as I said with Rise a few years ago, it’s a shame there aren’t more dialogue-free moments, but I think unlike a lot of big Hollywood movies, this one could be just as entertaining with the sound turned off.