Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.
It’s easy to make fun of Godzilla. Laughable franchise. Dinosaur that looks like a chicken. Really big scales that make it impossible for him to sleep on his back. But making fun doesn’t get us anywhere.
This film has been huge at the box office and is a lot better than I thought it would be (which is a pretty low bar, I admit). But for mastering the craft of screenwriting, especially for summer blockbuster movies, the question to ask ourselves is: what would I do if I were given this assignment? More specifically, what were the story challenges in this film and what would I do to solve them?
Let’s begin with the basic opposition on which any story is based. The normal approach to a horror-disaster film is monster against humans. But that’s a grossly unfair fight. Millions of humans are just foot fodder for the big guy. Even the strongest military on earth is helpless in the face of such power. Which means that, like virtually all disaster movies, the normal Godzilla movie has no plot. Talk about hitting the same beat. Nameless humans are trampled ad infinitum.
That brings up the challenge of character. Obviously, you won’t be getting into the psychological and moral needs of Godzilla. And if you tell this story in the normal way, you won’t be getting any character definition from the nameless humans he kills either. You’re left with the military commanders staring helplessly at the destruction, which is as one note as it sounds.
To see how the writers solved these challenges, and the process we might work through on a similar project, we begin by going back to the genres, or story forms, on which Godzilla is based. This is epic horror, technically a story in which the fate of the nation is determined by the actions of a single individual fighting a monster. This basic principle governs all major character and plot decisions the writers make.
The Titanic was the best disaster film ever made. The key technique James Cameron used to elevate it above one of the lowest of all genres was to begin with a love story. This allowed the audience to get to know two people extremely well, and to invest deeply in their love. Then when the disaster hit, it wasn’t just mass destruction of a number of characters we never got to know. This disaster really hurt.
Here, writers Dave Callaham (story) and Max Borenstein (screenplay) establish a single human character, Ford Brody, who will be the fulcrum of the epic. Some have criticized the film for its slow start. But this time is crucial to show Ford’s ghost and his intense emotional need to solve the problem no matter the cost. It also connects him and his family to the audience, so that the later mega-battles will mean more to the audience than amazing special effects.
So how does the genre of epic horror help the writers set up the character opposition? They go back to the single most important technique in horror, first used in Frankenstein, where they flip the human and inhuman. In other words, at some point in the story the monster becomes the hero. This technique was also used in Terminator II, where the relentless monster of Terminator I turns into the good guy and an apparently normal-looking human is an even-deadlier terminator.
Of course the writers don’t take this technique as far as Frankenstein or King Kong. Godzilla doesn’t become a psychologically deep character capable of falling in love with some pretty human. But we get a nice plot beat, and it sets up the real battle of the story.
The decision on how to set up the character opposition gives us another benefit. Since humans are apparently impotent in the face of Godzilla’s power, why not create a second and third monster that can give Godzilla real trouble? This opposition may lack the emotional power of a fight between Godzilla and humans, but real emotion requires a fair fight, so that wasn’t going to happen anyway. And since this is both a horror and an epic action story, the fight between mega-monsters is guaranteed to generate much better action set pieces.
The epic horror genre dictates a third major decision for the writers, having to do with the story structure. Adding epic to horror means the action story beats will track the plot. And the most important beat in any action story is the vortex point.
A good action story always converges to a single point known to the audience fairly early in the story. This allows the writers to begin the story on an epic, often worldwide, scale without paying a heavy price. The big danger to the epic action story is that the grand scale can destroy narrative drive as the story meanders from place to place. But by setting up a vortex point, the writers create a cyclone effect where all characters and action lines converge at progressively greater speed.
Sure enough, the vortex point here is San Francisco. All monsters and humans, including our everyman hero, Brody, drive relentlessly to this point in space and time. The storyline speeds up and the battle they fight there is a whopper.
Most writers forget that horror is consistently the most popular story form in worldwide storytelling. But it’s also a very narrow form. Combining it with a genre like action magnifies its power tremendously, especially in the film medium. The trick for writers is learning how to combine the forms so that you get the best of both. This particular mix of genres won’t get you any respect. You won’t win any awards. But you will get the pleasure of laughing all the way to the bank.