Okay before we begin, I want to be clear: I am basing this off the first teaser for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. This is in no way a commentary on the film itself, which I have not seen…yet. I’m only breaking down the marketing methods behind this:
Okay – I hope this avoids any confusion, should you be reading this after the film has been released. With that in mind…let’s dive in.
When you’re a writer, every and any piece of writing can serve as a lesson for how to write (or in this case not write) a story. We often think of books as natural learning tools – after all, a common message for writers is that every writer must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. That said, lessons come from every form of storytelling, including comics and screenplays.
The Godzilla franchise is the longest running major motion picture series in existence. With a current 34 movies released (one more due out in May), Godzilla has firmly resonated with international audiences for decades. That’s a success story that any storyteller should note. Recently, the king of the monsters went animated for the first time in his film history.
The results…pretty mixed. Reviews and fans are divided on what to think of Polygon Pictures’ anime trilogy. It’s widely available on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it, you can give it a watch. I personally can’t really recommend it for entertainment purposes.
For writing instruction, however, well – this new Godzilla series provides some cautionary tales of what can go wrong during scripting.
The Importance of Building a Protagonist
Every story revolves around some kind of a protagonist. They don’t need to be a hero – they don’t even need to be good – they are simply our point of view character. The entirety of the story is laid out through their perspective (bias). The best protagonists resonate with the audience.
We feel their struggles, experience their doubt, and want them to succeed. Think of Charlie Brown – we want him to do well and be happy, even when we know he won’t. He’s endearing to us as readers.
In the Netflix Godzilla anime trilogy, we get Haruo:
In case you’re wondering, he’s as charming as his disposition suggests. I put it forth that Haruo is not a strong protagonist. He struggles sure – he is up against Godzilla, one would hope there is a challenge. Haruo, however, is not sympathetic – but I get the impression they want him to be.
Right away, we’re introduced to a young Haruo as he loses his parents to Godzilla. Shortly thereafter, Haruo also loses his grandfather. That’s a lot of loss. No wonder he scowls all the time.
The problem with Haruo, in my opinion, is that he feels artificial. In each film, he can be characterized via one emotion. In the first film, it’s determination. Haruo is driven to kill Godzilla, so much so that we never see him reflect on anything else. Yeah there’s brief flashes to his life before (and we’re told how much Haruo hates living in defeat), but we don’t really see his struggle. This is in part because the whole crew seemingly loves him – everyone supports Haruo, even the people who don’t.
Despite opening the film by being incarcerated, Haruo is always at the center of the action and often in a position of power. Without seeing his struggle – besides cliche “my parents are dead!” moments – Haruo does not seem to have reason for his mad passion.
Let this be a lesson: It is okay to have zealot protagonists, but the danger here is they may be unreliable/unsympathetic and feel one dimensional. To get the audience firmly behind them, we have to see exactly where they came from/what lead them to this path. If we don’t, then they may be better off as a side character.
Ahab is fascinating in Moby Dick, but part of that is because he is seen through Ishmael’s eyes.
Bad Character Writing can be Sexist
I make no assumptions about the writers/directors of these movies. I am not calling them (as people) sexist. Their writing, however…geezy creezy.
Female characters are few and far between in this trilogy. There is an obligatory female soldier, the two Mothra priestesses, and…that’s it. Three movies, three female characters – and two of them are interchangeable twins.
It’s more than this, though, that raises the “sexism” flag. When writing a character, you must always keep in mind agency. What is agency? How the character pushes or changes the plot.
For instance, in the second movie – the female soldier (Yuko), falls into a trap and must be rescued. She has no agency in this scene, merely serving to establish a scenario for Haruo to be the hero. Despite being a trained soldier, she squeals and does very little in the way of self-preservation.
Oh, she is also romantically interested in Haruo…as are the priestesses. Yep, evidently he’s just a lady killer. Must be all that talk about how Godzilla must die – really compelling stuff.
To be fair, all the characterization in these films is pretty weak (remember when I said Haruo gets one emotion per movie?) but the danger comes when doing female characters. Sexism is real and has a long sad history and, if you’re not careful as a writer, you can add to it.
I don’t know if the writers of these movies were aware of just how token their female representation was, or just how many stereotypes it played into, but nevertheless – here we are.
How to Manage Audience/Reader Expectations
One of the biggest reasons that many Godzilla fans dislike these anime movies is the lack of, well, Godzilla. The Big G is more of a presence in the films than an actual character. While he has a fair amount of screen time, most of it is spent with him just standing around or walking very slowly.
Since the films take place on a forest-covered future Earth, there’s no real destruction either. It removes the stakes as Godzilla trudges on. Yeah, he’s probably stepping on trees but…who cares?
In addition, Godzilla films are known for their monster fights and the anime film teased all of Godzilla’s biggest rivals (Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla) returning in prominent roles. And Godzilla fights…exactly one of them, if this can be called a fight:
I for one am okay when Godzilla films subvert expectations (there are 34 movies, after all). That said, I understand the audience frustration when – after teasing Mechagodzilla for a film – we only get a generic futuristic battle city that we’re told was once Mechagodzilla (really).
It also reduces the threat of Godzilla to portray him as a colossally slow, rarely active threat. I know he’s giant but the Earth is a big place – couldn’t they just avoid him?
The trilogy was sold as a story about a world ruled by Godzilla, a “planet of monsters.” It felt like a truly barren (read as boring) world.
The Dangers of Exploring High Concepts
So what does the Godzilla trilogy do with its three films since it isn’t developing characters or showcasing monster brawls? IDEAS!
Get ready for three long philosophical outpourings, some of it lecture, some of it debate. And, to be fair, some of it works. I especially enjoyed the climax of the second film, where the question becomes “Is it worth it to give up your humanity to destroy a monster?” The plot implies that, by crossing this line, Haruo will become the very thing he has sworn to destroy. It’s interesting and it feels specific enough in the context to be an intelligent espousal on common Godzilla themes.
However, this film trilogy shoots for the stars more than once, and – more ofen than not – ends up missing entirely. Unfortunately, the biggest disaster comes at the end when the film tries to imply that all forms of human ingenuity and technological curiosity are evil and will only end with the creation of a monster.
Yep – all inventions lead to war. That seems to be the closing lesson. If it sounds like general, broad-based garbage, it is because it is. What’s sad is this lesson has been done in films – and done correctly. The original Planet of the Apes is famous for how well it handles man’s self-made destruction.
The film directly creates ties between nuclear war and the apes ascension. The Godzilla trilogy tries to do this as well, only Godzilla does not appear until well after the first usage of nuclear weapons. He comes in the 21st century for…reasons? It is very unclear and therefore creates a number of causes. Is it war? Climate change? Pollution?
Something awakens Godzilla and the final film tries to tell us it was the atom bomb…but he woke up sixty years too late. Of course, if he had risen directly post WWII, well then they never could have done all the space stuff. I mean they could have but it would all have had to look retro and stylized – you know – visually interesting.
When tackling high thought concepts, everything needs to be air-tight. Get specific, get down into the details. Don’t just have characters talk about war and peace like they want to be Tolstoy.
Overall, the Godzilla anime trilogy on Netflix is an interesting failure. There are some things I enjoy very much but the films trade too much for too little. I personally would have preferred more developed characters and a more living world to all the lecturing and science-babble that takes place in the films. The dueling alien philosophies were interesting but ultimately felt overbearing and plot controlling – mostly because they were the main focus rather than being a charming side addition to world lore.
Of course, the wonderful thing about art is its all subjective! If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool. I just hope you take the lessons I suggested with you on your writing – they will most definitely help.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out in theaters six months ago and the impact of its release is still being felt. To say the film is controversial appears to be an understatement. Some claim it is the death of Star Wars, a film worse than all the prequels (really?) that shreds the source material. To others, including myself, it is a breath of fresh air and maybe the first true Star Wars “sequel” in quite some time.
One of the main reasons that I love Last Jedi is that the movie generates conversation. I saw Solo last week and am already forgetting it. It wasn’t a terrible film by any stretch, nor was it really good. Solo just exists, checking off all the boxes it has to without feeling particularly inspired or warranted. I feel like there was no deeper subtext or character development. Spoilers: Han Solo is a scoundrel but a good guy. Did I really need to spend $16 just to confirm that?
With Last Jedi, I felt like I was watching a movie that wasn’t content to simply check boxes. It didn’t care that it was a “Star Wars film” and spent more time trying to be a genuine movie. The result is an experience that gives me something new every time I watch it. Here are some of the thoughts and readings I’ve had while watching Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi:
Luke Skywalker is George Lucas
I know, shocker right – that Luke S. could mean Lucas? Watching Mark Hamill in Last Jedi is fantastic. True to the series’ Kurosawa roots, Luke is no longer the bright-eyed boy on Tatooine but a grizzled, jaded Jedi master. Unlike Harrison Ford’s Han Solo from The Force Awakens, Hamill’s Luke feels different from when we last saw him. His character has been appropriately aged along with himself.
When I was last watching the movie, I paid attention to Luke’s dialogue – in particular his self-loathing. Luke Skywalker did the impossible, he redeemed Darth Vader. Bear in mind, Luke is still fairly young in Return of the Jedi – at most 30. It’s not everyone who saves the galaxy before they can even qualify for a midlife crisis.
Therefore, it’s easy to see how Luke made mistakes. In his hubris, he felt he could do anything after that. It’s a very human reaction. Some would say it’s exactly what happened to Star Wars creator George Lucas after he made the original trilogy.
The struggles of George Lucas in making Star Warshave been widely documented. He had to fight on every decision and ultimately had to shoulder more than his share of the work. Lucas saw someone few people did, perhaps that nobody else did: that Star Wars could be a hit. And he did it. When everyone doubted, George Lucas did it. The man created a property that has impacted the lives of millions and created a devote following (to say the least).
To quote Hamill’s Luke from Last Jedi: he “became a legend.”
Then the time came for George to duplicate his massive success. The year was 1999 and the world was hungry for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Then the movie, and its two sequels came out and…well…lighting did not strike twice. With the introduction of characters like Jar Jar Binks and concepts like midichlorians, many fans thought that Lucas was destroying his creation and tarnishing his legacy.
And not to mention the Special Editions that are widely held as inferior to the original theatrical cuts. On all fronts, it seemed like George Lucas could do no right. Yet still he forged ahead. Why? Because he was George Lucas…a legend.
Until, one day, older and definitely with some bitterness, George Lucas sold Star Wars and retired to his home, essentially becoming a grizzled old hermit himself and completing the character arch that he envisioned for so many of his Jedi heroes.
Did Rian Johnson write Luke S. as a metaphor for Lucas? Who knows. But the similarities are uncanny.
Kylo Ren really is a Star Wars fanboy
When I first wrote my article declaring Kylo Ren a Star Wars fanboy, I had no idea how right I’d be. In a movie script obsessed with subverting history, Kylo Ren is the character most consumed by it (even more than lonely Luke). Despite his vocal claims to the contrary, Ren cannot let go of the past.
He sees himself as the central figure in the story, a view he asserts on Rey in the following line:
“You have no place in this story; you come from nothing. You’re nothing.”
Charming. Such a wonder why Rey promptly runs away after that exchange. Kylo Ren’s delusions of grandeur aside, his character typifies the negative perception that Star Wars fans feel they “own the trilogy” more than anyone else. This belief (to varying extents) was represented in the documentary, The People vs George Lucas where the filmmakers made the argument that fans owned Star Wars more than its creator.
The story of Star Wars has become so ingrained in pop culture that most everyone knows at least the basics. The heroic Skywalker stands at the center of the galaxy, reshaping it in his image. For both Luke and Vader, this perspective holds weight and no doubt Kylo Ren sees himself as simply a continuation.
He knows how the story will go, how could he not? He believes himself to be the main character. This fits with a large viewpoint in the Star Wars fandom that family lineage matters. Even in the Expanded Universe, the focus was largely on Luke, Han and Leia – not to mention all of their children and spouses.
This idea runs so counter-intuitive to the message of the original film, which showed that heroes could come from anywhere – even a nowhere like Tatooine. Kylo Ren has done very little to declare himself a hero, yet he still clearly sees himself as one.
His expectations and actions based around how he believes the “story” will go reflects the controlling nature of fandom. The cry for newness while wallowing in the familiar. Kylo Ren must be the hero because…well, that’s how he wrote it in his head.
The toxic masculinity of Poe Dameron
When I first saw The Last Jedi, I had problems with Poe Dameron’s subplot. Specifically, I didn’t understand why Admiral Holdo didn’t just tell him the plan. Was she worried about a spy? Was it subversion just for subversion’s sake?
Since then, I’ve noticed quite a few things in Poe Dameron’s dialogue. Holy hell, is he an asshole. Never mind that he gets nearly the whole bomber fleet killed at the beginning of the movie (an action which gets him justifiably demoted), he refuses to treat Holdo with respect.
His first “not what I expected” conveys a personal disappointment. The feared military hero, Vice Admiral Holdo, is nothing more than a skinny, older, soft-spoken woman who doesn’t convey bravado or really anything. She just sets about doing her job.
Watch Poe’s first conversation with Holdo, look at what he’s saying:
Poe: “Vice admiral? Commander Dameron. With our fuel consumption there’s a very limited amount of time that we can stay out of range of those star destroyers.”
Holdo: “Very kind of you to make me aware.”
Yes, because there is no way that the Vice Admiral of the Resistance fleet already understood the very basic situation. If you’ve ever wondered what “mansplaining” is – this is an example. Poe, who was recently demoted for screwing up royally, still feels entitled to assert himself.
His lack of faith in his superior officers translates into a loss of hope and a dangerous turn that gets more people killed. The First Order learns of the rebel plan partly through Poe’s actions.
Remove the fact that Holdo is a woman and treat it like a standard military operation: A demoted officer immediately undermines his superior’s orders because he feels left out. Granted, we never see if Holdo tells anyone the plan because we’re confined to Poe’s view point.
We see him rebel again and again, not to further any real cause but his own desire for control. It is a subplot that I did not fully pick up on the first time through – mainly because I was so surprised to find it in a film like this.
Visual storytelling: Snoke and Hux
One last point I want to make before I wrap this article up. When I saw Force Awakens, I didn’t have to think about my least favorite characters: Supreme Leader Snoke and General Hux. Snoke, despite the performance of Andy Serkis, came off as Emperor Palpatine 2 – a character who served the story because, well, it’s a Star Wars movie and those need a creepy old dude in a chair.
Hux, by contrast, had the personality of an evil brick. I had no sense of these people as characters, merely as roles. Snoke was the leader and Hux was a general. Got it. Last Jedi greatly improves this without taking serious script time and Johnson does it through visual storytelling.
First, Snoke: Look at that robe! Who wears a fabulous glitter gold robe complete with slippers while overseeing a military operation? Someone who is very arrogant and very much in control – a.k.a. the dear Supreme Leader. By the simplest wardrobe change, Snoke takes on some of his own character and becomes less of a Palpatine clone.
Hux, by contrast, has more of his characters conveyed through his unspoken actions. Whether it is the smug sneer he gives Kylo Ren at the start of the film or when he almost pulls a gun on Ren’s unconscious body, the audience understands the relationship between these two characters. No one ever blurts “power struggle” because they don’t have to.
This dynamic gives Hux depth and informs us better of his character.
There’s more to say on Last Jedi but I’ll save it for another day. Suffice it to say, I feel strongly about this movie and I hope Episode IX can live up to its fine example. I’m genuinely sorry for the other Star Wars fans who saw this film and thought it was the worse thing since Jar Jar – but I implore them to give it another go. No, it’s not what you were expecting – but that’s okay. This film still has a heart and, more importantly (at least to me) it has a mind clearly present in its script.