5 Steps Towards Making a Great Monster Movie

How do you solve a problem like Gojira? How do you catch a beast and pin it down? How do you find a plot that means success? A flipping-big-beast! A monster-of-the-week! A flop!

There can be little doubting that for all it was divisive among both the critics and the cheap seats, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla proved an anti-climax. Hugely hyped on the back of a ferociously impressive trailer and the promise of a rendition more loyal to the origins of arguably cinema’s most famous destroyer of civilization, it arrived amidst fanfare and the emerged from the smoke as a three star tale of what could have been. Too little Heisenberg. Too much Kick Ass. Serious sensibilities but a silly story. As a corn popping exercise in excess it succeeded, but like Pacific Rim and King Kong before it, any resonant value was strictly aesthetic.

This is hardly new. With the world of film changing and evolving as the boundaries of possibilities extend out of sight – imagination no longer exceeding grasp – the nature of the beast that is the monster movie has become something of a mystery. A problem to solve. It has resulted in a new wave of such apocalyptic fare that, while intimidatingly impressive with its technology, has somehow failed to capture the wonder of the classic era, of Jason and the Argonauts, or of the ingenuity of Cronenberg’s Fly and Carpenter’s Thing, or the ungodly substance of Jurassic Park. Could it be that that the audience has changed, or have the spoils of cinema heightened their demands? Is the monster no longer enough?

Yes and no. The audience haven’t changed as much as one might suspect, at least not for the most part. Like sci-fi and horror, the monster movie has fallen prey to numerous issues that dilute our enjoyment, and conspicuous CGI is surprisingly not one of them. Our fancy graphics have only made portrayal of the beast easier, not cheaper. With that new ease, however, comes great responsibility on those who would mount such tall tales. Convenience breeds laziness, encourages leaps too great, stifles pragmatic sense. What is required is a steadfast dedication to the story, a sense of the known to anchor the unknown. There must be method in the madness.

So, how to do it? How do you solve a problem like Gojira? How does one make a great monster movie rather than a gargantuan one? Here are five steps towards such success…

Bryan Cranston & Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla (2014)5. Keep Monster a Sub-Genre

A fun game to play with horror movies is to figure out what genre they fall under were you to take away the big H as a descriptive. The Exorcist is a psychological drama; The Omen is a conspiracy thriller; Invasion of the Body Snatchers is paranoia noir. While this may prove a helpful imagination game, it is also an important exercise in insight and depth perception, and one that also applies to monster movies. If you find any such movie where there is no reliable way to describe the story beyond ‘action’ or ‘popcorn’ you have problems. It is important to remember that like horror, monster is a sub-genre.

This means that if you intend to make a film, you have to be telling a story, even if it is as basic as ‘three guys have to kill a big dinosaur before it destroys their home town‘. This is a quest or adventure story, one where the obstacle or threat they have to overcome happens to be a dinosaur. You could easily replace the word ‘dinosaur’ with ‘shark’ in this blurb and you’re talking about Jaws. A big problem with more modern fare where the monster becomes the star is that story is quickly forgotten about. It becomes incredibly difficult to recall the narrative afterward, because often there isn’t one. It is just a bunch of things happening revolving around a massive lizard that breathes fire, all of which are captured on camera magnificently. This isn’t a film. It’s barely even a movie.

Just like with horror, the monster aspect has to be incidental to the plot. If you have a guys on a mission story, like Jaws, or a desperate survival story, like The Thing, the horror comes from the situation making the narrative tick, and the monster is a means to an end. It is a writing issue, and a problem that stems from a scribe becoming more interested in spectacle than story (or examples of how not to approach this issue, see the Resident Evil films or Battle: Los Angeles). A sequence where a big alien squid decides to take down a skyscraper? It makes a much bigger impact if the heroes, audience surrogates that they are, happen to be inside. It is another problem for them to overcome, not just a decadent display of digital rendering power. Driving the story is more important than wowing the easily entertained.

Always start with the basic blueprint of your story, and stick true to what it’s about. If you want to focus on your monster rather than the people that the monster threatens, come up with an angle. Is it a tragedy? Is it a fish out of water voyage of discovery? Is it a fight to be understood and tolerated? Perhaps the whole flick relies on subtext, be it racial equality or the binds of nature. If this is the case, you have to decide exactly how this is presented, be it as a thriller or drama, and allow the monster elements to come from that. It is a solid, unshakeable foundation that is essential to any construction. Everything else is exciting window dressing. Speaking of drama…

Still from The Mist (2007)4. Any Story is a People Story

When Godzilla 2014 was announced, it could easily have slipped through the cracks and become quickly forgotten or dismissed as yet another lazy remake. What prevented it from immediate disdain was the presence in the director’s chair of risen star Gareth Edwards. Say what you like about his no-budget opus Monsters, it is a film that defied strictly taught sermons on movie-making regarding ambition and scope. If you’re not impressed by its story, you cannot fail to applaud the determination that saw a $800k independent film resemble a heavily financed blockbuster. Most importantly however, at no point during Monsters did Edwards lose track of what he was doing, and it is his fierce commitment to story that avoiding it turning into a show reel.

Monsters is a romantic road movie. With huge alien creatures tossed in as a backdrop. Comparisons can be made more easily with Lost in Translation than King Kong. This coupled with Godzilla’s trailer, featuring Bryan Cranston emoting in his distinctive and iconic manner (as any Breaking Bad fan will attest to), formed a promise of a rich personal drama to be found within the latest retelling of cinema’s most iconic behemoth. This didn’t excite because it followed the post-Dark Knight ‘big as serious’ pattern, but because it suggested that there would be some substance to the manic carnage. Brainless and antipathetic action may go down easier, but the audience wants to be challenged on more than an intellectual level.

This was why for all its thrills Pacific Rim ultimately felt more like a fast food binge than a rich meal; the lack of personal involvement. To make the most of a screen monster, you have to make sure than your audience feels they are on the ground with it and facing the same peril as the protagonist. This is not achieved by shaky cam, it’s down to focusing on your characters and making their involvement in the narrative more than circumstantial. Frank Darabont’s The Mist is more concerned with the effects of terrifying ordeal on the people affected than it is with the inter-dimensional beings themselves. Jaws provides us with three unlikley shark hunters, each with different, understandable motives and differing sets of emotions, and allows this to form the heart of the story. The Descent has at its core a healing arc, valuing themes such as loss and surviving grief over the horror. Super 8 is a coming of age story teaching the value of understanding and empathy. And, of course, Monsters is about inconvenient attraction and human bonding. With huge aliens.

Even if you do not intend to introduce subplots or other focuses to concern these players, you have to at the very least treat them with empathy. While its simplicity may have failed to bow over some, Cloverfield is admirable for employing a romance that not only spurs on the plot but allows us to connect with the heroes. There is simply no merit in creating a barnstormer where the characters exist only as monster-chow, regardless of how entertaining it is. You have to care. If you do, if the viewer forms a connection to the people, it makes the horror horrifying and makes the fear palpable and shared. Ultimately, every great film ever made is on some level a human story. Monster movies are no different.

Still from Jaws (1975)3. Nothing is Scarier…

It may have been a technique born out of necessity, and one that has almost become a cliche out of its heavy usage, but the principle of not showing the monster is undoubtedly a trope with incredibly rich value. Try to imagine the impact that Jaws would have were Spielberg’s ‘Bruce’ robot fully functional and thus a regular feature rather than the great unseen beast. Envision a version of Alien where the xenomorph was depicted at will as it skulked through the Nostramo, picking off members of the crew in fully fleshed detail and sharp focus. The limitations and malfunctions in the art department may have made such ploys unavoidable, but they played a huge part in these classic films’ respective successes.

Often solutions are born out of problems, since it forces one into a more fool-proofed method of troubleshooting. Ideas that wouldn’t occur to us while we’re comfortable burrow their way to the surface when the alternative is failure and crisis. Necessity is the mother of invention. This is a common problem with modern day movies, particularly in the monster sub-genre. With the advent of worthy CGI there comes a temptation and unrighteous demand for exposure; if we’re going to spend so much time and money on one of our creations, we better damn well make the most of it. It is understandable, but mistaken.

There are a number of reasons why hiding the star of the show is such a sure-fire cornerstone. The most obvious is the tension, suspense and anticipation that teasing the audience propagates. Though surprisingly simple to summon, unease and excitement are hugely potent weapons. But this is not the most important factor. Spoiling the audience increases their demands and expectations as easily as spoiling a child. Soon, nothing you ever produce will be good enough to please them. Worse still, fettering your flick with images of the big threat will destroy any danger you are attempting to summon. Constantly revealing the monster will desensitize the viewer to the point they no longer fear it.

Once this has occurred, you are sunk from a dramatic point of view. It doesn’t matter how impressive your third act confrontation is or how much money you have thrown at it. The moment in your movie where the audience is less in awe of the enemy than the heroes is the moment you lose them. Whether it be a seven foot tall extraterrestrial or a fifty foot high mutant lizard, the viewer must be fearful or your creation, or lest that be enraptured. Otherwise, it’s just chewing gum for the eyes.

Still from Alien (1979)2. The Monster Must Mean Something

What is Gojira, really? He’s a perfect embodiment of man’s destructive power, from his nuclear birth and mutation to his trail of ruin that is unconscious retribution. What does King Kong represent? He’s the awe of wonder, one of the earth’s greatest creations, too weird to live and too rare to die, the unknown. How about Jaws? The understated, fatal danger presented by nature, a force that cannot be controlled even if it can be killed, a reminder than the world is a dangerous place regardless of how we try to distill it to our own wants. The Wolfman is the internal demons within a troubled soul, his inner animal emerging to destroy all those around. And, of course, there are essays upon essays written about what the Alien truly is. All great movie monsters, all avatars for ideas that serve up threats to mankind. It doesn’t always have to be a political or moral quagmire, nor does it even have to be a walking (or flying/swimming) parable. Perhaps its true purpose comes from what it means to the protagonist, what its threat constitutes.

Add as many tusks, mandibles or meters to a screen creature as you wish, make it as scary or disgusting as you want. But before you start your sketching and your green screening, you really need to sit down with a pen and paper and scribble out the most important aspect of this beast: What does it mean? It could be a fear, something which is in essence a manifestation of a hero’s weakness and something they must overcome. Although a monster movie is required to possess vicarious thrills, the ability to see wanton destruction of our world (when on a large scale) or to live out rampage fantasies (on a smaller scale) as a form of perverse catharsis, it also needs to have some depth. Perhaps it symbolizes a more overarching threat. Maybe its a product of a great regret.

The fear should stem from this as opposed to its physicality or abilities. Sure it can scary or unthinkable, a manifestation straight out of nightmares, Lovecraftian in its composition, but if it has no greater purpose beyond being a big awesome monster then you have a serious problem. Chaos, pure chaos that entertains but has no pretenses of pattern or formula, has the same effect on the audience as over-exposure. When they feel there is no real reason for anything that is happening, they cease to care about it and as a result any tension is lost. Similarly, a creature that bears no meaning beyond meaningless hulk smashes? You’ll forget about it pretty quickly. No matter how many ridges it has.

T.K Carter, Richard Masur, Wilford Brimley, Joel Polis, Richard Dysart, David Clennon & Keith David in The Thing (1982)1. A Logical Problem

It is the bane of many a critic or attentive viewer, a constant crux that time and again comes back to haunt the memory of what might have been, an irritation that grows with every viewing until it becomes a cancer. All it takes is one lazy screenwriter, or one uninspired brainstorming session, and you have a tangled mess than is not just a detriment but a potential dead man’s trigger to your intentions. It’s the law of convenience, a child of writer’s block peppering your scripts with contrivance since the dawn of cinema. In no other genre of movie making is illogic such a big problem as monster cinema.

Imagine the scenario. You’re writing the perfect monster movie. You want to follow your character’s story closely, and have taken care to give him a heart and arc. But you also want to show the potency of the monster, in order to both provide the eye candy and express the menace. But your protagonist is Joe Everyman, a perfect surrogate to the audience. He isn’t an army man, isn’t a scientist, isn’t anything in fact. Why would he be in the thick of things? No matter, throw him in any way, on every stage of the journey. The same problem occurs from the opposite end, where you want your monster to destroy New York City because…well, who doesn’t do that anymore? Trouble is, why would a Megaladon go to the big apple? Never mind, make him attack anyway. He’s a big dumb beast anyway, who cares? Maybe nobody will notice. But alas, they did.

This sort of daft thinking can be dismissed when surrounded by a dumb setting, since its par to the course, but it still adds up to shaky storytelling. It also undermines any film that is attempting to achieve a higher plane of being and meaning to shrug off accusations of shlock. Godzilla 2014 is an apt example since, despite being treated as a grittier, more realistic take on the tale, it still has gaps in thinking that belong to a B-movie. The halo jump, so popular in the trailer, is not practical in reality and thus sticks out badly within a serious film. Although it is trying to tell a dramatic story, plausibility is tested when Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen constantly find themselves in the path of the monster. Even celebrated movies fall into this trap, with varying levels of success. Jurassic Park granted the T-Rex stealth mode long enough to rescue the heroes in the climax; the Cloverfield beast performed the same trick, while also going about its rampage in New York with no clear goal.

Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986)One can be laughed at for attempting to transplant logic onto a movie about a giant lizard, but this dismissive attitude misses the point. The monster in the monster movie is the wild card, the crazed creation that threatens all order. For that to matter, the world itself has to make sense and the story in turn must be thought out organically. Create a setting where people behave in a manner that makes sense, where things happen in a way that clicks with real life and where science is respected, and dumping the monster into it will make a much greater splash. Furthermore, an adventure where the heroes have to follow the rules of physics and adhere to their own character in a manner befitting human beings in a normal world is one that immediately creates more interest and connection with the audience. Additionally, though the monster can be supernatural, it should have its own in-built logic. It should behave consistently to its goals, knowledge and nature, not as the plot dictates.

So if you have a monster that requires petrol as a source of nutrition, it should attack oil dumps and tankers and petrol stations. The armies of the world should respond in kind to defend their fuel. If a character is a janitor at a McDonalds, he should witness the carnage from a distance. If you want him to be closer to the action, make him a soldier. If he is to solve the crisis, make him a scientist or monster expert. If you want a scene where the monster attacks an elementary school, either go back to the drawing board and give him different motives or figure out a reason why a large amount of petroleum would be at a school. Don’t simply ignore the film’s inner-logic to fulfill the need for a particular visual or to explain away the protagonist’s baffling involvement on the front lines.

In short, despite the ‘bigger than reality’ nature of the monster movie, it is still a movie, and thus must follow the same rules as a social drama or a comedy. It is not exempt. Contrivance is never acceptable, and can be so easily ironed out by thought and care in the writing stage that it makes a mockery of countless forgettable offerings from inferior masters of cornball. No matter how big or how cool your creature, how impressive your CGI or marquee action scene, it cannot cover up stupidity. And that, my friends, is the true monster.

This has been as strange interpretation.

Scott Patterson

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