Film Rants: Realism is Unrealistic

The new GodzillaThere’s a new Godzilla movie in the works. According to director Gareth Edwards, the film is going to be “very grounded [and] realistic.” And I can’t help but feel that somebody is missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong – what very little has been leaked about the movie seems pretty awesome. We’ve got Godzilla destroying a city, some other giant monsters in there as well, and although obscured it looks like Godzilla will be going back to his old look rather than the atrocious redesign from the 1998 American version. But it’s become increasingly irksome to me that people bring up the word “realistic” when discussing films like these. If I’m going to see a Godzilla movie, I’m not interested in realism. I just want a giant radioactive dinosaur destroying a city. I don’t need to know the physics of how he walks or the source of his radioactive breath. That stuff just drags down what is an otherwise fun time.

One of the places I’ve seen realism brought up as a talking point a lot is when people discuss the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. “Oh, they’re so successful because they’re realistic.” “Finally, a realistic take on Batman!” and so on. That’s bunk. As good as the Nolan Batman films are, they are not realistic. If they were realistic, then the microwave emitter in Batman Begins would have killed everybody it came near. The forensics work Batman does to find one of the Joker’s fingerprints wouldn’t happen because the Joker’s print would have been on the bullet casing, not the bullet itself. And the entirety of The Dark Knight Rises would not have happened, because nuclear fission does not work the way the movie pretends it does, the Bat would not be able to fly the way it is shown, and even someone who has had ninja training wouldn’t be able to heal from a broken spine in a matter of a few months – especially not when the only physical therapy is doing pushups and getting punched in the back.

Is the Dark Knight Trilogy a darker take on Batman? Yes – darker at least than the Joel Schumacher Bat-films. Is it a more serious take on the character than previous film adaptations? Yes. But it is not more realistic. The Joker’s ability to magically place explosives anywhere he wants without anybody noticing them requires the same amount of suspension of disbelief as the Penguin having an army of rocket-launching bird in Batman Returns. Both are ridiculous situations. I don’t care about the lack of realism in either, though. I just want to see Batman being Batman.

In the case of the Nolan Batman movies, they are not superior to what came before because of their realism. They are superior because they told a story that was both entertaining and somewhat cohesive. The Tim Burton Batman films are a nonsensical mess with no internal consistency. The Joel Schumacher films tried to play the character in a campy manner but lacked any sort of quality in their humor and were downright ugly to look at. (I won’t criticize the 1966 film, though, which is brilliant in every way.)

One other thing I hate about the “realism” angle is that the supposed realism actually tends to make less sense than what came before. Going back to Godzilla, take a look at the 1998 film. That featured a “realistic” redesign for Godzilla. Upon closer inspection, though, that version of the creature actually wouldn’t be able to physically stand, let alone run around like it did. The old rubber suit version of the creature actually has more going for it from a realism perspective. Moreover, the attempt to have Godzilla act more like a natural predator loses the point of the character – Godzilla is not a monster that runs and hides. It is a force of ultimate destruction, nigh invulnerable and nearly unstoppable. Godzilla is a metaphor for the nuclear bomb. By trying to turn him into a predator that hides and uses stealth, it’s completely ignoring the point.

Realism is not necessary in most movies. If you want realism, then Die Hard would have ended with John McClane biting the dust, Batman Begins would have seen Bruce Wayne killed in action, and Godzilla would just not exist at all. That is not to say that internal consistency is not needed – in fact, when a lot of people cite realism in a film, I strongly suspect they are talking about consistency. Die Hard doesn’t have McClane use magical powers, Batman Begins doesn’t have Bruce Wayne shoot laser beams from his eyes, and Godzilla doesn’t have the titular monster give a discussion on theoretical physics. Internal consistency is necessary to any piece of fiction – once you’ve established how the world works, you need to stick with that. But it is not the same as realism, because the mere existence of a giant radioactive monster shatters any hopes of being realistic.

This is not to say that the new Godzilla movie is doomed to failure. The thing that irks me is merely a marketing quote and not indicative of the way the movie will turn out. But for some reason, realism seems to be the rallying cry of sci-fi movies these days. The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, is touted as being more realistic than the Sam Raimi version of the character. Last I checked, though, both versions involve the titular character getting bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining superpowers instead of just dying. The new one also involves a mutant lizard running around attacking people. As a result, I fail to see how one is more realistic than the other.

In short, I hope that people stop using realism as the buzzword when they discuss movies that have no grounds in reality. If I sit down and watch a Godzilla film or the newest James Bond movie, I don’t care if what they are doing on screen is actually possible. I just want to have a good time.

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