Film critic screws up the phylogenetic position of Godzilla

May 22, 2014 • 6:07 am

I basically got nothing today, and I have to write my book, which means I cannot brain about anything else. Ergo you’ll have to be satisfied with persiflage like this.

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker is my favorite film critic. He’s a lively writer, seems to have a prodigious knowledge of film, and, most important, agrees with me about most movies. A bonus is that he’s a lover of cats, having written a great introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Cats, which, courtesy of a thoughtful friend, I now own.

But I think Lane made a rather egregious biological error in his latest review: that of the new version of Godzilla, now showing in a small room at your local and overpriced multiplex.

His review begins this way:

Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians.

Yes, that’s a cute simile. But I ask you, does this look like a giant amphibian?



An early mock-up:


It’s got scales and a spiky tail!  Now it might be an amphibious reptile, or a hybrid between a reptile and something else, or a completely fictitious creature, but one thing it’s not is an amphibian. What happened to the vaunted fact-checking of The New Yorker? Perhaps I should hire myself out to Mr. Lane as a “biological film consultant.”

At any rate, Lane pans the film, faulting the plot, the misuse of good actors, and a bunch of other stuff. His final words are these:

Best of all, as the light thickens and dies over the Bay Area, toward the end, the movie does grind and smash its way into a kind of majesty—a shadow play, almost, with airborne troops dropping in free fall through the storm clouds, devil-red flares strapped to their heels, and Godzilla and his cronies going mano a mano in the murk. By now, the beasts are barely distinguishable: an abstract, infernal chaos of warty skin and swipes of vicious claw. That’s what the perfect “Godzilla” should be: no character development, no backstory, no winsome kids, just hints and glimpses of immeasurable power—enough to make you jump and twitch and leave you sweating for more. Luckily, that ideal already exists, and it requires only two minutes, not two hours, of your time. So, skip “Godzilla” the movie. Watch the trailer.

So, to save you $10 and two hours, here’s the trailer:




90 thoughts on “Film critic screws up the phylogenetic position of Godzilla

  1. An animal that size made of flesh and bone would be impossible. The weight of flesh would probably tear off the bones, & bones would have to be massively thick.

    It would collapse under its own weight

    1. Probably made out of some fictional superstrong material instead. But yeah, AFAIK size is not simply a matter of scaling things up…

  2. That’s what the perfect “Godzilla” should be: no character development, no backstory, no winsome kids, just hints and glimpses of immeasurable power

    I kinda disagree (not with the review, but with this characterization of the godzilla ‘concept’). G originally represented nuclear bombs. The backstory is the very classic tale of hubris: mankind (in this case, the Japanese) over reach, and get slapped down for it. Thematically the story is very similar to the tower of babel story or even Beowulf (where human sin begets the monsters).

    Now, I’m not saying every Godzilla movie needs to have a deep backstory. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional simple monster romp. Heck, I’m not even saying that the whole hubris thing is a good backstory – its a pretty crappy lesson in many respects. But I will disagree that the perfect Godzilla movie is one with no character development or backstory. It seems to me you could fit these an envronmentalist or anti-nuke backstory into a Godzilla movie and in many ways make it better, make it more true to the original conception.

    1. I LOVE films where the scientist says ‘it is all going to go horribly wrong’ …& it does!

    2. “Heck, I’m not even saying that the whole hubris thing is a good backstory – its a pretty crappy lesson in many respects.”

      In what respects?

      1. It teaches: keep your curiousity within bounds. Don’t take risks. Don’t experiment. Don’t breach cultural or traditional rules about what is considered normal behavior.
        Don’t reach for the heavens.

  3. I’ll have all you skeptics know that nuclear radiation can create anything in the movies. It’s like Quantum & Deepak. So there.

    1. Yet sadly, nuke has had it’s rightful place as the reason for spiderman’s powers supplanted by genetic engineering in both of the latest spiderman franchises.

      1. Well, some scientists had apparently criticized nuclear radiation as the source of his ability as being unrealistic. It’s great that comic books are so concerned with scientific accuracy. 😉

        The Flash used to come under criticism, too, because of the immense energy needs of someone moving at the speed of light, so they “discovered” that he taps into a mysterious energy source called the “speed force”.

        1. Yeah movie suspension of disbelief is a strange and inconstant thing. Man developing spider-abilities after being bitten – okay. Abilities produced by a radioactive spider rather than genetically engineered spider – not okay.

          The first franchise, movie #2, also had a moment of truly wierd, nonsequitur-like suspension of disbelief: everyone is standing around Octavian’s lab oohing and aahing about how revolutionary his fusion reactor will be…while they take zero notice of the AI that plugs right into a human consciousness to help Octavian control the fusion. Here’s a hint to the nonscientists watching the movie: the fusion reactor is not the most revolutonary invention in that room.

          1. I had the same thought. And the same thing applies to Tony Stark’s Jarvis in the movie.

            Lots of villains invent cool tools that would be worth far more than the stupid diamonds they’re trying to steel.

            It’s stuff like that that made me lose interest in comic books after my teens, more than anything else. They just don’t get how the world works.

  4. Jerry,

    why spoil the fun?
    Haven’t you noticed?

    It’s dystopia year – and not just because the Rapture Index is up to impossible heights. Its 1914 => 2014, and what else. Doom and gloom around the corner – unexpected, despite drones and NSA spying.

    Pass the popcorn, will you?

      1. No. That explanation was from the movie we do not speak of, starring Ferris Beuller.

        On the main subject of the post, I’d like to comment that as a kid, I winced whenever the Shredder referred to the Ninja Turtles as “amphibians”. Just because an animal spends some time in the water does not mean it is an actual amphibian!

    1. Hmm, there were armored amphibians. The species known as Gerrothorax pulcherrimus. Big. Lived with dinosaurs, of course.

  5. I saw the film. Godzilla does swim underwater. My son pointed out something that I missed: Godzilla has gills.

    1. He can fly too! Remember Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka the Smog Monster)?

      Godzilla in Flight

      The old Godzilla flicks define the genre “Ultra Corny.” They are so corny all you have to do is add cream, salt and pepper, and you would have corn chowder.

      In spite of that, as a young kid I had a recurring nighmare that featured me on the run from Godzilla through a devastated cityscape, and despite the size differential I could not hide from him.

  6. Never been a fan of the Godzilla type movies; I’m pretty sure that WW II or better technology could make short work of such creatures.

    1. Hmmm…well, IIRC in the old movies they fire tank shells at him (plus a heapin’ lot of smaller caliber lead), and they don’t do anything but make him angry. Were I the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Godzilla did decide to eat lower manhattan, I think I’d begin by recommending tomahawk and other surface-to-surface missiles (as well as air-to-surface), and ramp up from there. I just wouldn’t bother with the smaller stuff – use the army and marines to perform the evacuation, don’t even bother having them shoot at him.

      1. ” they don’t do anything but make him angry. ”

        Yeah, but that’s fantasy. In real life, we have ordinance that can penetrate battleship hulls. No way an organic creature will have hide that tough. A few squadrons of WW II dive bombers would probably be sufficient. Or imagine wave after wave of B-17s slathering him with napalm.

  7. I used to bristle, too, at misuse of “amphibian,” but I take it mostly in stride now. I see it like the word “bug”: there’s a specific scientific usage, and then there’s a layman’s term. In this case, the layman’s “amphibian” is just a big, broad term for “something that’s at home on land or in water.”

    No big deal; multiple meanings co-existing is the way language rolls. I’m cool with it…

    … though selectively so, I admit. Call a spider an “insect,” and it’s fightin’ time.

    1. I put this out with the genuine hope of being corrected if I am wrong, on a biology themed website no less.

      Isn’t metamorphosis a staple of all amphibians? Unless there are Godzilla tadpole equivalents, clearly it is a reptile of some kind.

      1. There are amphibians that skip the tadpole stage, emerging from eggs in their adult form. This is especially common in tropical frogs.

      2. Those are some interesting exceptions. Thank you both!

        Looking up more, I suppose the other thing to point to would be the presence of teeth and nails as reptilian characteristics not present in amphibians. Also scales, as Prof. Ceiling cat already mentioned.

        The other major characteristic that seems to differentiate amphibians and reptiles is external vs. internal fertilization of eggs, but I doubt there will ever be a movie depicting Godzilla doing either of those things.

    2. Is that the case, though? I’ve never heard anyone use the word “amphibian” to talk about anything other than frogs, newts, or salamanders. It would sound weird to me to hear a swimming reptile be called an amphibian, as odd as hearing someone call a spider an insect.

      Also, this might just be my science-fanatic side speaking, but it irritates me when people use the word “bug” so loosely.

    3. There’s a perfectly useful distinction between amphibious and amphibian.

      You wouldn’t call the Normandy invasion an “amphibian landing” would you?

    4. You beat me to it. I’ve had exactly the same discussion on a humanist list-serv, actually. There’s definitely a colloquial sense of “amphibian” that means “any creature that spends time both on land and in water.” Indeed, exactly parallel to “bug.” I don’t think we’ll make many points by trying to change those common definitions. I’ve found the best way is to just explain that there is a more specific scientific sense of the word and where it is appropriate to use it.

      (I’d like to see elementary teachers start working on some of these colloquial senses, though. Kids love to learn these distinctions. Let’s start raising generations that CAN use the scientific sense appropriately.)

      1. I have a pet peeve about that whole “they are just kids so let’s not burden them by trying to teach them proper words, or an accurate understanding of what words mean” point of view.

        In my experience, in particular raising my own kids, kids are about five times better at learning than the average adult and are perfectly capable of learning the “adult” word as opposed to some ridiculous baby talk. And they are perfectly capable of learning a fairly accurate understanding of what a word means.

        In fact at certain ages, i.e. before the age of “I already know everything, and adults are stupid, especially parents,” they are eager to learn words and have fun with it. Even at age 2 – 3, sitting around the table at breakfast, a new (to the kids) word comes up. Demonstrate how to pronounce it. Describe what it means. They are all over it. Using it over and over in different ways, testing the word, with feedback from mom & dad, to figure out what it means and how to use it.

        The problem as far as I can tell is 1) lazy adults, 2) cultural inertia (disrespect of kids ability to learn), 3) Adults with serious hang ups (oh noes! you can’t teach a two year old words like penis, vagina or anus!), and 4) adults that, since they are a product of the same culture, don’t know what the words mean with any accuracy themselves and . . . see number 1).

        1. I SO agree.

          When my son was in the lower elementary grades we (he & I) were avidly studying insects. He had zero problems with words like “antennae” or “abdomen.” But his teachers were using “feelers” and “stomach.” Arrgggh!

          It’s also a great time to introduce a bit of scientific nomenclature and phylogeny. They pick it right up.

  8. Oh, I intend to see it. With the kids. I like good movies too, but some of my movies must be loud and dumb and shallow.
    If it was a good movie, then we will be facing a damn series of Godzilla movies. No one wants that!

    1. Good point. And that would make a great plot: The Day of the Nightjars. Humanity gets clobbered, but nobody can tell where it’s coming from. And an advantage with the special effects budget, too, since the nightjar’s invisible.

      The story opens at a party, as people gather around a computer screen, trying to find something. The camera zooms in, and it’s a WEIT post…

      1. Nice idea, but a bit too reminiscent of The Happening where the big adversary was the wind (really poison gas attacks for plants), but cinematically speaking, it was “run for it, the wind is blowing” all the way.

      2. … and then a bird claw reaches out of the computer screen, and face-grabs the unlucky (but attractive) person, pulling them in. Then they are in the Nightjars domain, being hunted by a giant killer bird they cannot see.

  9. $10? I caught the 3:25 show for a fiver, and personally, I enjoyed it, of course, I’m a Svengoolie fan and love these corny mutant radioactive monster flics. I don’t know why movie critics use the same rubric for a sci-fi movie as they would an art house film. Not every movie has to be Citizen Kane or whatever. Comparing a sci-fi or horror movie to a serious film like 12 Years a Slave makes no sense, it’s analogous to judging a fish for how well they ride a bicycle. It was well made, a bit too emotional at times, lacked the camp of the old ones, and over all was actually worth watching, unlike the last remake. My only real complaint was that the (completely fictional) M.U.T.O and Godzilla fought like humans, not like animals would when defending a nest or looking for food (and I was never really clear why big G was tracking the M.U.T.O anyway, I thought for food, so when he headed out to sea without eating the carcasses, I was a bit bummed) but again, it is only a sci-fi movie (but Ken Ham probably thinks it a documentary) well, that’s my two cents. Go Go Godzilla!

    1. I think the MUTO’s were natural parasites of the godzilla species, like wasps to caterpillars. Evidently they laid eggs of some sort in a godzilla carcass in the Philipines. If Godzilla has an internal source of nuclear energy, then it makes sense that the MUTO’s go after alternate nuclear sources for their nesting. Thus the godzilla adults instinctively attack the MUTO’s as natural enemies. I wonder why we don’t see real life moths or butterflies ganging up to attack parasitic wasps?

  10. Even though set in San Francisco, Godzilla only spent four days here before moving on to Vancouver, due to the fact that California gives “only” $100 million in tax breaks to film producers.
    So, just as Earth is protected from Martian invasion a la The War of the Worlds by its microbes, California is protected from giant monster invasion by our ungenerous tax code.

  11. Im pretty sure Godzilla is a member of the order Squamata, probably in the genus Amblyrhynchus.

  12. We had this talk before when dealing with Apes and Monkeys. Anthony Lane is clearly a cladist and his definitions of Amphibia includes extinct forms and as such must include amniotes (and thus reptilia). If he had called it a lissamphibian that would have been wrong.

  13. Godzilla’s scaliness varies from suit to suit (or CG model to CG model now I guess) but I’m not sure there was ever a time when he wasn’t supposed to be some sort of dinosaur.

  14. In an otherwise great book (Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew), Steve Stuart-Williams refers to salamanders as lizards, a reverse of the Godzilla error.

  15. I hate to inject my mundane complaint right in the middle of all these brilliant comments regarding the ability of radioactive waste to produce super heroes, by here I go.
    I become peeved every time I see the misuse of the term “Mano a Mano”. Too often it’s written or said as if it means “man to man”, but it really means “hand to hand” as in “hand to hand combat”. But I can’t figure out which way it’s being misused by this movie reviewer because I don’t know if Godzilla has hands, but Im pretty certain that Godzilla and his cronies are not “men”. So which way is Anthony Lane using the term? I’m afraid I may never find out, but whichever way he’s using it, I think he’s misusing it.

    1. Well, there’s a colloquial sense of “mano a mano” and then there’s the technical sense…

    2. Problem is, language changes – enough people use it one way, and that becomes correct …

      (That said, I’m peeved about the venacular use of “begs the question” still …)

  16. It was kind of you to post the trailer, but I disagree that it will substitute for seeing the movie. It never shows the big guy himself all at once. A scaly back here, a head and torso briefly at the end, some damage to buildings, and Lady Liberty, what’s so great about that? Not that I plan to see the film, though!

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