In Praise of Bash

A closer look at a supporting player in GLOW

The Netflix cast and production team of the series GLOW have created some layered, dimensional characters with efficiency and humor. The show’s deep bench gives every cast member at least one moment in the spotlight over the first season’s ten episodes.

For the moment, I want to single out Bash, played by Chris Lowell.

Why Bash?

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Is it missing the point when talking about a show focused on women’s wrestling with so many standout female performances to turn my attention to one of the male leads?

Maybe. But this isn’t just about him.

In fact, that’s the point I want to make about Bash’s character: This story isn’t about him.

He says that Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling is his idea, and he maintains that he wants to make sure the execution matches his initial premise.

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With the plot elements involved, this could easily have been Bash’s story: The highs and lows of a trust-fund goofball who finds purpose by putting aside his selfish antics and maturing as he builds a tv show.

But that’s not this show’s story.

Bash is a supporting member of the cast, not only by the entertainment awards definition, but in how supportive he is of the other characters.

Like Max in Fury Road or Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Bash is an example of how to depict a man being supportive of a woman or group of women. He’s another reminder that gender dynamics in storytelling aren’t a zero sum game.

The Heel-Face Turn

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When we first meet Sebastian “Bash” Howard, he’s doing all the things that would lead us to believe he’s going to be an antagonist or obstacle in the vein of a classic 80s villain.

  • He showed up in a helicopter, suggesting he’s totally out of touch with the other characters who are desperate for work.
  • He’s telling a personal anecdote about Ronald Reagan, further aligning himself with conservative, monied interests in a series focusing on a diverse group of underdogs.
  • He interrupts his introduction to ask that he be called by a nickname that he probably gave to himself.
  • He cancels rehearsal to invite everyone to a party at his mansion, which features an actual Lichtenstein and a working robot with a secret drug compartment.

It’s a clever ploy to play off of the audience’s expectations based on both Bash’s behavior and our genre savvy. This makes his sudden turn that much more satisfying.

What Bash Does for the Athletes

At the rehearsal, Bash listened to the women read through a script written by the director, Sam Sylvia, that featured a post-apocalyptic setting and roving gangs of women fighting for the right to breed with the last surviving man on Earth. The read-through goes unenthusiastically as the performers grapple with a thin sci-fi narrative held together by Sam’s sexual fantasies.

Bash confronts Sam about this, saying that when he asked for a different kind of wrestling show, this isn’t what he had in mind:

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Bash invites the women up to his costume room and tells them to explore it and try things on.

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Bash is inviting these women to take an active role in the construction of the narrative they’re going to play out. He talks about Sam’s script being too complicated, and he wants to see something still heightened and fantastic, but grounded in some aspect of the women themselves.

Let me be clear: Bash is not doing this just because he has a desire to empower these athletes. His suggestions involve leveraging regressive stereotypes that he justifies by saying that they need to play to the viewpoint of the audience.

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Bash wants to make sure you know what eyes are.

Ethnicities are shifted or amalgamated. Tammé, whose son goes to Stanford, gets re-christened as Welfare Queen. Everything is done to better label these women according to a generalized white, male gaze instead of Sam’s hyper-sexualized, exploitation film mindset.

And this is where it gets more complicated.

Early in this sequence of scenes, Bash starts speaking with Carmen, who will eventually take on the character Machu Picchu. Sam has cast her as the villainous Ogress, but Bash takes one look at her and sees her smile. He knows she’s not right to play a heel, and helps her find an identity more suited to who she really is.

And while so many of these wrestling aliases are created based on stereotypes, that initial spark kindles something in the women. A “So this is how you see me?” anger helps them find their enthusiasm for the entire project. It unlocks and directs a layer of rage and creativity.

Going off of this setup, one of the most memorable scenes of the entire season comes when Cherry and Tammé convince their tag team opponents to dress in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Cherry and Tammé are very aware of how their roles as Welfare Queen and Junk Chain have attached stereotypes that will play negatively to the audience. So they find a way to turn themselves into the heroes of the match.

They have a degree of control over the narrative, and they’re trying to leverage what they think the audience sees.

Aside from setting some key points about the world of wrestling and its expectations, Bash also has several direct interactions that support the wrestlers.

In working with Carmen throughout the season’s arc, he helps her to build her confidence and live up to the reputation her family’s wrestling dynasty.

Bash sits with Carmen in the parking lot while an EMT confirms that she’s had a panic attack after she runs from the ring at an early match. He recognizes how important this is to her, and wants to be supportive.

When she starts to feel the fear again at a match being taped live for the pilot of their tv show, one of the things that helps her find her strength is Bash, acting as the ringside announcer, turning her anxiety into part of her character.

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And when she pulls through and wins her match, Bash is one of the primary focuses of the camera. His enthusiasm for her victory reminds us that he didn’t just invest money in this wrestling show, but that he truly wants to see these athletes succeed.

Speaking of money, at a key moment when Bash’s mother cuts him off, everything is in danger of falling apart. The team needs to find the money to secure a venue for their live taping of a pilot episode.

Bash finds a solution, but he can’t do it alone.

Bash brings the women to crash his mother’s fundraising event for Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. He pretends that they’re from an organization called Wrestlers Against Drugs, and interrupts his introductory toast of his mother to step aside and let the women tell improvised stories to the wealthy donors.

The key here is that Bash isn’t the one making the big speech to get the money and save the day. He’s offering these women the opportunity to succeed on their own merits. He creates space for them to succeed where he failed, and he trusts that they’re capable.

And the women do not disappoint, coming up with stories of drug addiction and salvation through wrestling so compelling that the donations pile up, and even Bash’s mom sees that her son has partnered with some amazing women.

What This Means to Bash

But Bash isn’t just some Yuppie Yoda, helping women find their inner power through the drama and athleticism of professional wrestling. He gets something out of all this, too.

There’s this one scene near the end, and it’s why I focused so much on Bash after this first viewing of the show.

As everything comes together at the last minute, Ruth tells Bash that he needs to act as their announcer for the live taping of their matches. Bash says he was born for this:

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While everyone’s getting ready for their on-camera debut in the ring, Bash gets a quiet moment while he prepares.

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Bash has spent a lot of time before this point helping other characters find strength and express themselves. We’re shown this one moment that shows him stepping in to character.

It’s a suggestion that Bash, too, feels that the spectacle allows him to re-craft his identity; to tap into something inside himself that normally stayed buried.

How To Show Support

GLOW is a show mainly populated by women, but unlike Sam’s script, there’s not a lack of men involved. Along with the recurring characters of Sam and Bash, several other men play a role in the story.

When characters are dimensional, treated with respect and dignity, and given solid, selfish motivations, there’s room for everyone.

Bash is an example of a well written ally. He’s imperfect, and his faults and mistakes provide conflict for the story. But his desire to help others comes from an expressed and understood need to fulfill his own goal.

That’s a key to strong supporting characters: They don’t know they’re a sidekick. Somehow their actions supporting the protagonist(s) should fulfill whatever desire drives them in the version of the story where they’re the lead.

The opening scene of the series features Ruth on an audition for the role of a secretary who interrupts her boss in the middle of a dramatic monologue to say his wife is on the phone. It’s making a point about the dearth of good roles available to women, and does so by highlighting an audition for a minor supporting character.

It highlights not only why Ruth and the other women of GLOW would latch on to the opportunity to take charge of their stories and shape this wrestling program to give themselves an opportunity to shine, and it also highlights what happens when writers create characters who act as punctuation.

Somebody has to come read for the role of the Nameless Interrupting Secretary. Somebody has to hope that they’ll get that three line part, because they’ve got rent to pay. Somebody spent years training themselves and honing their craft to prepare themselves to be on camera.

Does it honor that person’s effort to give them so little to do?

Does it show respect to the people who actually inhabit these positions in real life to depict them as functions of someone else’s story?

The story as a whole is richer from making sure every role feels lived in. Every person feels true, and not just a plot device.


New Words, New Perspective

When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.

In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:

”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

The Words Themselves

Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.

The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.

The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.

Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.

  1. “board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
  2. “sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
  3. “restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.

Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.

Introducing the Words

Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.

C’mon, Moana. You’re a Disney protagonist. Did you really think you’d finish this story with your mom and dad AND grandmother all surviving?
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.

Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.

Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.

Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.

The First (Several) Repetitions

After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.

During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.

The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.

She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.

Delivering the Words to Maui

When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.

He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.

Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —

Maui: Hero of men.

Moana: What?

Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.

Moana: I am Moana —

Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.

Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.

When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.

Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.

So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.

I don’t know what we did to deserve a collaboration between Alexander Hamilton and The Rock, but it exists and we are better for it.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.

Once More With Feeling

After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.

Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.

Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.

Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.

The Words Lose Their Power

The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.

After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.

Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.

But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.

The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.

To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.

Changing the Words

In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):

“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.

And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.

I came here to wreck lava monsters and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.

Arc Words

Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.

The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.

But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.

The Words Carry the Theme

The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.

  • Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
  • Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
  • Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
  • Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
  • Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)

Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.

Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.

However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.

She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.

And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.

Godzilla, Godzilla, And My Dad

When I was young, my dad introduced me to a lot of older sci-fi and horror movies. Films like Frankenstein, Godzilla, and Them! Being the little guy I was, some things scared me. Giant bugs, for example, we’re particularly freaky for me.

And that’s when these movies became a teachable moment.

My dad would talk to me about what the people making the movies were afraid of. In these three examples, there is the common undertone of the fear of science gone out of control; of the consequences of man trying to play God and master the forces of the natural world. This changed how I looked at stories, even from that early age.

And that’s how I approached the new Godzilla. Sure, I went to a screening on the biggest screen I could find and sat almost uncomfortably close (because I’m not a complete unfeeling, analytical film droid. I like explosions.), but I also knew that the original Godzilla has a special place in my film-loving heart. It’s allegory about the perils of the nuclear age and the terrible responsibilities of those who pursue scientific knowledge was part of the Rosetta Stone of my movie-going life.

As the credits rolled, I sat for a moment and thought about what was beneath the surface of this movie. If the original was about the awesome fear of annihilation by our own hand, what was this new vision representative of?

I thought about the shots comparing the scale of objects, and toying with the audience’s perceptions. A roach climbing over a toy tank. Ford holding a small action figure of a soldier that kinda, sorta resembles him. A close up shot of a lizard, followed by soldiers moving behind it, towering over it. And then comparing these moments to the shots of humans the size of pinpoints being washed away by tidal waves, or smashed or dropped from great heights. Or the shots from a human point of view showing pieces of the mammoth beasts, obscuring their full size because they’re just too big to be taken in at once.

And I thought about the moments where the creatures seem to directly interact with the humans. There are few. These aren’t monsters maliciously stomping on buildings or eating people. We’re not even important enough to be their food source (they prefer radiation). There are a few moments when Godzilla himself seems to make eye contact with a human, but it’s implied by all the previous moments that it’s not really contact, but maybe a form of curiosity. The way that a human might look at a small bird, or try to understand the actions of a swarm of insects.

We are not the biggest force in our ecosystem. We, too, are small.

The movie further reinforces this idea with the actual actions of the humans, and how any action they take only makes things worse. Humans accidentally excavated the MUTO creatures from their dormant hiding place underground. Humans created the nuclear resources that give the MUTO a food supply that was no longer a natural part of the ecosystem. Humans moved a MUTO cocoon to a site of nuclear waste disposal, setting up more carnage when what was in that cocoon awakened. Humans attempted to set up a nuclear warhead to destroy the creatures, but in doing so accidentally created a situation where they needed to deactivate that same warhead when the creatures took it to use as an incubator for their young.

We are small. Our actions are insignificant to these larger creatures. We are hopeless against them and must trust that they will strike a balance that doesn’t destroy us in the process.

At this point, my mind shifted to Pacific Rim, another movie in the kaiju tradition. While there is a moment in the opening narration of this movie that seems to mimic Godzilla (2014), where humans need to use multiple nuclear weapons to bring down a single kaiju monster, the movie quickly diverges to a more optimistic message.

Together we are strong. Together, we can become as big and strong as the challenges we face and topple them. The movie reinforces this theme time and again, from requiring a team of pilots in each towering jaeger robot to highlighting the way that isolationist strategies (like the building of defensive walls) are inadequate.

There are other important differences (for example, the kaiju of Pacific Rim are intentionally malicious towards humans and are sent by an invading force as exterminators), but this difference in underlying theme and dramatic purpose is what I kept thinking about. Pacific Rim was about characters learning to work together and sacrifice together in order to protect humanity as a whole. Godzilla (2014) is about humanity realizing it is at the mercy of forces out of its control, and our best option may be to move to Kansas.

And then I think about Dr. Serizawa from the original Godzilla, and how he not only makes the Oxygen Destroyer weapon that ultimately kills Godzilla, but how he sacrifices himself in triggering the weapon to make sure that the secret of his powerful weapon dies with him. It supports the theme of the film that scientific progress can produce things of benefit, but that they can also be used for terrible purposes. The Oxygen Destroyer stops a rampaging monster, but it could have been used to cause even more devastation than the monster itself.

Take this a step further: In the American dubbing, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the suggestion is that Dr. Serizawa dies with the weapon so that it doesn’t fall into “the wrong hands.” In the original, there are no right hands for a weapon of this power, and Dr. Serizawa believes it is too great a power to be wielded by any human. For an American audience, already entrenched in a Cold War and aware that it recently deployed the fearful atomic weapons that spawned Godzilla, this change shifts the theme to a have your cake and eat it to philosophy that man can create great and terrible weapons that should not exist, but if they do exist, let’s all agree that we know who should wield them.

Putting it all together, this new Godzilla is all about feeling small, weak, and powerless in the face of something ancient and unexplainable. Something natural. Something with as much interest in us as a hurricane or an earthquake does. And there’s nothing we can do about it but surrender.

Except for one thing.

Ford Brody: Indestructible Action Figure

This new Godzilla owes several things to the American dubbing of the original. For one, there’s an American point of view character who just happens to be present for every important moment. In Godzilla, King of the Monsters! this was done by filming new scenes with Raymond Burr and having lots of shots of him looking at things or having an interpreter explain things to him. It’s a clumsy device, but it helped to ground the story for an American audience that distributors thought would be averse to subtitles.

Godzilla (2014) is less clumsy in how it motivates the reasons why Ford is always in the center of the action. He’s at the site of the first monster event because his father lead him there. The second event happens midway between home and Japan, following the path of the monsters. And finally, he volunteers for a mission to try and stop the monsters because it’s the only way to quickly get back to his wife and son. So far, so good.

But in order to balance his ability to act as the audience’s point of identification while also keeping his story engaging, the film puts him in life threatening danger at regular intervals. And he always walks away. After being almost thrown from a train, knocked off a suspension bridge, and being thrown forward by a gas explosion, he winds up with a single crutch and a few scrapes and bruises that fail to suggest that he spent the last 48 hours in a constant struggle for his life.

Because he needs to end the movie kissing the also lightly scraped and mussed Elle Brody, and everybody should look Apocalypse Pretty for that moment… But that’s another train of thought.

By making Ford so indestructible, the movie undercuts it’s own message. “Humanity needs to reconsider its place in the food chain, except for this guy.”

And expand on this to look at a recurring image throughout the movie: families separating and reuniting. If the movie focuses on a family being separated, that family makes it out OK in the end. Every time.

“Humanity needs to reconsider its place in the food chain, except for this one guy… And his family… And any other family we focus on.”

The movie creates a sense that some people are safe by virtue of them having loved ones they are separated from. It undercuts its sense of fear and chaos by suggesting an ordered world that dulls the audience’s sense of pain.

Compare this to Pacific Rim, where not only do characters die, but characters we care about. Their death, and willingness to face it, helps define them. Or the original Godzilla, where time is spent focusing on a woman and her children about to be crushed by the terrible beast.

The woman gathers her children to her and tells them not to be afraid, because they’ll soon be with their father. And we weep for them, because in that one moment we identify with them. Their death has meaning because it touches us. The film focuses on them not to make us feel safe and comforted, but to advance the film’s theme about the horrors of the forces humanity has unleashed, and the human toll.

There are no such moments in the new Godzilla. Humans are either viewed from afar like ants under a boot or focused on so we can feel their relief at having survived.

There’s another thing I learned about watching movies with my dad: skepticism with humor. We were our own Mystery Science Theater for plenty of movies in his collection of 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. A lot of it focused on the rickety and obvious craftsmanship of those movies. Spotting the wires. Recognizing a costume from another movie. Pointing out where you could see the breaks in the illusion.

That had an influence on me, too, but not as quickly. It kept me always thinking about how these are created stories. They don’t just happen. Everything that happens is a choice, successful or otherwise.

Maybe now I snark a little less while watching the movie. A little. But a lot of how I learned to watch movies comes from those days spent on the couch with my dad and his VHS collection.

So when I sit down to watch Godzilla, I think about watching those other movies with him. And I think about how in the near future I’m going to have somebody new to the world to share these things with. I doubt I’ll make them sit through Robot Monster 3D, but at some point they’ll meet Godzilla. And maybe their dad will calm their fears by telling them about why these monsters on the screen exist.

It’s because the people making these movies are scared, too. But we can be a little less scared if we know we’re not alone in our fear.

Pacific Rim and Picking Protagonists

One thing I keep reading and hearing in the discussion of Pacific Rim is this phrase: “Raleigh Becket, the protagonist.” I take issue with that description.

Raleigh is to Pacific Rim as Nick Carraway is to The Great Gatsby: He’s a point-of-view character and a catalyst. The voiceover used at the beginning of the film is from Raleigh. He welcomes us in to the world of the film and the initial events in the film’s present tense feature him. While not every scene comes from his perspective, much of the film involves his presence. However, by many measures of how a protagonist is defined, Raleigh doesn’t fit the bill.

The character with the greatest growth and development during the course of the story is Mako Mori. Mako goes from Stacker Pentecost’s ward and assistant to a full-fledged jaeger pilot. She steps out from Stacker’s shadow and reveals herself to be a capable fighter and strong-willed individual.

Consider the focus the film puts on revealing Mako, both visually and in her character. When we first meet her, she is hidden under a coat and large umbrella, distinguished by the two blue streaks in her hair. We only begin to understand who she is in these scenes as she tells Raleigh that she doubts he’s the pilot for this job. Later, during the drift compatibility test, she removes her uniform shirt and shoes. She is more visually exposed, and through her actions, we also see further aspects of her character expressed: The tactician and physical combatant. We see more of the internal fire pushing her to get inside the jaeger. Finally, during the test, we go inside her own memories. We see, mediated through Raleigh’s experience in the drift, the small child in that blue coat who ran from a massive kaiju having lost her family. The film slowly pulls back the layers of Mako, revealing them to the audience, making the development and exploration of her character necessary work toward getting her in a jaeger and achieving the goal of finally defeating the kaiju.

Mako and Stacker are two characters who must come to difficult decisions over the course of the film. Raleigh has no questions about what he needs to do from the moment Stacker comes to take him away from the wall. Mako’s development as a hero is stifled by her conflict with Stacker, and how Stacker needs to learn to respect Mako as an adult/a pilot/an autonomous person who can live without his protection.

Raleigh is a catalyst for this conflict, pushing it toward resolution. Raleigh may push for Mako to be given a chance, or for Stacker to change his mind, but his words are not the most important actions. Mako’s years of training make her capable of proving her drift compatibility with Raleigh, and her efforts as a teammate with him make Gipsy Danger a key part in the final battles against the kaiju. Raleigh doesn’t make Stacker’s mind up for him, but he doesn’t allow Stacker to close the discussion. Stacker’s choices about what actions he will take are his own, and the result of his long relationship with Mako.

Consider the other side of this argument. What does support Raleigh as a protagonist? At the beginning he’s a former jaeger pilot whose brother was killed while they were linked together. He’s suffering from that trauma and tries to disappear, going off to work alone on construction of the Alaskan wall. However, all it takes is one quick speech from Marshall Pentecost to get him back in the game. Yes, Raleigh does need to learn to trust a new co-pilot and learn to let somebody else into his head, but these challenges don’t receive as much focus and screen time as the conflicts surrounding Pentecost finally letting Mako out of his protection, or Mako’s fulfilling her vengeance against the kaiju and realizing her potential as a jaeger pilot.

Furthermore, this film acts in the mold of a decentralized war film/team-up film than a single “hero’s journey” style story. While Mako’s conflict provides a spine for the story to follow once we’ve been introduced to the characters, she isn’t the only one involved in this fight. While Raleigh may make the final, decisive actions of the battle, the themes of the film center around the idea of cooperation being stronger than individual effort. Raleigh closing the rift couldn’t have happened without the sacrifice of Stacker and Chuck, the intelligence gathered by Newton and Gottleib, or his partnership with Mako.

This film weaves the theme of cooperation over isolation into almost every major beat. For example:

  • Jaegers need two, mentally linked pilots.
  • Newton’s attempt to drift with a kaiju required him to team up with Gottleib, putting aside their individual differences to better carry the neural load.
  • Kaiju are more deadly because of their hive mind. Each new one has learned from the experiences of the kaiju before it.
  • When Raleigh is working on the wall, the stakes for the workers are on an individual basis instead of focused on a greater victory for all. Instead of the foreman talking about how this wall will protect people, he says that if they do this work, they can earn individual ration cards for themselves. And soon after, we see how weak these walls are.

These are all aspects of a deeply embedded theme that makes picking out a single protagonist difficult at best and missing the point at its most extreme. This is not Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. This is a movie about teamwork. This is a movie about how great victories aren’t accomplished alone. Identifying Raleigh as the (sole) protagonist misses out on this complexity.

What We Do When The Sky Falls

Consider these four films that all start from the same basic place: When Worlds Collide, Armageddon, Melancholia, and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

All of these movies have a big thing in common: Something large is headed toward Earth and will obliterate it. That’s it. Half a log line. But the characters the narrative focuses on, the degree of agency they have in the chain of events, and the tone the film chooses to take make each one unique.

When Worlds Collide focuses its story on a group of scientists and survivalists who discover that a star named Bellus is moving toward Earth and will consume it. They propose to build spaceships to take settlers from Earth to Zyra, an Earth-like body orbiting Bellus. With no hope for the Earth to survive, the movie puts its focus on the scientists, pilots, and engineers involved in the escape effort. The core conflicts involve the construction of the rockets to take people to the new planet, deciding who will be able to make the journey and who will be left behind, and the gamble of whether or not the escape from Earth will succeed.

Armageddon has a slightly smaller object hurtling toward Earth, but one that will still wipe out all life. Like with When Worlds Collide, the focus is on people whose efforts impact more than just themselves. NASA recruits a drilling team to go up and detonate the asteroid before it can hit Earth, and the conflict of the story focuses on whether or not this mission succeeds (since this movie offers the possibility that Earth may survive).

Melancholia opens with a flash-forward, showing that the Earth is definitely going to be crushed by a giant planet entering its orbit. There is no hope of escape. No chance of averting extinction and destruction. And then it cuts to a wedding. The movie focuses not on people who have any particular connection to astronomy, the government, or the military. These are people whose understanding of what’s happening is filtered through reports that they hear and strange events that they witness. The movie focuses on how these people deal emotionally with the certainty of impending doom; people who have no position or ability to alter the larger course of events. Because of their lack of agency against the large object hurtling toward them, their story comes from the way they interact with each other, and how they work toward resolving their interpersonal conflicts before the inevitable collision.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is similar to Melancholia in that its main characters lack the ability to stop the inevitable extinction of life on Earth (For example, Steve Carell’s Dodge is an insurance salesman). However, the tone is different, and the focus more hopeful. Instead of waiting out the end, this is a movie where the main characters are looking to reconnect with others before the end: a long lost love, an estranged father, distant family members, etc. Despite the certainty that by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead, the movie plays out as a romantic comedy.

Doubts will come up about your writing, sometimes about whether or not you’re saying anything original, or if you’re doing anything different enough to get noticed. Similarities to other stories or conflicts don’t necessarily mean that you’re telling the same story. Elements like giant asteroids/planets hurtling toward Earth, vampires, terrorists, or the breakup of a marriage are jumping off points. Unique storytelling is all about who and how.

Who do we focus on in this situation?

How do they tackle the obstacles presented to them?