In 2009, an old German Shepherd named Zoey passed away. Today, the titular star of Godzilla has inadvertently made that painful memory easier to deal with.
There’s no wrong way to process a summer blockbuster. For some, the expensive special effects and endless action sequences are a thrilling form of escapism, whether it’s a retreat from the unbearable heat outside, the monotonous slogging at work, or whatever personal drama they’re experiencing. For others, the loud bombast and style-over-substance predilections of some pricey big-studio movies are sources of anger, soulless money machines that take attention away from the superior but overshadowed indie films at smaller art-house theaters. And for others still, summer blockbusters inspire nothing more than indifference, an apathy that springs up once the end credits roll.
For me, the new Godzilla movie conjured up a lot of different visceral reactions when I first saw it two weeks back. Superficially, it was the kind of genuinely awe-inspiring cinematic spectacle I’ve been craving since, honestly, seeing Independence Day way back in July 1996. Last summer, part of me expected Guillermo del Toro’s similar giants-destroy-cities flick Pacific Rim to elicit that response, but that film’s CGI bombardment left me numb and questioning if Hollywood could ever make me feel like I did when I first saw Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. You know, the sensation of feeling like a little kid again. Godzilla, though, did just that.
Directed by indie filmmaker gone big Gareth Edwards (Monsters), this new Godzilla is an anti-blockbuster blockbuster. Rather than assault viewers with visual grandiosity like, say, Michael Bay, Edwards harkens back to the old Spielbergian penchant for patience and childlike wonder, the former of which Spielberg first made evident in Jaws by withholding clear shots of his killer shark until late into the film. Edwards employs that same approach to revealing his film's Godzilla. Thankfully, when 'Zilla does show up, he’s a jaw-dropper. Think the original 1954 Godzilla’s eponymous monster but more lifelike than ever before and injected with more steroids than Alex Rodriguez.
Edwards' film isn't perfect. Opening up as a characters-first look at fathers, sons, and grief, Godzilla gradually—and, some might say, destructively—shifts its focus away from its non-monsters and, subsequently, a few key story payoffs land with whimpers instead of the filmmakers' intended heartbreaks. Also, though it's being sold as the Bryan Cranston extravaganza, and for good reason, Godzilla is really Aaron Taylor-Johnson's (a.k.a. Mr. Kick-Ass) show, and the charisma and presence Taylor-Johnson displayed in those Kick-Ass movies is non-existent here. His bland heroism flirts with Hayden Christensen comparisons.
Mercifully, Edwards times Taylor-Johnson's character's ascension to Godzilla front-man status with the monster's arrival, meaning the actor's woodenness can be easily overlooked. Whenever Taylor-Johnson's being vanilla, Godzilla is always nearby, ready to deliver on the film's $160 million budget's promises. That's when the Jurassic Park vibes come into play.
Through its handling of the towering beast, Godzilla brought me back to when I was around nine years old, to one morning in particular. It was Christmas 1991. My parents, older brother, and I lived in a rather small apartment in Fair Lawn, NJ, a pad so tiny that I could take two steps out of the bedroom I shared with my brother (I had dibs on the bottom bunk) and touch our big, lovely Christmas tree.
That Christmas morning, I didn’t just walk out of our room and into the living room where the tree was positioned—I jetted out of there Ricky-Henderson-fast. I also screamed like a little girl, though, because my big present that year was a blow-up doll of Godzilla, my favorite movie monster at the time, thanks to my dad introducing me to director Ishirō Honda’s still-awesome 1954 film earlier that year. The inflatable beast was stood up facing the hallway, its small but potentially deadly (in a child's eyes) arms pointing towards our room. I turned the corner, saw Godzilla, and jumped about 10 feet in the air before yelling for dear life. Of course, moments later, once my parents ran out to see what was up, realized what had happened, and started our Christmas morning in a fit of laughter, blow-up Godzilla and I were best friends.
In Edwards’ film, the first full-blown look at Godzilla happens following a brilliantly staged set-piece in Honolulu. One of the film’s two monstrous antagonists, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), is about to wreck shop outside of an airport and alongside of a train car. But the MUTO doesn’t know that Godzilla’s awakened, exited the ocean, and is ready to beat the piss out of it. Edwards deftly inter-cuts the MUTO’s impending destruction with shots of the ocean water submerging the city’s streets, hinting at Godzilla’s grand entrance but saving the big guy’s debut appearance for an epic, slow-pan-upward shot of the god standing feet away from the MUTO. Godzilla emits his trademark roar just as the camera fastens on a still image of him. It’s the moment I caught at SXSW back in March during a Godzilla sneak preview, and I can still recall the euphoric rush that came over me. I didn’t shriek like nine-year-old me on Christmas morning, 1991, but the response was no less overwhelming.
Now that I’ve seen Godzilla in its entirety, though, that Honolulu sequence is no longer the film’s most representative moment in my mind. That comes later into Edwards’ blockbuster, after Godzilla has scrapped with a MUTO, been knocked to the San Francisco concrete, and is lying there in visible pain as a building covers his legs. Edwards plays the moment for maximum emotional impact by having the film’s human hero, military man Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson), stop whatever army-guy action he’s doing and look over at the fallen Godzilla. They acknowledge each other’s bravery, and, although it’s brief, they share an understanding. It’s an unexpectedly touching scene that most, if not all, other summer blockbusters ever made about giant monsters never attempt. It’s clear evidence that Gareth Edwards, much like myself, loves Godzilla.
In our interview, Edwards said this about that scene: “I love it when you get the audience to wish for an outcome and then you give them that outcome and you want them to wish they’d never asked for it. You want to say, ‘Please get Godzilla! Please stop him! Please make all of this destruction stop happening!’ And then when it happens and you get to that point, you go, ‘Wow, I actually feel really bad. I don’t want this to happen anymore’… In a way, that moment feels like someone putting down an animal.”
Little did Edwards know that, with those words, he was speaking directly at me both literally and figuratively. He’d nailed why the Godzilla/Ford moment hasn’t left my thoughts since it happened two weeks ago.
Edwards’ Godzilla has allowed me to finally come to terms with the worst experience of my life so far: the time I had put to my dog, and the best friend I’ve ever had, Zoey, to sleep.
To help you understand the connection Zoey and I had, I should start from the beginning, albeit in short (this isn’t a personal memoir, after all). Before my senior year of high school, when the combination of athletic success, academic triumph, and a tight-knit group of awesome friends gave me some much-needed personal confidence, I was the opposite of self-assured. Especially at the beginning of freshman year, when I didn’t know anybody at Paramus Catholic High School and entered the first day of school with an almost paralyzing mixture of fear and self-loathing. There was a silver lining that day, however. That night, after dinner, my family and I were going to a nearby kennel to get our first dog. This, mind you, was happening after my brother and I had to sign a hand-written contract for my mother, promising that we’d take care of the dog. We decided on a German Shepherd puppy after the pint-sized pooch strategically jumped on my skeptical mom’s lap first. Zoey, which we named her by picking up a baby name book and landing on the last name in it, played my mother like a fiddle. It was love at first sight for us all.
The next day, school was, unsurprisingly, semi-traumatic. I didn’t talk to anyone. I watched pretty girls pass me by like The Pharcyde and felt like not a single one of them knew I even existed. During the bus ride home, my Discman played Outkast's "ATLiens" on loop, with producers Earthtone Ideas' spacey beat lend a sense of other-worldliness to the trip. Because of “ATLiens," I’d forgotten about who was waiting for me at home: Zoey, inside the cage in her new domain, the place occupied by the owners she’d only known for less than 24 hours. Still, despite that unfamiliarity, she leaped right into my arms once I unlocked her cage. And she remained in my arms for a solid 15 minutes. In those minutes, all of those high school girls who’d ignored me and guys I’d been to nervous to buddy up to were meaningless. I had a new best friend. High school, and everything after it, wouldn’t be so bad.
Flash forward 13 years to 2009. I’m watching a press screener DVD copy of the silly horror-comedy Dead Snow on our couch. Zoey, now fully grown but just as loving and amazing as she was back then, walks towards our back door and, suddenly, her front legs give out, and she can’t pick them back up. There’s a look of confusion and terror on her face, mirroring my own facial expression.
That was, essentially, the beginning of the end. A few weeks later, the decision was unavoidable: we had to put Zoey down. She wasn’t getting any better; in addition to the physical ailments that made walking increasingly difficult for her, her hearing had lessened, and she became distant. The night before we brought her to the veterinarian, I stayed up late with her, sitting next to her on the kitchen floor, in the spot behind the dinner table that she’d claimed as her own a decade or so earlier. Petting her head, I told Zoey how much I loved her, and how I never would’ve made it though my freshman year of high school without her. She looked back at me, but I couldn’t tell if she knew it was speaking to her, or if she knew anything whatsoever anymore.
What got me through that night? Believe it or not, an R&B song about a dude's love for a woman: Mario's "Thinkin' About You," a romantic, not-at-all-about-canines record that, for some reason, encapsulated everything I wanted to say to a suffering dog unable to register my sentiments. I queued the song up on iTunes and listened to it on repeat until sleepiness settled in.
That next morning, my parents and I didn’t say a word to one another. To get Zoey into the back of my mother’s Dodge Durango, I had to pick her up and place her in, but she felt like dead weight. There was no life left in her. I had to then carry her into the vet’s office and place her on the operating table. The whole thing didn’t seem real. It didn’t compute that this was the last time I’d ever see my best friend. Instinctively, I put my hand over her froth left paw, got down on my knees, and was eye-to-eye with her as the vet injected the needle into her side. We looked into each other’s eyes, but as her eyelids slowly began to shut, I lost it. Breaking into the most intense shower of tears I’ve ever had, I let go of her paw, fled the room, ran outside past a group of other people waiting with their own dogs, and sat on the parking lot’s ground, my head in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
And it’s one of my biggest regrets. On one hand, I take comfort in knowing that I was the last thing Zoey saw on this earth, but that final image also includes me running away from her. That’s something I’ve been unable to reconcile.
Two years back, I tried writing a short story, titled “To See Her Again,” and admittedly inspired by Ray Bradbury's sensibilities, about that day because writing, of course, is a great way to work through life’s hardships and heartaches. The story’s protagonist is named Mike, and he’s in a heavy depression that’s making him stay home from work. The depression stems from the death of his dog, Zayda, whom he watched die in his arms on a veterinarian’s table a few days beforehand. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep. But one afternoon while he’s playing hooky, Mike knocks out on his couch and gets woken up by something cold and wet licking his face—it’s Zayda, back for one more moment together. They play Frisbee (Zayda’s favorite pastime in life), lie on the ground together, and Mike gets to tell Zayda, one final time, that he loves her so damn much. He then lets her out into the backyard, like he used to whenever she had to do numbers one or two, and she evaporates into thin air. And Mike smiles. His depression is over. Closure is his.
Yet it still wasn't mine. While writing “To See Her Again,” I cried a ton, just as I’ve teared up or gone into momentary funks whenever my brain flashes back to that morning in the vet’s office. Which happens quite often, mainly because I’m now the proud owner of my second German Shepherd, this one named Abbey, and she looks a hell of a lot like Zoey. Thinking about Zoey, the good times and that one bad time, is inevitable around Abbey. So imagine my nervousness when that scene in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla happened, the one shared between a hurting, possibly dying Godzilla and Ford Brody. With the monster lying down and Ford glaring into its eyes, it’s a spot-on reenactment of mine and Zoey’s farewell. Like Edwards said himself, “That moment feels like someone putting down an animal.” I thought I was about to sob in a theater packed with my professional peers and Warner Bros. Pictures’ executives. I didn’t know what to do.
A funny thing occurred, though—no waterworks ran down my face. For the first time since 2009, I remembered my unbearable goodbye to Zoey with happiness, not sadness. I think it was because, deep down, I knew that Godzilla would get back up and save the day. Edwards, nor the Warner Bros. big-wigs, would end a PG-13, kid-friendly summer blockbuster by killing off the almighty, beloved “King of All Monsters.”
How exactly can a fictional movie monster’s ability to rise back up from near-death make me feel better about abandoning Zoey right before she died? Honestly, I don’t know, I won't hesitate to say that I owe it to Gareth Edwards. Knowing that he cares enough about Godzilla, a character that meant so much to me as a kid, to align the monster’s struggles to those of a family dog on its deathbed somehow reaffirms my own love for both Godzilla and the late, singular, life-changing (for me, at least) Zoey.
That’s how I’ll forever process Godzilla, summer 2014’s most important blockbuster for someone who’s spent the last four years searching for an elusive coping mechanism. And now that I’ve been given that, my love for two of the best friends I’ll ever have is that much stronger, even if one of them wasn’t real.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who hopes everyone reading this has known their own Zoey at some point in their lives. He tweets here.