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Godzilla vs. Million Dollar Arm: The Monster That Ate a Better Film

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BRYAN CRANSTON
Dave M. Benett via Getty Images

Early estimates show that the new film Million Dollar Arm pulled in only about $10.5 million domestically in its first weekend. It was torched by the atomic spitfire of Godzilla that took in about $93.2 million. It was no contest at all, nor did anyone expect it to be. Though it was a little painful to watch, particularly since Million Dollar Arm has a better story.

I made a career (and my retirement) by helping entertainment companies make and market blockbusters. Any way that a film can attain such impressive status is fair and noteworthy. The best way to achieve it is to have a spectacular, heartfelt story, impressive production values (such as special effects), and sizzling marketing. Avatar, a behemoth movie that registered $760 million in its domestic run, qualifies mightily in this regard. Some films achieve blockbuster status through great storytelling and production values even though they had pedestrian marketing. Some films achieved blockbuster status with so-so stories that were polished and made to sparkle with great production values and marketing.

Enter Godzilla.

Audiences give Godzilla a B+ CinemaScore which is an understandably tepid response to its story. After spending nearly an hour getting us to have empathy for the nuclear plant supervisor played by Bryan Cranston who suffered the agony of watching his wife die in a way directly related to the rebirth of monsters, the storytellers kill him off. This happened almost immediately after a lead scientist identifies how important Cranston's character is to understanding the monsters. The storytellers, I suppose, wanted us to transfer our empathy to his adult son. It didn't happen. And so the would-be hero who had the greatest motivation to kill the monsters dies too early. To make matters worse, Godzilla isn't the big bad. It's other beasts called MUTOS. The storytellers transferred villainy status from Godzilla to the MUTOS near the end of the film, making Godzilla the anti-hero of sorts, whose objective is to reinstate "balance." This is despite the fact that Godzilla destroyed San Francisco as much as the other guys did. This led to a confused narrative. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? We humans were pretty much moot in all of this; the end did not depend on much human intervention. We never even used advanced weapons upon the beasts even when we had plenty of earlier chances. In the end, Godzilla kills the two MUTOS and then slips away, I guess toward a sequel.

Anybody who remembers the original 1954 Godzilla film would recall why it was a blockbuster. It, too, had notable special effects for its day. But more than that, it had a cohesive story. Godzilla was the undisputed villain, a demon unleashed from mankind's use of nuclear weapons. It was a timely narrative about mankind's potential to self-destruct. The original story was also a tale about personal self sacrifice. In the end, Godzilla was killed and mankind was saved. This simple, uncomplicated narrative was powerful. The current story is more confused as I indicated, and much more reflective of the less compelling remakes of Godzilla films in the 1960's in which the beast turned increasingly friendly to mankind by battling other monsters such as Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.

Marketing and special effects, not story, made this recent Godzilla a monster film in its opening weekend. The advertising dialed up the tension by showing cities devastated (supposedly) by Godzilla, but they did not give us a clear view of the beast which heightened the suspense. The marketing, also quite cleverly, did not feature the MUTOS. There were only brief visual hints that could be detected only by those of us who remember the franchise of years past. The marketers were wise, I think, to obscure them. If this film had been billed as Godzilla vs. MUTOS, I think it would have achieved far less box office gold. The studio pulled a switcheroo.

Million Dollar Arm has a superior narrative, reflecting why audiences gave it an A- via CinemaScore. It is based on a true story of a down-on-his-luck sports agent who travels to India in search of pitchers good enough to try out for a major league baseball team back in the states. It's a splendid tale of young men in impoverished circumstances striving for better lives. This is juxtapose with the story of a sports agent who must learn to put business second and relationships first. That makes it more than just a movie about baseball, but I don't think audiences ever really knew that. Its marketing was tepid and its production budget, pegged at $25 million vs. Godzilla's $160 million, understandably lacked spectacle. But it wasn't meant to be spectacle. It was meant to be a simple story with heart. Its opening weekend schedule, pitting it directly against Godzilla, was an unfortunate blunder.

Whether Million Dollar Arm will grow a pair of legs next weekend or whether Godzilla will lose a couple remains to be seen. But we do know this; Godzilla ate Million Dollar Arm in their first weekend. Its monstrous special effects and gargantuan marketing budget easily overpowered a more endearing story that had Lilliputian-sized production and marketing.

We are truly in the monstrous age of blockbusters.