Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2019)

35. Godzilla: King of Monsters

Given his sixty year legacy in cinema, Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers were obviously eager to launch a franchise with 2014's “Godzilla.” After developing a new “King Kong” film, Legendary even decided to form their own cinematic universe: The simply named Monster-Verse.  Yet a direct sequel to their “Godzilla” was slow-going. Gareth Edwards, initially set to return, jumped ship to Disney to make a “Star Wars” movie. After finding a more-than-antiquate replacement in the form of “Krampus'” Michael Dougherty, the release date to the perfectly entitled “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” kept being pushed back. After a five year wait – during which Toho released one live action and three animated Godzilla flicks – the King has finally returned to American theater screens.

In the years since Godzilla and the MUTOs rampaged through San Francisco, monster-tracking government agency Monarch has discovered dozens of massive beasts – dubbed Titans – hibernating around the globe. Dr. Emma Russell has developed a device nicknamed the ORCA which can pacify or even communicate with them. During the first test on a newly hatched Mothra, Russell, her teenage daughter Melinda, and the ORCA are taken by eco-terrorists. They intend to free all the Titans, letting the monsters reclaim the Earth. They first release Monster Zero, the most dangerous of the newly discovered creatures. Monarch, working with Emma's estranged husband Dr. Mark Russell, track Emma, the ORCA, and Godzilla, the only Titan strong enough to stand against the fearsome King Ghidorah.

I loved 2014's “Godzilla” but it was clearly a divisive film. Following its release, fans complained that the movie didn't have nearly enough giant monster action. That the film's tendency to cut away from the action was irritating, not interesting. Dougherty's “King of the Monsters” can only be seen as a direct response to Legendary's previous G-flick. The film has four marquee monsters, assembling Toho's most well-known and beloved kaiju. Aside from those creatures, the movie has even more original monsters in it. Such as the mammoth-liked Behemoth, the spider crab inspired Scylla, and a dozen other beasts named for other mythological beings. Huge chunks of the film's runtime is devoted to monster action. This is a sequel clearly designed to appease fans who were underwhelmed last time.

While such course correction could've been overzealous, “King of the Monsters” is so clearly made by fans. The film is peppered with homages to Godzilla's greater cinematic legacy. The score features segments of the beloved “Godzilla” and “Mothra” themes, a fantastic inclusion as Akira Ifukube's music was sorely missed from the 2014 film. The film is as faithful to the monster's established origins as possible, putting clever spins on many of them. Mothra's priestesses, Ghidorah's cosmic origins, and Rodan being born of volcanic fire are maintained but in delightfully unexpected ways. Even more fantastically shocking are homages to the original film's ending, “Godzilla vs. Megalon” and “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.” (And even unexpected shout-outs to other films, like “The Giant Claw” or “The Thing.”) Edwards and Dougherty's styles are united by a key ingredient. Both approach the famous kaiju with as much respect as possible.

You can see this in how the movie treats it titanic characters. Godzilla's characterization is different from what we see in the Japanese film. Instead of being the Earth-searing embodiment of nuclear annihilation or a chaotic neutral force of nature, the American Godzilla is mostly a good guy. He's a cinematic superhero, in keeping with the big budget Marvel and DC films that dominate the modern box office. Yet there are hints that this Godzilla's tolerance of humanity has its limits. He still has no regard for the little things under his feet. More than once, Godzilla sends an intimidating signal to human scientists or a grouchy sneer towards a ship. It's different but as valid an interpretation of Toho's beast as any other that has existed over the years. Most importantly, even if he is something of a guardian to humanity, Godzilla is still a mythic figure.

That the creatures are allowed to maintain so much of their personality is vital. Let us examine King Ghidorah. The tri-headed dragon is surprisingly expressive. His heads frequently feud among themselves, bickering for control. (This is something I've been wanting to see in all the years I've spent watching “Godzilla” movies.) If Godzilla is the movie's hyper-destructive superhero, Ghidorah is its truly diabolical supervillain. His characterization is nothing less than Satanic, such as when he poses darkly against a cross. His necks slithers across the ground like the serpent of Eden and he is locked in ice like Dante's Satan. In a touch I truly loved, Ghidorah is connected with the global archetype of the multi-headed serpent. He brings massive storms, like the dragons of old. Ghidorah is a grand villain, an almost sadistic glee shining through his reptilian eyes as he rains devastation down on the cities of man.

“King of the Monsters” has its hands full, introducing three iconic creatures in one motion picture. As a short cut, it applies the same grand but simplified characterization to its other monsters. The airborne creatures maybe get the shortest sticks. Mothra has a fantastic introduction, the giant larva crawling from her cocoon and filling the humans with both awe and terror. After metamorphosing into an enormous moth, Mothra continues to be a striking visual. The enormous insect's beauty and majesty is played up. She rains healing pollen from her wings and glows with brilliant color. Disappointingly, the film reduces Mothra's personality to basically being Godzilla's girlfriend, which definitely undersells how complicated the two kaiju's relationship is in the Toho films.

In the Japanese films, Rodan is the monster with the least well defined personality. Mothra was a benevolent protector of nature, Godzilla is an unpredictable force of nature, Ghidorah was a genocidal maniac from outer space. And Rodan was pretty much just a big pterosaur. So “King of the Monsters” makes the decision to turn Rodan into an all-purpose hench-monster. After receiving a quick beat down from Ghidroah, Rodan becomes subservient to the interstellar dragon. From that point on, he functions as the villain's second-in-command, even fighting with Mothra while Ghidorah is occupied with Godzilla. He serves his purpose in the story and it must be said that Rodan is still an incredibly expressive creature. However, as with Mothra, I do wish he was given a slightly more complex motivation.

While I have my qualms about the way the monsters are handled, I have no complaints from a design perspective. Godzilla was given a fantastic rework in 2014, lent a bear-like stature and crocodilian features to ground him in reality while still maintaining everything we visually associate with Godzilla. The same benefit is extended to the new introductions here. Rodan heavily resembles his Heisei-era “Fire Rodan” form, his stone-like tail feathers always trailing volcanic ash. Mothra looks more like a giant insect, combining elements from moths, wasps, and various flies. Ghidorah is given an incredible weight and heft. All the designs strike a perfect balance between gritty realism and the trademarks of the creatures as we know them.

That same realism is what directed most of Gareth Edwards' previous reboot of “Godzilla.” That film strove to establish the truly awe-inspiring scale of these mega-sized beasts, placing them in a real world setting. Michael Dougherty's approach is very different. He seems to draw direct inspiration from the “Godzilla” films of the Heisei period. The plot is directly concerned with human organizations tracking or seeking to exploit the giant monsters. This bends the film into a more outrageous direction, with contrived plot devices like the ORCA. That approach is also reflected in the film's dialogue, which frequently veers towards the campy. Some of these lines are kind of funny but others, like a fortune cookie reference, are real groaners.

Visually, Dougherty's approach is very different too. Early on, I was a little worried. The sequence devoted to the eco-terrorists gunning down Dr. Russell's associates or some of the military scrambles are full of the shaky-cam action theatrics that I just can't stand. I was getting worried. Luckily, the camera is crystal clear during the monster battles. (Which is a good thing, since most of the movie is composed of them.) The kaiju fights are never anything short of spectacular. Godzilla and Ghidorah's first melee among the arctic ice is enormous in scale, with gravity beams flying and monsters pushed through the air with atomic breath. Rodan's unleashing in Central America is one of my favorite action set pieces in the film. The giant pteradon levels the city with gale force winds, spinning through the air and snatching jets out of the sky. Godzilla and Ghidorah then have a rematch in the water, with a surprisingly frank decapitation.

By the time we reach the last act, the action has reached a truly apocalyptic scale. Ghidorah drops Godzilla out of the sky, using his necks as arms. The film finds constantly inventive ways to keep this titanic struggle fresh. The movie makes it clear that a giant monster invasion would mean the end of civilization as we know it. Entire cities are destroyed. DC is lost among massive flooding, generated by Ghidorah. Boston is completely wiped off the map. As Godzilla and Ghidorah wail on one another, with a scuffle between Mothra and Rodan going on at the same time, the immense power of these beasts is clearly established. Only a last minute writing decision – another of the film's more contrived touches – spares all of humanity.

And if you'll allow me to get a bit nitpicky... An extremely minor problem I have with the film is its loose approach to science. Edwards' film established that this Godzilla exists in a more realistic world than previous films in the series. Though a direct sequel, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” pretty clearly does not. I'm not even talking about the more fantastical monsters that are introduced. More times than I could count, characters in this film are tossed backwards by massive explosions. Nobody is knocked dead by concussions. Even more egregious is how often characters stand next to enormous fireballs or gigantic explosions of nuclear energy. Convection would burn everyone near-by to toast and all survivors would immediately be riddled with cancer. Of course, this is a ridiculous complaint, as most big blockbusters can be accused of this. But the weird push-and-pull the MonsterVerse has with reality took me out of the movie a few times. 

The most common complaint about Edwards' “Godzilla,” aside from there not being enough monster action, is that the human protagonists was a deeply un-charismatic block of wood. The sequel seeks to correct this by casting a colorful character actor in nearly every part and letting them play to type. In other words, the entire principal cast is populated with Bryan Cranstons. Vera Farmiga is a stern and slightly unhinged matriarch who spouts a lot of exposition. Kyle Chandler is a perpetually fed-up dad full of gruffly observed wisdom. Millie Bobby Brown is an adventurous and strong-headed teenager. Bradley Whitford is a deeply cynical smart-ass who often observes the action. Charles Dance is a villain who pairs his calculating nature with a colorful British accent. Zhang Ziyi is a wise Asian with unique insights. In this line-up, the returning Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins stand out a lot less, though both are still excellent. I, for one, think this was an excellent strategy. The human characters in “Godzilla” movies have always been of secondary importance to the monsters so slotting them into easily understood archetypes is a great short-cut.

You'll notice most of my complaints with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” haven't amounted to much more than bitchy fanboy nitpicking. And that's because I couldn't be more in the bag for this motion picture. However, I do think there is a serious flaw. “Godzilla” movies, even the silliest ones, are always about more than they appear. The original was about the atom bomb. “Shin Gojira” was about the Japanese government's mishandling of the 2011 Tohoku disaster. Edwards' “Godzilla” was awash in all sorts of millennial anxieties. So what is “King of the Monsters” about? It's not very clear. Nuclear energy is nothing but a plot device in this film, the real world ramifications stripped away. This becomes especially queasy during a sequence devoted to re-charging Godzilla via nuclear bomb.

The best I can tell is that Dougherty is making a movie about coming to peace with our place in nature. Mark and Russell lost a son during Godzilla's previous fight in San Francisco, splintering their relationship. Mark begins the film hating Godzilla but eventually helps save him. Likewise, the massively destructive Titans are as capable of saving the Earth as they are destroying it. Perhaps Dougherty is spreading a message about mankind living in balance with the natural world? But it's not very clearly expressed. This is a big, comic book-style, effects-packed blockbuster and I'm fine with that but I wish it didn't sacrifice some of the series' trademark substance.

Ultimately, I can't complain too much. I enjoyed this motion picture immensely. You can tell that Michael Dougherty is a true monster-loving Godzilla fan and that affection is evident all throughout “King of the Monsters.” Even though the sequel seeks to address the complaints of 2014's film, it has also received a wildly divisive reaction. The box office has been underwhelming too, probably due to the five year wait between films, that previous movie's mixed reception, or a packed summer movie environment. This has cast the future of the MonsterVerse into doubt. (Though not that much into doubt, as the heavily-foreshadowed “Godzilla vs. Kong” has already completed principal photography.) Whether the King of the Monster's latest adventure is commercially successful is still being decided but I absolutely had a blast watching it. [Grade: A-]

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