If you know me at all, you know I love Godzilla and his kaiju friends. So, I couldn’t pass up the chance to share all my many thoughts about the new film, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Now, this is a very spoilery collection of my thoughts on the film, so if you have not seen it, well… turn back now.
You've been warned.
Let me start off by saying that I love the Gareth Edwards 2014 Godzilla. I know not everybody does. There are plenty of complaints about a lack of Godzilla and a slower pace. My only real lasting complaint is that Ford Brody (and the performance of Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is weak and dull. I really admire a lot about the movie, though. It’s about being humbled before nature and has a dark, graceful quality to it that you don’t often see in these big studio franchise starters. Some images from the film, notably the flares attached to soldiers diving to a burning San Francisco, are already iconic in a Hollywood system that churns out so much CGI spectacle that looks the same.
In the years since the film's release, a consensus formed that betrays the strong box office and critical response that the film got in 2014. Bit by bit, the Edwards Godzilla was losing its audience, and those who liked the film were becoming outnumbered by those who found it boring or complained about its lack of screentime for its kaiju star. And though WB/Legendary were keen to keep Godzilla as the center of their new MonsterVerse of connected kaiju films (Kong: Skull Island was the second entry), one got the impression that they were also trying to put some distance between the Edwards film and the sequels going forward. The studio, I think, listened to the detractors of the 2014 film, despite the success it'd had. And they made sure that the sequel would respond to those complaints: more Godzilla, more action, less drama. I saw all of that coming before I sat down to watch King of the Monsters. I knew it was going to be very different than the Edwards film. And yet, I still underestimated just how different it would be.
The Gareth Edwards Godzilla is a grim sci-fi drama. The Dougherty King of the Monsters is a sci-fi action movie with super jets, apocalyptic monster invasion on a global scale, and a straight sprint of a plot that rarely slows down after the prologue. A Terrence Malick aficionado could find something to love about the 2014 film. King of the Monsters is more like… well, it's more like everything else. And that's both good and bad, I figure. I think it will have a wider appeal (though its box office this summer has disappointed), but it'll also be forgotten quicker.
All right, I'm done talking legacy and comparing it to the 2014 film. Let's really dive into this thing.
STORY & CHARACTERS
After the prologue, which connects the Russell family to the events of the 2014 film, the film spends some time getting us caught up with the world that knows monsters exist. (It's interesting to me that Hollywood films have to do this, but Toho kaiju films rarely feel the need.) The Senate hearing sequence gives Serizawa and Graham, the best human characters of the Edwards film, a chance to speak for peace with the Titans (I'm kinda eh on the term 'Titans' but whatever, general audiences may think 'Kaiju' is a Pacific Rim term and simply calling em 'Monsters' isn't inventive enough). I wish this scene was longer, darker, sadder. It's basically about scientists arguing to save Godzilla from extinction (Serizawa reminds me of 1954's Dr. Yamane here) to an uncaring political body, much like scientists today begging politicians to believe in climate science. But it's cut short and then we kinda forget the dramatic weight of the scene as the Verizon Guy sends us out with a laugh (taking over the dramatic weight of a scene with a comedic sendoff happens a lot, actually).
I like how, on rewatch, the dialogue between mother and daughter Russell in the kitchen at the Mothra outpost has dual purposes. You watch it the first time and you're like, oh they're worried about dad. Watch it a second time and you realize they're plainly talking about their plan to unleash the kaiju and how dad's "in the safest place he can be" is in relation to the Monarch facilities they are set to attack. Also, when Emma Russell tells another scientist to get some rest, you realize she's actually trying to save him. It's actually really well written.
So the Russell ladies get 'abducted' and Monarch calls in Mark Russell, the estranged father. I like Kyle Chandler. An incredibly natural actor. And I like his grief-stricken, rage-driven character. But I don't like how, when Mark returns to Monarch, he becomes the expert or lead guy there pretty quickly, despite Serizawa and Graham seeming to know more about this shit than he ever will. Why is Serizawa asking him what to do? Gah. You're Ken Watanabe, you tell us what to do, man.
Charles Dance and his pack of mercenaries are teaming up with the Russell ladies because they built the Orca, a device that can speak to the Titans and put them under their control like some Dog Whisperer device. They wanna rebuild the world by restoring a natural order, asking humanity to coexist with Titans, no matter the initial casualties their attack will cause. I like this plan. I know others have complained 'it makes no sense' but I don't see it that way. It's a timely, politically motivated sci-fi end-of-the-world plot where you kinda see the villain's POV has some valid points. And one imagines that had they not awoken Ghidorah, maybe things would've been all right.
What I don't like is the Orca.
The central theme of 2014's Godzilla, spoken aloud by Serizawa before the final act, was "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control and not the other way around." King of the Monsters throws that out the window almost immediately because the Orca does exactly that: it puts nature under our control. And I hate it. I feel you can mess with the action and tone for a sequel but upending the original's central thesis seems a bit much. What's more, it's just a kinda lazy plot device. I am glad it goes kablooey by the end.
The bad guys mess up by waking Ghidorah, who crows like a rooster and wakes up a bunch of kaiju that I really hope we get to know more about in future films. There's something of a blank spot in the story that I wish could've been explored more thoroughly as the nations of the world come to face their extinction. The time between the Rodan chase and Mark giving up and ready to spend the last days with his daughter is pretty quick. Dougherty has mentioned that there was once a three-hour cut of the film before they edited it down. I know nothing about the deleted footage, but I'm going to guess that some of it came into play here. Yes, clearly I want to see more of those weird new kaiju blowing up stuff Destroy All Monsters-style, but also dramatically it feels like we skip a chapter here before Mothra shows up and says "hey you guys, I know where Godzilla lives."
Speaking of where Godzilla lives: holy shit I love that concept. I could've spent 30 minutes in that underwater section and been happy. Both the Edwards and Dougherty films have some striking similarities to the Heisei Gamera trilogy, which saw Gamera as a balancing force who was once valued by a long forgotten people.
In addition to showing something in common with Heisei Gamera, King of the Monsters has a lot in common with Heisei Godzilla movies. One recurring trend in those films was it had the human characters observing the action from a control room. King of the Monsters puts that control room on the go in the form of the Argo. I didn't like the Argo at first, because it's such a leap into sci-fi territory. But I've come to appreciate it more now. Monarch in the 2014 film has a vaguely X-Files vibe to it, what with the redacted credits, secretive black helicopters, and a Smoking Man-ish man of mystery in the form of Dr. Serizawa. In KOTM, Monarch is the G-Force of the Heisei era, showing up everywhere with their logo on their vehicles, flying around in a super jet (they should've called the Argo the Super-X, damn it), and sending attack teams to secure targets. I'm not 100% sure this is the more interesting form for Monarch to take but it's entertaining because it really feels like a Heisei Godzilla movie. And, I'd be willing to bet, if KOTM was a Japanese film from the 90s complete with subtitles, it'd be the easy fan favorite of the Heisei series.
There’s been some complaints about lackluster characters in the film but I just don’t see that. I think, generally, this is a pretty good ensemble with four solid characters at the core. I will say, though, we did not need both Bradley Whitford and Verizon Guy. They essentially play the same character, that of the Monarch comic relief, and (shockingly) Verizon Guy is the more likable of the two. Whitford, who I usually like a great deal, could've been cut entirely and I wouldn't have missed him.
I liked the way the characters and the monsters interacted in the action. The Rodan chase over the sea is the best of such sequences. But I did not like how they returned to the same action resolution time and again where all looks lost and then Godzilla shows up at the last second to save people. Happens on the ice, happens over the water, happens in Boston, maybe even happens a fourth time, not sure. Once or twice, okay cool. Three or more times? Learn a new trick. Hey, it's my blog, I'm allowed to nitpick.
I like all the monsters. This might be the first Godzilla movie where I walked out thinking, man that could’ve used more Mothra. Because she’s cool in this -- cool and different! Rodan was also very cool. Sometimes Rodan can be an afterthought but they really tried to give him his due here. Ghidorah fucking shit up in the Antarctic is scary. This Ghidorah design isn’t my favorite but hey, gotta love seeing Ghidorah in an American movie. And Godzilla’s such a handsome fella, such a good boy.
Sometimes I think the kaiju fights were filmed a little too close-up. Like they needed to pull the camera back some, let us see the whole beast. It wasn’t always easy to tell what was happening. And Dougherty's love for the quick zoom is the biggest departure, visually, from Edwards' more graceful imagery, which was all about lending the action with a sense of epic scale.
FOR THE FANS
Other than Godzilla: Final Wars, KOTM has maybe the most nods to older Godzilla films in the 65 year series. There are so many that will go right over the head of general audiences. It's fun to see a Godzilla movie that clearly had fans in mind.
First, I love love love the Bear McCreary score. What a gift that score is to old school Godzilla fans.
The Oxygen Destroyer is wasted. Seriously. What a waste. Thing shows up and it's like, ooo. And then we get dead fishies and then… okay that's it then. It has no further plot relevance other than it messes Godzilla up for Act 2. Any other modern WMD could've done that but they went for a fan nod and the result is it lessens the importance of the Oxygen Destroyer. I gotta wonder if a non-Godzilla fan watching the movie thought of that scene. The admiral just says "we've been developing a new weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer" and that's all the buildup we get.
I loved that the Outposts were numbered after the years when the kaiju originally appeared. #54: Godzilla. #56: Rodan. #61: Mothra.
Outpost #32 seems to be a nod to The Thing, not a kaiju film but a horror classic that must've been a big influence on Dougherty. They even slip a line from The Thing into this section of the film.
We also get the MonsterVerse take on 'Burning Godzilla' in the final act.
REALLY wish this wasn't spoiled in marketing, but whatever. I'm a little mixed on how much I love the KOTM Burning Goji. Design-wise, it's fine if unremarkable. I do love the atom bomb-like explosion that radiates out from it, and watching the world melt wherever it walks is truly something. But the lead-up to this moment feels weak, especially when Godzilla fans have seen it done far more dramatically before.
We get a couple jokes "Has he been working out?" "Serizawa's got that lizard juiced!" and the humor is used to explain what will soon happen to Godzilla. In a way, this kinda lets us know that, for Godzilla anyway, it's nothing to worry about. It's a cool thing to lift from the Toho films, but also doesn't add a whole lot.
The end credits sum up post-film events and hint at the Kong conflict to come. But there's other fun stuff to look for, like hints at a robot creature and journalism written by Steve Martin, the Raymond Burr character from the US edit of the 1954 original and Godzilla 1985. That's a cool wink to the fans, I don't care whatcha say.
SEARCHING FOR MEANING IN GOD(ZILLA)
Beyond the kaiju action, what King of the Monsters is about is people of strong beliefs seeing those beliefs challenged. Mark Russell believes the Titans must be destroyed -- but comes to understand Godzilla is a necessary force for the planet to survive. Emma Russell believes that the Titans taking over is the only way to save the Earth -- but comes to understand that she made a horrible mistake. Serizawa believes that the immortal Godzilla is the key to coexistence -- but comes to see how mortal the ancient beast truly is. The military believes in their weapons of war -- only to realize that they need to rely on nature to do its job while they play more of a support role.
On my third viewing of the film (yes, I saw it three times in its first month), something strange clicked in my head…
Holy shit, this is a Star Trek movie.
Listen: the Argo is the Enterprise, Mark Russell is Kirk, Dr. Serizawa is Spock, and (here it gets fuzzier but stay with me) Godzilla is the Klingon Empire. Mark rages against Godzilla who he blames for killing his boy. This is very similar to Kirk blaming the Klingons for killing his son and the lasting grudge he holds against their race. Like Kirk, Mark comes to understand that only with some sort of fragile alliance with Godzilla will there ever be peace.
Serizawa is like Spock in more ways than just being the wise man on the ship. He even sacrifices himself in a radioactive hell like Spock did. Also note the ship that Serizawa rides into Godzilla’s domain. Very similar to the coffin that they put Spock into before sending him off into space.
The crew of the Argo operates similarly to the Enterprise as well, with characters jerking back and forth when the ship is flying through troubled skies.
On Serizawa’s sacrifice: dang, what a bummer, really liked that guy. But, considering his name is shared by the sacrificial hero of the original film, I figured he’d get a moment like this someday in the MonsterVerse. Here’s my thing, though: while I think it makes sense plot-wise, and even character-wise, something bugs me about it. In the lead up, we see Serizawa looking upon his Hiroshima watch again. This then leads to Serizawa giving his biggest speech in the film, a good scene about living with our demons, that is partially undone by a fortune cookie joke at the end. Ignoring the joke for a sec (it’s hard but I shall try), this talk about forgiving the demons that left their scars has some dual meaning as he’s trying to convince Mark to forgiven Godzilla, while he’s also holding the Hiroshima watch and on a ship with Americans. I can’t decide if Serizawa using a NUCLEAR BOMB for good confuses the themes of his character arc or enhances it. I'll let you be the judge.
In addition to talking about characters of strong beliefs: this is a surprisingly religious Godzilla movie. The shot of King Ghidorah atop a volcano with cross in the foreground might be a little on the nose but I think it sells the theme for those curious if it was all just accidental. While the Russells view the Titans as animals, Serizawa, Graham, and Dr. Chen see them as something more spiritual. There is a lot of talk about “the first gods.” Chen refers to Ghidorah as “a false king” but she might as well call him a false god. Mark Russell’s inner turmoil about whether to accept Godzilla as the world’s savior can be likened to a man struggling with a loss of faith as he rages against God. And even Serizawa’s hauling the nuclear bomb up those steps to where Godzilla waits has striking similarities to Christ carrying the cross.
So, I've seen KOTM three times so far...
First viewing: I liked this movie but it was so different from what I expected/wanted it to be, which was a more action-heavy take on the Edwards formula. Instead, it was very sci-fi, and really lacked some of the grace that Edwards had delivered.
Second viewing: I knew what it wasn’t and was able to enjoy it more for what it was, which is a fun monster movie. Far from perfect, but I like its energy and sense of wonder.
Third viewing: So it’s a Star Trek movie about forgiving those who harmed us while searching for faith in God… basically.
To sum up: I like King of the Monsters. I don’t quite love it and honestly probably rank it at the bottom of the three MonsterVerse releases so far. But it’s a lot of fun, with some of the coolest Godzilla moments ever put on screen (the big guy rising out of the ice to fight Ghidorah is one of his best entrances).
It’s too bad the film really did not find an audience this summer. I tend to think it’ll do well at home, but what do I know? The marketing was good (that first Comic-Con teaser was HUGE online), but either audiences were too distracted by other titles (*shakes fist at Disney*), the wait of 5 years between sequels was too long, or the feelings toward the 2014 film really hurt KOTM. I don’t know.
Gotta hope that next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong has more success finding its audience because… I want more of these movies, you guys. Imperfect though they may be, they’re full of wonder and amazing moments that make me feel like a kid again. I am looking forward to seeing King of the Monsters in theatres one more time at G-Fest in July, surrounded by other Godzilla fans. Should be fun.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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