At The Movies - Godzilla And Friends
By Jordan Bosch
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an unusual beast.
Much like the title monster, it’s both misunderstood and chaotic.
Generally, I try to disregard critical consensus when seeing a movie, but I couldn’t help it with this one, because it’s reception intrigued me. Some of my favourite reliable critics hated it, while others loved it. Not often are major films like this so divisive among professional film writers (movies like The Last Jedi and Captain Marvel rather are divisive among “fans” -an important distinction).
King of the Monsters is certainly lousy in some respects, but legitimately great in others. The point of contention then is actually which of these really matter.
A follow-up to Gareth Edwards’ mediocre 2014 film, King of the Monsters charts the stories of a couple different parties tracking and studying behemoth monsters called Titans. Aligned with an eco-terrorist cell and in retribution for losing her son during Godzilla’s attack, Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) sets free a Hydra-like monster (King Ghidorah) as part of a plan to scorch the Earth and restart its ecological processes.
Her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), the latter working for the Monarch research organization, attempt to stop the rampage of the leviathan through bringing Godzilla into the fray as other Titans get involved, unleashing wanton destruction in their wake.
This movies’ plot doesn’t make a lot of sense and the screenplay is more than a little badly written, dotted with some utterly terrible dialogue and lazy contrivances. There’s also some questionable ethics at play, both of the kind presented as morally wrong in context, and some the film doesn’t seem to realize are highly problematic. And most of the characters are paper thin, as despite plenty of talent in the cast, only a handful are in any way engaging.
But how much do these things really matter in a Godzilla movie?
Because, let’s be honest, Godzilla and the related kaiju franchises to come out of Toho starting in the 1950s, are no paragons of cinema. They exist to be pulpy monster spectacles, not much more.
And as a pulpy monster spectacle, King of the Monsters is pretty satisfying. Great even! Though director Michael Dougherty doesn’t quite have the sense of scale that Gareth Edwards brought, he more than makes up for it with an array of stunningly composed shots.
There is some fantastic imagery in this film, Dougherty knowing just how to make these creatures look and feel intimidating and awesome to the degree ancient pagan gods should. All of the titans are rendered well and obviously have fun and creative designs. The film is also made fairly explicitly for the fans of the franchise, as in addition to Godzilla and Ghiodrah, Mothra and Rodan have big parts, and there are appearances from a number of other notable kaiju I’m sure the fans will recognize.
Their clashes are epic, creative, and exciting, and they have personalities that come through and distinguish them from each other. These aren’t just big monsters. I’ve never seen a Mothra movie, yet I instantly liked her in this.
But for as much as one might argue humans aren’t important in a kaiju movie, they are still a part of it, a big part; and so the human characters should be better defined. Brown, along with Zhang Ziyi and Ken Watanabe get by on the strength of their performances (and Watanabe’s Serizawa being the only memorable character from the previous film), but nobody else has any opportunity to transcend their clichéd writing, from Farmiga and Chandler to Bradley Whitford, Aisha Hinds, and Thomas Middleditch, to a thoroughly wasted Sally Hawkins and Charles Dance.
And while the Godzilla movies have never been starving for acclaimed, talented actors (the original 1954 film starred the legendary Takashi Shimura of all the best Kurosawa classics), it’s not much to expect they be given adequate material.
David Strathairn is in all of two scenes as some military commander whose role is purely to exposit -surely, they didn’t need an Academy Award nominee for that?
There’s a nuclear component to this movie as well that’s at best ill-thought through. It’s worth noting that while the initial Godzilla movie was somewhat a response to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ishirō Honda injected it with a lot of commentary on Cold War tensions, with much of the imagery in the destruction and aftermath being directly analogous to the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With that in mind, the way nuclear technology plays into setting up the climax of this movie where ultimately it’s framed in a positive light doesn’t quite sit right.
While the monsters in this film are more representative of climate change and natural disasters as they should be, nuclear anxiety remains the code to the kaiju movie tradition; so for this film to seemingly forget that (or overlook it, given it was made on this side of the Pacific) is more than a tad irresponsible.
Honestly I feel like the best Godzilla movie, and the one that would never happen, would be one that just eliminates people entirely. Sure, human civilization is needed for the giant lizard to stomp all over, but the focus on people is the main thing that brings Godzilla: King of the Monsters down -even if I can see what the studio was going for and like individual segments of it.
I don’t think anyone who goes in for the monsters, seeing them in their full glory, and seeing them fight is going to be disappointed. But for people expecting to see more from a movie that really wants to give them more…well, just be happy there’s no Matthew Broderick in sight.
Below is a historic trailer for Godzilla King of The Monsters from 1954.