Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures, Toho

Director: Michael Dougherty

Writer: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi

Genre: Science-Fiction

Rating: PG-13

Gareth Edwards’ 2014 blockbuster release of Godzilla appeared in much the same way as its titular monstrosity did: massive, loud, and stomping around the box office and cinematic discourse like it owned the place.  Perhaps the timing for such a release was ill-advised, considering how commonplace citywide destruction had become by then.  Whether from the previous year’s ill-fated Man of Steel, the following year’s less-than-stellar Age of Ultron, or the third-party title Pacific Rim, it seemed as though viewers were growing weary of larger-than-life climatic battles that left whole citadels in ruin.

At the same time, it could also be said that Godzilla’s premiere couldn’t have come at a better moment, as it offered a priceless perspectival counter approach to much of what made for standard apocalyptic summertime fare.  Under Edwards’ direction, mankind was relegated to an exclusively observatory position, as nature herself balanced out with little to help from us.  If nothing else, it was an exercise in humility, even if many of us missed out on that angle.

It’s a bit disheartening to find our friends at Legendary Pictures have refurbished that ironically quiet brilliance into another desperate attempt at building their own cinematic universe after the likes of Marvel. With Avengers: Endgame now finished, it may very well be the case that the iron of public opinion on the cinematic universe project is hot enough to strike. I eagerly awaited the follow-up to Edward’s film with baited breath, despite it threatening to be overfilled with seemingly Godzilla’s entire rogue’s gallery. After having seen it, I have even greater confidence that we may very well have something more profound on our hands than what I first believed.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Extensive, near-constant violent scenes, generally involving giant monsters battling each other or humans running in terror (and often not making it). The giant monster battles are bloodless, even when one monster’s head is lopped off. People are crushed, eaten, set on fire, hurled through the air, dropped into vast pits, etc., though often in a faceless, far-away manner. Countless people are killed in giant accidents, but the camera doesn’t linger on their dead bodies, and viewers don’t see blood or gore.

Language/Crude Humor: One f-bomb. Swearing is infrequent but includes “s***”, “god**n,” “ass,” and “b****”.

Sexual Content: Mating is mentioned a couple of times in the context of the giant monsters–i.e. one creature is said to be heading toward another for “food, a fight, or something more intimate.”

Drug/Alcohol Use: One character sometimes has a beer on his desk and refers to drinking, but no one acts drunk, and no one actually drinks.

Spiritual Content: Polytheistic rhetoric is exchanged.

Other Negative Themes: Broken family tensions.

Positive Content: 

The movie’s central theme–that giant monsters may represent a way to halt humanity’s destruction due to pollution and overpopulation–is a powerful one, particularly when characters talk about ecological balance. But what the movie doesn’t say is that the balance would come about by wiping out a significant part of the world’s population, which is hardly a positive message.

Emma and Mark Russell are both brilliant scientists who are hoping to prevent war and destruction, but they go about their aims in different ways. Emma is the most complicated character; she’s willing to sacrifice many people for the greater good of humankind, but she wants to keep her own family members safe. Madison is an ethical young person who sees the flaws in her mom’s logic (but doesn’t have a better humanity-saving idea to offer).

Review

Recently, I’ve been pondering the purpose of danger and conflict in storytelling. It is a general axiom that once the conflict in a story is resolved, the whole drama has closed. Conflict is the energy, and maintaining that force throughout every story beat is vital to fixating engagement and seeing the arcs through to the end. With that established, it can often bring me to befuddlement to realize that I have such a deep affinity for stories and the art of storytelling.

I’m higher than average in the personality trait of agreeableness, and conflict (at least in the context of actual experience) is a major turnoff for me. I try to avoid it as much as I can there, but actively seek it out in the narrative arts. There are a few reasons why I think this ostensible contradiction is not only understandable, but healthy and constructive.

In many ways, we all tend to be fascinated with experiences that we would avoid at all costs in actuality. While many of us are fascinated by the sharks in aquariums, most of us would never wish to directly encounter one, least of all in its natural habitat. Similar analogies are made to train wrecks in regular parlance. They’re terrible tragedies, but we can’t help but be transfixed by them.

On at least one level, such disasters serve as humbling reminders of our own mortality and vulnerability. While few directly enjoy such harrowing implications, it seems as though a part of our psyches are seeking out the type of chaos that can help urge us to maintain internal order. Also, conflict and strife are a ubiquitous feature of the human experience.  Learning to assess and confront such troubles through narrative is something we’ve been doing since before we could write. Our capacity to consciously make sense out of our plights with fantastical narratives is among the many features of our being bearers of the Imago Dei as I understand it.

Gareth Edwards’ 2014 title Godzilla was something of a nebulous experience, in that it was quite familiar alongside other blockbuster spectacles of citywide destruction in the offerings of the time but also in many critical ways wholly distinct from the rest of the pack. One of the most common criticisms of that summer release was that the human characters were bland, uninteresting, and underdeveloped. There is no error at all in this, and in virtually any other movie, this would be solid grounds for demerit. In the context of Edwards’ monster flick, it serves a far greater purpose that I didn’t at first recognize. 

Much of what makes for typical popcorn fare is what can be considered an anthropocentric power fantasy. Seeing the might of human capability overcome just about anything through outrageous displays of fisticuffs and firepower is quite tantalizing to the egotistical side of our achievements. With that said, some perspective on our fragility and wretchedness is helpful for a more holistic angle on both our dramas and on ourselves. It is that, more than anything–even plot, which Edwards gave us in Godzilla.

Every dimension of both the 2014 release and, to a lesser extent, its follow-up Godzilla: King of the Monsters is seemingly intended to dwarf us as viewers. First, the sense of scale constantly put us in a very defensive and helpless position as we watched reckless forces of nature wage war above us with little or no concern for our place in the ordeal. When Godzilla first came to us in the original 1954 release directed by Ishirō Honda, he was born largely out of post-war Japan’s collective fear of nuclear weapons.  Under Edwards’ vision, he is reborn in at least one dimension out of a latent fear of our own insignificance. As Ken Watanabe’s character quips in steely reverence: “The arrogance of man is thinking that Nature is in our control, and not the other way around.”

Every action carried out by the lackluster human characters there proved to be either ineffective or even counterproductive.  Each weapon conjured up and launched at the massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) only served as a means to feed the creatures and aid in their natural aim of survival and reproduction. Repeatedly, Godzilla is referred to as a means of restoring balance to the world, and while the star of Honda’s film was eventually struck down by an atomic bomb somehow more destructive than the one that resurrected him from the deep, Edward’s monster trots about restoring order to the surface while hardly noticing us at all. This is what led David Ehrlich of The Dissolve to describe 2014’s Godzilla as “The first post-human blockbuster.” While I cannot entirely agree with Ehrlich’s rather misanthropic take on the film, I can certainly concur that it did do more in the way of “restoring balance” to the perspective of blockbuster filmmaking than many others seemed to recognize.

Where to go from there? Well, it was intended from the beginning that this was to be just the initial entry in a series of interconnected films, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised that Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters serves in one major way to introduce as many larger-than-life characters of Godzilla arcana as possible. Sure, only about four of them actually play any significant role in the plot, but at least it’s not as sloppy as Dawn of Justice stopping itself cold to play a series of teasers.

In fact, one of the most impressive feats of King of the Monsters is that, unlike many of the “Phase 2” entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it really feels complete in and of itself, even if you haven’t seen either of the two previous films in the MonsterVerse (I still haven’t seen Kong: Skull Island).  There’s quite a lot going on in this movie, both thematically and in terms of plot, but nothing ever seems extraneous or wasted at least on my first viewing.

The first notable change I noticed in King of the Monsters compared to the last Godzilla release was the major uptick in acting talent. Make no mistake, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, and Sally Hawkins are always a win, but when you bring in Vera Farmiga (arguably my favorite living actress) and some fan favorites from Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, color me captivated. Mind you, the human characters are still very much marginalized compared to the grand terrestrial meta-drama among the Titans (as the beasts, including Godzilla, are now called), but they also have more of an impact on that performance this time around.  One reveals near the third act and several Easter eggs dotted throughout hint at something of an uneasy relationship between humankind and the titans that is thousands or perhaps even millions of years in the making. It was this element in the lore of this cinematic universe that I found most intriguing.

Horror stories about the ocean are something of a cultural universal in actuality, one hinted at in a montage of still images opening Edwards’ earlier film. Every civilization throughout history has tales of terrifying monstrosities lurking in the great unknown of the earth’s seas, and such dread spawned from its being such a haven of grand mystery still lingers today. Scientists now know more about the surface of the moon than about the depths of the ocean, and we have an equally long-running tradition of projecting our worst fears unto anything beyond the purview of our understanding. So long as that is a tendency among us, there is a useful arena for monsters being rewritten as heroes (or at least complicated anti-heroes) in our fiction.

Of course, not all monsters are like the ones on Sesame Street, and there are those that truly warrant offensive and militant measures being taken.  The big baddie serving that position here is the three-headed lightning spewing dragon King Ghidorah. While the MUTOs of the earlier film were themed as just regular beasts of the field whose natural instincts to survive and thrive threatened the surface world in a way that Godzilla simply could not tolerate, Ghidorah is presented as a far more menacing and unnatural entity.  The increase in threat goes deeper as it goes wider, with Ghidorah not only positioning himself as the alpha of all the earth’s titans but the film contextualizing him as something akin to a foreign entity supplanting the earth’s natural order.

One of the most thematically powerful images that director Dougherty weaves here (and there are several) is a shot of Ghidorah sitting atop a blazing Mexican volcano, declaring his dominance while framed against a Christian cross in the foreground. This scene alone clearly paints up the reptile as a Satanic entity. On more than one occasion, Ghidorah is referred to as a “false king.” With that established, Godzilla’s arc in the film, even up to the point of his being assisted by another titan that in many ways resembles popular artistic renditions of the Holy Spirit, is well-contextualized in a familiar paradigm.

Even the music, here provided by Bear McCreary, the composer for last year’s interactive title God of War, accentuates the lore of the plot and the characters acting it out. To produce the score played against King Ghidorah, McCreary recorded exorcism chants performed by Japanese Buddhist monks. This approach both gives aesthetic homage to the franchise’s Far Eastern roots and further grounds the beast as quasi-demonic in nature. I’m sure many others who have contemplated the film’s score have found other nuggets of insight, but that’s the one that stood out the most for my observation.

While the “Christ vs. Satan” overtones are quite obvious, the idea of a supreme being over the whole scope is largely absent. One character at the sight of a disastrous scene remarks “Mother of God.” “She had nothing to do with this” comes a response from another. Whether that is to be read as merely the views of that character or the attitude of the film as a whole, I’ve yet to determine. The movie does seem to openly acknowledge a type of theism (polytheism more than anything). How far that’s meant to be taken has yet to be seen, I think.

Another noticeable demerit is that while the imagery that the film paints is mostly sublime, the technical quality of the CGI is somewhat weaker this time. Dips in animation and compositing quality are found here and there that didn’t threaten to take me out of the experience, but I’ve come to expect more from this team. More of a concern is that the catalyst to human characters unleashing the beasts is by adopting a view similar to that of Agent Smith of The Matrix fame. A scientist regards humanity as an infection evidenced by such things as overpopulation, pollution, and war. Very little is done explicitly to counter such thinking, though the events and lore of the film have something to say in opposition. Some may consider that too little, but it’s certainly grounds for discussion.

As far as a cinematic universe project that isn’t owned by Disney goes, Legendary’s MonsterVerse is doing quite well. Its ideas are just as big as its main characters, and the archeological Easter eggs leave much to speculation.  hile some of the more fundamental principles like pacing and character development leave something to be desired, if you’re hankering for some grade-A quality kaiju feasting, these folks have got you covered. I’ll be going back for seconds and thirds myself. Especially with next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong on the horizon.

 

Positives

+ More Godzilla! + Effective theming + Excellent cast + Magnificent imagery + Feels complete in itself

Negatives

- Incomplete thematic dimensions - CGI is inexplicably weaker this time around

The Bottom Line

It serves its target audience handsomely and leaves the rest much to chew on. An overall victory as far as I’m concerned.

 

8.4

Tyrone Barnes

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