Godzilla: King of the Monsters

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is not the perfect American Godzilla movie of our dreams, nor is it one that takes a thrillingly new angle on giant monsters, like SHIN GODZILLA did in 2016. Honestly I expected to like it more than I did, being a devotee of director Michael Dougherty’s previous movie, KRAMPUS. (He’s also the guy who wrote X-MEN 2, URBAN LEGENDS: BLOOD MARY and SUPERMAN RETURNS, and then wrote and directed TRICK ‘R TREAT) But this is the first time an American version feels to me like it’s completely in the spirit of the Japanese films from Toho Studios, particularly the “Heisei period” from GODZILLA 1985 to GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH (1995), so we’re getting there. As a monster fan apparently more forgiving than some of my friends, I found plenty to love about it.

The biggest problem is obvious, and difficult to avoid: an overestimation of how much we care about the scheme to set the monsters loose vs. just seeing the monsters get loose. It has a ridiculously packed cast of respectable actors. Ken Watanabe (UNFORGIVEN remake) and Sally Hawkins (I FUCKED A FISH MONSTER) return as Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham, scientists for the giant monster response agency Monarch. They’re teamed with Zhang Ziyi (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) as Dr. Chen, who I was too stupid to notice is two different characters who are twins (an homage to the twins in MOTHRA). Kyle Chandler (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) plays Dr. Mark Russell, who’s recruited by Monarch to try to find ex-MI-6 eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance, LAST ACTION HERO) who took Russell’s ex-wife Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, THE DEPARTED) and their daughter (Millie Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston’s daughter I assume) and their soundwave device ORCA (named after the movie, in my opinion), which he’s using to try to activate some or all of the 17 “Titan” monsters that have been discovered around the world.

Also on the Monarch team are wisecrackers Bradley Whitford (DESTROYER [not to be confused with DESTOROYAH]) and Thomas Middleditch (ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE), and they work with some military people including David Strathairn (THE BOURNE LEGACY) returning as an admiral and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (INGRID GOES WEST) as a soldier who seems like most of his part was cut out. Hell, might as well also throw in small parts for CCH Pounder (FACE/OFF) as a senator and Joe Morton (T motherfuckin 2) as a scientist who I read is the same character that Corey Hawkins played in KONG: SKULL ISLAND. But really how could anyone miss that he’s that same beloved character that I definitely remember so well, as we all do.

Okay, I admit that although I liked Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA in 2014 I’ve forgotten it so much that it was more than a week after seeing this new one that I realized Chandler and Farmiga weren’t in the first one. They just seem like the kind of people who would’ve been in it, I guess.

I enjoy Godzilla’s work despite that shit he tried to pull in my neighborhood a while back

I don’t know if you remember this, but when you started reading this review a couple days ago it was gonna be about a monster movie. I think you can see just from how long it took me to list the main human characters that there are a whole lot of opening acts to sit through before we get to the headliners: Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and the various monsters for whom he is king. But I don’t blame the filmatists for trying. I love KRAMPUS not only for the great creatures, but also because I relate to the cultural/political/class tensions between the two sides of the family that have to come together on Christmas, and I think it’s genuinely sweet to watch them bond through horror ordeal.

For a little bit it seemed like Dougherty (who wrote the screenplay with his KRAMPUS partner Zach Shields and GODZILLA/KONG writer Max Borenstein) might be doing a thing like that here, with the daughter Madison trapped between her divorced parents who have differing views on the controversial topic of “should we kill giant monsters or let them run around and destroy civilization to help the environment.” I like that Emma, Madison and Dr. Serizawa all respect the monsters as animals or dignified ancient beings and don’t believe in killing them. I always love that shit. And I like that much of this drama stems from the Russells seeing Godzilla close up (even Madison did, as a toddler), which would probly mess a family up. It’s like if you’re a priest and you get pissed on by Rawhead Rex. You don’t just go back to your normal routine. You change your whole world view.

But the movie is way too much about groups of experts looking at screens and explaining what’s going on with the monsters to get very emotionally invested in their relationships and beliefs.

(DEATH SPOILERS: There are two heroic sacrifices in this movie. One I think qualifies as terrible parenting. The other kinda offended me because why does the Japanese guy always gotta do a kamikaze thing? I know, honor and all that, but I don’t need Ken Watanabe to go out like Sonny Chiba in ACES: IRON EAGLE III. Even though I respect that he does it in, like, Atlantis or whatever.)

The movie treats its world very seriously, and isn’t afraid of being ridiculous. My favorite artistic license is that when Emma and later the admiral make speeches over video screens they apparently prepared montages for the occasion. Emma beams in via satellite to explain her plan, and her screen (not the movie itself) cuts to stock footage of the worldwide catastrophes she’s talking about. It’s like that detail I love in UNDER SIEGE 2 that Eric Dane apparently brought an Eiffel Tower backdrop with him when he hijacked the train.

I enjoy the tradition of rubber suit giant monsters attacking miniature model cities (or, let’s be honest, mostly staying out in the water or some mountains somewhere). I love that Toho has continued those techniques, now with digital elaboration. But I reject a notion I’ve heard that American Godzilla is wrong for being a digital creation. The opportunity here is an alternate take on the genre using Hollywood resources other than just the overqualified cast. I for one love seeing the increasingly realistic motion capture and animation techniques being used to depict these iconic characters with expressive faces and animalistic movements. Rodan and Mothra can really snap at people. Ghidora’s heads can strike like cobras.

And isn’t motion capture really just high tech man-in-suit? Since I am me I will make a huge deal out of the fact that martial artist T.J. Storm (BLACK COBRA, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA) still plays Godzilla. He also mo-capped Collossus in DEADPOOL and the big guy in THE PREDATOR.

American Godzilla is huskier than I’m used to, but maybe that’s a tribute to Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto. He takes the “King” in his title as literally as King Kong did in SKULL ISLAND, asserting bestial domination over all the others to become their official leader. (They come from a time before democracy was invented.) Since his arms are too short to do that with wing chun or jiujitsu he just uses radioactive powers. In the tradition of those ’90s Toho movies they come up with cool ways for him to light up from the inside and breathe searing firehose blasts of weaponized atomic reflux. Somehow Bradley Whitford knows that Godzilla’s radiation levels are getting higher and that he will explode in five minutes. I enjoy that type of preposterous exposition, but I propose that next time Godzilla should have a glowing area under his skin that blinks at an increasing rate as a countdown.

I was surprised and delighted that they were old-school-friendly enough to refer to the three headed dragon as “Monster Zero” before “King Ghidora.” They also said that he came from space, though they didn’t say Planet X or show what the people of said planet look like. I liked the theory that it makes him an invasive species, interfering with the natural order. And he just looks so vicious and cool in this incarnation. I’m really proud of Ghidora for having this moment to shine. I’ve been comparing him to Mark Dacascos in JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3.

From the trailers I was a little concerned they might treat Mothra as just another giant monster, but in fact they show her great respect. They call her “Queen of the Monsters,” they use her original theme music, they show her float in like a goddess with a blinding glow around her. But in this version she’s also very agile and capable of sticking Rodan like a pig. They also set up a Moonlighting style will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension with Godzilla by saying they have a symbiotic relationship. I like it although as far as I could tell it made no sense at all, since we’d seen Mothra born and then living under a waterfall and knew for sure she’d never even met Godzilla when that was explained.

Anyway, when she came to save Godzilla’s ass it was cool that they played her theme, but I also would’ve accepted “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man.”

What KING OF THE MONSTERS gets most right is the ‘God’ part of Godzilla and his colleagues. They’re always treated with absolute awe, an emphasis on their gigantic size, even when it’s just baby caterpillar Mothra (who Madison gets to pet on the nose, hopefully imprinting on her for future movies – we all want to see a human riding on Mothra, right?). The attacks are seen from a human perspective, which leads to some camera shakiness, but does not prevent incredible views from a distance, like when pterodactyl-with-an-attitude Rodan perches on an erupting volcano and spreads his wings. There’s a painterly apocalyptic look to it that’s in line with KRAMPUS in its final, most nightmarish stretch.

But I hope if there’s another one it lets go of this limiting view. There’s just no way around that the best parts of the best Godzilla movies are strictly monster business – whether that’s drop kicking a foe or teaching Minya to blow smoke rings. If we can make AVATAR and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES then surely we can make a giant version of that. It doesn’t matter that most of the original movies had alot of scientists and reporters standing around expositing – America’s gotta stop fucking around and deliver on the monster-on-monster shit in John Wickian proportions if we want this series to survive. There are a bunch of beautiful parts – Godzilla strutting in with his theme music and a squadron of jets at his back, the part at the end where PART AT THE END SPOILER Ghidora seems to have survived the fight but then you realize Godzilla fucking destroyed his body and is swallowing his last head from the neck down like a fuckin noodle. (This kinda reminded me of the end of FREDDY VS. JASON when Jason struts out carrying Freddy’s head.) And then Godzilla blows atomic breathe through him. He smokes Ghidora! He’s gonna have a serious Planet X high in the next one. But I think we could stand to have a higher volume of this greatness. I think they can do it.

I saw an interview where Dougherty said he’d like to make one about the ancient Titans fighting, no humans, but he doesn’t think the studio would let him. It’s true, they’d probly keep cutting to Sam Rockwell, Jessica Chastain, Sterling K. Brown and Zazie Beats dressed as neanderthals, pointing sticks at cave paintings of Godzilla to explain what’s happening.

What we know now is that YOU’RE NEXT/THE GUEST director Adam Wingard’s GODZILLA VS. KONG is set for March of 2020.  (At least for now. But they made it. It’s too late to stop it.) The fight described in the title sounds kind of anticlimactic after Godzilla took on Ghidora and all those other guys, but they set it up that all the monsters (including ones we didn’t get a look at, so they’ll be new) are headed for Skull Island. I think Kong is just gonna be this huge underdog because he’s gonna have to fight all of them before Godzilla. He’ll be so exhausted. If Godzilla wins it’ll be like UFC 3, when Steve Jennum went straight to the final as a substitute for Ken Shamrock who won the semifinals but withdrew due to injury.

Speaking of UFC tournament winners, what’s the point of hiring all of these acclaimed actors to play Godzilla foot ticklers when not one of them is ever gonna play a character half as cool as the greatest Godzilla human in cinematic history, Don “The Predator” Frye’s Colonel Gordon in Ryuhei Kitamura’s GODZILLA FINAL WARS?

Being smaller will also contribute to Kong’s underdog status, but I hope he’s grown some since the ’70s because my dream is that he’ll fight MechaGhidorah and put him in a full nelson where he reaches under the outside heads and over the middle one. I bet that’s what Colonel Gordon would do if he could.

I can’t lie, I watched the post-credits sequence dearly hoping it would reveal that Gamera also exists in this monsterverse. No disrespect to the King of the Monsters, but I only salute the Guardian of the Universe. I also have some admiration for the Gargantuas (I hope they can work out their sibling rivalry) and for Jet Jaguar (he has a good smile). But I guess I don’t need to see those guys as long as there’s some kind of escalation in ridiculousness. If they get a giant robot or monster cyborg in there I’ll be happy.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 10th, 2019 at 10:42 am and is filed under Monster, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

  1. I don’t think you were too stupid to notice that Zhang Ziyi played two characters — they did almost nothing to highlight it aside from a single shot in one scene where she has a braid, blink and you’ll miss it, when in all the others she has short hair.

  2. To be positive I’ll just say that I liked this one’s ambition and felt that its heart was in the right place.

  3. Plus: they played respectful homage to the original movies.

    Minus: too much blah blah blah.

    Perfect summer popcorn muncher. Not deep. Plenty of destruction. Absolutely preposterous plot points.

    I think the best scene was SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Ken Watanabe’s little bonding time with the king laying injured recuperating before he, uh, nuked him, which of course, uh, revives him.

    I liked how there’s a dumb Ghidora head that the serious Ghidora head has to bite and drag like “pay attention, there’s serious business here.”

    Also any scene with Rodan, they nailed Rodan’s personality and gravitas.

  4. i may have been the only fan who was bummed when the Jet Jaguar movie Toho teased a few months back turned out to be an April’s Fool prank. As far as ridiculous kaiju go, I have a certain fondness for Gigan. The design is such a clusterfuck, it’s borderline incoherent. It’s like something a kid would dream up, which I suppose is Gigan’s appeal.

  5. As I said in Godzilla 2014 thread, I unabashedly loved this. Every creature was gorgeous. Rodan’s intro was so dope.

  6. Okay, “I FUCKED A FISH MONSTER” absolutely floored me. I’m lucky that my workspace is fairly isolated, coz I laughed my head off.

    Unfortunately I’ve been too broke to go to the movies for the last couple of weeks (still haven’t even seen Wick 3, dammit), so I dunno if I’m gonna get to this one before it checks out of theaters. I’d like to, tho, coz even its poorest reviews make it sounds like something I’d enjoy.

  7. I like how Rodan is Starscream here.

  8. I really wish I saw the same movie Skani did.

  9. Yeah, this movie is a bit of a frustrating prospect for me.

    I was hyped as fuck, totally expecting a masterpiece, but once again we get boring human characters and story and you’re telling me that they *SPOILER ALERT* kill off what was relatively the two most interesting human characters of this Godzilla series, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins? Alrighty then.

    Sally Hawkins character’s death in particular threw me for a loop and almost turned me against the movie, what was even the point in bringing back Sally Hawkins when she dies so early in the movie? I like Sally Hawkins a lot and that pissed me off pretty good, it felt kinda cheap.

    So I was discombobulated enough by my frustrations that I wasn’t able to appreciate the giant monster action as much as I’d like, but nevertheless there’s some cool as hell shots and the movie certainly won me over by the end, you can’t fault the monster stuff, but so far KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the best of these movies because I actually gave a crap about the human characters, so it can be done and I expected better from this one.

    But oh well, at least one of these American Godzilla movies finally used the Blue Oyster Cult song and it’s a fucking awesome cover too.

  10. Me, too, Stern! Agree with Griff that KONG is better constructed and see tues human story, but this is such a beautifully bonkers monster mash that forgive it nontrivial weaknesses.

  11. “Better constructed and executed”

  12. Stacy Livitsanis

    June 10th, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    “I saw an interview where Dougherty said he’d like to make one about the ancient Titans fighting, no humans, but he doesn’t think the studio would let him.” – Like a human-free Alien vs Predator, that’s the kaiju movie I really want to see. No humans, no dialogue. How amazing would that be? People would talk about how unusual it was, how it’s so daring and unprecedented and what a crazy ride this is and can you believe we’re actually seeing this? Of course no studio is ever going to make that.

    King of the Monsters has some incredible moments, but so many of them are undercut by continuously cutting back to the boring humans instead of staying with the monsters. It scuppers momentum nearly all the way through. Ghidorah unleashing its full gold lightning that fills the sky was spasm-inducing in its awesomeness, but then it quickly returns to the humans no one cares about, kind of deflating the bonkers grandeur. In contrast, the hugely enjoyable 1996 Rebirth of Mothra has many uninterrupted minutes of Mothra vs Desu-Ghidorah action, where the humans do what humans should in a kaiju movie and shut up and watch in amazement.

  13. Didn’t Serizawa sacrifice himself with the oxygen destroyer in Gojira? He was fulfilling his namesake destiny.

    Sternshein, I saw the same movie you did. Money shots are happening in the fucking bottom left corner of the screen.

  14. Fair point, Fred. I remembered the oxygen destroyer, but forgot that he died with it. You have to admit, though, that it’s a more meaningful death in GOJIRA because he was specifically trying to prevent anyone from learning how to make this weapon he invented. Here it’s the normal “No, I’ll be the one to die, you guys go ahead” noble sacrifice.

  15. I saw a handful of Japanese Godzilla movies as a kid and the one that sticks out the clearest in my memory is GODZILLA VS SPACE GODZILLA.

    I couldn’t tell a thing about any people but I do remember the action being genuinely thrilling, well paced and the climax truly feeling like a CLIMAX.

  16. I don’t even remember Sally Hawkin’s death scene, I just noticed her absence. Also, the new Mothra design is ugly and the monster fights were poorly shot.

  17. When does Sally Hawkins die? Speaks to some of my issues with the film if I literally did not notice.

    Wasn’t keen on this, switched between “heres a dark board room” and “here’s a incomprehensible shaky fight” so did have trouble keeping my interest up. i liked some of the big arty shots, but I never felt they were well-integrated with the sequences around them – so it felt jarring – (endgame’s better but had a similar problem i think). It felt like ‘here’s a 2 second glimpse of the film you wish you were watching, amid 10 minutes at a time of mud. I think Godzilla 2014 is a good example of the opposite of that, like the halo jump sequence. Nothing in this comes close to that.

    I think stuff like the atomic breath sequence in Shin Godzilla raised the bar for films like this really, that mix of beauty and weight these films can get to if they really push it.

    Probably notable as well as possibly Bradley Whitford’s least engaged performance, ever.

  18. How is it that guys like Doughtery get big budget action movies and John Hyams basically gets Z Nation? or that Jesse Johnson only gets VOD movies made. What’s up with that?

  19. Hey, Free Dummy

    June 11th, 2019 at 10:43 am

    It is truly bizarre to me that directors who make, say, a moderately successful indie comedy, will get handed the keys to huge franchises, but these VOD guys who are making legit great action movies on tiny budgets can’t escape the ghetto. It makes a little more sense with horror guys like Dougherty, but still. I guess I know the answer, like always, is $$$$, although it still seems to me that an action dude would be a way safer bet than a Trank or a Treverrow. Prolly Hollywood execs just don’t watch those movies.

  20. Sally Hawkins had like a building or some shit fall on her in another blink and you’ll miss it moment, so that I wasn’t even sure that was her until they mentioned the character had died a few minutes later.

  21. Sally Hawkins gets eaten by Ghidorah when they’re running away in Antarctica.

    I didn’t even fully realize it had happened at first either, until I saw Ken Watanabe mourning her a few minutes later.

    Her character didn’t deserve to be killed in such an off handed way.

  22. I agree the motivations are as bad as the cinematography and editing.

  23. You know, the real shame is that somewhere swirling around somewhere in the mess of characters and anti-plot, there’s an actual interesting story here: a mom so devastated by grief and abandonment that she basically decides to just burn the world down, while her daughter slowly comes to understand just how far around the bend the only adult who’s ever been there for her has gotten. Meanwhile, the husband/father who’s weakness helped cause all this has to try and stop her, essentially by redeeming himself in the eyes of his daughter and giving her a better option than following mom over the cliff.

    Too bad the finished film seems to barely care about this storyline, which “resolves” in such a half-assed way that it doesn’t even remember to punish the villain. Too bad. I bet at one point there was a script which was actually about the story that it claims to be about, but you know how these huge-budget films go.

    On the plus side, the movie does an awesome job of giving the monsters awesome metal-album-cover poses, which forgives a lot.

  24. In the continuing honor of me not being ‘THAT fan’ and complaining about this one. I will instead share this video that we can all watch together and let warm our hearts. I present you King Ghidorah mo-cap sessions:

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