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 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.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.