Today’s review comes courtesy of Andy from the blog Ramblings of A Minnesota Geek. Isn’t that an awesome name or what? Andy is a self-confessed geek in every sense of the word. Need proof? Well, he signs off his email with ‘May the Force Be With You’ 😀 He’s currently consumed by his TV watching, but when he did have time for some movies, he’s kind enough to send me a review to share with all you fine FlixChatter readers, so here you go.
Full disclosure before reading further in this review: I am unabashedly, wholeheartedly, a Godzilla fan. When I was three, creature features were my jam. This led to the watching of Godzilla 1985, the second film in the franchise to receive radical American editing and the insertion of Perry Mason himself, Raymond Burr. Dark, gritty, and full of beautiful monster destruction, the film hooked me. Not long after, a VHS tape, Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies, a compilation of trailers for dinosaur and monster films, became the most watched and rewatched video in the house. It got to a point where my mother tried to throw the video away, but I retrieved it from the trash, and tried to sell it at a garage sale, but was saved by my stealthy hands.
A dinosaur mutated by atomic bombs, Godzilla towered over buildings, its lumbering visage invoking dread and terror as it made its way through the city. At times, its back plates lit blue, and a ray of atomic fire jetted from his mouth, annihilating everything and anything in its path. A true god of destruction. A walking embodiment of nuclear terror. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t consciously aware of any of this – Godzilla looked cool and fought other monsters. The back-to-back movies where Godzilla fought his robotic doppelganger Mechagodzilla! Or the one where Godzilla teamed up with his four-legged ally Anguirus against King Ghidorah and a hammer-clawed space alien with a razor belly called Gigan! Oh, the endlessly entertaining Destroy All Monsters where Godzilla and a dozen other monsters are controlled by aliens and bring the world to its knees!
Of course, Godzilla didn’t start off this way. In 1954, less than a decade after World War II had ended, big time movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was on a plane and looked down at the ocean and imagined a big monster rising from the depths and attacking Japan. Once home, Tanaka pitched the idea to his colleague at Toho Pictures, Ishiro Honda. Together, with a writing team, Honda and Tanaka created Godzilla, inspired by America’s 1933 seminal picture King Kong and 1953’s successful The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
A veteran of the war, Honda incorporated themes into his daikaiju eiga (giant monster film), accessing the anguish and fear his country still felt after the atomic bomb explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla would be more than just a monster on the loose, he would stand an allegory of nuclear weaponry, a monster seemingly summoned from the depths of hell to warn mankind to change their ways, or more like him would arise.
Imported to American shores in 1956, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! did away with much of the World War II and nuclear armament themes in favor of a standard creature feature, but in retrospect, it’s hard to question the choice. If the American producers hadn’t considerably recut and restructured the movie, added rising film star Raymond Burr, or translated certain lines into English and instead released the film as is as some art house piece, would Godzilla still be a household name today?
At the height of daikaiju eiga mania, nearly every powerhouse company in Japan wanted a piece of the profits. Toho’s primary rival, Daiei, unleashed Giant Monster Gamera, the giant flying turtle in 1965 to moderate albeit brief success, with 13 titles to date; Shochiku and Nikkatsu entered the game with two one-and-done monster forays, The X From Outer Space (1967) and Gappa, the Triphibian Monsters (1967), respectively. The United Kingdom produced their daikaiju film Gorgo (1961), a monster terrorizing London to reclaim their offspring being used as a circus freak, and Denmark came up with Reptilicus (1961), a regenerative snake-like organism that spits green venom and flies. One by one, these titans of terror have faded away.
And for 65 years, Godzilla has endured. He’s been a walking metaphor for nuclear war, a Savior for planet earth against monsters and aliens that wish to do humanity harm, a loving father to his son Minya, and an indiscriminate monster that just levels cities and kills thousands.
Fundamentally, Godzilla has been an icon that evolves and adapts to the era it’s in. For many, the Godzilla franchise can be summed up as a ‘man in a rubber suit destroying model buildings’; but the secret, the essential ingredient for its longevity, is that these works of cinema rise above such trite encapsulations, and are, in fact, expressions of timeless and enduring themes – a call for universal cooperation of nations for a common goal, a warning of the effects of pollution and industrialization that hurts the planet that houses us, a somber reminder of the devastation of nuclear power and the generational loss of respect for lives lost and the cost of peace, and a look at consumerism and the price of greed.
Godzilla’s transition from Japan to America has not always been a smooth ride, with themes and nuances often lost in the mix, or being neglected entirely. In 1998, Independence Day creators Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich successfully made a contemporary adaptation of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and slapped the GODZILLA title on it with generally mediocre results, and in 2014, independent film visionary Gareth Edwards brought scope and artistry to Godzilla, but very little else.
After a five-year wait, several masterfully cut movie trailers, and two so-so installments in the American Godzilla pantheon, suffice to say, the excitement over Michael Doughtery’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters was reaching sky high levels. Ultimately, King of the Monsters is the best representation of Godzilla in American cinema yet, but doesn’t quite realize its full potential.
Set five years after the devastating battle of Godzilla and the MUTO’s in San Fransisco, the world is still reeling from the revelation that monsters exist. Godzilla has been dormant, but MONARCH, the organization that has spent decades investigating and tabulating beasts of unusual size (dubbed ‘Titans’), keep discovering new monsters around the globe. MONARCH researcher Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has developed a bioacoustics device called ‘Orca’ to attempt communication with the Titans. Just as Emma successfully uses the device, an eco-terrorist group led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) kidnaps Emma and her daughter, Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown), with the intent to use Orca to awaken all discovered Titans to, in a manner of speaking, save the world. MONARCH recruits Emma’s ex-husband and co-Orca prototype designer Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) to divine what Alan’s next target is and rescue his ex-wife and daughter.
Along the way, there miiighhtt be some giant monsters unleashed causing all kinds of havoc, like the three-headed King Ghidorah or the devil in the sky Rodan, and only the king of the monsters himself can stop them, but it’s the family drama and commentary on humanity destroying the planet that people are most interested in, isn’t it?
First and foremost, writer/director Mike Doughtery is clearly a fan of the source material. The film has multiple nods to the Japanese originals, some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, some more prominent, like a certain name designation originating in the American cut of Invasion of Astro Monster that sent my fan barometer into overdrive. Elements of the plot can be found cherry picked from multiple Godzilla titles and, in some cases, what feels like heavy influence from the nineties Gamera films, weaving together nicely to create an interesting narrative ripe with potential.
The central dilemma of the movie comes down to two belief systems: the government wants to eliminate the 17 and counting Titan threats before another San Francisco catastrophe, while MONARCH, led by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), believe that Titans are the original Gods on the planet and that people and Titans can coexist peacefully. One of the interesting narrative aspects of the film is how one character warps and perverts their belief, directly leading to the death of thousands, believing their choice just and the only way to set the earth back on track. Meanwhile, the government feels emboldened by their beliefs by the titanic Hell unleashed on the world. Amusingly enough, by the end, both sides have their viewpoints tested in some way, and both must put their faith in Godzilla to bring balance.
An interesting cast of characters is essential to making an effective Godzilla movie, and while there’s still some clunky character development and some characters no better defined than stick figures, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a pretty strong core. Kyle Chandler and Ken Watanabe are the breakout performances here. Chandler’s character goes through the most growth while being single-minded about his mission to reunite with his family.
Watanabe still believes that Godzilla is their only hope, and that belief leads him to one of the most moving and cinematically beautiful sequences of the entire Godzilla library. Millie Bobbie Brown surprises with a strong performance, never falling into the Godzilla Syndrome of being the token annoying child actor (see Godzilla’s Revenge for undesirable no. 1). As for Vera Farmiga, she’s Vera Farmiga – always compelling, always owning the screen. For the complexities of her character, Doughtery lucked out with Farmiga, because she sells her character’s arc beautifully.
The likes of Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, O’Shea Jackson, Sally Hawkins, and Zhang Ziyi are wasted in their bit parts, never fully coming into their own or being much more than functional exposition dumps. Perhaps, if Legendary renews their contract with Godzilla’s Japanese production company Toho, these characters will be allowed room to expand.
But the main draw for King of the Monsters is, undoubtedly, the monster action, and mostly, this film delivers in spades, but in other ways, mildly lacking. It would be hard to not beat the 2014 Godzilla in terms of monster action, and luckily, King of the Monsters overcomes that hurdle in the first monster-on-monster battle. As seen in the trailers, Godzilla and King Ghidorah square off in Antarctica, and it’s here that both the pros and cons of Doughtery’s direction are first displayed. Lit against the stunning backdrop of the moon illuminating the night, Doughtery’s strengths is his ability to frame monster action in a beautiful yet fierce manner. These are beasts gnawing and tearing and ripping at each other, WWE but on a mammoth scale, and Doughtery brings all the visual spectacle he can to the plate.
However, there’s the little problem that was prevalent in the 2014 film and plagues this installment, too, but to a lesser extent: having everything cast in darkness for reasons unknown, perhaps to cloak dodgy CGI. In Antarctica, the falling snow simultaneously adds a certain sense of beauty to the fight, but also masks some beats indecipherable. In the Boston climax, Ghidorah brings with it a wild storm of rain and lightning, which echoes the previous fight: pretty, but also, way too dark. Here’s hoping 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong takes place entirely in bright, sunny backdrops, so the monster action can be unhindered and shown in its full glory.
Up until this point, this review has made no mention of the fourth monster in this confrontation, Mothra, and while it was not deliberate, it’s also in spirit of how she appears in the movie – brief and ineffectual. Design-wise, Mothra isn’t as colorful as her Japanese counterpart, but makes up for that in ferocity as she enters the fray in the climax. Rodan, likewise, is underutilized, but makes a far more striking impression. The winged devil in the sky annihilates whole cities just by flying over, the gravitational pull of its flight devastating and powerful. It easily takes out military fighter jets, employing clever maneuvers to destroy its prey. There is great potential in Mothra and Rodan in this MonsterVerse iteration, but ultimately, time and pacing doesn’t allow them to reach full monster glory status.
One beasty that does reach that status, though, is King Ghidorah. Ghidorah is best compared as Godzilla’s Joker, a foe that’s a repeat offender and causes the most problems for the King of the Monsters. Here, Ghidorah is brought to life more fully than ever before. Each of its three heads have their own personality, hardly ever working in conjunction with one another, a true Alpha beast that just wants to destroy. It’s clear that the emphasis on digital effects was placed on Ghidorah – every frame with him looks glorious, especially shots where one or more of his heads interact with humans on the ground. Absolutely gobsmacking.
Godzilla received his own upgrade since the 2014 film, loosely explained in the narrative as a continual evolution. Gone are his elephant feet, and gone are his minimal and unimposing dorsal plates, instead replaced with larger and slicker plates like his 1954 and Millennium era counterparts. Most interesting is Godzilla’s behavior in this film, with several moments showcasing his moral animalistic movements and his intelligence with strategizing. By the end of the movie, there is no doubt why Godzilla is called the King of the Monsters, a moniker brutally and rightfully earned by the climax.
One last piece to the puzzle falling into place making Godzilla fans across the country roar from their seats in uncontainable excitement is composer Bear McCreary’s score for the film. McCreary’s work in television has been nothing short of phenomenal, blending styles from different cultures all over the world to make unique music for Battlestar Galactica and Outlander. Here, McCreary embraces the fandom wholeheartedly, just like Doughtery, and brings in the classic themes.
Godzilla’s Theme and Mothra’s Theme, straight from the maestro Akira Ifukube from ‘54 and ’61, respectively, but with his own McCreary touches. During fight sequences, a powerful chant, as if a call to arms, pervades over the instrumentals, underlying the gravity and ferocity of the battle royale we’re witnessing. Teamed together, McCreary and Doughtery are an unstoppable force of crafting beautiful imagery and wicked music.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters wasn’t entirely the nonstop monster action epic spectacle I was hoping for it to be, but its strengths certainly outweigh weaknesses, and is easily the best installment yet in the American Godzilla legacy. As a Godzilla fan, I had a grin from side to side for over half the movie. Non-fans will likely enjoy the equal focus on monsters and humans, with a story offering interesting ideas that will hopefully be expanded on in future installments. A step in the right direction, it takes everything setup in Gareth Edward’s Godzilla and punches it up several notches. Writer/director Mike Doughtery has crafted a tale that pays tribute to the 65 years of Godzilla stories years past, while carving out his own unique narrative with style and monstrous appeal, and sets the stage for the MonsterVerse to come.
The stage is set. Godzilla is King, and something is rumbling on Skull Island . . .
So have you seen Godzilla? Please do let us know what you think.