Godzilla: King of the Monsters – A Rapturous Kaiju Spectacle

A Cultural Battleground of Cinematic Titans

It feels important to note that at the exact same time that many cultural commentators have bemoaned the fact that “movies just aren’t important anymore,” movies of every stripe are becoming bitterly fought cultural battlegrounds, with two or more respective sides staking their claim across the battle-scarred topography, rallying desperately around their banners and standing their ground to the last weary soldier. Open a newspaper, scroll through social media, even walk down the street and you’re bound to find somebody that has something to say about movies like Avengers: Endgame (2019), Captain Marvel (2019), Us (2019), Black Panther (2018), Green Book (2018), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Get Out (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Wonder Woman (2017), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and many, many more besides.

Surprisingly — or perhaps not, depending on how far down the internet “nerd” rabbit hole you’ve opted to fall down — this cultural warfare has extended to even relatively niche, quasi-experimental, sometimes questionably-made, foreign-born, genre-hybrid franchises that have only ever existed on the peripheries of American movie culture as something that people were aware of by reputation more so than from first-hand experience (and, even then, has been almost entirely relegated to the realm of the pre-Power Rangers era of children’s entertainment). I am, of course, referring to Godzilla: a post-war Japanese kaiju franchise that has only managed a few tentative and not terribly successful stabs at American cultural prominence in the 65 years since the first film was released. Growing up myself, I was only ever aware of the first movie by reputation, the incredibly bizarre (even by Godzilla’s titanic standards) Mothra movies, the terrible American movie from the late-nineties and a Saturday morning cartoon that included that pint-sized dinosaur Godzookie. At the height of Godzilla’s (1998) dual popularity / infamy, my family ended up renting Godzilla 2000 (1999), and let me tell you all something, that was a strange day to be a Hadsell.

Godzilla’s American Journey

The current controversies surrounding the skycraping lizard involves America’s first stab at the franchise this century: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014). Populist kaiju fans almost immediately were up in arms against it for being a dreary slog of a movie, in which the title character was almost entirely absent, focused entirely on boring, whitebread military men of action and betraying the fantastical tone of what were, at the time, the other 33 movies in the broader, countries-spanning franchise. The more academic observers of the film praised its more grounded approach and the remarkable restraint that director Gareth Edwards took to withholding the title monster so as to make his impact on the story and the characters that much more impactful (with many among them astutely observing that this was part of the strength of other decades’ monster movies, such as Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws).

As for me, I found myself splitting the difference: I appreciated the Americanized spectacle of it all, the gradual three-act reveal of Godzilla himself and the sometimes-interesting Human characters (such as Bryan Cranston’s short-lived conspiracy theorist Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s nearly-mute Ishiro Serizawa, both of whom should have been the major focus of the human-centered action and were criminally under-utilized in the final cut of the film). At the same time, however, I did find myself wanting more Godzilla than the paltry bits that were teased out over the film’s exhaustive runtime, wanting a far more interesting monster for Godzilla to fight than the frightfully underwhelming Mutos and more for the actually interesting human characters to do. Monarch, though teased as a SHIELD-esque clandestine Kaiju organization was a complete non-starter here when it really had so much more to contribute than the story-centered US military.

I couldn’t help but feel that Kong: Skull Island (2017) was a sizable step in the right direction. There was far more monster action to sink your teeth into, the human characters were far more interesting than the blank slates of the 2014 film and Monarch played a substantive enough role in the proceedings so as to make you care about their presence for a change. It was fun, hard-hitting, blockbuster entertainment — like it always should have been — and I was down for it.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters – A Rapturous Kaiju Spectacle

Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) picks up five years after the events of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) and decades after the events of Kong: Skull Island. In the wake of the devastation caused by Godzilla and the Mutos, Monarch has risen up to be a major outside faction in global security that the more spit-and-polish military brass don’t appreciate being outside of their hierarchical control. Having discovered a total of 17 kaiju — which they refer to as Titans (as in the actual, factual, historical Titans of Greco-Roman mythology) — they refuse to do anything but contain them, making a lot of very important people very nervous about what could happen if (and, as it turns out, when) they get into the hands of the wrong people: in this case, a group of apocalyptic eco-terrorists that want to return the modern world “to balance” with nature, which they hope to accomplish by kidnapping a high-ranking Monarch scientist and using her invention, essentially a Titan-beacon that acts much like a dog whistle, to wake the Titans up one-by-one and unleashing them upon unsuspecting urban populations. Starting with iconic Godzilla bad-guy King Ghidorah (aka Monster Zero), who subsequently wakes and subjugates all the other Titans on his own), Monarch seeks to rouse Godzilla to their cause by facing him off against his ancient and most deadly foe.

If my response to Godzilla (2014) could be defined as reticent, if not outright tepid, than my very visceral reaction to Godzilla: King of the Monsters is nothing short of rapturous. The movie is certainly not without its flaws, which its critics (many of them 2014 Godzilla defenders) are quick to point out, but they are all vastly outweighed by everything that this movie does right. Godzilla finally takes a starring role in the movie bearing his name: pitting him against the likes of Ghodorah and (my personal favorite) Rodan and teaming him up with the Queen of the Monsters herself, Mothra. The fights are frequent, substantive and incredibly satisfying: often showing off the immensity of scale by having the fighting itself off-set and in the background of the desperate scramble of street-level human survival as civilians, military personnel and our expansive cast of more-interesting human characters scramble desperately out of the path of their destruction.

Even though the camerawork is often annoyingly close-up on the Kaiju when the action pulls away from human-level escape — an issue that is most pronounced in the film’s second and mostly clears up by the third — action taking place within said shots is a wonder to behold. Sometimes pulling off some genuinely gorgeous action choreography or posing in some instantly-iconic shots, there is plenty beyond alternating shorts of electric and atomic breaths tearing across downtown Boston for film aficionados to work through. At its core is the genuinely compelling narrative of Dr. Sirezawa and the genuinely interesting relational drama between our audience-surrogate characters: while nothing monumental in and of themselves, they are certainly enough to hang onto in this clash of titans and above-average for the larger franchise (which now includes a total of 40 movies!!). Longtime fans of the franchise will recognize homages, references and easter eggs sprinkle in from across the franchise’s expansive catalog of films: not the least of which is the inclusion of the classic Godzilla theme, which I wholeheartedly maintain is one of the single best pieces of musical scoring in the medium’s history and sets the groundwork for the climactic third-act showdown with Ghidorah.

Although there are certainly any number of things that could have been improved upon in the version that finally hit theaters this weekend, the final, grateful conclusion that I have come to is that American finally figured out how to make a proper Godzilla movie: blown up to the size and scale and epic gravitas that the franchise always wanted to have. The Titans are gorgeously designed and have infinite potential for growth in the (hopefully many_ sequels to come, in particular an ape-mastodon hybrid that I had my eye on the entire movie. Let’s only hope that the forthcoming Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) is as much fun as this.

Rating: 4/5

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