King of the Monsters: And I, For One, Welcome Our New Kaiju Overlords


Greetings, to all twelve of our dedicated readers! It’s been a minute, but we’re back in top form and ready to get you in the mood for that most bodacious of holidays, October. The Good Month, as I like to call it (go to hell, June-August, and also the sun. September, you get a pass), culminates in a celebration of all things spooky and macabre. At Rooster Illusion, we like to flout convention, which is why I’m kicking things off with a review of the latest Godzilla movie. Is it spooky? Not really. Macabre? Eh, sure, why not? At the end of the day, it’s a movie about monsters, and that’s good enough for me. Besides, I haven’t written a film review since 2015, so I might as well ease into things with a lifelong obsession (if you click that link, ignore the fact that I didn’t follow through with that series of reviews until now. I have been very tired since time immemorial).

A Brief Prologue
Before I get into things, a little backstory: I was super jazzed about the 2014 Godzilla in the months leading up to its release. An American Godzilla movie that actually seemed to get the character*! Hot damn**! Unfortunately for me, I was at best lukewarm on Godzilla ’14 the first time I saw it. Naturally, I watched it several more times to figure out why.

This would normally be the part where I link to my negative review of the movie I’m talking about, but since I never got around to writing that, here’s the short version of what I should have written about a movie I have now seen at least four times, if not five or six: it just didn’t work for me. Gareth Edwards’ Jaws/Jurassic Park approach to monster reveals leaves us stranded for most of the movie with characters far less compelling than Brody, Quint, and Hooper or Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm. At the time, I was happy to write off Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as bland and Bryan Cranston’s as ported in from a better movie. A recent re-watch has led me to revise that. Taylor-Johnson is fine and just doesn’t have that much to work with. Cranston is acting in a different movie, but it isn’t better. Bless him for trying, though.

Ultimately, Edwards’ dedication to creating a sense of scale is something he does well but at the cost of any emotional connection. Yes, we watch these movies for big Kaiju battles and yes, the Kaiju battles in Godzilla ’14 have some great moments; I felt like a kid when Godzilla’s spikes lit up blue for the first time. Ultimately, though, it just made me miss the human element of the Toho films, even when they played a little goofy. Give me hippies investigating an alien conspiracy, or a nerdy inventor romancing a cool astronaut’s sister (and also a different cool astronaut romancing an alien). Give me quirks and big emotions. Give me something human, to remind us that even though we’re small and insignificant in the face of monster brawls, we’re also weird and petty and sarcastic and in love and, y’know, alive.

Of course, there’s plenty more to say about Godzilla ’14, but I’m not reviewing that movie. If you liked–or even loved–it, please don’t hesitate to yell at me in the comments.

The Main Thing, With Spoilers

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019):

The Plot: Five years after the events of the first film, the world is still deciding how to approach the existence of monsters. Godzilla hasn’t been seen since he swam off into the San Francisco Bay after battling two Mutos, but the formerly top secret Monarch organization (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) is facing hearings with the US government. Meanwhile, a shadowy eco-terrorist group (led by Charles Dance) is determined to wake up every monster on the planet and control them, having decided that it’s time for humanity to cede its place as stewards of the Earth. Caught in the middle is a family (Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, and Millie Bobby Brown) whose grief at the loss of a child/sibling has manifested in very different ways of approaching the “monster problem.” When the bad humans succeed in releasing the malevolent and powerful King Ghidorah (along with a bunch of other monsters we don’t see much of, including a large woolly mammoth I’ve nicknamed Big Keith), it’s up to Monarch to aid Godzilla and Mothra in preventing the complete annihilation of the human race. Rodan participates, and is generally kind of a greasy bastard.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (henceforth referred to as KOTM) is both a grand old time and a movie that commits to a somewhat bleak thesis: What if humans have done such a bad job running the planet that we don’t deserve to be in charge anymore? It’s not the first blockbuster–or, indeed, Godzilla movie–to float the idea, but that’s not something I hold against what is ultimately a very Godzilla movie.

This isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it swings for the fences in all the ways I didn’t realize I wanted it to. There may be plenty of exposition dumps and speeches that lay out the themes all too bluntly, but the film foregrounds the human characters in a way that makes it feel like they matter. What’s more, it doesn’t neglect the Titans that we all came to see, giving the four main monsters distinct personalities. Godzilla’s battle for dominance against an evil alpha predator–from space!!!–pairs well with the human melodrama of a family trying to move past a gutting loss and a world coming to terms with a shifting power dynamic.

On the human level, the characters branch off into three main sects: We Should Respect the Monsters, My Child is Dead and We Should Kill the Monsters, and My Child is Dead and We Should Kill Millions of People By Releasing Monsters to Restore Balance to Nature. These philosophies are personified by Ken Watanabe, Kyle Chandler, and Vera Farmiga, respectively. Side characters align with different groups, Millie Bobbie Brown has a moment where she realizes that she opted to stay with the wrong parent, and Charles Dance’s antagonist is in the Kill Millions camp because That Is His Deal. While Dance’s character is compelling more for the actor’s presence than any nuance in the script, the film does a good job of, if not justifying, then at least explaining why the main characters feel the way they do about the Titans.

Although the core human conflict revolves around the Russells (Chandler, Farmiga, and Brown), the most affecting scene outside of Mothra’s sacrifice–this is a not uncommon occurrence in the Toho movies, and it was a delight watching American audiences getting exposed to the Godzilla/Mothra dynamic and then creating adorable (and, let’s be honest, sometimes horny) fan art–was Dr. Serizawa’s final moment with Godzilla. I already warned that I’d be spoiling the movie, but just in case I didn’t make that clear enough, I WILL BE SPOILING KEY SCENES FROM THIS MOVIE IN THIS REVIEW.

Serizawa

Named after the scientist in the original 1954 film who invented the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that killed Godzilla, Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa was the under-written heart of this American reboot series. He gave us the eminently gif-able “let them fight” line from the first movie, but more importantly personified the ethos of the films he starred in. Godzilla ’14 and KOTM both argue that these Titans, Godzilla especially, deserve our reverence. They’re avatars of nature, and admission of our arrogance is the first step towards averting catastrophe.

KOTM ends with Godzilla triumphant and the other Titans restoring nature’s balance across the globe. This is only possible because, after the military nearly kills Godzilla with a rebooted and weirdly underdeveloped Oxygen Destroyer, Serizawa sacrifices himself in the most monster movie way possible: by detonating a nuclear warhead in Godzilla’s highly radioactive underwater lair. Part Atlantis, part also Atlantis–Godzilla lives in a monster-themed Atlantis–the big G’s lair is a pre-historic tribute to a pre-historic deity. Having Serizawa be the one to die reviving Godzilla is both weird and affecting. The only Japanese main character, Serizawa’s prized possession is his father’s pocket watch, which stopped at 8:15 AM on August 6th, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Before embarking on a suicide mission to revive Godzilla, Serizawa tells Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler): “Sometimes, the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons who created them.” For Russell, this means forgiving Godzilla for the death of his son, a casualty of the previous film’s climactic monster brawl in San Francisco. For Serizawa, that means…forgiving nuclear weapons for the death of his father and thousands of other Japanese citizens? It’s an…interesting choice for an American blockbuster, and one that I am absolutely not qualified to parse out***.

That having been said, it works as a character moment. Serizawa has dedicated his life to first searching for and then defending Godzilla. The only way to revive the King of the Monsters and save the Earth from Ghidorah is to go on a one-way trip into the Titan’s lair and, again, detonate a nuclear warhead. It’s a very B-movie plot development, but it’s handled with care. Bear McCreary’s score is fittingly elegiac and the filmmakers do a good job of capturing Serizawa’s awe as he enters what the movie portrays as an old god’s kingdom. Not heaven, but sacred ground, where Godzilla was once worshiped by humans at peace with the Titans. It’s a touching scene, and an interesting reversal of the original Serizawa’s sacrifice in the 1954 Gojira, where the tortured scientist chooses to die with Godzilla, not out of love, but in order to destroy the only mind that knows how to create the Oxygen Destroyer, a stand-in for nuclear weapons.

That could be an entire article on its own, so…

On to the Monsters

I said earlier that this is a very Godzilla movie. I mean that in a lot of ways, from the bits of Toho mythology that get thrown in willy-nilly, to the characterization of the monsters.

Godzilla as force of nature/protector of humanity has been a part of the character for a long time. While he started in 1954 as a horrifying metaphor for nuclear war, it didn’t take long for him to become a kid-friendly savior of the Earth, battling evil monsters from beyond the stars to protect Japan (collateral damage was not a huge focus in these movies, oddly enough). The Showa series, covering the fifteen Godzilla movies from 1954-1975, mostly doesn’t address this dichotomy. It wasn’t really until 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante, movie two in the Heisei series****, that the titular monster became a force of nature whose need to absolutely demolish any other monster in the immediate vicinity happened to also benefit some nearby humans.

The Godzilla of KOTM is a happy medium between the meaner Godzilla of the Heisei series and the friend-to-all-children superhero of most of the Showa series. I may not love the current character design (my dude looks like he’s made of recently cooled lava), but they’ve gotten the character right. He’s smarter than he looks, constantly irritated, and will never back down from a fight that he’s losing. In my head, this version is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin in Bob Belcher mode. Please, somebody make that mash-up video.

This article is already too long–one of the skills I’ve apparently lost in the last four years is self-restraint–so I won’t go into the history of Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan. The first two are pretty much characterized as they’ve always been; magical benevolence and pure malevolence, respectively. Rodan in the original films was sometimes an ally, sometimes an antagonist. I thoroughly enjoyed the way they portrayed him in KOTM, as a guy who pretty much just wants to fight stuff, unless it looks like he’s going to lose.

WANNA TAKE THIS OUTSIDE, BUD?

As for the Toho callbacks they just kind of piled in there: sure, why not? Oxygen Destroyer? Fine. Godzilla vs. Destroyah nuclear meltdown mode? I…yeah, sure. Mothra is in a movie and one of the female characters has a twin sister? It’s a stretch, but I see what you’re going for (in the Toho movies, Mothra has a pair of six-inch tall singing twin sisters as heralds)!

Honestly, as a lifelong Godzilla fan, I was just happy to see something that resembled stuff I had seen many, many times before. As a film critic, I’m so out of practice that you got this review.

In Which I Somehow Wrap This All Up in a Neat Little Package

Sorry if that sounded sarcastic.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an American blockbuster that does right by the original Japanese films as much as an American blockbuster can. It’s overstuffed, throws in so many plot points and call-backs that not everything lands with the weight that it should, but the monster fights are good, the human melodrama mostly works, and I don’t mind the comedic relief characters. In short*****, I had a good time.

P.S. Also, the soundtrack is boss as hell and I was so happy to hear the original themes in a theater again.

*There is a special place in my heart for the 1998 Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie.
**The Hottest of Damns (TM)
***Side note: The most recent Toho Godzilla movie, Shin Gojira, deals with the nuclear option in a completely different way, so if I ever get around to reviewing that I’ll link back to this article.
****1984-1995. There’s also a Millennium series that goes from 1999-2004, but I felt like it was okay to skip it without ruining this entire review. If you think I was wrong, please don’t hesitate to yell at me in the comments.
*****Ha!

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