King of the Monsters? That’s an awfully binary way of looking at kaijus!
by Thom Yee
If you’re one of those [very] few people who’s spent a lot of time around this site over the years, reading our reviews, getting a sense of where our tastes lie, and maybe even paying a bit of attention to our overall website design, you might think that we’re all of us big time kaiju fans. We’ve covered most of the major monsters movies that have opened in the last seven years. There’s giant monsters in at least one of our five randomly generated banner images. And, at least for me, Pacific Rim ranks almost irrationally high on my top 10 favourite movies [monster or not] of all time. And that’s not even mentioning my ethnicity which all but gives me no choice but to be into things like giant monsters… and martial arts and… like, math probably. But I’m not a kaiju guy [or a math guy]. Not really. I’ve never watched Evangelion and have no plans to. I couldn’t recite to you the names of any famous giant monsters beyond Godzilla and MechaGodzilla. And I could count the number of Godzilla movies I’ve seen (including the subject of this review) on one hand even if two of that hand’s digits were forcibly removed (note, I didn’t say it was going to be my hand I was counting on). And yet there’s still something inside of me, something foundational, something primal, that draws me to movies like Godzilla even if those things aren’t quite enough to make me a full-blown fan of the genre. And I bet those same things are in most of you too.
Also, thank you if you are one of those few people who’s spent a lot of time around this site over the years.
(And also, holy rule of threes in that first paragraph, amirite?!)
The idea of a giant monster, whether it represents, horror, annihilation, or the simple inevitability of sweeping and highly destructive change, is one that speaks to us directly and instinctively, to the most ancient parts of our lizard brain(s). It’s what sometimes makes the simplest shifts in our surroundings, in the light of the day or the dark of the night, feel like the most feverish of heats or the sheerest of cold, lonely terrors. It’s what makes the midday dimmings of light caused by the smoke from nearby forest fires into eerie explorations of what we thought we knew about the world around us. It’s what makes the Night King’s attack on Winterfell, aided by an all-consuming, otherworldly blizzard, more than just a siege of a castle but the true coming of winter. Forces of nature. Unstoppable and bigger than us all. Images and moments far beyond any power you and I have over our lives, stimulating the limits of our darkest imaginings. It can be these very ideas that force us to face our greatest fears, in those darknesses and dimmings, torrential rains and onslaughts from on high. It’s those times when we make a choice of whether to stand up proud despite our fears or not. The moments we find out who we are. And who we hope to be.
Also, I like the parts where the big monsters step on the people.
It’s in that sort of mindset that Godzilla: King of the Monsters will mean most to those of you who might venture into this latest installment of this fabled series. A mindset where you’re open to all of the spectacle you’ll find on screen, all that it can represent and all that it can mean to you in real life even despite the fact that the monsters in the world you and I live in aren’t always quite so obviously rendered. It’s also in that sort of mindset that I think you have to be to get much of anything from this movie. Because I doubt its plot is going to get you there.
What’s it about?
After the rise of the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) and their defeat by the monstrous Godzilla, the world has settled into an uneasy truce with the atomically powered giant. Deemed a “Titan” by Monarch, the mysterious organization that has researched these gigantic beings for decades, more and more such Titans have been discovered in hibernation all over the world in the four years since Godzilla’s emergence. But when the three-headed monster known as Ghidorah is awakened through unnatural means, his call stirs these Titans into a destructive frenzy that can only be stopped by the ever capable, always reliable human race. No. Of course it’s Godzilla.
Y’know, in this age of Marvel Cinematic Universal dominance, it’s easy to forget that the Godzilla series was one of the first major franchises built of an interconnected series of movie starring different characters who would all eventually converge into gigantic battle movies. The original Godzilla, released in 1954, would lead to movies starring other kaijus like Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan, and eventually many of them would fight each other before teaming up in movies like Destroy All Monsters and All Monsters Attack. Of course, unlike the MCU, the connections between installments weren’t anywhere near as well planned or executed in the Godzilla movies. And to be frank, when it comes to the modern American installments in the Godzilla series, the Godzilla movies don’t make anywhere near as much money.
Opening this past weekend to a slightly disappointing $48 million, nearly half of the 2014 Godzilla’s $93 million and notably below Kong: Skull Island’s $61 million, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the overall trajectory of these MonsterVerse movies is heading in the wrong direction for Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures. While there are likely a number of reasons for this, including pretty poor reviews, an overall busy summer movie season with major releases almost every weekend, and the fact that people just haven’t really attached to any franchises that aren’t the MCU, I think the fact is that a movie like Godzilla just isn’t that important to us in North America. I think for most of us movies like Godzilla just don’t have the sort of urgency other big movies have. They’re not really the kind of movies people tend to have conversations about and they don’t create the kind of must-see desperation that causes people to seek them out as soon as they’re released. I also think that most people just assume that a Godzilla movie is going to be dumb, a thought most likely born of their tradition as man-in-rubber-suit movies, the fact that they’re monster movies and mostly don’t need to be smart, and the fact that the 1998, Matthew-Broderick-starring Godzilla was, among its many other flaws, dumb. I don’t see these sorts of prejudices going away anytime soon no matter how well or poorly any future installments might be received critically, and considering that next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong is already done shooting, I think that this incarnation of the venerable series is in for a bumpy road going forward.
Is it any Good?
So one of the things I did not too long ago at the AV shop I work at sometimes is put on a copy of the 2014 Godzilla, and as much as I still love that movie for its sense of restraint, one thing I noticed among the few people who come into the store (because it’s mostly around for me to have a place to hang out and mess with electronics equipment) is just how little attention Godzilla (2014) calls to itself considering it’s a giant monster movie. Its colours are muted throughout as is most of its soundtrack and audio effects, its action is intentional and methodical, and a lot of what makes that movie good is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. It’s a mood piece of a giant monster movie, almost cerebral even, which isn’t exactly the kind of movie you want to show when you’re trying to show off your TVs.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s splashy and colourful and visually remarkable, the kind of movie you’ll want to see and would stop and watch for at least a few minutes if you ever ran across it while flipping channels at home (if that’s something people still do) or caught a glimpse of it at my store while flipping through our record collection (which is, weirdly, something people do all the time now). King of the Monsters is an all-the-monsters fight movie, and I don’t think it will fail your expectations on that point, but I think it’s a movie I would primarily give credit for as a visual spectacle. There are things going on visually in this movie that go far beyond just cool or compelling and into the realm of ethereal and supernatural, colours and moments that will strike you and keep striking you at a much more rapid clip than any normal movie. At its height, King of the Monsters, as a visual piece, had me thinking about grander scales, universality, and collisions of ideas, how some things do and some things don’t fit together on the scale of the cosmos, and how intriguing it is that, when it comes to crossovers like this, the only thing these concepts have in common — their single point of definitive connection — is our world. And in a way, from a high enough level, that’s all any of these fictions and fandoms have in common: they all come from here, they all come from us, and yet they have an unmistakable ability to hit us back in ways we never knew possible.
But that’s me, and I don’t know or expect that you’re going to have those sorts of thoughts as you watch King of the Monsters. And as impressed as I was at looking at Godzilla: King of the Monsters, what I was hearing definitely didn’t carry its weight. I would almost go as far as to say I hate the actual story of the movie. Without going too much into detail for fear of spoilers (not there’s really much for me to spoil, I just don’t like spoiling things), King of the Monsters has a very conventional plot, and that’s not a big issue, but the spine of the movie, its ethos and its thesis statement felt really regressive. Maybe I should be giving King of the Monsters credit for having a philosophical or sociological line of thinking at its core, but thinking about it and where the central conflict comes from with this movie pulled me back to junior high. It’s real grade-school philosophy stuff, hoarey and old and really kind of lazy. To be fair, I’m not saying Godzilla: King of the Monsters is any more lazy than any other typical Hollywood movie, but I couldn’t get over how tired and superficially thoughtful its central premise felt.
Another weakness of the movie, unfortunately, is its cast, and I hate to say that, because Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, friggin’ Zhang Ziyi? These are all actors I respect and who I’ve loved in other roles and who have carried integral parts in other productions, but they’re all actor’s’ actors (except for Middleditch, who’s just enormously funny), and their best works are in dramatic roles. In a movie like Godzilla, they’re drowned out by the literally bigger-than-life goings on of the rest of the movie. Their personalities just aren’t big enough because they’re all real people and they’re not being asked to do anything close to real here, especially Whitford who I found annoying because his part is essentially that of a hyperactive teenager. No one in this movie is a big enough star to stand up to the monster that is this movie’s giant monster schtick other than Millie Bobby Brown (who’s such a natural star that it’s borderline suspicious), but her part isn’t nearly big enough, and I would say the only role really well done in this movie is Ken Watanabe’s Doctor Serizawa (carried over from Godzilla 2014), and that’s just because Watanabe is such a singularly amazing actor and presence in roles that call for quiet resolve, grace, and wisdom. It’s his Serizawa that gives the King of the Monsters anything close to an emotional throughline.
So should I see it?
I’m of extremely mixed feelings with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Normally I need a movie to be at least somewhat cogent in its plotting and at least a little emotionally resonant for me to truly enjoy it, and I don’t think King of the Monsters has either of those things. It’s tired and obvious most of the time even though I often didn’t have a strong grasp of why people were doing things, and there is almost nothing happening in terms of the relationships and human connections. It has, at best, token philosophical meanings that feel included mostly because Godzilla is supposed to be more than just a monster movie. As a philosophical construct and an historical figure, Godzilla is a monster of political and sociological meaning, capturing our fears and hopes at the most existential level, but that’s something that’s extremely tricky to capture, particularly in an age where movies like this are often explicitly tamped down creatively and politically so that they can hit the widest range of worldwide moviegoers. And, really, it’s hard to blame the producers for going down that road, because if last weekend’s earnings are anything to go by, King of the Monsters certainly isn’t going to be a movie that makes it to profitability off the back of North American ticket sales.
But I kind of loved it. Everything that Godzilla: King of the Monsters has to say isn’t in what its characters are doing or in what its themes are suggesting; it’s all in the visuals. Watching the monsters fight is fun, I’ll grant you, but the colour palette this movie uses, the shots it takes, and the creativity of its movements, for me, filled in all of the blanks left by its story and characters. It left me thinking in ways I wasn’t expecting to, often about things that probably aren’t even that related to the movie itself, and as much of a mess as this movie is at the things that usually matter, it’s rare that any movie gets me thinking about those things at all.
Thom’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters final score