So, just got back from seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’ve you’ve followed my blog, you probably know that I am a massive, life-long Godzilla fan, so I was eagerly looking forward to this long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla (which I liked quite a bit).
So, how’s this film stack up? Well, my immediate reaction is that I really, really liked it! I have a few reservations (which we’ll get to), but for the most part it’s pretty much just what I would want from a modern, big-budget version of the Godzilla mythos. It’s much faster and more action-packed than it’s predecessor, but without sacrificing the sense of awe and grandeur that ought to go along with Godzilla. There are plenty of moments where the characters just stand and stare (some of Mothra’s scenes are particularly good in this regard, and they really do capture the sense of otherworldly beauty that she ought to have).
Of course, one of the big things I wanted to see was how they would handle King Ghidorah, who has been oddly ill-served by most previous films. Well, they give him his due here; he’s not quite as overwhelmingly powerful and evil as I would have liked (e.g. if I were writing the film, Godzilla would have gotten absolutely run into the ground in their first fight), but he’s able to match and even outmatch the Big G while credibly posing an existential threat to the planet, which is as it should be. Don’t really like him walking on his wing tips, but that’s really my only criticism about the design (and they do establish that he’s “not from around here”).
Mothra is also very well played; I like how they present her as having a symbiotic relationship with Godzilla (though one character seems to take their ‘relationship’ as something else), so that she never falls under Ghidorah’s sway, which would have been all kinds of wrong. I wish she had gotten more screen time and more chance to really show what she can do, but she was almost spot on, and hearing an orchestral version of the Mothra Song from theater speakers was fantastic.
Rodan I actually think got a bit of a short shrift, character wise. I always conceive of him as a fiercely independent creature, to the point of being more antagonistic and uncontrollable than Godzilla himself: he can be mind controlled, like most monsters, but I don’t really like the idea of him as a follower. In terms of his presentation, however, he is very impressive; they make good use of his sheer speed and agility in the air, as well as his raw strength.
As for the human plot, it was actually pretty good; the characters divide into three camps. There are the villains who are ecoterrorists intending to use the monsters to wipe out humanity so that the earth can be restored to a more ‘natural’ state, the people who want the monsters to all be destroyed lest they kill more people, and the ‘Monarch’ organization in between, which argues for balance and co-existence. I appreciate that, despite the film’s strong environmentalist message, it actually takes the approach that the Earth is more self-correcting than we give it credit for, and that those who would see humanity removed from the equation not only are monstrous in their ideology, but don’t actually understand the environment they think they’re saving and will only make things worse.
All this is very fitting material for a Godzilla film, which have always been about man’s interactions with nature and the unexpected consequences of violating the natural order. Likewise, things like the hollow Earth myth and ancient lost cities, as well and linking the monsters to the creatures of mythology fit perfectly. The filmmakers very clearly know the Godzilla franchise and love it; there are many, many little nods and allusions, as well as plot points taken directly from the earlier films, and even non-film sources like the Marc Ceresini books. Rodan being found in a volcano and Ghidorah being initially dubbed ‘Monster Zero’ are only a couple examples (some others I can’t go into without spoilers).
The film also continues the strong theme of family from the last film: the characters trying to rebuild the family unit that was destroyed, in this case, by Godzilla himself. Though in this case, it might be beyond saving. There was actually a bit of genuine wisdom in the film, where Dr. Serizawa tells one of the leads that we don’t always understand why something bad happens, and that if we accept that we can grow stronger from adversity, rather than being torn apart (I don’t recall the exact wording, but it struck me as very Job-like).
The matter-of-fact religiosity of the previous film, alas, is mostly gone, though there are one or two nice little moments, mostly amounting to presenting Ghidorah is a demonic light, such as when one of the bad guys, seeing King Ghidorah exclaims “Mother of God!” to which the answer comes “She had nothing to do with this.” There’s also a striking image of Ghidorah, amid the flames of a volcano, being set against a cross, as though he’s challenging Christ Himself. On the other hand, frequent allusions to the idea that the monsters were the ‘original gods’ of mankind are rather ridiculous (there is a qualitative difference between a simply dangerous or powerful creature, however massive, and a creature regarded with numinous awe). Likewise, the attempts to emphasize the animality of the monsters doesn’t really work for me; I prefer it when there is a strange ambivalence about just what they are in the hierarchy of creation.
On that note, one thing I miss in these latter films was the supernatural element in the earlier Godzilla films. The classic movies thought nothing of including fairies, magic, and mystic energy side-by-side with science-fiction concepts, which both gave them a very distinctive flavor and fit in with the underlying idea that humanity really doesn’t know very much about the world and violates ancient taboos at its peril. Also, the ‘alpha signal’ device, and the idea that Ghidorah can command creatures all around the planet is highly dubious, especially since so much of the film rests on it. I can go with it, but it’s questionable at best.
Then there’s the Oxygen Destroyer, which was, frankly, a disappointment. See, the Oxygen Destroyer is a huge deal in the original films; it appears precisely twice over the whole history of the franchise, and both times it’s a major, major issue; the one weapon that can certainly kill Godzilla, but which also threatens to be far worse than he is. The questions it raises, and the horrific nature of the weapon itself, are big parts of the story and philosophy of the films. Here, it is introduced and set off within the space of maybe two minutes and is never brought up again except in passing. That’s a big waste.
Finally, there’s a matter of Godzilla himself. Now, overall he’s portrayed very well; I completely buy that this is Godzilla, and his power and ferocity are on full display. But the thing is (and this applies to the first film as well), I think that by playing him so overtly heroic, they’ve lost something. One of the things that makes the original series so compelling to me is that Godzilla starts off as a villainous, or at least antagonistic figure. He hates humanity for what they’ve done and continue to do to him. Yet he is ultimately a noble creature, and his arc comes when that nobility leads him to protect the very people he so hates, in the process gradually softening and becoming more heroic as the two sides come to terms with each other. It’s a fairly unique storyline, which appears to have grown up more or less by accident, and I think it’s a fascinating drama. But that isn’t what we have with these new films. Here, Godzilla is characterized much more like Gamera, which isn’t unacceptable, but it is a little disappointing for me (it also means that bringing Gamera into this series would basically be redundant, as the contrast between their characters has been removed).
Those caveats really don’t take away from my sheer enjoyment of this film; they throw so much at us, and the action scenes are so big and so spectacular, and the monsters themselves so well-realized that I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, not to mention the sheer joy of hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla Theme in all its glory accompanying the action. I’m definitely looking forward to what they’ll do in the next one. Long live the King indeed!