What Happened to 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'?
The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about Godzilla: King of the Monsters, featuring commentary by The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone.
The latest disaster movie in Warner Bros./Legendary’s extended kaiju cinematic universe picks up five years after the events of Godzilla (2014): the monster-hunting agency Monarch is on the verge of being shut down by an understandably impatient American government. Still, they now face a new threat: Ghidorah, the legendary three-headed dragon, has been unleashed by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) with the help of kidnapped scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown). So Monarch, led by the righteous Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), decides to fight fire with fire with a little help from Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Godzilla hisself. Also, Mothra and Rodan are there, too. The film's bow was so-so at the box office over the weekend and struggled with critics, as well. So what happened?
Heat Vision breakdown
Spoilers ahead. Seriously, there won’t be another warning.
Simon Abrams (AKA: The Thriller Named Minilla): It's easy to be jaded about Godzilla and his kaiju pals since they, like the Muppets after them, are frequently revived by artists who assume that you’ve forgotten about Toho’s iconic monsters. In the case of the Muppets, there were two TV revivals; a series of YouTube videos; several theatrically released movies; some comic books; and a lot of other merchandise. The same is basically true of Godzilla: After the 1999 movie bombed, there were Japanese live-action and animated films; American cartoons; and now a couple of live-action American films. You never have to wait long for Godzilla to come back: Seek, and ye shall find him.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the latest in the American Godzilla series that began with the awe-inspiring Godzilla (2014) and continued with the pleasing mediocrity Kong: Skull Island (2017). King of the Monsters is more like Skull Island, given its creators' equally dutiful but unambitious monster worship.
King of the Monsters is also not as bold as the 2014 Godzilla, since that earlier movie’s makers are little more interested in Big G as an expression of existential dread, as The Ringer's Hannah Searson observes when she writes that Godzilla and his pals are "living evidence that something existed before humanity’s supposed dominance, and they are a humbling reminder that that dominance won’t last forever, and that something will replace it in the future." By contrast, King of the Monsters' human protagonists talk a lot about what Godzilla means, but they, unlike the pinprick-sized soldiers in Godzilla, don’t seem to be surprised that their time is up.
So while King of the Monsters' action set pieces are longer, they don't seem to matter as much. King of the Monsters is, in that sense, sort of like Creed II to Godzilla's Creed: Its creators back-pedal and deliver a more traditional monster movie, thereby diluting their ingenuous, franchise-reviving predecessor’s novelty and power. I like Creed II well enough, just like I’m basically fine with King of the Monsters. But do you agree that this new film suffers from its creators' timid assumption that Godzilla fans just want more kaiju battles and, uh, cloying post-Spielberg optimism? (I love this line from Glenn Kenny's apt New York Times review: "At one point it seems the film could go full 'Kramer vs. Kramer' with Godzilla and [King Ghidorah] as attorneys for the parental plaintiffs"). In other words, does King of the Monsters feel like a step in the right direction to you?
Steven Boone (Aka: Jet Jaguar? Jet Jaguar!): King of the Monsters sets one giant foot down in Roland Emmerich Land, where the mayhem is deafening, relentless and dumb but visually comprehensible; the other foot is in the Michael Bay Zone, where the mayhem is deafening, relentless, and dumb, but visually incomprehensible.
We witness both humans and monsters grappling in tight, shaky close-ups under faint light. I get what director Michael Dougherty is going for: outdoing the indie film realism of Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla. It's the new pic's constant fever pitch, hysterical clenched-teeth performances and bald, flavorless dialogue that sabotage any suspension of disbelief or emotional traction. I was praying for the monsters to team up and eat everybody but Sally Hawkins.
So, jaded? That's me. Too many inspired properties are flooding the market long after their creators have died and taken the inspiration with them. You mention the Muppets, which truly expired with Jim Henson. I could list a dozen more living-dead franchises that exist only for the money and to feed almost pathological fan obsession.
Yes, Godzilla got more screen time than in the 2014 film, but I could have done with a lot more of him and less of the agonizing expository monologues by foreign movie stars reading English from phonetic cue cards (I'm guessing). Most of the monster action happens in dark and stormy swish-pans where I could hardly tell whose scaly fist or dragon-tail was whose.
Reading Hannah Searson's well-written and researched piece, I realized why Godzilla-watching, once a joyous pastime, has become a chore: Filmmakers are parsing the material as if they were Hannah Searson writing an analysis of Godzilla movies. King of the Monsters explains itself so unnecessarily at every opportunity that watching the screen when the monsters aren't on it is strictly optional.
It's as if the worst scene in Jurassic Park, Richard Attenborough whining about circus fleas, has become the wellspring for modern monster movies. (It seems all that modern filmmakers gleaned from Spielberg's direction of Jurassic Park's big set pieces is that the ground shakes when the monster approaches, and people look up with their mouths hanging open.)
Yet when I wasn't doing my chores on this film, it gave up some gorgeous movie moments, a few seconds at a time. There's some lovely stuff in there. Your Creed/Creed II comparison is apt, particularly because the cruder and less dramatically vital second film had flashes of iconic imagery. Did you see the flashes? Tell me about it.
Abrams: I like that we both got angrier at this film after we first saw it and said to each other something like: "Was it good for you?" "Fine, I guess..."
I don't disagree with many of your criticisms, though my main problem with Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields' script isn't just that it's unbelievable and goofy, but also ponderous and sappy and busy and silly and PICK A LANE AND STICK TO IT. I love the gloomy apocalyptic tone of the 2014 Godzilla because it's not only visually assured, but also breathtaking in the way that its creators subordinate narrative logic to spectacular ambience. I got swept up in that movie. Godzilla is also reverent without being as imaginatively conservative as King of the Monsters is.
So to answer your question: I did see flashes of brilliance in King of the Monsters, mostly in the careful pacing, blocking and animation that (sometimes) makes these creatures look as good as the best matte paintings. I was also only really bothered by Dougherty and the gang’s liberal use of hand-held digital photography during nostril-diving close-ups of the film’s human castmembers, all of whom are drowned by David Fincher-style color lighting and filters. Why would you want to spend time with these guys when you can barely see them?
I'd now like to direct your attention to two other interesting articles, both of which are sympathetic and well-argued. The first piece is by our friend Matt Zoller Seitz, who dislikes how chatty King of the Monsters is, but also thinks it's a "frequently brilliant film: simultaneously real science-fiction that earnestly grapples with the ideas it presents, and a religious picture about faith and redemption, where monsters die for our sins so that humankind won't have to."
I'm also partial to film critic/illustrator/comedian John Gholson's succinct, hilarious pan, in which he writes that: "On one hand, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a movie that positions Godzilla as metaphor for the one true Christ," but "on the other hand, this movie's stupid."
I'm a little more #TeamGholson on this one since I found King of the Monsters’ symbolism to be murky and ultimately rather dumb. But what about you? I get the sense that I like the 2014 Godzilla a little more than you, so I wondered if you could talk a little more about why you think the Creed/Creed II comparison is apt.
Boone: It looks like Matt is the best friend this Godzilla could ever have. His closing line, "This movie is magic," made me groan in disagreement until I remembered some of the awesome moments that the prevailing awful ones had made me forget.
Creed II was magic whenever it indulged operatic boxing pageantry, like the scene where hooded Adonis Creed struts into the arena through a gauntlet of laser beams, his stunning girlfriend in tow, singing his theme song.
King of the Monsters displays such swag when it cuts to full shots of the beasts striking fearsome comic book poses. Matt described some of the better ones, such as the snap of Godzilla's phosphorescent tail as he swims by the human underwater complex. I also dug the shot of a missile (or torpedo? submersible?) descending under water, illuminated by a finger of murky sunlight. This film's animators showed quite a loving hand.
It's not for nothing that our screening audience applauded whenever any of the monsters struck a badass pose, but remained silent whenever the humans reached some sentimental milestone. It ain't Avengers: Endgame.
Matt's review also asserts that King of the Monsters is a sci-fi flick as much as it is a monster movie. In classic "hard" science-fiction, the talking often is the drama and the suspense. Scientific concepts essential to resolving the conflict are bandied about and puzzled over. As someone who defends the much-hated Star Trek: The Motion Picture for its pure science-fiction wonkiness (read: "boringness" to many), I see that the new Godzilla is only playing at such seriousness. It's one of those Godzilla movies that wants to be like the 1954 Japanese original — dark, serious and haunted by real-life terrors — when most of us fell in love with Godzilla, the franchise, as a destructive rubber suit romp. At least the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek films admit (and celebrate) that they're about five percent brain.
In King of the Monsters, we get the widely noted Christ allegory (oh, Christ), which yields the most gorgeous shot in the movie, of King Gidorah towering like Pazuzu above a leaning cross; and an absurdly self-absorbed and self-pitying family of scientists whose separation drama we're supposed to stay awake for when we've already seen three-headed lizard Pazuzu-thing.
This film needed more of those animators' loving hands, better jokes (though the censored documentary footage of monsters screwing was a grinner), and as few humans as possible. The purest and most thrilling Godzilla product in at least 30 years is the video game Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee. At their best, this film's titan fights reminded me of the 2002 game's joyous sense of spectacle and play. Most of the creatures in that game appear in this pic, and you can see them from head to toe.
An obsession with putting petty human concerns in the foreground reminds me of all the slavery, Apartheid, Native American genocide, Asian history and refugee crisis films (to name a few) that focused on some white Western protagonist whose emotions were insurance that American viewers would stay invested. As ever, it's unnecessary. We could go a whole Godzilla movie without seeing the humans at larger than ant-scale. I dare a Godzilla-maker to try it.
Abrams: I don’t mind that there's so much human drama in King of the Monsters; many Godzilla sequels and spinoffs have made due with far less memorable human characters. I’m more annoyed that Dougherty and Shields have Jonah Alan and kidnap victim/co-conspirator Emma Russell explicitly restate the same questions that viewers were left with following the 2014 Godzilla — Is Big G the world's way of cleansing our toxic influence? — right before they settle on a rather dopey Save the Nuclear Family narrative.
I mean, when you start to pose scary questions, and then you not only shy away from those questions, but also slap on a sub-Amblin story about domestic reconciliation? And then you try to make it seem as if these two styles are related by having Dr. Serizawa, using an atomic bomb to revive Big G, say something about how we should forgive our demons? That’s when I say we should ditch the human drama.
With all that said: Are you as excited as I am to see King Kong slap down Godzilla in next year's inevitable sequel?
Boone: I, too, cannot wait to see King Kong and Godzilla get back in the ring.
Your breakdown of this film's contradictory, underdeveloped plot (talking) points and the history of boring Godzilla flick exposition makes me realize that the most realistic solution will probably be on YouTube: Fan re-edits of Godzilla movies that remove all the talking.
The human element is a given at this point. There are no kaiju operating the cameras or in the audience. We bring with us all the subtext and suspense required of a movie about monsters using human civilization as a canvas mat. For a series of films about the need for humanity to get over itself, it could be a fascinating thrill to see a one that truly is over us and willing to abandon the melodrama that has never been a proper fit for this material. Gareth Edwards set a foot in that direction in the 2014 reboot and got worldwide acclaim.
I might be twisting your meaning here, but you said it right when you said King of the Monsters is "conservatively imaginative.” Don't let the shaky cam fool you, folks: 2019 Godzilla walks the 2014 film's experiments back several steps, insuring us that, while the earth may be scorched, everything is fine so long as the American nuclear family is intact and the titular nuclear weapon is on our side. Godzilla stands as a proud conqueror at the end, but he's really just another colonial proxy.
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