Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Spoilers)
Posted: Posted May 31st, 2019Edited May 31st, 2019 by Jet Presto
I am finding these Western Godzilla movies to be interesting and frustrating and awesome and disappointing all at the same time. I think, in part, the Western cinematic sensibilities are kind of annoying, but the things that they do sort of take from the Japanese franchise are taken from the '90s Godzilla, which, while I love it, isn't exactly the best Godzilla has to offer.
I'm one of those weirdos who actually thinks the human drama is a big part of why some of those Showa era Godzilla films are actually better than people give them credit for. (Not universally, of course, but some of the best Godzilla films are there.) A lot of what makes that era so good was director Ishiro Honda, who frequently injected his concerns about nuclear weapons, the environment, and the rapidly changing social and cultural atmosphere of post-war Japan into the movies. What often made Godzilla the cream of the crop among the kaiju genre was this aspect: social commentary through campy, all-ages monster flicks. Obviously, these narrative components come less from the monster action and more from the human side. (It's always funny to me that the main villains of, say, Mothra vs. Godzilla or King Kong vs. Godzilla are the greedy, corporate capitalists.) Even with the lowest of budgets and the worst of scripts, with Toho producers aiming at the youngest possible demographic, Honda still did some interesting stuff with the humans (in All Monsters Attack, for example, he subtly displays the damage this new economy was doing to the family structure, with the main child protagonist being a latchkey kid who is almost literally never even in the same shot as a parent, even when they are in the same scene).
And the best Godzilla films do, in fact, have some pretty great human characters. It's easier to point out with the original 1954 film, since it fundamentally was a human drama piece. But I think about the humans in Mothra vs. Godzilla, or Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or Invasion of Astro-Monster, and they stand out to me as much as anything else.
So I totally get that in 2014, and here in 2019, the Hollywood studios are focused on trying to tell human stories. In both, the primary, "What is this film about?" answer is...well...family? I guess? I'm not entirely sure what they are trying to say about it, but they are both - at their cores - family dramas more than anything. Or, I guess, as much as anything. Because - as is now the norm for Hollywood - everything has to be in service of the universe, which means continuity and canon matters just as much. While not quite as loaded with references to films that aren't out yet as, say, a Marvel film, the references to Kong: Skull Island and the previous Godzilla are certainly there. And indeed, there are references to the recently started in production Godzilla vs. King Kong, too. And, while I'm not entirely certain, the post-credits tag certainly seems to imply the possibility of a future appearance of either Death Ghidorah or, somehow, Mecha King Ghidorah down the line. (Or something. It's actually not that clear what, if anything, it's setting up, really.)
Yet such little care seems to be taken with these stories that I can't help but feel like they write them specifically just to push continuity and canon, and bring audiences along to witness the action. For as much screen time as these characters get, it might be nice to have some sort of compelling arc for a character.
Some of the themes feel antithetical to the point of Godzilla as a character. Like, the whole thread where Dr. Serizawa has to set off a nuke in order to save Godzilla feels...counter-productive to both characters, really. It's not that he has to sacrifice himself (that part actually kinda makes sense given his namesake). But, Dr. Serizawa's father was killed by the atomic bombs in WWII. He carries the watch that is stopped on the top of the detonation as a reminder of the evils of nuclear weapons. Godzilla, too, is a creature born of the atomic bomb and is a force of destruction, before becoming a reluctant hero, and then a kids' film icon. (Admittedly, the Japanese got away from the whole point of Godzilla in pursuit of making money during the late '60s and '70s.) So it feels thematically strange, then, that American nukes...saved the day, basically? Granted, there was a little bit of blowback, with Godzilla getting over-charged and nearly explodes himself, but that plot point gets shockingly little play, and people are more concerned with fleeing than discussing whether the nuke was the right thing or not.
(This is also one of the many ways American Godzilla films will almost always differ from Japanese: Americans are a *lot* more comfortable with nuclear weapons and nuclear power than the Japanese are, which makes sense since we are the only nation in the world that has deployed them on civilians, and those civilians were Japanese. We might occasionally see a film where the problem with a nuke being deployed is that it is occurring on American soil and might be premature, or could kill a lot of innocent people, but rarely do these films make any grander commentary about the existence of nuclear weapons, the way that a number of Godzilla movies specifically call out their inherent evil by default.)
Then there's the fact that the human villains are eco-terrorists. I kinda understand the point, but it feels a little disheartening that a Godzilla movie was used to paint environmentalists as the bad guys. Godzilla movies have long held an affinity for environmentalism, and frankly, there are more Godzilla films with the message that we need to protect the environment than there are about the evils of nuclear power or weapons. And while I understand that eco-terrorists goes beyond, and in their minds, they're sort of taking the Thanos approach: kill most people so that some people might live, because the world is being destroyed by humans anyway. But it's hard to imagine a Japanese Godzilla film approaching the issue with such jaded cynicism.
And yeah, actually, that's another thing I couldn't help but notice here. Godzilla movies tend to have some air of hopefulness. Again, not universal, but you don't often see a Toho Godzilla movie without some sort of faith in people. Often, they are reporters or scientists, roles Honda viewed as critical to the peace and to the advancement of the nation. While we get some generally heroic figures (Millie Bobby Brown, for example, rebels against her mother, risking her own life, to try and sabotage the eco-terrorist plan), everyone else is just sorta...doing their job, or primarily interested in saving their family.
I'm rambling a heck of a lot. But I'd also make the case that, while I will always stan the human drama in addition, it is certainly true that the main draw of most Godzilla films is the monster action. And this is another way that I find these two Godzilla movies to be kind of weird. Of course, I think Gareth Edwards gave me two or three of the absolute coolest Godzilla moments, I still found the action to be a little disappointing overall. Good, but not great. Here, I'm honestly torn on it. I keep hearing others say they thought the action was awesome, but I...kinda don't know that it was.
There are plenty of amazing shots, especially of King Ghidorah. And while there isn't any sort of "AAAAAWWWWW YEEEEAH!" moment like in 2014's Godzilla, there is still cool stuff that Godzilla does, too. I don't know that it's bad, but it felt a little lackluster.
For starters, I kind of have to criticize the creature design. I was admittedly not a big fan of Godzilla's design in the previous movie, and most of my problems are still there. (Is it weird that I kept seeing the Abomination from Incredible Hulk whenever we got a stationary look at Godzilla's head and face?) Ghidorah's design works, mostly due to it's dragon-esque style. The rough and scaly look makes sense. Plus, alien creature. Rodan...is fine. Doesn't get to do a whole lot. We don't really get to see a whole lot. But ok, big pteradon. Fine.
Mostly, my complaint here is Mothra. I get that in Western cinema, we tend to be more concerned with realism, but Mothra feels like a character that shouldn't be realistic. Making her look like a big, literal insect is "realistic," but it isn't really majestic or beautiful. In Toho films, she's always sort of got a bumblebee body with butterfly wings. (Early suits were kind of ratty, but she still looked like the goddess she is.) She was beautiful, awe-inspiring, and fearsome, full of destructive rage if prodded. I'm not entirely sure a more insect-looking Mothra gives that same impression. Especially given that they made her wings more narrow and small, which really sort of just makes her look like big ugly insect than anything. The pursuit of realism here kind of feels like it hurts the character. (Doesn't help that they didn't really give her anything to do, really. Granted, not even Toho really knew how to utilize flying monsters a lot. Godzilla vs. Mothra, which features two flying monsters, definitely has some kiiiinda stationary action.)
I feel like kids love Godzilla movies because of the monsters. And I'm not sure that trying to make them look "realistic" does them many favors. Like, I'm not really even sure who this film is for. It takes itself too seriously to be for kids. But also not seriously enough to be for adults. It seems more concerned with the continuity of the '90s Godzilla, but wants to have the popular "versus" aspect of the '60s and '70s. It's...strange.
But also, I was thinking about how this entire film is super dark: visually. Almost the whole movie takes place at night, and often in the rain (I can't tell if all the rain was a weird reference to the 1998 Roland Emmerich film.) I think this is done for the obvious reason that any CGI action sequence takes place in poor lighting: cover up the edges. With that much CGI (massive CGI characters doing battle in CGI cities), the dim lighting and weather can hide the rough edges. Not as much detail needs to go into things because you wouldn't be able to see them anyway. It can hide sometimes janky movement, as well. So, I totally understand the decisions to stage all these action sequences at night. (This is also part of the reason for evening attacks in the black and white, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again - darker lighting can hide the strings or any imperfections of the models - though those models were often actually super detailed and dope as hell.)
But... wasn't the fun part of Godzilla movies, like, *seeing* the monsters and watching them fight?
Off the top of my head, besides the serious Godzilla movies and a handful of others, I can remember literally most of the monster action happening in broad daylight, often in open environments. Literally since Godzilla has been in color, practically every Godzilla film featured monster action on well-lit sound stages. They also set up the camera so that you could see it. I know the shaky cam is a more modern innovation of cinema, comparatively, but they seemed to understand that people were coming for those fights, so let them see it.
I kinda feel like Ken Watanabe here: I don't just want them to let them fight; I want them to let me see it.
This is not to say they should never show ground-level stuff of the action. Even 1960s Godzilla movies often did that. But that wasn't the bulk of it.
The action in Godzilla: KOTM is often obscured by poor lighting, weather effects, and shaky camera, but it is also often viewed from the perspective of the human characters. Which makes sense and, and is another way it feels more "Western" than Godzilla. (And one of the reasons I am increasingly convinced that Americans will not make a truly great Godzilla movie any time soon.)
So there are a bunch of cool moments, and incredible shots, and some interesting ideas, but I felt kinda...underwhelmed by the monster action. There is certainly a lot more of it than in 2014's Godzilla (in some ways, this film feels a bit like it is trying too hard to respond to some of the criticisms of that film), but I'm not sure that the quantity outdoes the quality of 2014.
The one thing that I absolutely, unquestionably loved, though, was the score. Yes, a lot of it winds up feeling generic summer blockbuster. However, every once in a while, a familiar tune will get worked. Next thing you know, you've got the military march, or Godzilla's theme, or Mothra's theme, or even some classic Ghidorah sound effects popping up here and there. And boy, it is so great to hear those. (For my money, the Godzilla franchise has some of the most under-appreciated scores in cinema history. I'm definitely biased, but Godzilla's theme is right there with Star Wars for me in that once I hear it, I immediately get jazzed and feel a whole lot of positive things.)
I...actually don't know how I feel about it. I'd like to see less continuity (a weird thing for Godzilla films to suddenly be focusing on), a little less cynicism, a little more fun, and a little more inter-connectedness between human drama and monster action.
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