03 June 2019

First Impressions: Godzilla: King of the Monsters


This is going to be an interesting impression because there's already been some weird divisiveness towards this movie. This past weekend I saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and it instantly became one of my favourite movies of 2019. I don't see any way this doesn't make it on to my Best of 2019 list. Like, Avengers: Endgame (2019) will come close, but this is a lock.

Hail Hydra

Imagine my surprise then when I see this thing only has 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, somehow underperformed when compared to both Godzilla (2014) and Godzilla (1998), and has had a general cool reaction from casual and hardcore fans alike. I read criticism and can't believe we watched the same movie. So, let's explore this crap with lots of SPOILERS forever.

So, this may come as a shock if you read about my long-time Marvel fandom (and long-time Star Wars fandom), but I've also been a Godzilla fan since I could walk. Almost every week in my youth my folks and I were journey to Blockbuster and pick up another Showa-era cheesefest to watch, which is now a very old-fashioned sentence. I watched literally all of them. Every bad, dumbass rubber suited monster mash. Heisei Films were notoriously more difficult to obtain on VHS, despite being the then-contemporary Godzilla films premiering in Japan, but I've since caught up on most all of them thanks to the Internet. Oddly enough my biggest gaps are now Millennium Godzilla films like Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). I've played Godzilla video games, read graphic novels, played with toys - it has never ended.

This is all to establish some cred. I can tell you the difference between Kumonga and Kamacuras and pick out a Xilien and Kilaak from a line-up. And I tell you, at its core, Godzilla is so damn hokey, dumb, and campy. It revels in B-movie science fiction and I have no idea why this series has become so popular. Godzilla is recognized as a Japanese Icon worldwide. I think that's in part because of the legitimacy of the original 1954 metaphor, the genuine evolution of the character over time, from villain to hero to anti-hero and repeatedly back again, often in the same film (here's looking at you, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah [1991]!) and simple monster mashing wish fulfillment which is fun as hell. This series ranges from thoughtful metaphor to pure low budget camp and a whim. It can be anything, from alien to time travel to environmental metaphor, there's something for everyone.

For whatever reason we've moved away from this campiness into a very self-serious mode. This has presented a struggle when these films weren't fully engaged in what they are. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) was the final Heisei film which is kind of a mess but presents the tragedy of a Godzilla doomed by his own radioactive meltdown (more on how King of the Monsters directly references this flick to come) and death. It's campy only in its low budget, but treats its subject matter pretty seriously.

The Americans took over with Godzilla (1998) and seemed to get everything wrong. There are many reasons why that movie failed, but suffice to say that director Roland Emmerich didn't really understand what makes Godzilla appealing and blatantly didn't care. While there is awkward CGI, annoying characters, and a nonsensical plot, a lot of that would have been masked with a Godzilla that had personality and fit with audience expectations.

Toho answered back with the Millennium series of films and Godzilla 2000 (1999) was a very classic Monster v. Monster plot. This all culminated in Final Wars (2004) which contained this cherry scene. We had a decade long hiatus before another American attempt in Godzilla (2014).

I have thought long and hard about 2014 Godzilla. My initial impressions were pretty positive, but I'm stuck on the JAWS (1975) parallel. Like...why? The naming of characters and themes are too close for it to be coincidental, but the rationale doesn't seem to line up. JAWS' withholding of the shark was obviously for practical reasons, but it also built fear, tension, and this slow idea that the mindless animal shark was a thinking, plotting, conniving creature. There's no reason to do this with Godzilla. It just feels like a rip-off, a shallow attempt at emulating a successful film technique without the context to back it up. I think myself in circles because I liked the movie enough I don't want to admit it was shit.

And to be fair, the final fight and unleashing of the fire breath is well-worth it and a truly awesome moment. I think Godzilla 2014 falls apart because SPOILER Bryan Cranston, the most interesting character with the strongest motivation, perishes far too early, and we're left with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who doesn't really have any kind of arc. All the while we're spending time with this jackass instead of diving into the Monster Mash we want to see.

Of course, after this we got Shin Godzilla (2016), which was like Toho's reaction to the ten-year hiatus and mixed Legendary reviews by cranking out the greatest Godzilla movie ever - one that shuns Kaiju flinging mayhem for an extended treatise on Japanese bureaucracy, arrogant American interference, and the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster. It also give us the greatest Godzilla design departure ever and a truly horrific presentation.

Are ya'll ready to actually talk about King of the Monsters? All this background is important because King is exactly the opposite of Godzilla '14. At least, I thought so, although for some reason it's gotten the same criticism - dumbass human characters that distract from the Monster mash. I can't say we were watching the same film because I have never witnessed this level of spectacle on screen.

About halfway through I realized that my jaw had been on the floor for thirty minutes. It's one thing after another in a non-stop action fueled Kaiju mayhem. Every bit of this movie is spectacular. My hopes were pretty high but they were just blown away. This movie is like throwing $170 million at insane B-movie material and loving it. For all its weird misplaced JAWS-ness and sparse moments of fun, the real problem with Godzilla is that it was trying sooo hard to be a complex human family drama when it really should have known where it's coming from. Seatopians! Dorats! Imaginary Gabara on Monster Island!

The star here is really the introduction of King Ghidorah, who with fairly little dispute has earned the title of Godzilla's longest and most powerful foe. It's Ghidorah at the forefront of the enemies, from Destroy All Monsters (1968) to Final Wars (2004) and it's fitting that he's positioned as the eternal combatant of the MonsterVerse's version of Godzilla. I was so pumped when they deduced Ghidorah's alien origins. It's that moment where Hollywood is finally stopping its attempt to over-explain everything and provide rationale for all its long-term properties campiness that movies like Casino Royale (2006) and Batman Begins (2005) attempted so hard to craft. He's an alien. Deal with that. It's no less weird.

This alien-ness, though, also drives a lot of the plot. By the way, the main bad dude trapped in ice for centuries and being studied by human scientists totally felt like Megatron in Transformers (2007). But from the moment of Ghidorah's introduction something is off - the unworldly yellow lightning, the constant hurricane around him, the immunity to the Oxygen Destroyer. The film creates its world and then sticks to it. Ghidorah proves to be on the most powerful cinematic villains ever. His presence literally creates a constant massive storm around him that destroys everything. He's a walking hurricane!

This film also does not hold back with global city destruction. DC is toast. Boston totally destroyed. There was a brief moment where it seemed like they'd go all War of the Worlds (2005) on us and leave the protagonist's house as the one untouched spot in Boston but nope, wiped out instantly. The metaphor gets a little clunky - like are these monsters supposed to be increasing environmental disasters or bring balance to a destroyed world? The human hubris angle gets a little twisted and tacked on, but that's easy to ignore.

The first moment where Ghidorah raises his wings though...I never thought I'd see King Ghidorah in a major American picture, much less one re-created so faithfully. The one really great thing Godzilla '14 did was provide a sense of scale, and this film continues that, although it's less about the human perspective of sheer awe and more about letting these things wreck the world. Ghidorah is massive and his Gravity Beams are devastating. It was a nice touch that Ghidorah seems to be sadistically acting on his own accord, which is actually rare. From the Xiliens to Futurians, Ghidorah is usually mind-controlled. It's all him here, though.

On the topic of character introductions - each monster gets a pretty spectacular one. We first meet Mothra, who as a giant moth in a world full of pterodactyls and golden dragons has always been lame. Still, seeing the larvae and its power, then the full graceful wings under the waterfall is awe-inspiring. We first see Godzilla as his spines pulsate in the blackness of the deep ocean and then his grand debut above the surface. Rodan blasts forth from an erupting volcano. Each into is epic and memorable, befitting its subject.

We're also informed by human reaction. Characters have weight, monsters have consequence, and you see the pain they've gone through as a result of Godzilla. There's some sloppiness here on who the actual protagonist is. It feels like it's going to be Eleven's story, but then Bruce Baxter sort of takes over. I would have liked to have remained with Eleven's perspective, to see her more gradually realize her mom is totally bonkers and also to have Vera Farmiga go all the way bonkers. I mean, she is - she is ushering forth the apocalypse (although kind of not at the end?) but this film stumbles a bit in providing a clear motivation for her mania.

Not to mention Charles Dance, who seems like the big bad human guy, but totally takes a backseat to Vera Farmiga and then actually straight up leaves the picture until the end credits. His organization's motives are never fully clear and I don't know why he did anything in this movie. Still, you don't necessarily notice that until hours after the movie ended. The ending is so focused on Godzilla and Ghidorah that everything else is okay to be left by the wayside.

Bruce Baxter does have a complex arc he goes through, torn between revenge on Godzilla and the knowledge that he might be needed for a greater good. All the core family members grow and make some satisfying decisions - eventually. Unlike Godzilla '14 where the main characters seemed to just keep popping up suddenly next to Godzilla, there's also a much more plot-driven reason why they're interacting with these monsters. And sure, the Orca is lame and totally impossible but the power to control Titans in this new world is a weapon of mass destruction heretofore unprecedented.

A small note here - with O'Shea Jackson, Jr appearing here, somehow all the principal cast of Straight Outta Compton (2015) has appeared in the MonsterVerse. Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) and Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) were both in KONG: Skull Island (2017). If MC Ren and DJ Yella aren't in Godzilla vs. KONG (2020) I'm going to be very disappointed.

There are great turns by Bradly Whitford and Zhang Ziyi, who is aging like Paul Rudd. All the human characters are pretty fun, even if they introduced so many that I expected more to be eaten. Ken Watanabe is clearly having a great time delivering so many trailer lines that Bruce Baxter eventually calls him out on it and he says he got it from a fortune cookie.

There's just enough zaniness like that to know that the movie is a little aware of how ridiculous it's being. My favourite part is when they journey to the Lost City of Atlantis and find Godzilla's home in a hidden underwater radioactive air bubble. It's very telling that this is an American production because their solution to awaken the injured, sleeping Godzilla is to nuke the shit out of it. This is where it gets a little Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah combined with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.

In the former film, Ghidorah replaces Godzilla in the H-bomb tests and then arises as Japan's destroyer. In the present our heroes need to nuke the Godzillasaurus to turn it into Godzilla to become Japan's protector (yeah, that doesn't work out at all, but whatever). In the latter, Godzilla has a meltdown and dies, but the humans are worried that a Godzilla explosion will ignite the atmosphere while a meltdown will melt through the planet's crust. No one's really worried about that in King of the Monsters, and the big G access Burning Godzilla mode to lay a beat down on Ghidorah, instead of you know...melting to death.

There is also a big reference to the Oxygen Destroyer, which killed the original original Godzilla and later produced the monster Destoroyah, one of Godzilla's fiercest foes. There's enough groundwork laid here for Destoroyah to make an appearance, which is one of the few steps up from Ghidorah we could get. The other, of course is Mecha-King Ghidorah, which seems to be where Charles Dance is heading in the end credits scene when he obtains Ghidorah's lopped off head. That could go in a few different ways.

All of this is total hardcore fan wish fulfillment. This movie offers not one, not two, but three full-on Godzilla / Ghidorah fight sequences. It broke my heart, though to see Rodan fighting Mothra and under Ghidorah's control. It was a gross feeling. Rodan is Godzilla's best bud! Get that motherfucking lackey Gigan in there to be Ghidorah's lap dog. It was good to see Rodan convert and bow at the end, but I hated that. Rodan even teamed up to fight Mechagodzilla II! I need to lie down.

As far as other Kaiju go (I need to start calling them "Titans") we got way more than I thought. 17 in total!? We get good glimpses of a handful - none of which were classic Showa Kaiju, but some came close. "Scylla" seems to be a Kamacuras / Kumonga mix. "Methuselah" is clearly an Anguirus analogue. I hope. "Behemoth" is really out there - a gorilla / Mammoth thing. Then there's another MUTO. Really? Throw in fucking Varan or something, man. It is cool to see new Titans and I'm curious where this will all go.

Judging all this is the shady organization Monarch, which I loved. There is no explanation - they're just some international paramilitary organization with the most advanced technology on the planet, a giant mobile undersea base, and a crazy army that answers to no world government. It's the kind of ridiculous camp that goes even beyond the JSDF and whatever else the old movies could conjure up. It's also just straight up S.H.I.E.L.D. but with so much less in terms of a backstory or reason for existing. I loved it. I love when movies stop caring about this shit. It feels like a sandbox where things don't need to make sense. We can just mash our toys against each other and see our imagination on screen. It's extremely fun.

Strangely, that doesn't seem to be part of the common criticism. For as crazy as the actual plot mechanisms were, and despite how this movie doesn't understand what metaphor it's pursuing, there was a nice action / reaction flow and no choices seemed arbitrary. There was nonsense like flying from China to Antarctica in like a day, but that shit doesn't matter - no one wants to get caught up in the logistics of that. It's okay for movies to use shorthand like that. It's nitpicking type stuff.

The bigger issues are the human characters and how the film can't seem to focus on anyone. My counter is to ask you to name a single human character from any of the previous 34 Godzilla movies. I'll wait. No one cares! The human parts are always the worst. So why do we even need them? Well, there's only so much you can really do with giant monster fights. The novelty is there, but you can't really craft a movie over it. Well, we have, which is why all these movies are terrible. King of the Monsters is so full of epic moments and spectacle, and does genuinely give its human characters enough background that we care about them and their motivations. It's not high art, but it's a huge step forward.

And Gadzooooookiiieeee!!

I've also heard issues with the CGI and Legendary using rain and darkness and snow to mask its monsters. Fine. Go watch fucking Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) if you want bright daylight monster fights. They look terrible. CGI just isn't there yet. Every great use of CGI is great because it all actually sucks and we need to mask it in darkness to sell it. This is true from Godzilla to Pacific Rim. People tend to not have this issue when the movie is actually good, and I had no issue here. I think there is something else that folks don't like about this, so they blame CGI.

To be really honest, I'm usually good at sniffing this out, but I'm stumped here. It has a decent audience score right now (87%) compared to the critical 39%, so that's something. Still, it really just didn't do the Box Office business a movie like this deserved. Perhaps the Aladdin (2019) pressure was too much, as it barely edged the Disney remake. I worry about Dark Phoenix (2019) this upcoming weekend as well, which I don't think will really do well at all, but will draw enough of the crowd away. It's actually exactly like 2014 when we had Godzilla, Days of Future Past, Maleficient, and Edge of Tomorrow back to back to back to back. We'll see what this movie can do, but I've never been cheering for a movie so hard.

Am I crazy? Living in the Toho bubble? This was one of the greatest spectacles I've ever seen. Everything had weight, power, logic within its own world, fan service pay-off, and really epic effects and monster moments. I loved this movie more than almost anything else I've seen this year. I hope it can find its way and rise above criticisms of it being another case of shallow Hollywood excess. We'll see.

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