Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Written and Directed by Michael Dougherty
Starring: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidora, and That Kid From Stranger Things
So holy crap. This movie is more fun than it has any right to be.
WAY more fun.
It’s like, on their third try at Godzilla, the scales finally fell from Hollywood’s eyes, and they figured out what makes these films work. Which is to say… Monsters. But not just monsters. They’ve gotten the tone right, too, and that makes all the difference in the world. Because this flick captures the proper spirit of melodrama, treating its patently ridiculous subject matter with refreshing earnestness, trusting the audience to come along for the ride without ever winking at the camera.
Or, in other words, they play it straight, but don’t take themselves too seriously to have fun. And the results are rather glorious.
Before we get to exactly HOW glorious, though, I suppose we should deal with the negative reviews this flick’s been getting. I’ve read a lot of mainstream critics’ takes, and while I see where they’re coming from, I also think they’re kind of missing the point. The most common complaint has been that the film spends too much time on the monsters, and not enough developing the human cast. And, yes. You need human characters in these things. They raise the stakes of all the destruction being wrought in the giant monster battles. Faceless crowds getting crushed and eaten is one thing, but real characters make the action personal. If we know Dick, Jane and Toshiro, we don’t want to see them get stepped on.
But make no mistake: this is melodrama. The characters don’t really need to grow and change. It’s far more important that they have distinct personalities and understandable goals. Goals that are linked to, or impacted in some way by, the monsters. And if you weave all that together cleverly enough, that’s all you actually need.
So in this movie, we’re focused on an estranged couple and their teenage daughter. They lost their eldest child in the first Godzilla attack (from the 2014 movie), and have reacted to it very differently. The mother becomes a Godzilla expert, while the father gets as far away from the world of giant monsters as he can. But when the mother and daughter are kidnapped by a group of insane eco-terrorists, he gets pulled back in.
Alongside that tidy little family drama we have Monarch, an organization dedicated to the study of giant monsters, and defending humanity against them. Ken Watanabe plays the head of Monarch, Dr. Ishirō Serizawa, whose work has lead him to believe that the monsters (called Titans here) are ancient god-beings, long asleep, but awakening now in response to humanity’s abuse of the planet. Shirozawa believes that the best we can hope for is to live in balance with the Titans, figuring out how they work and what they want, and doing our best not to wake too many more of them up. His government / military superiors, unfortunately, take a more hardline approach. They want the Titans dead. And meanwhile, the eco-terrorists want to use them to wipe the plague of humanity off the face of the Earth entirely.
And that, seriously, is the whole movie. It’s a father trying to rescue his daughter, in the midst of a very practical debate over the role of the Titans in humanity’s future. Oh! And monster fights.
LOTS of monster fights.
Pretty awesome monster fights.
These things are well-staged and fun to watch, with good monster logic being applied to each of the various Titans’ fighting styles. Ghidorah is especially well-thought-out, using the three heads and prehensile necks to great advantage. There are a few old-school monster wrestling moves in the movie, too – one particularly nice moment involves Godzilla using a tail-swipe – but those are (perhaps wisely) done in the background, only half-seen as the camera goes to human eye level and Our Heroes run about in abject terror.
But that’s the kind of sly homage to Godzilla history that this film excels at. There are Easter eggs sprinkled throughout for fans of the Japanese film series. The first and biggest one for me was Ken Watanabe’s character, Dr. Ishirō Serizawa, who has two very distinguished namesakes: Ishirō Honda directed the original 1954 Godzilla film, and Daisuke Serizawa was the name of the tragic scientist-hero of that same film. I popped big as soon as I heard the name, and kept right on popping every time another clever homage was snuck in.
You don’t need to catch any of this stuff to enjoy the film, mind you. But if you’re a fan, there will be lots of small moments to make you smile. I got a little bit happier with each successive nod, to the point that I actually fist-pumped at something in the third act. No spoilers, but Michael Dougherty and his co-writers clearly had a lot of fun putting this thing together.
That sense of fun permeates the film, in fact, allowing Dougherty to get away with some pretty outrageous pulp bullshit. The Titans, with their “Long-Slumbering Lords of the Earth” motif, have a definite Lovecraftian air about them, for instance. But even beyond that, this film deals in forgotten mythology, sunken cities, hollow Earth theory, weather manipulation, veiled ancient aliens stuff… It’s insane. And Our Heroes in Monarch travel around in the Argo, a stealth-bomber-style flying aircraft carrier that’s also a fast and highly-maneuverable flying wing.
All of which is incredibly stupid and incredibly cool, and presented with such complete balls-out conviction that it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. Or it’s hard if you’re a dork, anyway. Critics in the straight world, as we’ve already discussed, seem less enamored of the approach. But they’re concerned with more traditional mainstream storytelling formulas, and don’t buy into what the film’s really about, which is coming to an understanding of the monsters and their world. It’s all awe and wonder, and having a lot of big dumb shameless fun.
Not that the film is dumb, mind you. It’s ridiculous. But it’s not dumb. The script is tight and played straight, with a minimum of the kind of broad, obvious jokes that riddle so much modern mainstream genre writing. A few lines here and there feel script-doctored and shoe-horned in (“So… Godzilla and Mothra got a thing goin’ on?!”), but they’re few and far between. Most of the humor comes from the sheer audacious craziness of the thing, and that’s much more satisfying to me.
It’s also a beautiful film. Not so much in the human scenes, which are pretty standard Hollywood action/adventure fare. But Dougherty has gone out of his way to make the monsters feel other-worldly. So most of the scenes involving them are heightened and gorgeous, with multiple iconic images cropping up along the way.
So, yeah. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the best monster movie I’ve seen in a good long while. I seldom have that much fun in a theater.