If the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters has taught us anything, it’s that the expectations of audiences and critics are a fair distance apart.
This is no great revelation. For every serious reviewer of cinema, you will find two casual cinema-goers pop up to remind them “it’s only a movie”. This is completely fine. Some people just enjoy cinema for the experience and don’t study it too closely, bathing in the drama or spectacle. Others like to dissect, unpick, or place into context. Some, admittedly. simply enjoy trashing a project for their own personal, particular reasons, and often reside in the sketchier corners of online fandom. Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy for the reasons we enjoy it, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters struck me as the purest exercise in giving the people what they want, Roman-forum style. It is, in the most primal sense, a monster movie. A movie starring monsters. There is so subtlety, no cloak and dagger subterfuge. You see Godzilla in the first frame. All of him. In his prime.
Compare this to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, off the back of which King of the Monsters follows, and we could be in different stylistic galaxies. A key complaint from paying punters in 2014 was that we simply didn’t see all that much of, as the Japanese call him, ‘Gojira’. For a film named after the big guy, he was conspicuous by his absence as Edwards attempted to root his film in human drama around which Godzilla appeared as a force of nature, a towering titanic beast it took a significant amount of the film to reveal. Edwards wanted awe in a different manner to King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty. He wanted to keep us waiting for Godzilla, and make his entrance a moment to take our breath away. For some, this was the wrong approach, and King of the Monsters goes in a very different direction.
King of the Monsters wants you to know, very clearly, that Godzilla and a host of other monsters are what this film is about. The humans are plot devices. It is the monsters who are the real characters.
The reviews from critics have been more excoriating than I imagined, for a film I fully expected from the (almost incomprehensible) trailer to be doing what it said on the tin: having Godzilla smack down a metric ton of beasts.
Their chief complaint is precisely the opposite to what fans decried five years ago with the film’s predecessor: the characters aren’t well developed or well written enough for us to care one whit about anything going on. This complaint is one of the main reasons I have chosen to not write a traditional review for King of the Monsters because, much like many of these critical reviewers quite honestly, I get the feeling I might end up missing the point.
Here’s the thing: my experience of Godzilla is extremely limited, and largely through the Hollywood prism. I watched the 1998 Roland Emmerich disaster movie (disaster meant strictly in how it came out). I watched the Edwards version, which I enjoyed quite a bit (though oddly enough I found the characters in that film the weakest link), and in preparation for that film, I went back to 1954 and the original Toho Studios Japanese classic from Ishiro Honda that launched Japan’s most iconic international export. The subsequent amount of Godzilla movies in almost 70 years since is staggering. Few of the audience who watch King of the Monsters—few indeed who watched the 2014 Godzilla, the first Hollywood movie to do the creation justice—would have seen that entire lexicon of films, many of which by all accounts are kitsch, dated and highly weird. Consequently, I worry that the context truly needed to examine a Godzilla film is missing, without some grounding and fore-knowledge in the copious lore behind the character.
My instinct is that if you lined up a mega-Godzilla fan who has the lore banked in their head with a film critic who has only seen one or two, and the Hollywood adaptations, you would end up with two significantly different takes on King of the Monsters. The critic may well be looking for depth of theme, subtext, script quality, direction, cinematography, characterisation, actor’s performance etc… all of the aspects which are demanded these days in even a blockbuster with such a concept as this. The Godzilla fan will likely be approaching this film from more of a technical standpoint – does Godzilla look right? Does King Ghidorah or Mothra? Do they move correctly? Are their powers correctly presented? Could they execute that fighting move? Do their motivations make sense? The last one is where some of these lines blur, and these distinctions are not entirely prescriptive; the critic may well be looking at how well the monsters are characterised while the fan may be studying the artful cinematography or script content.
Broadly, however, King of the Monsters is going to be judged by very different standards and very different parameters if you care and are invested in the franchise.
The same can be said across every major fandom which translates its property to the big or small screen, and this is part of the often troubling undulating in fandom circles which with the rise of social media has directly affected response to these kinds of films. King of the Monsters further suggests, however, that such blockbusters are being made by committee to satiate fandoms specifically.
Let me take a side step for a moment and briefly tell you what I made of King of the Monsters, because it does play into my broader point here. If you look at this from the point of view of the mission statement, then it surely succeeds. There is a Lovecraftian scale to the Titans—the name of the monsters including Godzilla—which absolutely pays off on the concept of an ultimate monster mash up, trashing cities and oceans and even volcanoes with abandon. There is some tremendous cinematography at work here and some stunningly artful shots of these magnificent beasts. The film completely caves in on itself, sadly, whenever these creations are off the screen. Despite some quality actors such as Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Bradley Whitford, even Charles Dance (happily straying back into a post-Game of Thrones, rent-a-Brit-villain phase) chewing the scenery, the script is just pure offal. The characters are cliched cut outs spouting absolute direlogue, as a dry, aimless central emotional plot about a fractured family attempts to inhabit the core.
This makes King of the Monsters a film with multiple heads (Ghidorah style, appropriately), depending on what angle you approach the movie. As someone with only a passing interest in Godzilla, I went in with few expectations. Honestly, given director Dougherty is a screenwriter of repute (including X2, amongst others), it was a surprise at just how poor the script was and how badly the actors were serviced – particularly Stranger Things’ young starlet Millie Bobby Brown, who does almost literally nothing for the run of the film bar look surprised, horrified and run away from things. King of the Monsters instead pours all of the energy it has into the Titans, at the expense of the human characters in the story.
You wonder if Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields really appreciate that, admittedly, given how they attempt to ground the entire story in the family dynamic which, well… doesn’t even remotely work.
King of the Monsters feels like a film which on the one hand wants to primarily attract the audience of Godzilla fans and viewers who like the idea of monster fights over character and meaningful story, while equally courting an audience who are invested in the emotional journey of the Russell family. It tries to have its cake and eat it but fails substantially, and begs the question to why they tried in the first place. It feels like a peculiarly Western affectation in blockbuster monster movies – the need to place human characters in peril and attempt to use the monsters allegorically or metaphorically to represent something key to humanity. In this case, thematically, it’s what the Godzilla franchise has always been about since the mid-1950’s; man’s destruction of the Earth through atomic power and radiation directly triggering the rise of Godzilla and his kin, of Mother Nature herself striking back and cleansing the Earth of humanity’s hubris.
While many other Godzilla movies deal with this thematic idea, King of the Monsters beats you over the head with it as the function of the human antagonists, the motivation of the monsters, and the underlying cautionary tale figuring into an increasing amount of major movies dealing with climate and ecological fears. Monster Zero aka Ghidorah is expressly stated to be an alien organism that must be wiped out before it can destroy everything, while Godzilla and his kin leave a positive ecological trail in their wake—bafflingly—which restores nature even amidst every human structure it destroys. Wrap this up in a dose of Erich von Daniken-esque ancient pre-history mythology involving the Titans, you have a film which wants you to consider Godzilla more of a protective folk hero; understood here only by Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, returning from the 2014 film), who knows we should be rooting for Godzilla despite the mass destruction he leaves in his wake.
This means King of the Monsters is not a traditional disaster movie. The monsters are the good guys and bad guys; the humans are just in the middle, only mattering when one of them fiddles with a device that can control the monsters actions through frequencies (this swiftly becomes the McGuffin of the film) – beyond that they just run around reacting or explaining things to the audience. Trying therefore to make the beating heart of a film like this about a human family seems to be completely missing the point, and King of the Monsters might have ended up a far more successful movie had the human characters been purely ciphers or incidental, allowing the monsters to become our emotional tether. This also goes back to the biggest question floating around the film – why are you watching King of the Monsters? What are you watching *for*?
One of my best friends, enough of a Godzilla fan to name an entire website Monster Zero Productions, pointed me toward Roger Ebert’s 1997 review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, in which he opines about the cycle of experiencing movies with monsters such as King of the Monsters:
There’s a learning process that moviegoers go through. They begin in childhood without sophistication or much taste, and for example, like “Gamera” more than “Air Force One” because flying turtles are obviously more entertaining than United States presidents. Then they grow older and develop “taste,” and prefer “Air Force One,” which is better made and has big stars and a more plausible plot. (Isn’t it more believable, after all, that a president could single-handedly wipe out a planeload of terrorists than that a giant turtle could spit gobs of flame?) Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to “Gamera” again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness–and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.
Maybe this is the abiding principle we should remember in how we engage with Godzilla: King of the Monsters and movies like it. For many, this latest sequel will have the charm and fun that allows the lack of traditional, successful aspects of drama or characterisation to be a moot point. For me, this wasn’t enough.
But then, as I say… maybe I’m not the target audience…
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Michael Dougherty
WRITERS: Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields
CAST: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobbie Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi
STUDIO: Warner Bros