Lest there be any doubt, I am a major keiju-eiga (Japanese giant monster movie) fan. I grew up on a fairly steady diet of Godzilla, Gamera, Gargantua, Ultraman, Giant Robo and many other guys-in-rubber-suits-trashing-miniature-sets films. I loved ‘em then, and still do. The Godzilla (Gojira) movies range from dark and haunting (1954’s original “Gojira”) to campy kids’ stories (“Godzilla vs. Megalon”). My personal favorites were those G-flicks where the concept was taken more seriously yet still managed to entertain as well. Some of the later Heisei (1984-1995) series and Millennium (1999-2004) series of Godzilla films were more successful at achieving this balance than the increasingly childish Showa series (1954-1975). Good or bad, the Godzilla films are often unabashedly entertaining.
I went into the latest American Godzilla movie, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” with lowered expectations (a good idea for most summer blockbusters, I’ve learned), given that the two American (so-called) Godzilla movies I’d seen were decidedly mixed. 1998’s “Godzilla” (directed by ID4’s Roland Emmerich) was a dreadful misfire. It was more like “Jurassic Park Takes Manhattan”. 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot (directed by Gareth Edwards) was an improvement in many ways, though somewhat slim on Godzilla action and with most of the human characters rendered as slack-jawed ciphers. “King of the Monsters” (KOTM) is a direct sequel to the 2014 film (as was 2017’s tangential “Kong on Skull Island”), so I held my breath. Surprisingly, I wound up enjoying this admitted B-movie much more than I expected. Is it high art? No, of course not. Neither are most of the Godzilla films. But within its own ambitions, KOTM really works.
It’s 2014 in the city of San Francisco during Godzilla’s previous battle with the “MUTOs.” The Russell family, Mark (Kyle Chandler), Emma (Vera Farmiga) their son Andrew (Tyler Crumley) and daughter Madison (Lexi Rabe) get separated in the chaos. Young Andrew is killed. Godzilla’s rampage with the MUTOs eventually ends, leaving the family devastated.
Five years later, we see Emma and teenaged Madison (now played by “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown) together, sans Mark, in an upscale middle class home in China. Emma works for Monarch, the organization that dedicates itself to monitoring the ‘Titans’… the class of giant monsters of which Godzilla is a founding member. Emma has perfected a device called the Orca, essentially a universal translator for the Titans that locks onto their vocal frequencies and transmits an ‘alpha vibe’ back at them, with the hope of lulling them into human submission. Their current test subject is the giant, hibernating larval form of what will become the colossal flying insect Mothra. The creature awakens from its long slumber and reacts aggressively to the soldiers surrounding it. Risking her own life, Emma uses her Orca device and manages to calm the titanic larva down. A curious Madison is even able to touch it.
Things soon go very south as a group of radical ecoterrorists, led by Jonah Alan (mustache-twirling Charles Dance), kidnap Emma and Madison (and the Orca device) for their own purposes…
Representing Monarch at a congressional hearing on the Titans, a returning Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and a nervous Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) come clean with what they know about the Titans…currently there are seventeen of these creatures (and possibly more) slumbering deep underground at locations all over the globe. The hearing is interrupted, Serizawa and Graham unceremoniously leave, and Sam is left holding the bag for the remainder of the hearing. Monarch urgently needs to locate Mark, who is photographing wild animals before he’s drafted back into service. Still vividly angry at the beasts who killed his son, Mark’s only advice for Monarch is to kill all of the remaining Titans as they slumber. They reassure him that is not a viable option for the moment, as the creatures might be needed to fight something worse.
With Mark back onboard, Monarch and US military officials brief him on both the 17 known hibernating Titans and his now kidnapped ex-wife and daughter, who are being tracked to Antarctica. Once there, Alan hopes to revive the ancient, three-headed lone extraterrestrial Titan, Ghidorah…also known as “Monster Zero”, the true alpha of the Titans. Alan’s ‘goal’ (for lack of a better word) is to take the world from human hands and restore it to the Titans, forsaking the kind of ecological human/Titan balance that Emma and Dr. Serizawa hope to achieve with the creatures.
Upon reaching Antarctica, Mark charges in, guns blazing, to rescue his wife and daughter. He reaches them, but Emma has (apparently) defected, personally pressing a detonator that releases Monster Zero from its icy slumber… a decision Mark and Madison cannot reconcile or understand.
En route to the United States aboard a large stealth craft, the group learns another Titans is awakening, the fiery dragon “Rodan” (the fire god) in Mexico. Transmitting warnings to Mexico, the civilian population flees as best they can.
Ghidorah battles Rodan en route, and both are attacked by a new US weapon called an ‘oxygen destroyer’ (which was Serizawa’s creation in the 1954 original “Gojira”). The weapon proves ineffective against the Titans. Hope is diminished further when Godzilla is seemingly killed after the battle, as his telemetrical-monitored vital signs flatline. It is hoped that Godzilla might be resurrected with a nuclear weapon…
Soon the benevolent Mothra (aka Mosura) emerges from her larval state into the beautiful, luminescent winged “Queen of the Monsters”, ready to aid the other Titans in their war against Ghidorah. She flies away in magnificent CGI splendor.
Serizawa and the other Monarch scientists, now aboard a nuclear submarine (character seemingly cross global distances in the blink of an eye), locate a highly radioactive suboceanic trench where an unconscious Godzilla appears to be storing nuclear ‘fuel’. Trouble is that the creature’s regeneration will take longer than they have before Ghidorah reaches the United States, and high radiation prevents them from taking the sub any closer to Godzilla’s position. Dr. Serizawa nobly volunteers for a suicide mission to hand deliver a nuclear weapon to the creature (an echo of his namesake character’s fate in the 1954 movie, where he similarly delivered his ‘oxygen destroyer’ to kill Godzilla). Serizawa is successful, and the nuke is detonated, but Godzilla’s fate is uncertain for the moment…
The remaining creatures are en route to the North Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of the United States (of course). After reaching Boston with her mother and Jonah, Madison manages to slip away from both, with her mother’s Orca device. Madison makes a run for Fenway Park where she hopes to use the Orca to help restore control over the animals. Ghidorah reaches Boston and all hell breaks loose…until Mothra and the resurrected Godzilla arrive to even the odds. As the stadium (and Boston itself) crumbles around her in the thunderous, stormy-skied melee, Madison flees on foot… reliving her earlier trauma in San Francisco.
Reaching Fenway Park, Emma and Mark join forces to find their daughter, whom they realize is making a break for the family home in suburban Boston. They find an unconscious Madison, who was smartly seeking what little shelter she could in a bathtub. Madison recovers, the family is reunited, and the Titans’ battle royale ends with Godzilla, guardian of the Earth, assuming his place as….King of the Monsters.
During the credits, we learn (via flashing headlines and images) that cities destroyed in the Titans’ wake renew as lush forests, thanks to the creature’s quasi-magical radioactivity (which would more likely create a string of Chernobyls, but okay…). Also stick around for a post-credits coda that suggests we haven’t seen the last of Jonah or Ghidorah…
Toho Godzilla Homages.
This is the first fully American-made Godzilla movie I’ve seen that fits very comfortably with its Japanese Toho Studios’ siblings. In fact, KOTM captures the essence of the Toho Godzilla movies very well… right down to composer Bear McCreary’s strategic use of the legendary composer Akira Ifukube’s original “Godzilla March” during Godzilla’s resurrection, and the “Mosura” theme over the end credits (the vocals replaced with woodwinds).
The central story of KOTM is loosely based on the 2001 Millennium series’ “Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack” (GMK), which also saw the creatures as natural ‘guardian monsters’ of the Earth, hibernating in subterranean spaces beneath the Earth’s surface as well. This was something also hinted at in the Showa series. The biggest difference between KOTM and GMK is that the white-eyed Godzilla of GMK was decidedly evil, with the other monsters trying to kill him instead of Ghidorah. GMK was also much more mystical regarding the monsters’ ancient origins, whereas KOTM makes them a more natural part of our planet’s forgotten ecological past. Different approaches, but same result… the Titans are natural antibodies of the planet Earth…like supersized white blood cells (a concept Emma explains in dialogue).
There are many other Toho Godzilla homages throughout the film, such as the parallel fate of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serisawa (more on that below), Godzilla’s fiery ‘atomic meltdown’ (an idea first seen in 1995’s “Godzilla vs. Destroyah”), Mothra’s sacrifice (as seen in 2003’s “Tokyo SOS”), humans using radiation to enhance/resurrect a fallen Godzilla (1991’s “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah”) and the idea of Ghidorah (aka “Monster Zero”) being an alien creature from outer space, an idea first posited in the creature’s 1960s Showa series origins.
There is also a lovely dedication to two of the artists from the original “Gojira” who passed away in 2017; Yoshimitsu Banno (longtime assistant director/writer) and Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla (in that heavy rubber suit) for the entire Showa series of Godzilla films.
Let’s Hear It For The Humans…
2014 “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards seemed to prefer his human characters at arms’ length (save for the passionate Bryan Cranston, whose role in the film was ultimately overhyped in prerelease). KOTM’s humans are rendered in decidedly warmer tones. Much of that credit goes to director/cowriter Michael Dougherty (2007’s criminally underrated “Trick R Treat”), who makes his characters more accessible, even if they end up largely being spectators during the Boston-set finale. Gawking bystanders have been a staple of Godzilla films for a long time, and it is as ritualized as kabuki. They’re part of the Godzilla movie experience.
Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel”) and Kyle Chandler (“First Man”) play the divorced geniuses Emma & Mark Russell who created ‘the Orca’ (the universal translator for the Titans that broadcasts an ‘alpha’ vibe the creatures instinctively respect). I’ve been a fan of Farmiga since her role as “Norma” in my former guilty pleasure TV show “Bates Motel.” Kyle Chandler is a 1:1 match for a younger Robert Forster (“The Black Hole” “Jackie Brown”), minus the midwest accent. The two actors play their roles ably enough, with Chandler as the more reactionary ‘kill ‘em now’ type to Farmiga’s more Greenpeace-y ex-wife. Both their views are challenged over the course of the film. Their shared grief over a lost son (killed during the events of the previous film, five years before) is never explored too deeply, save for sad glances at an old family photo.
Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”) as the Russell’s daughter Madison, is the kind of teenage protagonist we often see in Toho Godzilla films (especially in the Heisei series) who shares some kind of psychic connection with the creatures. While Madison is not psychic, she does use her parent’s creation to communicate with the creatures in a more literal, less mystical way. The young Brown easily holds her own in the ensemble.
Ken Watanabe’s “Dr. Serizawa” (a returnee from 2014) is a reimagining of the tortured, eye-patch-wearing Oppenheimer-like scientist from the original “Gojira” who ultimately defeats the creature with his horrific ‘oxygen destroyer’ weapon at the cost of his own life. In this version, there is an oxygen destroyer weapon, but it is no longer a creation of Serizawa. It is now an American-made weapon that proves ineffective. Yet the new Serizawa still winds up sacrificing himself, just like his predecessor, in a desperate attempt to speed up Godzilla’s rejuvenation (similar to 1991’s “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah”, which saw a nuclear submarine achieve the same effect). 2019’s Serizawa’s motive is no longer the mission of destruction that claimed the life of his 1954 namesake, but the two Serizawas still share the same fatal oceanic rendezvous with the submerged Godzillas. This new Serizawa is not some tortured Oppenheimer-type; he’s more like Jacques Cousteau… a man working within the system in an attempt to restore the ecological order of these protective behemoths. He is the pacifist answer to Charles Dance’s “Jonah Alan”.
Charles Dance (“Game Of Thrones”) as the aforementioned Jonah does…well, what Charles Dance usually does… he plays a ruthless, self-assured, cool-as-a-cucumber Alan Rickman type. Ever since he first came onto my personal radar in 1992’s “ALIEN 3″ and 1993’s “The Last Action Hero”, Dance has always played morally compromised or just-plain-evil characters. Dance’s Jonah feels more like a high-end art or jewel thief than a guy concerned with resurrecting giant monsters, but who cares? He’s having fun with it. The Jonah character has no real precedent in Godzilla lore, save for occasional smugglers or other bad guys who sometimes crossed Godzilla’s path.
Sally Hawkins (“The Shape Of Water”), Bradley Whitford (“Get Out”), Aisha Hinds (“Star Trek Into Darkness”), Ziyi Zhiang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Thomas Middleditch (“Drunk History”) and a returning David Strathairn (“Lincoln”) as Admiral Stenz round out an interesting mix of supporting characters, though Hawkins seems just criminally underused after her recent Oscar-nominated leading role in “Shape Of Water”.
Suitmation Over CGI.
I used to be one of those Godzilla movie fans who resented the idea of CGI replacing Toho’s beloved “suitmation” format; basically actors in rubber suits trashing miniature sets. Somehow the idea of a Godzilla movie without that element to it just felt…wrong. Perhaps much of that feeling stems from my bad experience with the 1998 “Godzilla,” whose title creature was rendered to look more like a slinky, lantern-jawed lizard. However, the state of the art has vastly improved over the decades, and putting a performer into a suffocating rubber hellhole of a costume feels like actor abuse now, especially when CGI frees the monsters for more involved action sequences than rubber suits can afford.
If I have any gripes about the otherwise terrific CGI in KOTM, it’s that so much of it (like Godzilla 1998) takes place in stormy overcast skies. Is it too much to ask that we get some clean, broad daylight shots of these monsters, like we used to see in the Toho movies? Few images give a sense of scale and heft to a G-flick as Godzilla coming ashore in daylight, surrounded by miniature ships, with fleeing bystanders matted into the foreground. Maybe next time…
Summing It Up.
Using bits and pieces from the best of the Toho Godzilla movies, cobbled together into a fresh story with an engaging human cast, “King of the Monsters” is a surprisingly successful G-flick. This is especially noteworthy given the troublesome history western filmmakers have had in successfully translating this uniquely Japanese series into a viable entertainment franchise. By allowing the franchise to embrace its Japanese roots, Godzilla may finally have hit American shores to stay this time…