Hail to the King: Why I Love Godzilla: King of the Monsters
If you’ve been following my writing here at Region 99, you may have read I have a great love of giant monsters. That all began with the king of them all, Godzilla. I’ve loved his films since before I could form proper sentences, but when I’ve tried to talk about why, most people dismiss the series I adore so much due to outward appearances, saying “every film is the same” or “the dubbing is awful”. Well, with the newest film in the Monsterverse, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I think it’s finally time I said my piece on just why I love this giant monster so much. I love Godzilla because of how varied his character is, how varied the films themselves are, and how personally connected I feel to him
Firstly, one of the greatest things about Godzilla is how varied his character is between films. In any other film series like Star Wars or James Bond, the changing of a character’s attitude or appearance has been met with controversy, yet in the Godzilla franchise it’s something we embrace, simply because it feeds into the core nature of Godzilla as a character, and that’s about freedom of expression. The first Godzilla from Gojira was a visual representation of the agony and unimaginable horror inflicted on the Japanese people by the Atomic Bomb, only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The original Japanese film portrays raw, sometimes absolutely chilling reactions to Godzilla’s appearance, like a mother clutching her child saying “Everything will be over soon” as Godzilla lumbers towards their crumbling apartment. Yet, in this same series, Godzilla is also a friend to children, an environmental activist, and a proud father. Taken as a whole, this is absolutely ridiculous, but when you examine each film as an individual piece of media, it makes total sense. Godzilla is, for the Japanese people, whatever they need him to be.
In 1954, people were still terrified at what they had been through, and couldn’t properly express the magnitude of the horrors they’d witnessed, and yet, Godzilla could. By the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Japan wanted to feel good about themselves again and so they turned this symbol of horrific death into a goofy, stalwart defender of their homeland, and gave him a son. In the ‘90’s, the Japanese housing market crashed and many people lost their homes. People were feeling frustrated and hopeless, and so Godzilla returned in this era as an avenging, rampaging beast, one that echoed their people’s great distress. Most recently, Shin Godzilla serves as an unflinching metaphor for the absolute devastation caused by the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. Almost every single era of Godzilla was shaped by the feelings of the Japanese people, and that’s why his character seems to always be in flux. However, I see this only as a benefit, as Godzilla’s different portrayals mean that he can appeal to more people. If someone doesn’t like one era of Godzilla, they may like another. I honestly believe that it’s impossible for someone to be unable to find even a single Godzilla film that they like because of this.
The second thing that I love the most about Godzilla is how wildly different each of his films can be. One could certainly make the argument that after Godzilla Raids Again (the second Godzilla film ever made) a pattern starts arising – enemy monster shows up, Godzilla wakes up, they fight and Godzilla goes back to sleep. And while this does cover the broad strokes of many Godzilla films, it’s frankly an insult to pigeon-hole them like that when each film has such interesting narratives beyond the giant monster battles.
For instance, Godzilla VS. King Ghidorah is about a group of aliens from the 22nd Century who visit Japan in 1991 so they can take a team back to an island during World War II and stop the dinosaur that would become Godzilla from being exposed to the atom bomb that would create him, and in the process they create King Ghidorah, a monster they control to destroy Japan? Or how in Godzilla VS. Mechagodzilla, there’s a prophecy that the world is going to end, each omen fulfilled in a really clever way as a group of shapeshifting ape-men from a planet orbiting a black hole use a mechanical double of Godzilla to try and subjugate the people of Earth? And then there’s films like Godzilla’s Revenge, where Godzilla doesn’t even exist outside of a young boy’s dreams, where the boy befriends Godzilla’s son Minya (who sounds like Goliath from Davey & Goliath) and together they overcome a beast called Gabara, an ogre that represents the boy’s own bullies, and somehow he ends up busting some Yakuza for backdoor deals along the way? The Godzilla films are all so wildly different that it’s absolutely unfair to call them all “the same film”.
Finally, Godzilla means a lot to me because it helped shape who I am today. When I was young, I had poor social skills and I rarely talked to anyone. Because communication is a two way street, no one would talk to me either. So I would sit alone and draw and wait for the school day to end. When I would come home, my parents would have a VHS of a Godzilla movie for me that I’d watch to make me forget how lonely I was, or as an outlet for when kids would pick on me – watching Godzilla destroy buildings is even more gratifying when you imagine the school bully is in one of them. Watching Godzilla films also helped me to connect more with my family. My Uncle Ben, who I thought was too cool or important to talk to me when I was little, really enjoyed and still enjoys talking giant monster movies with me. My Uncle Abe, who seemed cold and rigid when I was young, actually softened up when I mentioned Godzilla – he and Ben both were fans longer than I’d been alive, and Godzilla helped me to connect with them both. Those discussions made me more confident, and more open to talking to other people and coming out of my shell. When my grandmother passed away, what helped me cope with my grief was remembering the good times I had with her, like traveling out to the local video rental shop and her helping me read through a giant catalogue with minuscule print to find a lone Godzilla film on VHS. I owe a lot to Godzilla, and I love him and his universe very, very much.
And so, you can imagine my anticipation for his latest film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
King of the Monsters’ story largely focuses on the Russell family, Dr. Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler), Dr. Emma Russell (played by Vera Farmiga) and their daughter, Madison Russell (played by Millie Bobby Brown). The three of them were present in San Francisco when Godzilla fought the MUTOs at the climax of Godzilla, and the Russell’s son perished in the chaos. Five years pass and we see how the family deals with such a loss, and how the world at large is grappling with the existence of giant monsters, or as they are known in-universe, “Titans”. The military wants the Titans exterminated to prevent another attack like the ones on Las Vegas and San Francisco, while the government funded organization Monarch, led by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) believes that we can coexist with them. At the same time, a radical eco-terrorist group believes that the Titans should be free to reclaim the Earth that was once theirs, and rid it of the evils of mankind. This eco-terrorist group is responsible for unleashing Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah upon the world. With these Titans released and running wild, it falls to humanity to band together with Godzilla to stop them from completely wiping our civilization off the face of the Earth.
By far the greatest part of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, as with most in this series, are the monsters themselves. The redesigns for Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah (Images on right from Dr_Gojira) all make each character look more realistic while still maintaining their core design elements from the films they originated from. Mothra’s larval stage looks far more threatening, but still like something that could exist in nature, while its adult stage looks ethereal, almost angelic from a distance, but fearsome up close. Rodan, a giant pterodactyl born inside a volcano, now has wings and insides more akin to molten rock than his dinosaur origins. King Ghidorah’s heads interact with one another as if each have their own mind, and use their twin tails as a rattlesnake would. Each and every one of the main monsters here acts like how I always imagined they would when I was a kid on the playground, playing make-believe, and that’s something I never thought I’d see put to film.
The film also makes countless references and homages to the films that have come before it. Many of the film’s scenes are punctuated by new, brilliantly remastered and remixed themes for Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan by the film’s composer Bear McCreary. Two of the scientists that are studying Mothra are twins, and come from a long line of twins, a clear reference to the twin fairies, the Shobijin, from the classic Mothra appearances. King of the Monsters also introduces technology synonymous with the Godzilla universe, like the Maser Cannons used to defend a Monarch Outpost, to the fact that the USS Argo looks suspiciously like the Super X from the 1990s Godzilla films, and a very important piece of technology from Godzilla’s past that I won’t spoil here. King of the Monsters also features characters returning from both Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, making the two mostly disconnected films finally feel like they are a unified whole. The film absolutely feels like a modern take on Godzilla’s universe, as it should.
King of the Monsters’ action sequences are something to behold, ESPECIALLY in IMAX. Seeing the air force in an intense dogfight with Rodan or the knock-down, drag-out slugfests between Godzilla and King Ghidorah are something to behold, and well worth the price of admission. King Ghidorah creates category five hurricanes just by merely existing, and the sheer sight of that alone is akin to Godzilla’s emergence at the Hawaii airport in the 2014 film – equal parts terrifying, thrilling, and simply iconic. On the subject of the previous film, King of the Monsters learns well from its predecessor’s negative reception by having Godzilla be far more involved. He appears at the movie’s beginning and the first fight happens only thirty minutes in, whereas you only first lay eyes on Godzilla in the other film after a full sixty minutes. Many of this film’s detractors say that this film has too much monster battling, but I would argue that there still isn’t quite enough. The film has plenty of fight sequences, but cuts away just a tad more than I’d like.
That brings me to the negative portion of this film, the human element. Now, as I’ve said earlier in this very article, the human element of a Godzilla film can be just as engaging as the monster battles that people come to see, but the characters we are given in King of the Monsters just don’t quite feel developed enough for me to root for. The Russell family is more interesting for the part they play in their roles with their relationships to the Titans than as characters themselves, and perhaps that’s intentional, as these films are ultimately about the monsters. But they don’t feel like something that’s supporting the film, only distracting from it, which is a shame because everyone here gives great performances. Dr. Serizawa feels more like the emotional core of the film, but despite the fact that he’s been in two films, we as the audience still know very little about him, or why he’s so attached to Godzilla. In fact, the only way you would really gain insight into his character is by reading the graphic novel, Godzilla: Awakening. Now, I have, but I doubt most of the movie-going public has or ever will. That being said, special mention goes to Bradley Whitford’s character Dr. Rick Stanton, who brought some much needed levity into the film. However, almost none of these characters feel very memorable, the only one I could name off the top of my head right after seeing this movie was Dr. Serizawa, who arguably isn’t even the film’s main character. It’s disappointing, considering the litany of memorable and likable characters in the Monsterverse’s previous film, Kong: Skull Island.
Finally, the only other thing that detracts from Godzilla: King of the Monsters for me is some of the film’s lighting. As I said before, wherever King Ghidorah goes, he creates hurricanes. This makes for a visual spectacle at a distance, but during several of the fight scenes things became kind of muddied in the storm so I felt like I couldn’t enjoy them as much as I should have been. It’s a real shame, considering Kong: Skull Island’s monster battles all either happened during the daytime, or were well lit enough at night that you could clearly tell what was going on the whole time. That said, King of the Monsters is still an improvement over Godzilla, whose climax took place in near total darkness. It’s just disappointing that a chunk of the film’s action feels like a middle ground instead of a solid step up.
Overall, I feel satisfied with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It delivered in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but fell short in a few respects. This movie hasn’t left my mind since I watched it, and I keep feeling compelled to go out and see it again. That’s what’s incredible about this film. Despite any misgivings I may have with it, I keep thinking about the way that this movie brought my childhood icons into the modern era, in a way that I’ve always imagined them to look and act like. I suppose that’s why I can’t bring myself to dislike this entry in any truly significant way. I give Godzilla: King of the Monsters a 9/10. Long live the King of the Monsters!