Godzilla: King of the Monsters, an Analysis

Short, spoiler-free version: I liked it. Not a lot, but more than the 2014 predecessor (not as much as Kong: Skull Island, though). I realize I’m a year too late in this review, but it only came into syndication recently, so I’m right on time for the home-viewing audience.

The longer, in-depth, spoiler-ific analysis (but there aren’t really any spoilers if you’re at all familiar with the Gojira franchise): The giant monster movie genre inevitably runs into trouble when it comes to emotional investment on the part of the audience. Obviously, you can’t root for Bruce the Shark to devour Sheriff Brody, but eating Richard Dreyfuss and Quint is fine. You have to be invested in King Kong enough so that you feel sorry when he nose-dives off of the Empire State Building, but not so much that you forget that he is the de facto villain of the film (sort of — Carl Denham shares some of the blame), but not so much that you can’t root for him when he’s fighting dinosaurs off of Fay Wray. 1998’s unapologetically awful Godzilla pulled an interesting switcheroo on this by making the human characters so loathsome that you can’t wait for the big green guy to rip them to pieces.

So, it would be safe to say that manipulating an audience’s emotions in a monster movie is a tricky thing, and, let’s be honest, any film is going to require some humans for both emotional investment, and exposition — if Godzilla’s going to kill the Anguirus, we need to know who we should root for and why. Yes, we need to be told these things, because CGI puppets are notoriously bad at emoting. Which brings up another point — you’ll want humans in your movie just so it’s not endless CGI that won’t age well. Not that I think that the CGI in these films is sub-par, just that CG, in general, doesn’t age well (if you doubt that, just watch the 1982 version of The Thing, followed by the 2011 version, and note that the 40-year-old version looks a lot better than the ten-year-old version)(but I digress).

The point is, all giant monster films need some humans in it to explain the motivations, and what’s going on, as well as distract us from the fact that Gojira is clearly a tall man in a rubber suit attacking model buildings. This is where all monster movies run into trouble. I’ve been a casual fan of Godzilla (that is the Anglicized version; the Japanese word is “Gojira,” I might use the two interchangeably — just roll with it) for most of my life, and have seen most of the Showa-era Godzilla films, and almost all of the Real ‘Merican ones (as well as Pacific Rim, which, oddly enough, feels more like a Godzilla film than some of the actual Godzilla films). Admittedly, I have never seen these movies in the original Japanese, so it’s quite possible I’m missing something, and/or the badly-dubbed versions I’ve seen (sadly, foreign audio films with subtitles were a rarity in the era of VHS)(yes, I’m ancient), but, if you go back and watch them — the source documents, if you will — they are not great films (another side-note; it’s possible, as an unwashed foreigner, that I’m missing some critical cultural context that makes them make more sense; it’s possible I’m unintentionally racist toward Gojira and he represents some sort of nuanced critique of Confucian values systems that’s inaccessible to me, it may be all of the above). The humans are in these films for, maybe 15% of the time, usually to explain, in rather unsubtle terms, why the monsters are there, which ones are the good guys, and why this missile attack on Gojira will work when the previous 14 didn’t. Somehow, even with a marginal presence, it feels like there are entirely too many humans in these films, regardless of which one you see. So, there’s no getting around that every Gojira film to date, has a human infestation problem. This problem goes into high-gear when you add more monsters into the mix, because you need more exposition to explain who’s the good guy, and why all the 50-foot monsters are intent on staying within the same square block.

The concept of humans-as-a-virus that the planet needs to shake off is central to the post-2014 Godzilla films. We’ll discuss the 2014 Godzilla film in short order, but this brings us to a major teachable moment from nerd culture that pop culture should learn from. Major studios nowadays are looking at Avengers: Endgame and seeing the most profitable film of all time, and they’re seeing only two things: it’s a sequel, and it’s part of a sprawling franchise. The studio executives are grasping only these two concepts, without seeing some other crucial aspects of nerd culture that gave Marvel Studios a leg up on all the competition. First, Marvel had the advantage of having access and rights to 50+ years of plotlines, characters, and sales records, and could see what did and did not work. I lived through the 90’s, which were a dark age for cinema and a darker age for comic book fans. Remember the Dark Phoenix Saga? The interminably stupid Clone Saga from Spider-Man? No? That’s because they tanked so hard that Marvel was forced to sell the rights to their most-popular characters, which is why we got an Avengers film (remember, compared to Marvel’s A-List heroes like Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Spider-Man; Iron Man and Thor are distinctly lackluster in terms of name-recognition) instead of 14 more Spider-Man films. The main reason — I think — that these bloated, intricate plotlines sunk Marvel Comics is that they required a significant audience buy-in. You couldn’t just wander into the comics shop and get a Spider-Man comic when you felt like it; you needed Amazing Spider-Man #37–41, Spectacular Spider-Man #13–15, and Spider-Man vs Venom. No one wants to buy and read all of that just to find out if Peter Parker is his own clone (yes, that was the punchline of the series, yes, it was that aggressively stupid). Marvel Studios had the benefit of that marketing lesson going into a shared cinematic universe, and, as a result, they didn’t force audiences to sit through all the previous films just to understand the Avengers films. Each film is largely self-contained, and, even though they have more zing to them if you’ve seen them all, if you want to skip Ant-Man or the Iron Man film with Guy Pearce (understandable decisions), you can absolutely do that, and the films will still make sense. Hell, I still haven’t seen the second Ant-Man movie, and I missed absolutely nothing from it in the Avengers films. The Avengers movies don’t punish people who just want to see a big, fun, dumb movie. There’s a similar mechanic at work in the Star Trek movies. You didn’t have to see the original Star Trek series in order to enjoy Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home, or any of them. That dynamic shifted significantly with the Next Generation films. You had to have seen The Best of Both Worlds to appreciate First Contact. Paramount then proceeded with the subsequent, deeply-flawed (in retrospect) assumption that the audience had already paid the buy-in mental/emotional costs for Patrick Stewart and gang, and then skipped steps 1 and 2 of story-telling (“Who are these people? Why should I care?”), to the detriment of following movies (they weren’t great films, but that’s another lecture for another time; if they hadn’t assume a captive audience, I’d argue they might be better films).

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, makes that critical mistake. You must have seen — and liked — the 2014 Godzilla film, Kong: Skull Island, and, probably, all of the Japanese Gojira films, too. If you liked the first two items on the list, kudos, you are this film’s target demographic (and you will enjoy it). So, before we delve deeper (and I will)(hey, I have jet-lag and I’m fatigued), THE GOOD: It’s a great Godzilla movie, it’s our first look at Mothra in the English-speaking world for decades, there’s a ton of fan-service in this thing. THE BAD: There are far too many humans in it, there are gaping plot-holes and inconsistencies, it requires you to suspend disbelief before you even hit the “Play” button, and it will require some prior working knowledge of Real ‘Merican Godzilla in the form of seeing the 2014 film and/or Kong: Skull Island (if you don’t see the latter, don’t worry, Kong isn’t really in this film), and, the minute the film ends and your brain comes back to speed, you can not ignore the glaring inconsistencies in this film.

I realize I’m just going into further and further needless context, but, let’s briefly discuss the Trolley Problem, because it informs a lot of this franchise’s decisions. The Trolley Problem, is a theoretical ethics/philosophy problem that, like most philosophical prompts, stems from a place of intellectual privilege in knowing you will never, ever be a part of this situation. However, the basic idea is thus: you see a trolley racing down the tracks towards five workers, and you have the ability to divert the train onto a track with a single person. What do you do?

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

The logical answer is, of course, just scream, “RUNAWAY TROLLEY! EVERYONE OFF THE TRACKS!” and/or look for some sort of break-switch or something, but, like Godzilla, this scenario assumes a lot of helplessness on the part of the audience. The logical, Mr. Spock (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”) approach is to divert the train, kill the poor devil on the wrong side of the track, and hope the police agree with your reasoning. Of course, once we start applying real-life logic to it, the scenario falls apart (much like Godzilla, as we’ll see). What if those five people are all very-terminal patients with less than a month to live, and that one guy is the sole source of financial support for a local orphanage? What if one of those five people is Stalin from 1952? Like all good philosophical conundrums, it generates a lot of discussion and head-scratching, which is the point.

I’m bringing this up because the moral framework for all of these films (even the Japanese ones)(again, if I’m missing some arch commentary on Asian consumerism or something, let me know) is that Godzilla; giant, radioactive, and destructive as he is, is the lesser evil when weighed against other, more-dangerous monsters. Somehow, humans are capable of detecting and deducing that fact, as well as getting Godzilla to fight the other monster (this is one of the few films to explore the counter-factual, “Why wouldn’t the monsters team up against us?”) — as I mentioned, there’s a lot of exposition involved in monster movies, particularly in movies involving more than one monster.

In the 2014 Godzilla, after some giant bugs are awoken by nuclear testing or something, the head of a government agency, Ishiro Serizawa (played by Ken Watanabe)(that’s a subtle nod to the original Gojira films; Serizawa was a scientist featured in a few of those movies), gets permission to sic Gojira on the mutant bugs. Which he does through… Magic? Nuclear weapons? I dunno; like I mentioned, the mind tends to blank out the human parts of these films because no human drama can stand up to monsters fighting each other. Anyway, Gojira kills the mutant bugs, levels Northern California, and inexplicably goes back to the sea (that’s not metaphorical, either; the last shot is literally of Gojira wandering back into the ocean). Kong: Skull Island establishes Serizawa’s shadowy agency as “Monarch,” a long-running group dedicated to tracking and studying giant monsters (called Titans)(there’s also some stuff about Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson running from a giant ape, but that’s inconsequential to this film). Good news is, that’s all the back-story you need to know to leap into Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If you found that paragraph-long summary stupid, I’ve saved you two hours.

The plot of this film — such as it is, is that all of the Titans on Earth are somehow activated by Tywin Lannister (that’s not an exaggeration; it’s just Charles Dance playing Tywin Lannister in a modern setting), and they are united by some super-titan called King Ghidorah (or just Ghidorah) to destroy humanity. We’ll get back to Tywin and the plot in a second, but a lengthy aside here: First, it’s possible that Ghidorah was meant to be a metaphor for China and the Sino-Japanese rivalry (although Ghidorah’s creator denied that). Second, this is an opportunity to induct you into kaiju culture. “Kaiju” is Japanese for “strange beast” (Pacific Rim fans will be well-aware of that), but, more importantly, it’s an entire cinema genre in Japan. We only have King Kong and Bigfoot; Western Civilizations are definitely underachievers here. To further highlight our complete inadequacy, not only is this an entire cinema genre, there are songs about these monsters. Yes, friends, my dream of a Mothra musical might already exist!

If there are only two things you take away from this article, let it be the following items. First, I give you the Gamera song!

Gamera is really neat! Gamera is made of meat!

Someone who speaks the language should probably explain that to me; I have no idea why a giant, tusked space-turtle would need a theme song, but it’s worth watching. There is also — and I really do urge you to listen to this one with the subtitles, because it’s oddly poetic — a Mothra song

Chrissie Hynde, eat your heart out

There is the full summary of this film on Wikipedia, and it’s probably more accurate and in-depth than I’m prepared to discuss (again, I’m tired), but, suffice it to say that Vera Farmiga invents some device to track and control the Titans, and Tywin Lannister steals Farmiga’s Titan-controlling McGuffin to awaken all the Titans in the world with the goal of letting them destroy humanity so the planet can heal itself (there’s that, “Humans are a disease” theme)(he’s an “ecoterrorist,” which is only slightly less fictional than bipedal, nuclear stegosaurs). He starts with Ghidorah, who can somehow control all the other Titans except Gojira and Mothra (there’s that, “Ghidorah is an abstract metaphor for China” theme)(also, in this metaphor, I guess the US and/or Europe are a giant, hideous insect; which I can’t fault for accuracy, but I digress).

Suffice it to say that, once you start unpacking and analyzing this film, it is unrepentant, palpable madness. Big ones; “eco-terrorism” apparently pays far better than Dave Foreman would’ve thought. Another big talking point, Serizawa is against the idea of all the Titans banding together under Ghidorah’s control, but is totally fine with them just wandering around the planet, unheeded? I get that they would be slightly less destructive if they were all disparate and doing their own thing, but it seems like people would still end up as monster toe-jam sooner or later. Also, why is he fine with destroying the Bay Area and Las Vegas to prove his pet theory, but Vera Farmiga can’t destroy the world to prove hers? I get that all of this is shades of grey, but it seems like a massive reenactment of the trolley problem. Also, the Earth is hollow? I get that’s not too much to ask if you can buy a planet somehow inhabited by giant monsters, a “hollow” earth (really, it’s all just ocean all the way down (maybe? I suddenly want to see a deep sea special in this universe)), but it really, it seems like a hat on a hat. And nuking Gojira to make him bigger and even more radioactive so that he can literally nuke Ghidorah? I realize I’m seeing this film hard on the heels of Chernobyl, with its “Radiation is not healthy for children and other living things” (which, after enduring radiation therapy, I can attest to), but a walking, living nuclear weapon seems like something you wouldn’t want swimming in/under your ocean. Unless this is some sort of commentary on Fukushima, which seems weird (but, hey, I wasn’t expecting that whole, “Ghidorah’s a metaphor for Chinese nuclear power,” so, clearly, there are levels of interpretation to this that I’m not getting). On the other hand, we get more Gojira AND more Mothra, and that’s a good thing.

Bottom line: If you’re already a fan of Godzilla, and/or if you saw (and enjoyed) the 2014 version, you’ll probably like this film. If that does not describe you, you’re probably not going to enjoy this film. Also, someone with a better understanding of Japanese culture should get in touch with me to tell me what Gojira is a metaphor for.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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