Sunday, June 2, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review - Finally, a good American Godzilla

As part of the promotion for King of the Monsters, composer Bear McCreary did a cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla.” I heard it a few days ago and immediately wrote it off as a wretched, overproduced attempt to dodge paying royalties.

By the time King of the Monsters ended and that song played over the end credits, I stomped my feet to the beat and danced in my chair.

So that’s how I felt about the movie.

Hereafter I’ll be calling the movie Godzilla 2, because NUMBER YOUR MOVIES, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. But Godzilla 2 is by far the most fun any American Godzilla movie has been. It is largely a faithful adaptation of the classic Godzilla movie format: a mysterious monster conflict emerges, humans scurry about trying to explain it and avoid being squished, and Godzilla faces increasingly dire battles to save our hides. He is a tornado that's fight on our side.

Where Godzilla 1 was a laborious mess, Godzilla 2 feels like it knows why kaiju fans like kaiju movies. It is littered with an astounding number of references to Japanese films, in easter eggs and in plot beats that I won't spoil. Especially in how it builds up its climax without needlessly hiding the monsters, it feels in conversations with movies like Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1977), Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991), and Godzilla 2000 (2000, duh). If you liked those, you'll like this, as it ranks just below them and, as opposed to every other American Godzilla creation, honestly feels like it belongs in the canon.

The beasts are handled more deftly. Godzilla's first real scene is an encounter with a submarine, where he's a shadowy figure under the ocean with occasional flickers from his spines. It's tense, his sounds and the shockwaves of his movement carrying it in a way Godzilla 1 never achieved. Unique sSet pieces like this help roll out creatures more gradually. Another monster starts off half-stuck underground, but the half you get carries an action scene. By the time it frees itself and you see its full scale, it builds on what we saw before, and we can't wait to see it run into another titan.

The Big Bad this time is Ghidorah, one of the Japanese Godzilla’s most famous enemies. This is the most imposing version of Ghidorah I've ever seen, a three-headed golden dragon wreathed in its own storm. Kaiju have often been metaphors for natural disasters, but I’d never thought about having one literally wielding such disasters. The humans literally track it using a weather radar, a stroke of genius that gave me some intense writer envy. The CGI approach allows Ghidorah's serpentine heads to fight like Toho's classic rubber suits and puppets never could, creating some unnerving visuals as it goes after Godzilla's neck. It's the best Big Bad any American Kaiju movie has had.

Surprisingly, Godzilla and his monster pals are not the only characters in this movie. Frequently little expository devices called "humans" enter the frame. They all have the same powerful goal in life: to make sure the camera crew finds those kaiju ASAP. At one point Bradley Whitford yells something like, “They’re fighting in South America? But we don’t have camera men there!”

Immediately a dozen characters jet to the location as an excuse for the "plot" to let us see Rodan erupt out of volcano. We see the heck out of that eruption thanks to the plot throwing as many people into harm's way as possible. The movie has to jam people in there because the CGI to put Godzilla on screen is almost as expensive as hiring Robert Downey Jr.

Do the humans make bad decisions? Do the people explain kaiju stuff more than they exist as human beings?

You're asking the wrong freaking questions. Kaiju movies are not structured to study family drama. There is a family drama in Godzilla 2, and it is wonderfully undercooked so that it mostly just sets up more monster fights.

Look, if you can cry over a daughter that Avengers Endgame invented for Tony Stark rather than dealing with the PTSD the writers clearly got bored of, then you can understand a movie where Ken Watanabe is a plot prop for radioactive dinosaurs.

I have absolutely no patience for people who hate this kind of film. The genre is older than either of us and you know if you want this by now. If this isn't your thing, there is no paucity of great film you could watch instead. Steve McQueen crafted the most provocative heist movie in history with Widows and it bombed. I know most of you haven't seen A Fantastic Woman or The Salesman or Mirai of the Future or Support the Girls or The Shoplifters or Cold War. Apollo 11 is the most emotionally affecting thing I’ve seen this year and barely anybody is tweeting about it. Starfish just hit VOD, an indie movie that climbs up its own ass to articulate hipster grief, with a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and have you watched it? Probably not. But people find time to complain that this giant monster movie isn't as smoothly executed as the latest Extruded Disney Entertainment Product.

You're not a movie snob.

I am.

And I love Godzilla.

Sorry, I blacked out there for a minute. What was I talking about?

Giant monsters?


This is a rare movie that I strongly recommend watching in a theater. IMAX is probably the most fun, but I can have close to as good a time sitting close to the screen at my cheap local place. You want to be overwhelmed by the effects. Let the scale and the bombastic sound wash over you. It does make those human parts even more annoying - the middle as we wait for the climactic monster action particularly grinds - but going means experiencing something that even a big home theater set doesn't afford.

It's an exciting period to be a kaiju fan. A couple years ago Toho released Shin Godzilla, a profound satire of the failure of the Japanese government to protect its citizens from the Fukushima disaster. In 2016 we also got Colossal, a monster comedy that turned out to be about feeling insignificant and toxic masculinity. I can't believe we're getting deep kaiju movies.

But if you just want thrills, Kong: Skull Island is ridiculously better than it should be, with John Goodman as a conspiracy theorist who believes in giant apes, and Samuel L. Jackson as an untouchably daft Ahab out to slay the big guy. That movie actually shares a universe with these new Godzilla movies, and slated for 2020 is Godzilla Vs. Kong. After Godzilla 2, Warner Bros. has me sold on a cinematic universe. I actually care about the future of the characters - the real characters, who are all a hundred meters tall. I'm pretty sure the teasers in the end credits point to adapting some of the coolest things in Toho's old canon. You don't know the force of will it's taking to prevent me from spoiling it all.

I've been happy all night because of this silly giant monster movie. I wish you the same.

Let's say you enjoyed this review and want to tip me. That's very kind.

But please don't.

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  1. I grinned through the whole film. I did like the last Godzilla film a lot and this one took it several steps farther. It lost a little in the human element (something director Gareth Edwards is very good at) but hey, do we really care about the people when there are monsters all over the place?
    Yes, lots of subtle references to the old Japanese films.
    I still have hesitations about the next one though. Because really, who would win that fight? Ape flambe, anyone?

  2. I am really glad that this movie spoke, sang, danced with and for you.
    My movie illiterate self hasn't seen any of the movies you mentioned. And probably will not.

  3. Can't wait to see it. Thanks for the spoiler-free peek.


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