Note: Over the past month I have written letters to Godzilla as a way of revisiting the franchise high points. Feel free to enjoy Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan.
“Everything has a balance” tends to be the mantra in the Legendary Pictures Godzilla duology, certainly the finest American-produced kaiju films ever made. So it is with the nonsensical ‘balance of nature’ philosophies within the movie, so it is with the franchise as a whole. This is the 35th film, and by now it’s clear that Godzilla follows the same pattern as other long-running series like James Bond: The need to continue creating films means that every generation bounces between grim, gritty reboots and goofy, gregarious adventures every decade or so. Whereas the 2014 Godzilla amped up the comparisons to 9/11 and that decade’s focus on military POV, Godzilla: King of the Monsters breaks free from those chains and embraces the ridiculousness of everything this franchise has to offer.
Picking up five years after its predecessor, KotM follows the S.H.I.E.L.D.-like agency Monarch as it tracks the emergence of new kaiju (“Titans” in these films). Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is a scientist who, with her estranged husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler), created the Orca, a device that allows humans to communicate with the Titans. The Orca is stolen by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a radical climate activist whose goal is to awaken the Titans to cleanse the planet and ‘restore balance.’ Comparisons to Thanos are adequate. But Jonah awakens Monster Zero, aka King Ghidorah, a fierce Alpha Titan whose clarion call starts a chain reaction of destruction that Godzilla (himself) must combat. Unlike Godzilla, Ghidorah’s monster monarchy is wholly malevolent, driven by destruction rather than re-creation of natural habitats. The Russells’ daughter, Madison, (Millie Bobby Brown), is also along for the ride.
Wait, wait. Humans making a device that can talk to kaiju? Does that sound dumb? Yeah. So?
KotM is more-or-less a remix of the 1962 classic Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster, the first movie to combine multiple Toho kaiju into one film. The same assortment is present here: Ghidorah, Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra. The latter three each already had at least one film under their belt before their first encounter; it was a real Infinity War situation. In that telling, aliens were trying to invade Earth, and one girl was psychic and could speak Kaiju. She literally translates Godzilla and Rodan debating whether to defend Earth from Ghidorah. “Godzilla says he has no reason to help humans. Humans always make trouble,” she interprets. That’s more or less the spirit of KotM, too. It’s only dumb if you take the science in a movie about giant monsters punching up seriously. Why would you?
All KotM asks of you is to take the spectacle seriously, as you would any other Godzilla film. That’s the barometer here: How open are you to movies that rely mostly on reliable actors to push two-note characters through reams of peril while events outside their control smash the world to cinders? How open are you to watching big monsters punch, claw and atomic-breath their way through landmarks and each other? I wrote in my Aladdin review that most of these blockbusters are made with target audiences in mind; it’s the same here.
As a member of that target audience, I can assure you that KotM lives up to its title, delivering a streamlined and updated version of a classic monster mashup with gorgeous visuals, fun callbacks and decent humor. It doesn’t waste much time on human antics unrelated to the monsters clashing around them. There are occasions where it uses the human perspective as a way of viewing the monster fights. My colleague Nick Rogers termed the 2014 Godzilla as “watching people watch Godzilla,” and that happens here from time to time. On the merits, the previous film captured the scale of its Titans more effectively, being that was the only trick it had up its sleeve. But in this case it works because director Michael Dougherty provides plenty of epic-scale action to balance it out.
Thankfully composer Bear McCreary returns to classic themes for Godzilla, Mothra and Ghidorah in his score, and Godzilla’s classic roar is returned to him. Of all the small problems with the last American-produced Godzilla movie, its desire to stray as far as it could from the definitive minutiae of the character was the most disappointing.
Hard to argue there’s much thematic depth to KotM, but maybe that’s beside the point. The original Gojira was panned at release by local critics; it found critical loving only as the decades went by and the historical context in which it was made became synonymous with the film in the minds of critics and academics. But few love Godzilla because of that original movie’s depth; they love Godzilla because he’s a character they grew up enjoying with other people. If enjoying these kinds of movies with other people is their definitive value — and those who have built friendships on this particular franchise are satisfied in taking this hit of cup and bread together at the multiplex — perhaps that’s the main success of KotM, a gorgeous and absurdly ridiculous return to form for a franchise.
There are many teases in the body of the film and post-credits for what is to come in next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong. I hope it’s just as enjoyable.