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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

A while back (because I didn’t want to sit through or write about The Curse of La Llorona), I wrote a blog entry ruminating about the current state of cinematic superfranchises. Of course there’s Marvel with its sprawling stable of interconnected cinematic franchises all running at once, releasing two or three high-profile and high-budget blockbusters a year. Plenty of other cinematic superfranchises have tried and failed to do something similar, yet The Conjuring improbably spawned a shared universe of quickly-made films produced at a rapid-fire pace, cheap enough to turn a hefty profit with even the flimsiest box-office returns.

Where everyone else was trying to beat Marvel by thinking bigger, Peter Safran and James Wan improbably succeeded by thinking smaller. And funny enough, so did the Monsterverse at Legendary Pictures.

It might seem funny to say that the Monsterverse is “thinking smaller” when these are still hugely epic movies with reported budgets well over $150 million apiece. Even so, consider that to date, Marvel has released 22 movies (not counting Spider-Man: Far From Home) in 11 years, while we’ve gotten six Conjuring movies (with a seventh due next month) in six years. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is only the third Monsterverse movie in five years.

In fact, if the hallmark of a superfranchise is a franchise made from smaller franchises, does the Monsterverse even really count? Because from where I’m sitting, it looks like all four movies in the series (both released and in development) sit on the exact same straight line. The whole continuity could probably be summed up in a straightforward and coherent Word document, while the MCU would need at least three corkboards and miles of differently-colored strings. Even the Conjuring Universe would need its own pins-and-yarn board to diagram. (But really, would it be worth the effort?)

I’m not seeing any sequels on the horizon for Kong: Skull Island, unless you count the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong. For that matter, I don’t see any developing standalone movies or series for any other monsters aside from Godzilla or Kong — can you imagine a series based on Gamera or Mechagodzilla based in this continuity?

(Side note: But seriously, Legendary, please please please give us a Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla fight already.)

On the other hand, do we really need or want all this massive convoluted inter-franchise mythology to keep track of? Does anyone care about Monarch or any of the backstory details tying all of this together? Quick, without looking it up online: Tell me three things apiece about Ford Brody and Preston Packard, if you even know off the top of your head which actors played them in which movie.

No, you know perfectly damn well what we come to see in these movies. The filmmakers sure do — the opening studio cards have barely faded from the screen when Godzilla: King of the Monsters first treats us to Godzilla’s iconic roar. The film opens in the climactic battle of San Francisco at the end of Godzilla (2014), dropping us right in the middle of monster mayhem with the very first frame!

This is where we meet Mark and Emma Russell, respectively played by Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga, whose young son was killed in the Godzilla/MUTO melee. This tragic loss drives the two of them in completely opposite directions — Emma has gone to work for Monarch while Mark goes to study and photograph feral wolves. While Mark hates the kaiju — most especially Godzilla — with a fiery passion, Emma has given over her life and career toward studying and preserving the kaiju.

(Side note: It bears mentioning that the giant monsters are never actually called “kaiju” in the film. I presume Legendary was sensitive to overlap with their other big kaiju franchise. Fuck it, I’m calling them kaiju anyway.)

Serving as the reluctant moderator between them is their surviving child, Madison, played by Millie Bobby Brown. She’s living with her mom when Emma finally perfects her invention, dubbed “Orca”. So named because it was initially designed to direct whales away from certain areas, the machine has been retrofitted to… well, it’s basically a dog whistle for kaiju. Seriously.

Backing up a bit, Monarch has taken the world stage as a private paramilitary organization self-appointed as the keeper of the kaiju. They’ve got their own air force, complete with what looks like a city-sized stealth bomber and not at all like a Helicarrier. They’ve got compounds set up all over the world to monitor no less than 17 kaiju in various phases of hibernation. Their central location — the one specifically set up to keep tabs on Godzilla — is out in the middle of the ocean and it’s named “Castle Bravo”. You heard me.

Yes, Monarch is our SHIELD stand-in here, and the movie even pulls from Civil War (as Batman v Superman did before them). The governments of the world are of course loathe to let all these giant monsters run free, with only one opaque heavily-armed and privately-funded organization possessing any knowledge about or access to them. What’s more, there are growing calls (especially from those who survived San Francisco — see Mark Russell, above) to destroy the kaiju completely and restore humanity’s place at the top of the food chain.

Monarch counters that… well, to start with, how is it even possible to destroy them when they’ve already shrugged off our most destructive weapons? More importantly, it’s been established that the most effective weapon against a kaiju is another kaiju. Some giant monsters have proven more benevolent than others, and so friendly fire is an issue. Monarch goes one step further, bringing up recurring ancient imagery through the ages to submit that maybe the kaiju are literal gods, or were at least worshipped as such millennia ago.

Then we have an ecoterrorist syndicate led by rogue British Army Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). In the past few years, they’ve made a fortune on the black market stealing and selling kaiju DNA. Their long-term goal is using the kaiju as *ahem* population control to scale back humanity and the damage it’s caused. Their plan hinges on two crucial weapons: One is Emma Russell and her Orca device; the other is “Monster Zero”, the golden three-headed King Ghidorah kept by Monarch in Antarctic ice.

Ghidorah is awakened and establishes himself as the alpha of the world’s kaiju, Godzilla steps up to challenge the throne, and we’re off to the races.

To recap, we’ve got a massive, sprawling tale of armies and monsters driven forward by a small and intimate family drama. We’ve got a central conflict of Godzilla versus Ghidorah, backed by Mothra and Rodan, and over a dozen other kaiju (some of them original to this film!) destroying the background. We’ve got the allegory of mankind’s place in nature, with the kaiju serving as natural disasters and predatory animals writ large. We’ve got the Orca serving as our allegory for atomic bombs and weapons of mass destruction, plus the addition of a certain weapon pulled from the original franchise. That in addition to the Castle Bravo shout-out, plus certain other story details I can’t get into here, play into the “nuclear weapons” allegory in subtle yet effective ways that pay sweet tribute to the source material.

No, the script won’t be winning any awards. Yes, the plot is contrived and stupid in places. But if you’re looking for a screenplay that establishes the ridiculous setting and premise within suspension of disbelief while also fitting in the thematic allegories emblematic of the franchise while also finding time for all the giant monster battles, WHILE ALSO keeping the runtime under two and a half hours, this is probably as good as anyone could’ve hoped for.

This brings us to the main attraction: The giant monsters. The movie opens with a tantalizing glimpse of Godzilla, goes from there to a scene of newly-hatched Larva Mothra lashing out against hapless human scientists, and then we’ve got a Jaws-like scene in which Godzilla plays a terrifying presence even though he’s barely onscreen. The action scenes are beautifully paced, each one elegantly building on top of each other until we get to the impossibly, beautifully bonkers climax.

Basically, picture everything that worked in Godzilla (2014), take away everything that didn’t, and now make that even a hundred times better.

It helps that the family drama this time is adequately sold by the cast. Emma is a morally slippery character, but Vera Farmiga is more than talented enough to keep the character sympathetic and consistent. Kyle Chandler was ready-made to play a father broken by grief, and Mark’s years of studying predatory behavior gives him a convenient way to make himself a useful, active protagonist. Millie Bobbie Brown steals the show as a plucky young girl who refuses to be sidelined, and never once does she ever grate on a single nerve. Probably because Madison is constantly surrounded by adults who deserve all the scorn they get.

Elsewhere, we have Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins making welcome return appearances as top Monarch brass. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch play effective comic relief, expertly riding the line between “too much” and “not enough”. I was also very fond of Zhang Ziyi, here playing a Monarch analyst. And then of course we have Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Anthony Ramos, and Elizabeth Ludlow, all admirably holding down the military side of things. The weakest supporting players are easily Charles Dance and a returning David Straitharn, both of whom sleepwalk their way to another paycheck.

To be clear, it’s not like any of these characters are interesting or iconic enough to be worth remembering after the credits. As we’ve already established, that’s par for the course with this series.

If it sounds like I’m talking about everything except the monster battles… Well, what is there to say? It’s giant monsters beating the shit out of each other for two-thirds of the movie. Giant monsters killing each other, killing humans, destroying cities and landmarks in a glorious clusterfuck of VFX brilliance. While the filmmakers are careful to find ways of keeping the humans involved, this movie is all about the monsters and much better for it. Granted, the geography was occasionally unclear, and I would sometimes lose track of which person was where. I didn’t even know for sure that one character was dead until an onscreen graphic helpfully confirmed it later.

On a final miscellaneous note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score from one of my favorite composers, Bear McCreary. His score is suitably huge, incorporating classic franchise themes and even the Blue Oyster Cult song with his unique flair. While it’s not uncommon for film scores to use a choir for a more epic feel, McCreary’s use of Japanese chanting feels inspired here. It really is a wonderful score, when you can hear it over all the other chaos going on.

If monster mayhem is what you’re after, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers. The kaiju are awesome, the fights between them are mind-blowing, and it’s loud glorious heart-pounding spectacle. Sure, the human cast is solid overall, and the allegories about nuclear weapons and mankind’s place in nature is nicely developed, all of which will be extra seasoning for Godzilla fans and won’t be nearly enough for those who want more than cities getting flattened by giant electric dragons.

For better or worse, this was very clearly a movie made by, of, and for people who grew up making whooshing noises as they banged together their Godzilla toys. If you don’t love this movie, you don’t deserve it.

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