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Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Spoilers)

I got an overdue advance check this week, and figured I should catch Godzilla: King of the Monsters while it was still in theaters — which seemed uncertain, since apparently it didn’t do well at the box office and is already going out of release. So I’d need to go a bit more out of the way than usual. I considered just waiting for home video, since I have other stuff I need to focus on, but I wanted to at least see the monsters on the big screen, even if I didn’t get to see them in 3D like with the 2014 film. Anyway, I had some business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and it turned out they had an office near one of the theaters that still carried the movie — which also had a grocery store and an Arby’s nearby, so I could do four things on one trip, which decided it for me.

So anyway… Godzilla: King of the Monsters should not be confused with the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the Raymond Burr recut of the 1954 original. It’s easier to tell the titles apart in Japanese, since the Burr film’s title was translated literally into Japanese as Kaiju-Oh Gojira, while the 2019 film’s title is merely rendered phonetically as Gojira Kingu Obu Monsutāzu. Maybe that’s fitting, since in some ways G:KotM is a very, very American action film, while in other ways it’s truer to the Japanese franchise than any other US Godzilla movie.

We open with scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost her son in the climactic battle of the 2014 Godzilla and is estranged from her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), a naturalist studying “alpha frequency” vocalizations in wolves (based on a theory of wolf behavior that’s arguably been discredited). She’s living with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) at a Monarch site in Yunnan Province, China, where that secretive monster-research organization is monitoring a Mothra egg that hatches as they watch. When the containment field is sabotaged, Emma uses a device called ORCA (developed by her and Mark to communicate with whales) to use the “alpha frequency” for kaiju — sorry, Titans, as they’re called herein — to calm the rampaging larval Mothra. The sabotage is the work of an unnamed ecoterrorist group led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), which kills most of the Monarch team but takes the Russells and ORCA with them.

Meanwhile, in one of those movie-style US Senate hearing rooms that don’t look much like the US Senate chamber, returning Monarch characters Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins of The Shape of Water) are arguing against Senator CCH Pounder’s plan to turn over Monarch to the military and kill all the Titans, which Serizawa-hakase argues are vital to the Earth’s balance, especially Godzilla, who officially hasn’t been seen for five years. They get called away by news of the attack (on Titan?) and go to recruit Mark, an angry know-it-all who wants the Titans dead for what they did to his son, and who, on hearing that his wife and daughter are in danger, prioritizes shouting “I told you so” and being a self-righteous jerk over actually trying to help find his family. In a meeting with the Monarch team, he speaks out of turn and condescendingly lectures the team on what they should be doing — something pretty obvious that these dozens of trained experts should’ve been able to figure out on their own, but no, Mark is the designated hero so they all have to be dumbed down so he can get the glory. Oy. The scene also introduces two more Monarch scientists: Ilene Chen, the resident mythologist (the ever-luminous Zhang Ziyi, with a boyish haircut) and Rick Stanton, the obligatory wisecracker (Bradley Whitford trying very hard to be Charlie Day from Pacific Rim).

Jonah has Emma work to awaken “Monster Zero,” a three-headed dragon frozen in the Antarctic ice. Of course, this is King Ghidorah, with his Monarch appellation being a nod to one of the better-known English titles of his second film (usually known as Invasion of Astro-Monster). Meanwhile, an antsy Godzilla nearly attacks Monarch’s deep-sea base where they’re secretly monitoring him, and once again this whole organization of monster experts is made to act like idiots so that the obnoxious angry white guy can do all the thinking for them. Honestly, Mark is as irritating a know-it-all as the kids in the Showa Gamera movies. But he actually acts against his hotheaded destroy-all-monsters preference and urges them to back down from the alpha predator, which satisfies Godzilla so he goes on his way to Antarctica. Monarch gets there first in their flying wing, the Argo, in time to confront Jonah’s terrorists and try to get the Russells back. There’s a clumsily staged moment where Mark by himself with a pistol is implausibly able to hold a whole squad of rifle-carrying soldiers at bay and demand his family back (I think maybe the team of snipers backing him up is the justification, but it’s not very clear and it feels more like he just has movie hero plot armor). But Emma picks up and activates the detonator that frees Ghidorah, and we realize she’s been with Jonah all along.

So Ghidorah attacks the Monarch team and Godzilla shows up just in time to save them, for the first of several times in the film. I wasn’t expecting this marquee fight so early in the movie, but it’s inconclusive, with Godzilla giving the team time to escape, though Dr. Graham is killed by Ghidorah — something that should’ve been a big deal but is quickly lost in the shuffle. Emma then calls up Monarch to explain her actions, saying that the Titans need to be awakened to restore the balance of the Earth that humans have destroyed, and she advises Monarch to start making use of those bunkers they’ve been building to protect humanity from the monster apocalypse. Mark emphatically disagrees with her philosophy, and Madison is caught in the middle.

Also, Jonah has Emma wake up the giant pterosaur Rodan from his volcano nest in Mexico, which draws Ghidorah to the scene while the thinly drawn “G-Team” soldier characters try to rescue the nearby townsfolk. Ghidorah trounces Rodan and goes after the Argo, leading to Godzilla’s second last-minute arrival to save the humans. But our old friend Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) has already launched a new weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer — namesake for the weapon Daisuke Serizawa used to destroy Godzilla in the original film, but protested here by his namesake, since his buddy Godzilla will be killed. Indeed, the blast appears to kill Godzilla (along with all the fish within a 2-mile radius), but Ghidorah inexplicably survives — which Dr. Chen realizes means he’s not part of Earth’s natural balance and must be an alien. Ghidorah emits his own alpha frequency to awaken all the Titans at once (the rest are all original Legendary designs, including a new MUTO) and control them to terraform (or, well, de-terraform) the Earth to his liking. Emma is dismayed that Ghidorah isn’t acting like she expected, but Jonah is fine with letting humanity get trashed. Weird that Emma gets mad at Jonah when it was her own idea to wake Ghidorah.

Meanwhile, the adult Mothra emerges beautifully from her cocoon (how nice for an American film to get her gender right at last) under the observation of two Monarch scientists — Joe Morton as an older version of Dr. Brooks from Kong: Skull Island and Zhang Ziyi as Ilene Chen’s twin sister Dr. Ling. Yes, Zhang is playing a version of Mothra’s twin heralds, and there’s a bit inserted about how she and her sister are the latest in a long line of twins connected to Mothra, a cute but random bit that serves no story purpose beyond fanservice. Mothra uses her divine light to help revive Godzilla, and Mark realizes that the only way to stop Ghidorah is to replace him with our planet’s indigenous alpha kaiju. So he’s now made the turnaround from wanting Godzilla killed to seeing him as the savior of the planet. It makes him marginally less obnoxious, I guess.

So Monarch takes a sub to Godzilla’s underwater lair, strongly implied to be Atlantis (furthering the connections between Legendary Godzilla and ’90s Gamera). There’s an unexplained natural radiation source that looks like falls of lava, but it won’t heal him fast enough. To speed his healing, they have to set off a nuke near him, but their launch system is damaged, so Serizawa chooses to sacrifice himself to deliver it manually. It’s an interesting symmetry — the original Dr. Serizawa sacrificed his life underwater to kill Godzilla, and this one does the same to save Godzilla.

So Madison figures out that she and Jonah’s people are holed up in a Monarch bunker in Boston, and she somehow gets past a trained group of terrorist soldiers, steals the ORCA, and escapes to Fenway Park to use its sound system to broadcast ORCA’s signal to calm the Titans rampaging across the globe. (Those must be some hellishly loud speakers, guys.) Ghidorah’s having none of that, and comes in to attack Madison, who’s saved when Godzilla shows up with the whole US military at his back, an impressive and unusual visual. But in a nod to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the nuke charged Goji too much, and he’s minutes from going critical. Plus Ghidorah’s called in Rodan, who turns out to be a total suck-up to anyone who beat him in a fight and is now Ghidorah’s loyal lackey, taking on Godzilla’s ally Mothra in an aerial struggle. There’s a moment where Godzilla is almost killed but Mothra sacrifices herself to revive him, much as Rodan did for him in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

Meanwhile, Emma’s broken off from Jonah and gone to save her daughter, leading to a reunion of the family at last, but Emma stays behind to atone, using ORCA to distract Ghidorah so her husband and daughter can get away. We never actually see her death, but it’s pretty much a certainty, since Goji’s reached critical mass and is in full-on BurningGodzilla mode as in Destoroyah, and then some, literally melting skyscrapers as he walks past. (It’s not only a very impressive visual, but a rarity for Hollywood to acknowledge that heat can propagate through the air; usually people in action movies can be inches away from molten lava or an explosive fireball and be totally unaffected.) He releases his nuclear energy in spherical blast waves, saving himself and crippling KG so he can finish him off. The other Titans show up and bow to Godzilla, reacknowledging him as their alpha. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Yes, they not only heard the Fenway Park speakers from all over the world, but got to Boston that quickly from all over the world. Dr. Stanton had some vague dialogue earlier about the “Hollow Earth” tunnels established in Kong: Skull Island somehow providing near-instant, wormhole-like travel for kaiju, presumably to set up this moment. Consider my disbelief unsuspended.)

There’s no followup on the Russells, just a credits montage of headlines painting an implausibly rosy aftermath as new life blooms in the wake of the Titans’ destruction and Monarch has gone public and everything is awesome except suddenly there’s a lot of news about Skull Island and something weird seems to be happening there, come back next year for Godzilla vs. Kong, but first, watch this post-credits scene teasing another potential sequel, a tease that depends on the American “Oxygen Destroyer” being a whole lot less disintegratey than Daisuke-san’s version.

Okay, not a perfect film, and it had some of the common failings of American action films — most of all the obnoxiousness of Mark as its male lead. The problem with Hollywood’s tendency to default to white male heroes is that it all too often doesn’t bother to make them interesting or likeable because it’s presumed that they’re automatically worthy of our focus. There were times during the movie when I felt it would be better if Mark wasn’t in it, if Serizawa and Chen were the main protagonists on the Monarch side, and if the film had let the mother-daughter dynamic be the key family element instead of bringing a cliched estranged father into the mix. Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown are both strong actresses who could’ve carried the emotional arc of the film without needing Kyle Chandler, who plays a rather stock character without bringing anything special to it. Ooh, I can imagine a better version of this film where Joe Morton’s Dr. Brooks is the male lead, Emma’s mentor and Madison’s surrogate grandfather who has much the same philosophical conflict with Emma. What a waste of Joe Morton to show him in only one scene.

It’s also very American in how pure and dualistic its morality is — Titans are either good or evil, and the good ones protect humanity and pretty flowers literally bloom in their wake. There’s a token acknowledgment that we’d be helpless before their power and have to deal with a lot of destruction, but this is quickly glossed over. Many of the best Japanese kaiju films (and some of the not-so-great ones, like the Netflix anime trilogy) are about challenging human hubris, forcing us to realize the Earth doesn’t belong to us and there are greater powers than ours. G:KotM only pays lip service to the idea and then turns Godzilla into a superhero actively protecting humanity and fighting alongside us.

Still, it’s nice that Serizawa and Chen are able to school the American characters on some Eastern ways of seeing things, like Chen’s explanation to Mark that Asian dragons are seen as protectors and redeemers. And this is the first American Godzilla film that really shows deep knowledge of and reverence for the original series, with a number of fannish references and Easter eggs. Best of all, Bear McCreary’s score incorporates Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla theme and Yuuji Koseki’s “Mothra’s Song” throughout the film, the first time any of the classic kaiju themes have been used in a US film (though Ifukube’s Rodan and Ghidorah themes are not used). The film is pretty true to the “characters” of Mothra and King Ghidorah, with the former as a luminous figure of awe and benevolence and the latter as a ravenous destroyer (with its three heads snapping at each other like a pack of angry dogs). I guess the portrayal of Rodan as a hench-monster is consistent with his role as Godzilla’s ally/assistant in later Showa films, though he’s playing for the other side now. Legendary Godzilla, however, only seems true to the later Showa version of Godzilla as a heroic protector of humanity, and does feel more like Gamera in some ways.

Still, this is as authentic a Godzilla film as has ever been made in America, a good effort to capture the spirit of the franchise, even if it’s filtered through American sensibilities. The action sequences are massive and impressive, with some imaginative choreography and camera work. And despite my dissatisfaction with the male lead, the character work in the film wasn’t bad overall — not as good as Kong: Skull Island, perhaps, but not as bad as claimed by many of the reviews I’ve read. The actors were reasonably good, particularly Charles Dance, whose Jonah reminded me very much of Ian McKellen’s Magneto. Though I found Bradley Whitford’s performance disappointing since it was just non-stop snark with no depth.

Godzilla, Mark & Madison Russell, and Ilene Chen will be back in March 2020 for Godzilla vs. Kong. Hopefully the new Titan-friendly Mark will be less of an obnoxious know-it-all this time. Well, at least Jessica Henwick will be in it.

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