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Thoughts on the Godzilla MonsterVerse comics (spoilers)

November 3, 2021 1 comment

Today (November 3) is Godzilla Day, the anniversary of the release of the original 1954 film and the beginning of the kaiju genre. In honor of that (or really by sheer coincidence, since I was going to publish this today anyway before I found out), I have a bonus entry for my Godzilla/kaiju review series.

Thanks to my library, I’ve managed to get hold of the tie-in comics that Legendary Comics published to supplement its parent company Legendary Pictures’ four movies in the so-called MonsterVerse: Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). The first tie-in comic, Godzilla: Awakening, was only available in hardcopy (hardcover, in fact), but the remainder can all be found for free at the Hoopla online library for those with cards from participating libraries. All these comics are theoretically canonical to the MonsterVerse, though like all “canonical” tie-ins, that only lasts until a movie sees fit to contradict them (in other words, exactly like non-canonical tie-ins — or indeed like canonical films, given how many sequels over the decades have retconned or ignored previous films).

As is typically the case with movie tie-in comics, these stories are prequels, sequels, and interstitial stories that attempt to fill in backstory or flesh out side elements of the movies’ stories, while trying not to leave too big a footprint on continuity that later movies might contradict, though some inconsistencies are hard to avoid.

Godzilla: Awakening (2014): Written by Max Borenstein and Greg Borenstein; art by Eric Battle, Yvel Guichet, Alan Quah, and Lee Loughridge

This is a prequel to the 2014 film, co-written by the film’s screenwriter Max Borenstein and expanding on a lot of the backstory only briefly discussed in the film. And it’s pretty deep backstory. The frame is set in 1980, when Eiji Serizawa, the father of Ken Watanabe’s movie character Ishiro Serizawa, calls his son home to tell him the truth he’s hidden all his life. (Just as the film character is named for Gojira director Ishiro Honda, his father is named for the film’s special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya.)

In 1945, Eiji survives the Hiroshima bombing and rescues his infant son Ishiro, only to see a serpentine monster form seemingly from thin air above the radiation-ravaged city. A year later, resenting the Americans for what they’d done, he’s on a ship which answers a distress call from a US vessel and is called on to serve as translator. He cooperates with an American sailor named Shaw in rescuing the others, and then in rescuing his own men from the attacking aerial kaiju. This cooperation in adversity eases his resentment enough that he agrees to work for the US government on a task force called Monarch, organized by General Douglas MacArthur himself to stop the monster. (This contradicts the film’s claim that Monarch was founded in 1954, but continuity glitches about secretive organizations can always be handwaved as misinformation. However, Ishiro being born in 1945 would make him nearly 70 in the movie, which is hard to credit.)

As Serizawa and Shaw track sightings of the flying creature over the next several years, they hear claims that it was driven off by a second creature, a giant lizard known in island legend as Gojira, which Eiji identifies as a portmanteau of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale (its real-life origin). But Monarch disbelieves the rumors. Eventually they determine that the flying beastie is a parasitic colony creature made of large, spiky single cells that assemble into a macro-organism, and Serizawa dubs it Shinomura, from the Japanese for “swarm of death.” Radiation causes the cells to multiply (as usual with these things, there’s no explanation of where the biomass comes from), and Serizawa deduces that Shinomura and Gojira are fossil creatures from the Permian Era, when Earth was more radioactive (supposedly), and the asteroid impact that caused the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 250 million years ago lowered the radiation level (through some unexplained means) and drove the beasts underground. (In reality, the impact increased surface UV radiation by destroying the ozone layer, though only temporarily.) Now, atomic weapons have drawn them back up.

The Shinomura grown in captivity from a single cell escapes, and Serizawa fears that if it merges with its other half, it will be too large even for Gojira to stop, and its cells will propagate out of control until they overrun the Earth. A year later, in 1954, Monarch responds to a sighting and confirms at last that Gojira is real and fighting the combined Shinomura. Goji kills one of the two, but the other escapes and Goji pursues. Serizawa insists that Gojira is only the enemy of the Shinomura, that they’re acting out their ancient roles as natural rivals, and that Goji will go away once the colony creature is destroyed. The Americans refuse to listen and decide that an atom bomb will take care of both beasts. (General MacArthur anachronistically orders “Nuke ‘im,” a verb not recorded to exist before 1962. But then, MacArthur was supposed to have retired three years earlier anyway.)

Back in 1980, Eiji tells his son how the US military set a trap for Gojira at Bikini Atoll, disguising it as nuclear testing, and assuming they succeeded in killing both creatures. But Eiji remains convinced that Gojira lives, and charges his son with carrying on his mission, leading Ishiro to join Monarch after Eiji’s funeral a year later.

This is quite a good story, adding a lot to the film. In some ways, it’s a more interesting and effective story than the film’s, though it necessarily features little direct interaction between Godzilla and the human cast, mostly cutting between them instead. It contextualizes the film’s backstory nicely, tying the rise of the Titans directly to the dawn of the atomic age, and nicely explaining what led up to the Bikini Atoll attack disguised as a bomb test, as described in the movie. I didn’t like the way the movie replaced the original 1954 film’s allegorical protest against the American H-bomb tests with a more neutral and benign depiction of them as merely a misguided attempt to stop Godzilla. Awakening corrects that somewhat by allowing its Japanese protagonist to protest the arrogance of an American military smugly convinced that atomic bombs will solve everything. It’s nowhere near the level of the original film’s powerful commentary on the ethics of WMD development and proliferation, but it’s appreciated.

It’s not perfect, though. The ending is a little abrupt, and the contrivance of making Ishiro 14-15 years older than Ken Watanabe strains credulity. The science is also a mess; one montage page shows Mt. Fuji remaining essentially unaltered over 250 million years of geological and evolutionary change, even though Fuji-san is an active volcano only a few hundred thousand years old. It also shows the Hiroshima atomic blast being visible from Mt. Fuji, when they’re actually about 700 km apart. But one doesn’t expect credible science from a Godzilla story anyway (with the exception of the recent anime Godzilla Singular Point).

There are a couple of interesting similarities between this and Singular Point. The nature of the Shinomura colony creature and the global threat it poses is highly similar to that of the Red Dust in GSP. And there’s a flamboyant Monarch biologist who refers to the science of anomalous creatures as “Problematica,” similar to the “Biologica Phantastica” that GSP’s Mei studied (though that discipline was theoretical and philosophical in nature). It could be coincidence, but I wonder if the comic could have influenced the anime.

One detail worth noting is that I think this is the only American-made Godzilla story I’ve seen where the creature is referred to exclusively as “Gojira” within the story proper, even by English-speaking characters. If anything, this is another anachronism, since the reason Toei coined “Godzilla” as the official English spelling back in ’54 is because the favored romanization scheme at the time rendered the Japanese syllables as “Go-zi-la” or “Go-dzi-la,” vs. the modern preferred scheme that renders the same syllables as “Go-ji-ra.”

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong (2017): Written by Arvid Nelson, art by Zid

This is a sequel to the 1973 events of Kong: Skull Island. The frame story is set in 2012, two years before Godzilla, and features the character Houston Brooks, played as a young man by Corey Hawkins in K:SI and in the present day by Joe Morton in G:KotM. This comic was probably written and painted (by Mohammad Yazid, a Malaysian comic book artist who goes professionally by Zid) before its creators were aware of Morton’s casting. The 2012 Brooks resembles an aged-up Hawkins, but isn’t too dissimilar from Morton. The story shows Brooks retiring from the monster-monitoring Monarch organization, conflicting with his portrayal in KotM, where he’s still with Monarch in 2019.

The frame involves the discovery of a voice recorder left by Brooks’s son Aaron, who was lost in 1995. In flashback to that year, Aaron argues with his father over Monarch’s decision to trust Kong to protect Skull Island and contain its monsters, and thus he secretly organizes an expedition to Skull Island, apparently just to find out for himself. Their helicopter is naturally attacked by Titans (kaiju) and crashes, and they lose their survival expert immediately. They’re rescued by Kong but barely see him, and are taken in by the Iwi tribe as seen in the movie, specifically a boy named Ato, who’s more verbal than most of his people, having learned English from his father, who learned it from Marlow (John C. Reilly’s K:SI character).

The most significant member of Aaron’s expedition is Walter Riccio, a mythographer, who gets hooked on the Iwi’s medicinal brew and starts having mystical visions revealing Kong’s origins. According to him, Skull Island was the home of Kong’s giant ape species for millions of years, until it was invaded by the Skullcrawlers from the Hollow Earth, wiping most of them out. (GvK would later depict a Kong-species homeland within the Hollow Earth, but there’s no reason the species couldn’t have existed in more than one place. However, island living tends to produce dwarfism rather than gigantism due to limited resources, so the biology of Skull Island makes little sense whether it’s populated by a whole community of Kongs or by the horde of deadly Titans seen in K:SI and this comic.) In Riccio’s visions, Kong’s parents were the last two survivors, who greeted the Iwi when they first came to the island. Kong was then born just before his parents were killed by Skullcrawlers, with their violent demise being his first sight.

Riccio is driven mad by his drugged visions, worshipping Kong as a god and seeking to destroy the Iwi’s protective walls so that Kong will prove himself as humanity’s divine protector against evil. Aaron tries to stop him, and Riccio kills two other teammates (including the female lead) in the battle. Riccio succeeds in bringing down the walls and letting the island’s giant predators attack the Iwi, and Kong indeed comes to their rescue, convincing Riccio that he’s proven them worthy of the god’s protection. But Kong recognizes Riccio as the real threat and smooshes him, then has a bonding moment with Aaron and leaves him be. This convinces Aaron that Kong isn’t just a monster but a guardian, an orphan inspired by his own childhood trauma to protect others. (Sounds awfully familiar for a comic-book plot. Are Titans a superstitious, cowardly lot? Does Kong dress up as a giant bat?)

Aaron stays on the island to help the Iwi rebuild, but sends his recorded log out to sea in the slim hope that it will be found. Seventeen years later, the frame story ends with Houston Brooks hinting that he’ll go looking for his son.

It’s an okay story, I guess, but I have issues. I don’t think there’s any precedent in the MonsterVerse for mystical visions being a thing, and Aaron is far too quick to believe that Riccio’s visions of Kong’s origins are fact rather than drug-induced delusion, given that he doesn’t buy Riccio’s other claims about Kong’s divinity. Relying on shamanistic visions to reveal Kong’s backstory is an awkward plot mechanic, and what we learn doesn’t really add that much to what we already knew from the movie. We know Kong’s a good guy, so a story about proving that to someone yet again is redundant.

I guess the story deserves some credit for having the villain be the main white guy on the expedition, who appropriates Iwi culture and forces his own interpretation of it on the Iwi even if it kills them and destroys their creations. Maybe there’s a point being made about cultural imperialism. But the main thrust of the story is the monster mayhem, with frequent attacks by various improbably vicious and gigantic Skull Island denizens, some from K:SI and others original to the comic. The art is fairly good, with the characters easy to tell apart, though it’s in a painted style that I’ve never really warmed to in comics, and the characters’ expressions often look a bit stiff. Also, it tends toward the modern comics style of having only a few large panels per page, prioritizing the art and reducing the amount of story. Though this is more the case in the action scenes than the dialogue scenes.

The miniseries is collected with the one that follows in the MonsterVerse Titanthology trade paperback, with additional material purporting to be Monarch files and photos about Skull Island’s various species, based on the notes of John Goodman’s William Randa from K:SI. It’s not a bad supplement, but the supposedly technical descriptive text about the Titans tends toward unscientifically lurid descriptions of their savagery and whatnot. The file on Kong’s species inexplicably includes “photographs” which are panels from Riccio’s mystical visions of Kong’s parents and the newborn infant Kong. That’s a hell of a trick.

Godzilla: Aftershock (2019): Written by Arvid Nelson, Illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is theoretically a prequel to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, establishing the backstory of its characters Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), but it’s more of a followup to the 2014 Godzilla, featuring Ishiro Serizawa and his assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins). It centers on a series of attacks on nuclear subs and plants by a creature similar to the MUTOs from the ’14 film, which is recorded in Japanese mythology as the Earthquake Beetle — which ought to be Jishin-Mushi, but is misspelled throughout as Jinshin-Mushi. Emma and Serizawa determine, with help from ancient Phoenician inscriptions that frame the miniseries and equate Godzilla with the god Dagon, that the creatures are MUTO Prime, the mature form of the MUTOs; that they’ve evolved to implant their eggs in Godzillas and kill them; and that these battles correspond to mass extinctions and civilizational collapses throughout history. (These are the second Titan species, after Shinomura in Awakening, to be touted as Godzilla’s ancient natural enemy and counterbalance. Kong’s species will be the third. I guess everyone wants to bring down the top gunslinger.)

Emma uses a prototype of the sonic ORCA device in the movie to trick MUTO Prime with the sound of its already-laid eggs so it will let its guard down while fighting Godzilla, which somehow works. You’d think the critter could tell whether it had actually laid its own eggs yet. Anyway, Prime manages to shatter Goji’s dorsal spines in the climactic battle, which means Goji’s atomic ray energy spews out uncontained from his back, which he uses to defeat MUTO Prime by shouldering underneath it and cutting loose. I suppose this was done to explain why Goji’s spines are larger and differently shaped in KotM; presumably the regenerative process caused them to grow back larger and thicker.

This story works poorly as an origin story for Emma Russell. It features Alan Jonah a couple of times, but in a cursory way that does nothing to explain the partnership Emma has formed with him by the time of G:KotM. Indeed, the story actively works against that. In KotM, Emma was sympathetic to Jonah’s view that human civilization was causing a mass extinction and needed to be wiped out by the Titans to restore the balance. But this story shows Emma learning that it was MUTO Primes and their MUTO spawn fighting Godzillas that caused mass extinctions. So there’s no real throughline between this Emma and the person she was in the film. I suppose that was unavoidable, as the comic was released shortly before the film and thus avoided spoilers. But in retrospect, it makes for a very disappointing attempt at filling in the gaps, utterly failing to tell the story it should have told. (There’s a brief appearance by Houston Brooks that connects to nothing and just serves to call back to the previous tie-in comic.)

The art this time is in a more conventional comics style, and is reasonably good. But the story is even more decompressed than in the Kong book, with a lot of multi-page kaiju (sorry, Titan) battle sequences of 1-3 panels per page with no dialogue. The framing pages of the Phoenician carvings further cut into the limited story time. All in all, a weak effort.

Kingdom Kong (2021): Written by Marie Anello, illustrated by Zid

One of two simultaneously released prequels to Godzilla vs. Kong, this is also a sequel to Skull Island: The Birth of Kong. The story centers on Audrey Burns, a Monarch fighter pilot wrestling with heavy survivor’s guilt after a 2019 battle with bat-like Titans called Camazotz (aha, there is a giant bat after all), in which she lost all her team save her best friend, who’s been in a coma ever since. She and several other hotshot pilots are assigned to the test mission into the Hollow Earth, established in GvK as the mission where Nathan Lind’s brother David was killed. But before that, Burns wrestles with her fears in the training, while Houston Brooks — now looking like Joe Morton and handwaving his abortive attempt at retirement from the previous Kong comic — studies Kong and tracks a mysterious superstorm heading for the island, the same storm established in GvK as wiping out the Iwi. Apparently it was created when King Ghidorah attacked Mexico in G:KotM and has persisted for two years.

A test drilling into the cavern to the Hollow Earth releases a Camazotz attack, bringing back Burns’s fears, but there’s a rather lovely scene where she confesses her survivor’s guilt to her commander, Col. Johanna Edwards (who looks exactly like Angela Bassett for some reason), and the rest of her team, who’ve been skeptical of her up to now, come in and share their own tales of guilt at the loss of loved ones to Titan attacks. Burns rallies and leads her team to evacuate the Monarch crew while Kong takes care of Camazotz, but she naturally chooses to go off-mission and help Kong by stunning Camazotz with a sonic boom. After Kong bashes the bat, he catches the parachuting Burns in his hand and they share a bonding moment much like the one between Kong and Aaron in the previous book.

The epilogue ties in more closely with the movie, showing Brooks retiring at last and turning over command to Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall’s GvK character), telling her to find a way to keep Kong on the island now that they know he’s a magnet for rival alpha Titans. Mercifully, it also establishes that the Iwi are being evacuated ahead of the superstorm, rather than wiped out as the film indicated. David Lind also shows up for his ill-fated mission, while Burns goes back stateside for a happy reunion, implying that she wasn’t lost with the others. This is three years prior to GvK’s 2024 setting, which I guess is enough time to set up the status quo seen at the start of that film.

This was a pretty good one. Burns’s story is effective, and the attempts to fill in the continuity gaps, including the inconsistencies with the previous Kong comic, work reasonably well — although the movie-setup scenes at the end feel tacked on to a largely unrelated story. Zid’s fully painted art has improved in the four years since the previous book, and the character renderings are excellent.

Godzilla Dominion (2021): Written by Greg Keyes, illustrated by Drew Edward Johnson

This is an unusual one, since it’s told entirely from Godzilla’s perspective, following him through various kaiju/Titan battles with narration describing Godzilla’s point of view, elaborating on the movies’ portrayal of him as an instinctive force of balance in Earth’s ecosystem. Writer Greg Keyes novelized the 2014 film, so I suppose he may have gotten into Godzilla’s head there too. It speaks of how, to Godzilla, territory is not a place but a compulsion, and how his senses are intimately linked to the Earth as if he’s an extension of it, bordering on the mystical, like he’s a chthonic deity.

There’s not much plot, though it’s established that his old lair was destroyed by the nuclear bomb in G:KotM and that he’s searching for a new one, as well as hinting at “the Rival” who drove him out of his old home, an adversary eventually established to be Kong. There’s also a passing acknowledgment of how Mothra giving him her life has broadened Godzilla’s awareness, though not much is done with it.

So basically there’s hardly any plot, just a lot of kaiju art and some exploration of what it’s like to be Godzilla. Fine, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. It’s an interesting alternative approach, I’ll give it that, but I found it fairly insubstantial. At least it’s not as dumb as the movie it sets up.

So an inconsistent bunch of stories, much like the movies they tie into. The two best ones, Godzilla: Awakening and Kingdom Kong, both add valuable backstory that enhances the films they tie into, and are both better than those respective films in some ways. The weakest is Godzilla: Aftershock, an attempt at continuity-filling that pretty much has the opposite effect due to its avoidance of spoilers. Skull Island: The Birth of Kong is a decent try hampered by a really clumsy and fanciful mechanism for providing backstory that didn’t really tell us anything new. And Godzilla Dominion is just hard to rate, because its approach is so unusual. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but others might find it brilliant.

One point in the comics’ favor is that they’re better at diversity than the movies. All four MonsterVerse films, to some extent, center on white male leads who are fairly bland (or obnoxious in the case of G:KotM’s Mark), when other characters feel more worthy of focus. The comics feature more diverse leads — two generations of Serizawas, two generations of Brooks, and two female leads, Emma Russell and Audrey Burns. The supporting casts are international and quite diverse, and Burns’s best friend in a coma in Kingdom Kong, featured in flashbacks, is non-binary, a fact treated entirely casually by the comic. I really wish that the feature film industry would catch up with other media in portraying human diversity realistically.

All in all, if you liked the MonsterVerse films, most of these comics are worthy or at least somewhat interesting additions — inconsistent and not always successful, but no more so than the films themselves. The art is generally pretty good, though I think kaiju battles in comics format are an acquired taste. But at their best, these comics expand the films’ universe, flesh out supporting characters, and in some cases correct the films’ shortcomings.

Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA VS. KONG (Spoilers)

September 24, 2021 2 comments

The library finally came through with my copy of Godzilla vs. Kong, the climax of what we could derivatively call “Phase One” of Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” combining Toho’s Godzilla/kaiju franchise with the King Kong franchise. The film picks up the concepts and story threads built up over the previous three films, Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), though the returning human cast members are limited to GKotM’s Millie Bobby Brown (who really needs to be signed up immediately for a Young Princess Leia series or movie before she ages out of it) and Kyle Chandler — and Chandler’s obnoxious Mark Russell character is fortunately reduced to a very minor role. GKotM’s Zhang Ziyi was signed up to return, but her part was cut out entirely (along with Jessica Henwick, who I mentioned in my GKotM review as someone I was looking forward to seeing).

The film opens on Skull Island with Kong waking up to classic rock being piped into his jungle on speakers, a stylistic nod to the soundtrack of KSI. He has a friendly exchange with a young deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who we will learn is the last survivor of the Iwi tribe seen in KSI, and who’s been adopted by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the film’s resident Kong expert. But he throws a tree trunk at the sky and breaks a hole in the virtual projection on the vast dome holding him in, built by the monster-regulating Monarch organization introduced in the previous films. Andrews and a colleague exposit to each other that Kong needs to be contained to protect him from Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another alpha Titan, but that Kong has grown too big for his habitat. This addresses both Kong’s absence in GKotM and his much vaster size here than in KSI (which did foreshadow that he was still a growing boy).

We then cut to Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie Hayes, a conspiracy nut and whistleblower within Apex Cybernetics, a powerful tech corporation that he thinks is doing something sinister involving the Titans — something that draws Godzilla to attack an Apex facility, changing his public image from hero Titan to menace to humanity. Bernie’s got a podcast reporting to the public on his secret investigation on a daily basis, surely tipping Apex off to the existence of a whistleblower within their ranks, and he makes no effort to disguise his distinctive Brian Tyree Henry-esque booming voice in his podcasts, which seems contradictory for a paranoid, secretive character like Bernie’s supposed to be. (It’s unclear if his paranoia is an act, since we see him warning a co-worker against eating a GMO apple and then eating it himself, but otherwise he seems sincere.) But it provides an excuse to bring in Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell, Bernie’s most loyal listener, who tracks him down to get his help exposing Apex, along with her nerdy friend Josh (Julian Dennison), who’s mainly just there to complain.

Ilene is approached by her old flame Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), formerly of Monarch, who’s been approached in turn by Apex exec Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) to mount an expedition into the Hollow Earth to find some MacGuffinish “power source” that could save the world from Godzilla in some unclear way. For some unexplained reason, Lind is considered a crackpot for his Hollow Earth theories even though that realm has been confirmed to exist in previous movies. Apparently the Hollow Earth is more than just underground tunnels but involves a “gravitational inversion” that killed Lind’s brother on their last attempt to get in. But Simmons has developed antigravity-powered Hollow Earth Aerial Vehicles that could survive the transition, and somehow their best brains never realized that “HEAV” (pronounced “heave”) is a terrible name.

Anyway, Lind needs Ilene to recruit Kong as a guide to the Hollow Earth power source, on the theory that Titans have a salmon-like instinct to return to their origins (sounds fishy). He somehow talks Ilene into agreeing, and bringing Jia along because she keeps Kong calm. The involved process of sedating and restraining Kong is skipped over, and we cut to him being chained on a flatbed ship in a military convoy heading for the Hollow Earth entrance in Antarctica, where Ilene discovers what she somehow missed, that Kong speaks sign language and converses with Jia, but they kept it from Ilene since Kong didn’t want her to know. (He’s a gorilla the size of a skyscraper under constant scientific scrutiny. How did he hide it?) Anyway, Ilene was right about one thing: taking Kong out of his dome attracts Godzilla, who’s determined to force his rival to submit to his dominance. His attack threatens to sink the ship and drown Kong until Lind hits the button to release the chains, something he argued against before. I’m not sure whether that’s showing Lind’s growth or just making him the designated hero because he’s the main white male in the film.

Anyway, there’s a big Kong/Godzilla throwdown underwater and on top of the ships, quite a massive fight for 3/4 of an hour into the film, and Kong basically loses, getting wrapped in Goji’s tail and half-drowned until the fleet uses depth charges to disorient Goji and let Kong climb to safety, then goes to silent running to play dead.

To avoid Goji’s notice, they airlift Kong to Antarctica in a net carried by a fleet of helicopters, evoking a visual from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Ilene gets Jia to convince Kong he might find family in the Hollow Earth, prompting him to dive in, with the HEAVs following. The gravitational inversion turns out not to be just some kind of weightless transitional zone, but a full-on 2001-ripoff space warp that spits the HEAVs out in the Hollow Earth, a realm sandwiched between two parallel surfaces with opposing gravities and a lot of weightless rocks floating at the midway plane (how’d they get up there?). The space warp seems gratuitous given that this is supposed to be a Pellucidar-like hollow inside the Earth, rather than some alternate dimension or whatever. They seem to be throwing concepts together without worrying about cohesiveness. Oddly, despite what’s been said all along about the Titans being native to the Hollow Earth, there’s no sign of any familiar kaiju from previous films — no other Godzillas, no Mothras, no Rodans, no MUTOs, even. Well, some pterosaurs from Skull Island, but that’s it. There are some original Titans, though, notably some winged-snake things called Warbats that Kong fights.

Kong eventually finds the ruins of a Kong-sized civilization and a giant axe apparently made from a Godzilla spine and bone. Kong somehow intuits to use this scale as the key to unlocking the super-“power source” that Simmons sent the expedition to find. Simmons’s gorgeous but arrogant daughter Maia (Eiza González), sent along as babysitter but too undeveloped a character to be worth mentioning until now, steals a sample of the power source, which Ilene and Lind are startled by, even though it’s precisely what the whole expedition was explicitly sent to do in the first place. Huh?

And then there’s another “Huh?”, because apparently all Simmons needs to harness this power source is to get a scan of its energy signature transmitted to him, whereupon he’s instantly able to replicate it. What? If this is some super-energy source beyond anything human technology has, how does human technology have the energy to replicate it in a matter of minutes? Isn’t the whole point of a power source that you need to harness the actual source itself to provide the power? You can’t fuel a car with a spectrograph of gasoline vapor. You need the actual substance.

I need to backtrack a bit here, since Madison, Bernie, and Josh have snuck into the destroyed Apex facility in Florida and discovered an underground hyper-monorail system that spirits them to Apex’s Hong Kong facility, where Apex is using Skullcrawlers (from Kong: Skull Island) as test victims for their very own Mechagodzilla. (The plot of this film is so cursory that I just didn’t feel the need to keep up with this bunch until now.) Somehow the three intruders go absolutely unobserved for a long time even while standing right in the middle of the heavily monitored Mechagoji test chamber, and they’re able to find that Mechagoji is telepathically controlled from a station built into the King Ghidorah skull salvaged in the post-credits scene of GKotM, with an implicit second KG skull inside Mechagoji (making it a fusion of Mechagodzilla and Mecha-King Ghidorah). The pilot, by the way, is named Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), but he’s such a cipher of a character that the implied relationship to Dr. Serizawa from the previous films is never addressed.

So anyway, Simmons wants the Hollow Earth power source to bring Mechagodzilla to full power so that humans can reclaim the “alpha” status from Godzilla. Goji senses MG’s testing and attacks Hong Kong, whereupon he… uh… wait… whereupon he turns out not to be targeting Mechagodzilla after all. Instead he… um… he uses his atomic breath to blast a hole way, way down through the Earth’s crust to blow up the power source in the Hollow Earth temple where Kong is, which… is coincidentally directly below Hong Kong. Yeah. Uh-huh.

WHAAAAAA???????????

This has got to be the lamest way ever to get two disconnected plotlines to converge. I mean, the whole reason Apex needed to use Kong was so he could guide them to the power source, whose location they were unaware of. And it turns out the location was literally right underneath Apex’s main base the whole time???? That is a gigantic cheat. Nobody in the film even remarks on the mind-boggling coincidence or irony of it all. It’s jarring to see what we think is Godzilla reacting to one of the two plotlines and have it instead be a totally random, contrived way to drag the two disconnected plotlines together.

Not only that, but the whole Stargate spacewarp inversion from earlier is gone; now there’s just a big ol’ hole that Kong drops into/climbs out of to attack Godzilla with his new axe. They have a big throwdown that trashes Hong Kong, and unlike the previous MonsterVerse films, there’s no more than the barest token attempt to acknowledge the human impact of this horrendous destruction, with just a couple of brief shots of fleeing citizens. As a result, there’s no sense of stakes to the battle of Titans and it’s all just shallow spectacle and noise. The watching Lind and Ilene show no sense of horror at the cataclysmic loss of life, just idly remarking on who’s winning. If the characters don’t have any strong reaction to what we’re seeing, why should we?

Kong wins the “second round,” in Lind’s estimation, by knocking Godzilla to the proverbial mat, but his ruling is premature; Goji rallies and thrashes him rather decisively, pinning Kong down and only releasing him when Kong gives up the fight. This surprised me; since Kong lost the first bout, I’d expected him to win the second. Indeed, as Jia soon discovers by feeling his heartbeat through the ground, Kong is dying.

Meanwhile, once Simmons brings Mechagodilla to full power, Serizawa loses his connection and the mecha takes on a life of its own, killing Simmons in mid-megalomaniacal speech. Implicitly, King Ghidorah’s consciousness has taken it over, in a beat similar to the one in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla where Kiryu was taken over by the spirit of the Godzilla skeleton it was built around. Although, like so many things in this film, that part is glossed over. Explanations, connective logic, characterizations, it’s all expendable in favor of the CGI spectacle. So anyway, Mechagoji breaks out of the Apex base and attacks Godzilla. You can surely guess what comes next: Lind uses one of the HEAVs’ experimental engines to shock Kong’s heart (because in fiction, defibrillation to restart a stopped heart magically cures whatever broader systemic damage is responsible for the heart stopping in the first place), Jia convinces Kong that his real enemy is the metal Goji instead of the scaly one, and the two alpha Titans team up to kill the mecha. They even do a combi move (as they call it in Japan) where Godzilla supercharges Kong’s axe with his atomic breath. As the human characters reunite and look on, the Titans face each other off once more, but Kong lets the axe fall and Godzilla leaves him be, returning to the sea.

Well, this is the first Legendary MonsterVerse film that really disappointed me. It’s a silly, shallow mess of cluttered spectacle, feeling like a film whose script was hacked apart and sloppily reassembled by studio fiat, losing most of its substance and coherence in the process. The characterizations established in the first hour, such as they are, get lost in the second half, with the characters becoming little more than tools for exposition and plot advancement and spectators to the CGI carnage. Madison Russell in particular is very poorly served; her ultimate role in the film is simply to stand there and watch events unfolding around her. At the end, Bernie and Josh contribute in their own small way to weakening Mechagodzilla, but Madison, who played a key role in driving events in the climax of the previous film, just stands there uselessly this time while the people with Y chromosomes get all the agency. It’s an utter waste of her character. Indeed, she and her father, the only returning human characters from the previous film, could have been left out of this one entirely without significantly affecting its plot, as she’s only there to tag along with Bernie, the real driver of that half of the film. Which is unfortunate in itself, since Bernie is a conspiracy nut with a lot of nonsensical beliefs, but we’re supposed to believe that he’s a reliable guide to what’s really going on. The film had the misfortune of coming out after the January 6 coup attempt, after which it became impossible to see conspiracy nuts as harmlessly endearing. Even aside from that, Bernie’s eccentric paranoid schtick just isn’t remotely as funny as the film imagines it to be. He and Josh are both rather irritating, making it all the more annoying that they overshadow Madison.

Between Madison’s wasted role and the throwaway treatment of Ren Serizawa — as well as Lance Reddick being credited prominently in the opening titles yet only having one or two lines of exposition to Kyle Chandler — I have to wonder how much of this film’s plot ended up on the cutting room floor in favor of CGI wackiness. (The running time is 1 hour, 53 minutes, the shortest in the series, though only by 5 minutes; GKotM is the longest, but it’s only 2 hours, 11 minutes.) Well, I don’t have to wonder; this Instagram post spells out the massive changes and cuts to the original story, with huge swaths of characterization and story being hacked away in the belief that sacrificing plot and character for empty spectacle would make it “more palatable for general audiences.” It’s a great letdown after Kong: Skull Island, which had rich, effective character work to anchor its monster story. The previous two Godzilla films had more mediocre character work, but even they were substantially richer than anything here. This was supposed to be the pinnacle of seven years of universe-building, but it’s the emptiest, most insubstantial and unsatisfying installment in the whole series. What a waste.

Apparently, despite being so shallow and dumb, GvK was successful enough that Legendary is making plans for more films in the series. Before today, I would’ve been glad to know they were making more. Now, I’m not so sure.

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.

Thoughts on Legendary’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND (spoilers)

September 18, 2017 5 comments

It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing Kong: Skull Island, the second film in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” following the 2014 Godzilla. I haven’t been able to afford the luxury of seeing many movies lately, so I had to get it from the library, and there was a long waiting list. But it finally arrived, so now I can add it to my kaiju review series. (On that note, if you enjoy my reviews, please consider making a donation with the PayPal Donate button to your right.)

Although this film is set in a Godzilla universe, its links to Godzilla are peripheral. The monster-seeking organization Monarch returns, but at an earlier stage in its history — the film is set in 1973, aside from a prologue set in 1944 — and though its main agent in this film, Bill Randa (John Goodman), makes a passing reference to the Marshall Island nuclear “tests” in 1954 that we know were aimed at Godzilla (in this continuity), his own motivation for seeking giant monsters dates back to a ship disaster he survived in 1943. There are a few other references (discussed below), but aside from a post-credit scene setting up the next Godzilla movie, they’re subtle enough that you could watch this film without ever realizing that it connected to any other film. Which is a good way to do a shared universe.

Anyway, it’s the end of the Vietnam War and Randa fears Monarch will lose funding in peacetime, so he organizes an expedition to Skull Island, spoken of in legend but only just confirmed by satellites to exist, in a last-ditch effort to prove monsters are real. (This is a point where the loose continuity is maybe a bit too loose — if Monarch and the US military cooperated in attacking Godzilla in ’54, doesn’t that mean they already know monsters are real? Is this trip really necessary?) He ropes in a military escort led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s bitter about leaving the war unwon but cares deeply for his men, as well as James Conrad, an ex-RAF expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston). Award-winning photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) tags along to document what she and most of the others believe to be a geological survey of the island.

While Godzilla 2014 was justifiably criticized for its fairly superficial and unengaging characters, it seems K:SI took those criticisms to heart, because its first act is all about establishing character, developing its large and rich cast through plenty of fun interplay and banter. Hiddleston’s Conrad is introduced as a world-weary cynic but ends up as a rather generic competent and heroic type for most of the film; but there are plenty of other colorful personalities. The film also does a nice job creating a sense of the period, largely through heavy use of ’60s and ’70s rock songs and extensive visual and stylistic homages to Apocalypse Now. We get to know and like the characters quickly, which makes it more effective when the expedition’s choppers, in the process of dropping “seismic” charges onto the island with blithe disregard for the local fauna, attract the attention of the local mega-megafauna, namely Kong, who smashes their choppers up quite thoroughly and leaves the survivors scattered across the island. Packard now has a clear enemy to fight and multiple dead soldiers to avenge, and he’s ready to shoot Randa for leading them into this — it’s clear that the “seismic survey” was meant to flush out the beast — until Randa explains that there are far more monsters living in the hollow spaces under the Earth and they must be proven to exist so that they can be stopped before they devastate the world. Now Packard has both men to avenge and a country to defend, and he’s determined that Kong must die. This time, he thinks, there’s no question who the enemy is.

But elsewhere, Conrad, Weaver, and their group of survivors find a village of islanders, among whom lives Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American fighter pilot downed on Skull Island in 1944. Though he’s grown quite eccentric over the years on the island, he interprets for the Iwi islanders (even though they don’t speak on camera) and explains that Kong is the island’s “King,” defending the Iwi and most of the other animals of the island (including various kaiju species like a bamboo-legged spider and an amphibious giant mammal called a Sker Buffalo) from the Skullcrawlers, two-legged giant reptiles with skull-like, beaked heads. They live in the underground spaces that Skull Island provides access to, and Kong is the only line of defense against the largest of them. Weaver sees proof of Kong’s benevolence when she tries to save a Sker Buffalo trapped under a downed helicopter only for Kong to arrive and free it — and perhaps he recognizes her benevolence too. But then, Kong always did have an eye for the ladies.

So naturally this leads to a conflict between Conrad’s group wanting to protect Kong and Packard wanting to kill him. But even though Packard does go kind of Captain Ahab and is implacably obsessed with vengeance, his motivations are still understandable, even sympathetic. He goes too far in the end, but we can understand how he got there and thus forgive him for it. It’s a really deft bit of characterization.

But the conflict of Packard and Kong must ultimately give way to the climactic fight between Kong and the ultimate Skullcrawler, known in publicity as the Skull Devil. It’s a brutal, lengthy battle, very creatively choreographed and well-animated, and the human protagonists get in on the fight and help Kong — notably Weaver, whose fearlessness gets her a little too close to the action and gets her in trouble, requiring Kong to save her (although she’s been proactive enough throughout the movie and contributed enough to the fight that she doesn’t feel like a damsel in distress). I’d say it’s a better climactic battle than the one in Godzilla 2014, and does a better job of integrating the kaiju and human characters. Although it makes sense that a fellow primate like Kong would be more prone to bond with humans than a prehistoric reptile like Godzilla.

All in all, I liked this movie quite a bit. It’s effectively written and directed, it has strong characterization and a talented cast, and its action is creative and well-handled. It manages to evoke a lot of elements of the original film’s Skull Island sequence while also making them fresh and avoiding the cliches like Kong being taken captive or fighting off aircraft atop a skyscraper. (There is a sequence where he ends up chained in a somewhat contrived way and must break free, but I only just now realized that it was an homage.) And it works better as its own entity than a lot of franchise-building films these days. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything about it that doesn’t work, aside from the prologue maybe revealing a bit too much of Kong too soon, and the post-credits tag scene setting up 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters being a bit tonally jarring and unnecessary. Even though the tag features Conrad, Weaver, and the surviving Monarch characters who recruit them, it doesn’t feel like a part of this film — and it seems extraneous as a setup for G:KotM, since that would presumably be set in the present day, 46 years later, so it’s unlikely that any of these characters would be involved.

Even the portrayal of the Iwi tribe isn’t bad, at least not compared to prior Kong movies. Rather than superstitious savages, the Iwi are portrayed as a dignified, intelligent, and artistic people that extend hospitality to Marlow and the other refugees — although they’re still treated as exotic and voiceless, so it’s not perfect.

I said the film doesn’t dwell too much on setting up future films, at least not in a way that intrudes on the story it has to tell, but there are ideas relevant to its story that do a lot to flesh out the Legendary MonsterVerse (as I guess we’re stuck with calling it). G2014 established that ancient monsters were still lurking about somewhere, maybe deep underground, but K:SI clarifies that the Earth of this reality has large subterranean hollow areas where the kaiju live, with Skull Island being one of their access points to the surface (which I realized could perhaps explain the perpetual wall of storms circling the island — something to do with the pressure and thermal effects of a really deep hole to the Earth’s interior). Interestingly, that’s an idea that was considered for an abandoned third Godzilla film back in 1956, an incredibly bizarre premise called Bride of Godzilla, which would’ve involved a scientist building a giant naked robot double of his own daughter and using it to seduce Godzilla, yes, seriously. I sincerely doubt anything like that will happen in the MonsterVerse, though. But the “Hollow Earth” established here sets the stage for the emergence of as many monsters as Legendary needs for future films. I can even imagine a future time when Monarch uses Skull Island as the equivalent of the original Monster Island from the Showa series, an enclave where kaiju can live cut off from the rest of the world. Although Kong might have something to say about that.

Oh yeah, about Kong — in this movie, he’s apparently 31.6 meters tall according to official sources. That’s a bit over twice the height of the 1933 Kong and more than four times the height of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, but only 2/3 his height in Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. But the MonsterVerse’s Godzilla, aka LegendaryGoji, is over 108 meters, 3.4 times Kong’s height herein. But I guess that’s why K:SI has Marlow establish that Kong is “still growing.” Even so, it’s hard to see him tripling his height in less than 50 years. But I guess we’ll see when Godzilla vs. Kong arrives in 2020.

Thoughts on Godzilla: 2014 Reboot — “The Legendary Era?” (spoilers)

Well, here I am, continuing my Godzilla reviews with the new movie reboot, and as you see in the title, I’m proposing a name for the new series that we’re probably going to be getting, now that the film has done so well on its opening weekend that a sequel has already been ordered. Since Legendary Pictures is the production company behind this film (in collaboration with Warner Bros. and under license from Toho), “Legendary Era” seems a fitting name for the new age of Godzilla — though time will tell if it’s worthy of that name. (Or if anyone other than me will want to call it that. Edit: Turns out Wikizilla is already using “Legendary Series.” Later edit: The official Legendary title is “MonsterVerse.”)

So here we are… the fourth film in total to bear the title Godzilla (alternately transliterated as Gojira), and the second American one, sixteen years after the previous attempt at a US reboot — which, as per my previous analysis, is best seen as a movie about a different creature that was simply mistaken for Godzilla (arguably occurring in the universe of GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which alludes in passing to its events). So this is the first American-made film about the genuine article — unless you count 1956’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which is altered enough from the 1954 original that it arguably constitutes a distinct film running in parallel to it. Let’s say, then, that this is the first fully American-made film about the actual Godzilla (or one of his many avatars across the cinematic multiverse).

But this film is definitely a new start. Previous Godzilla universes (see above link) have almost invariably shared a common origin story: The American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands in 1954 awoke the beast in one way or another (either driving him from his natural feeding grounds and turning him radioactive as in the Showa Era, or mutating a smaller carnosaur into a giant, nuclear-powered creature as in the Heisei Era) and led him to rampage through Tokyo later that year, after which Dr. Daisuke Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer weapon either destroyed the beast (followed by the emergence of a second Godzilla at some later point) or crippled him (after which he spent decades regenerating before re-emerging). But this film changes that. The 1954 atomic tests are still part of the backstory, but their meaning is changed. Here, as in Showa, Godzilla was a naturally occurring prehistoric alpha predator, one of a breed of creatures that fed on radiation and evolved to live deeper in the Earth as the surface became less radioactive. (Not great paleontology, but then, the first movie said the dinosaurs died out 2 million years ago, so what the heck.) An American nuclear submarine awoke Godzilla, so one could say that America’s culpability for unleashing him is intact; but this American-produced film gives the US military a chance to redeem itself, since the Marshall Islands tests are now explained as an attempt to kill off Godzilla. I’m not sure that’s in the best of taste, considering that the original film was an allegorical protest for the deaths of Japanese fisherman and the poisoning of Japanese soil and water as a result of those tests. Although I’ll grant that the film paints those attempts as a futile gesture, at least. Every attempt in this film to use nuclear weapons as a solution proves ineffectual, and the bomb is ultimately shown as more a threat than a benefit, which is reasonably true to the spirit of the series. So it’s not as jingoistic as the American dub of the 1984 reboot (which was altered to make the Soviets more evil), but it still lets the Americans come off somewhat better, as one would expect of an American Godzilla.

Also, Godzilla’s 1954 raid on Tokyo is apparently absent from this universe, unless it happened in a different way that was covered up as a natural disaster. That’s perhaps the biggest departure from prior continuities; six out of the seven Toho Godzilla universes include the ’54 attack as an iconic part of their history, and the other (Godzilla 2000: Millennium) is agnostic on the question. Perhaps we can assume that in this reality, the American nuclear attack injured Godzilla enough that he didn’t attack Tokyo. So the world is mostly unaware of kaiju until 1999, when a mining operation unleashes one of the film’s original monsters (called MUTO for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” — not as colorful as the Japanese kaiju names), which causes a Fukushima-esque disaster at the nuclear reactor where Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and his wife work, causing his wife’s death (boy, the Brody clan can’t catch a break) and turning Brody into a conspiracy nut searching for The Truth, eventually drawing his Navy-lieutenant son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into events just in time for the winged male MUTO to hatch from its cocoon around the damaged reactor (they feed on nuclear material and absorb the associated radiation for energy, a trait they share with Heisei/Millennium Godzilla) and begin a rampage toward Nevada, where its larger mate’s cocoon has been stored by the US government until it, too, breaks out. (I guess this is vaguely an allegory for how the danger of atomic waste may not be as containable as we like to think, or maybe it’s just an excuse to bring the action to the US.) The MUTOs not only feed on radiation, but emit electromagnetic pulses that knock out all electronics around them, part of the reason the military is helpless against them. And of course, the EMP is portrayed as fancifully as it always is in fiction. It expands in a visible blue sphere — much, much slower than light — and while it’s able to knock out military hardware that’s presumably EMP-hardened, it somehow leaves a commercial GPS device on a civilian boat completely undamaged. Also, its effects are temporary, with devices coming back on again after the MUTO threat recedes. No. Nope. EMP induces currents so strong that they burn out electrical equipment that isn’t built to handle such intense currents (even if the equipment is turned off, since the pulse itself creates the current). It’s permanent damage, not just a suppression of activity.

Since Joe has information that was believed lost in the ’99 incident, he and Ford come to the attention of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who’s named after the original film’s director Ishiro Honda as well as Daisuke Serizawa, and is perhaps implicitly Daisuke’s son, in this continuity where Godzilla never attacked Tokyo and he never had to sacrifice himself. (Watanabe was born in 1959, so the timing would work. And sure, he said his father’s watch stopped when Hiroshima was bombed, but that doesn’t mean his father died there. In fact, the tie-in comic Awakening reveals that Ishiro’s father was a survivor of Hiroshima.  Although Ishiro wouldn’t be the son of Emiko Yamane, because she presumably would’ve still left Serizawa for Ogata.) But it’s odd that Watanabe’s scientist-hero is named for Serizawa, since he’s more reminiscent of Professor Yamane, the thoughtful scientist who strives to understand Godzilla and argues against the military’s efforts to destroy it.

Anyway, Cranston is taken out of action pretty early on, so the narrative shifts focus to Ford, Serizawa, and Admiral Stenz, head of the American anti-kaiju task force, played to crisp perfection by David Strathairn (whose marvelous speech to the troops from the trailers is sadly missing from the final cut — perhaps because they figured we’d all heard it already). Ford kind of happens to stumble into the heart of all the action through a series of contrivances while just trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen — try not to think about the fact that she’s also playing his sister in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron) and their young son. Meanwhile, Serizawa tries to talk Stenz out of his plan to use a nuke as bait to draw in and kill all three kaiju, taking the position that Godzilla’s natural role is to restore balance and that we should let the monsters fight it out. It ultimately comes down to a confrontation in San Francisco, where the mommy MUTO (which was born pregnant, just like tribbles!) has laid its eggs — a plot point surprisingly similar to the third act of the ’98 Godzilla, which I would’ve expected this film to try very hard not to remind anyone of. Although it’s handled very differently here, more of a sidebar to the main confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTOs and to Ford’s attempts to get the nuke out of the city in time to save his family.

Yes, what’s surprising here is that Godzilla is pretty unambiguously the hero. That’s not what I expected, given this film’s effort to return to the serious spirit of the original. Most of the serious-minded Godzilla movies before this have cast him as the villain, or at best as a force of nature that had a right to exist but was very, very dangerous to the puny humans in its path. The idea of Godzilla as a defender of the Earth against more ruthless monsters is generally associated with the kooky, kid-oriented films of the ’60s and ’70s. But this Godzilla is almost tame. He does unthinkingly cause a lot of damage that threatens and probably kills a lot of humans — the “tsunami” in Hawaii, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge (for the umpteenth time in film history) — but it comes off more as benign neglect than anything else, and the casualties are mostly off-camera, so it doesn’t really make Godzilla seem all that scary. Maybe it would be enough, though, if it weren’t for certain beats that make Godzilla seem almost solicitous of humans, like when he dives beneath an aircraft carrier rather than smashing it (although his wake does threaten to capsize some other ships), or at one moment where he’s fallen in battle and makes eye contact with Ford, his fellow protagonist, in what’s essentially a moment of bonding. We’ve seen other movies where Godzilla deigned to notice an individual human (King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000), but in those cases he destroyed them a moment later. This is the friendliest Godzilla we’ve seen onscreen since 1975. Honestly I find that a little disappointing. Also puzzling, given that the first time he met humans, they tried to nuke him. You’d think he’d see us as more of a threat, or at least an annoyance. But I guess this Godzilla was designed with a franchise in mind — the alpha predator charged with preserving the Earth’s balance as more of those ancient radiation-feeding critters are drawn to the surface by the energies of the atomic age.

Still, in other ways, this Godzilla is very impressive. The visual effects are top-notch, though I’m inclined to agree with the critics that say the Big G’s new design is a bit too pear-shaped. And the 3D created a marvelous sense of scale for the kaiju. In that shot from the trailers where the soldiers in Hawaii fire the flares and Godzilla’s flank comes into view, even though I knew what was coming, the moment of the reveal still sent a shudder through me. Also in the railroad-bridge scene with the MUTO looming overhead, the 3D gave it a palpable sense of “it’s coming closer!” that really alarmed me on an instinctive level. The MUTOs are a cool design (although angular in a way that suggests a Gamera foe more than a Godzilla one). And Godzilla is truly huge and awesome here, the CGI letting us see him in a way we never really could before. Although in the final act he doesn’t seem quite as massive, both because he’s pitted against two monsters that match his size and because the camera is often at a higher vantage point to let us see the fight. There’s even a classic Godzilla-movie side-view shot of Godzilla and a MUTO facing each other down amid the skyscrapers.

And it is an excellent final battle, capturing one of Godzilla’s key characteristics: The fact that he’s not just about brute force, but is a clever and calculating fighter. When the enemy seems to have him on the ropes, he’ll suddenly rally with a sudden surprise move and totally trash his opponent. Although the greatest moment had to be when we first saw his spines begin to light up through the dust. That was classic. I’m glad they saved that for the right moment.

Which brings me to the question of pacing. I’ve seen a lot of viewers complaining that we don’t see enough of Godzilla in this movie, but I think the pacing was handled just right, very similarly to a lot of the Toho movies: The first act features mainly the villain kaiju with some hints of Godzilla, then he makes a big appearance in the top of the second act and has his first clash with the enemy, then we focus mainly on the humans trying to cope with the situation, and the bulk of the kaiju action is saved for the big battle in the third act. I think it was right not to overuse Godzilla in the first two acts, to build up anticipation. That’s a perfectly appropriate technique as long as the payoff is satisfying, which it was. As for the complaint that the human characters were boring, well, it’s true they didn’t have that much depth to them, but the performances and direction held my interest. It was appropriate to keep the focus more on the human-scale reactions to the ongoing disaster. Kaiju films are basically disaster films, and I think disaster-film protagonists tend to be kind of everyman/woman types so that we can identify with the universal dread we’d all feel in a similar situation.

The main issue for me with the characters is that I wish more of them had been Japanese. Godzilla is a Japanese creation and franchise, and I’d prefer it if Japanese characters played a larger role in the film. Even in the scenes set at the reactor in Japan, both in 1999 and 2014, most of the people in charge are Westerners. Why are so few Japanese officials involved in events happening in Japan? It didn’t help that the film was so heavily populated with the same actors who show up in every TV show made in Vancouver or Toronto. They had Garry Chalk, Hiro Kanagawa, and Terry Chen in the ’99 scenes. They had Brian Markinson and Ty Olsson at the reactor in 2014. They had Jill Teed as Mrs. Brody’s hospital coworker. I’m surprised Mike Dopud and Roger Cross didn’t show up too. It kind of undermined the Japanese flavor of the Japan scenes when they were so obviously shot in Vancouver. The movie did location filming in Honolulu and Las Vegas, so why couldn’t they do some filming in Japan, where Godzilla was born? I don’t mind Hollywood lending its budgets and talent and technical knowhow to realizing Godzilla like he’s never been seen before, but I don’t want the films to lose their Japanese flavor altogether.

Indeed, that’s the worrying thought that occurred to me the other day. This film is cleaning up at the box office and a series of films — the “Legendary Era” I mentioned above — seems assured. But I have to wonder — what does that mean for the prospects of ever seeing a Japanese-made Godzilla film again? Could Toho ever match the level of money and technology that went into this movie, and if not, would audiences be interested in a smaller-scale Godzilla movie ever again? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this movie succeeded and that there’s finally a viable American Godzilla series. I just wonder what the cost of that success will be.

Let’s see, what else? Well, I loved the opening titles. Lots of Easter eggs to be reviewed on DVD, with the text being “censored” as we watch. Plus it’s just great to see a movie using a full opening-title sequence.

As I said, for the most part, the 3D worked very well for me. But I feel it fell short at one point where it could’ve done wonders — the scene where Juliette Binoche and the people with her were running down that long corridor, trying to escape the radiation leak. It would’ve been great to get a really good sense of depth there to convey just how far away the end of the corridor was, but the scene seemed flat to me, lacking that sense of distance.

Not happy that they never quoted Akira Ifukube’s themes. This isn’t the first Godzilla film to omit them altogether, but they would’ve been nice to hear. Even if they weren’t used in the film proper, it would’ve been nice to hear them quoted in the end credits.

The new roar is pretty effective, but I wish it had been a bit closer to the classic roar. And they didn’t use the full roar with the upward flourish at the end very often, just a couple of times, it seemed. That was disappointing. Although one thing I found intriguing: The first time he gave the full roar, his nostrils changed shape in the final flourish, suggesting it represents an inhalation after the long outburst of breath. Interesting.

Keep an eye on my Godzilla: Final thoughts thread, which I’ll be editing to add discussion of this movie.

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