More Monsters Make A Better 'Godzilla' Sequel
'King of the Monsters' gives more screen time to its 'titans'
"Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster" (1964)
Godzilla is back for “King of the Monsters,” a follow up to his 2014 U.S. appearance, and now he’s joined by Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah.
First of all, let me just say I love monster movies. Ever since my dad showed me "King Kong" when I was a pre-schooler I have loved monsters and sympathized with them far more than with human characters. There are few things more spectacular on screen than a massive beast but they need to be given personality to fully win me over. That's why I also I fell in love with Godzilla at an early age. The suit actors playing him endowed him with such a vivid personality that I couldn't resist him. So I have followed his evolution closely and been cautiously hopeful as he has begun a franchise in America with a third film promising a showdown between Big G and King Kong.
Godzilla's back story
Godzilla or Gojira as he is known in Japan, first appeared in a 1954 film created by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishirō Honda and special effects master Eiji Tsubaraya. Gojira is a giant monster, or kaiju, awakened by nuclear radiation. His debut came in close proximity to the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon 5 boat incident in which the crew was contaminated by the nuclear fallout from U.S. nuclear weapons tests.
“Gojira” was a horror film that allowed Japan to deal with the trauma of having had two atomic bombs dropped on its soil. When the film was imported to the U.S. in 1956 it was rechristened “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (watch the trailer here) and had new scenes shot with American actor Raymond Burr and the film was heavily re-edited for U.S. distributor. So began Godzilla’s westernization.
New 'King of the Monsters'
This summer a new film takes the title of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” to once again try to Americanize this Japanese icon.
Godzilla’s American films have been improving with each installment but then there was nowhere to go but up after the atrocious Roland Emmerich “Godzilla” in 1998. In 2014 Gareth Edwards raised the bar on the quality but left Godzilla a supporting player in his own movie. Now Michael Dougherty takes over directing duties and expands the monsterverse by bringing in some familiar faces from Godzilla’s past films.
This new "King of the Monsters" picks up pretty much where the 2014 film left off. Godzilla is off the grid and the government and the crypto-zoological agency Monarch are all looking for him. But Godzilla now appears to be just one of what are being referred to as Titans, an ancient super-species once thought to be just myths. Now a scientist and some eco-terrorists are trying to raise these sleeping beasts as a means of "curing" the "infection" humankind has wrought on the earth. Mothra, Rodan and the nasty three-headed Ghidorah are awakened and, as you might expect, quickly go out of control. The only hope for humanity is finding the ultimate alpha monster, Godzilla, to put all the other creatures in their place.
With “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” director/co-writer Michael Dougherty (“Krampus,” “Trick ‘r Treat”) improves on the previous U.S. Godzilla in terms of the number of cool monsters and screen time for the monsters and then allowing them to fight. It never quite attains a battle royale status, but there are some intense moments as these behemoths vie for dominance.
CGI versus suit actors
The press notes for the film state that these monsters are “realized without limits for the first time in the modern age.” I don’t think that’s intended as a slight to the Japanese films that displayed so much creativity, imagination, inventiveness and brilliance even within the limitations of budget and technology. But Hollywood likes to boast and CGI certainly allows for anything that can be imagined.
The American films have big budgets and extravagant CGI but the result looks more like an impressive video game. So the monsters may be gigantic and able to move with speed and dexterity but they don’t have the physical weight to be totally convincing. Perhaps this reaction is a generational thing. If you grow up with video games and CGI maybe that feels more real than the old school suit actors or stop motion animation.
Since I grew up with the Japanese films and with an appreciation for the artistry of suit actors — yes, that's those men in rubber suits — but they endowed Godzilla and many other kaiju with a personality that these CGI and mo-cap creations can’t seem to get in this film. CGI has worked brilliantly in films like the recent “Planet of the Apes” or with Rocket Raccoon in the Marvel films. But in "King of the Monsters" the CGI looks beautiful but not fully fleshed out.
“King of the Monsters” does create some impressive effects but they simply don’t engage me the same way that those suit actors stomping on meticulously rendered miniature sets did. There are some moments that raised my hopes as when the three heads of Ghidorah began fighting with each other, or Mothra’s birth or the particular viciousness of the fighting between Ghidorah and Godzilla. But too often I felt like I was watching someone play a video game and I wanted to grab the controller to make the monsters fight according to my desires.
Dougherty has claimed to be a lifelong fan of Godzilla and his comments in the press notes seem to support that. He is quoted as saying: “Godzilla has always had a sense of mythic purpose. Godzilla movies are big, they’re fun, but underneath all the monster mayhem and apocalyptic destruction, these movies are allegories. That's how the Japanese initially invented and portrayed the character, and I think it’s one of the reasons Godzilla has endured for as long as he has. These are popcorn movies but they are filled with metaphor. And though the themes have changed over the years, they all leave you with the same warning: that if you push too hard against nature, nature’s going to push back.”
And he’s right on all those points but they don’t exactly come through in his film. As a fan of the Japanese Godzilla I realize that I need to let go of what those films are in order to let these U.S. films create their own monster. But Hollywood films and this one is no exception, seem plagued by a desire to over-explain and to serve up too much exposition. This is a monster movie. You don’t need a complicated plot just a lot of monster time. Plus the humans in this film have too much control over the story and over the monsters because Americans seems unable to imagine anything they cannot defeat or control.
There are humans in this film but I found them mostly annoying and an interruption to the monster action. There is a lot of silliness with an Orca machine to control the monsters and weapons of mass destruction casually employed and to mostly not very credible effect. I would have been happy to lose a few human scenes in exchange for more time to develop Big G's personality or more screen time to the epic battles. Mothra and Rodan deserved a little more time in their tense encounter.
“Godzilla, King of the Monsters” is probably more fun for people who did not grow up with the Japanese Godzilla movies. I enjoyed this film and found some of the monsters impressive in scale but I just haven’t quite fallen in love with this American cousin of my beloved Japanese kaiju. I do recommend seeing this in IMAX so you can appreciate the epic scale of some of the monster scenes. Since each film has improved on the previous, maybe Godzilla taking on King Kong in the next film will be when everything comes together perfectly. I remain cautiously optimistic and will savor the increased monster moments on display in "King of the Monsters."