Movie Reviews

Why “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” Doesn’t Work

 

 

When I first saw the negative reviews coming in for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” I was dismissive and disregarded critics saying the film was bland and didn’t deliver the goods. I thought these critics didn’t know what they were talking about and that they weren’t true Godzilla fans so they couldn’t fully appreciate it like I could. How could any movie with a $200 million budget that has Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah be as bad as they were making it out to be?

But the truth of the matter is that I was letting my fanboy giddiness override my common sense. Most of the time, when critics universally bash a movie like “King of the Monsters,” it is for good reason. But I refused to believe that anything that brought back my childhood nostalgia with a big budget and people who loved the classic Godzilla films as much as I do could be anything but awesome. There was never a doubt in my mind that this wouldn’t be the best movie-going experience of the year…that is until our “characters” start forcefully explaining their emotional baggage to the audience like we’re a bunch of toddlers who have to told every little detail.

Even for weeks after the film came out, I was in denial about the whole affair, doing my best to convince myself that there is something of merit in “King of the Monsters.” Anything to justify the awe of seeing King Ghidorah and Godzilla fighting with all the weight and impact they’ve always deserved. After all, we live in a wonderful technological age where we can make a talking, violent raccoon who is best friends with a walking tree and make it look convincing enough to care about their bizarre but oddly heart-warming friendship. So of course I’d want nothing more than for a film that makes King Ghidorah more lively and deadly than he’s ever been. It would not only satiate my deepest childhood dream of a big budget Godzilla movie that has loads of monster fighting, but it would get people as interested in the classic Godzilla movies as I am.

But now that enough time as past and I’ve re-watched the film at home, I can understand what those critics were originally talking about. I can only imagine this is the same feeling many Star Wars fans had coming out of “The Last Jedi” or the prequels – disappointment.

 

 

Frankly, that is the most apt word to describe “King of the Monsters.” It’s not the worst Godzilla movie, but I can’t think of another film in the franchise that leaves a worst taste in my mouth. This film could have been something special, something that pleases both fans of the franchise and the general audience and reignited the love for giant monster movies that films like “Pacific Rim” and 2014’s “Godzilla” have been trying to do for over five years. Instead, it’s a mess of a film, confused in so many different ways and it’s difficult to point a finger at exactly one thing and say that’s what the filmmakers did wrong. What should have been the height of giant monster fights feels like a downgrade from those American films that came before it. There’s even part of me that feels like the 1998 “Godzilla” is a better monster movie than this…until I remember how that film makes no sense and tell myself that both films have that in common.

So what exactly doesn’t work about “King of the Monsters”? To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure for a while. So many problems all over the place, like trying to fix a house that no one has lived in for twenty years. There doesn’t seem to be a root that connects all the problems of the film to one source, it’s just spread out like shrapnel from a massive bomb. It was easy to point to the problems of the 2014 “Godzilla” – the bland and unemotional acting does not support the intense and suspenseful monster moments through the film, leading to a forgettable experience when Bryan Cranston or the monsters aren’t around. But “King of the Monsters” doesn’t really something like that.

Until I thought about the presentation of the movie and its structure and came to a more definitive conclusion – “King of the Monsters” is a bloated, over-the-top action movie, but Godzilla is not an action-based franchise.

“King of the Monsters” has more in common with the “Fast and Furious” franchise than it does with Godzilla. They’re both loud, often obnoxious, replace any semblance of logical and intelligence with explosions and fast-paced action sequences and every character is either a walking cliché or stereotype or spouts nothing but clichéd one-liners that you only hear in an action movie. Everything is dumbed down to its most basic elements, like forgoing the inner battle between the U.S. government and Monarch about the secrets of the titans and the conflict of what should be done with them for the sake of humanity, or even the more primal conflict of realizing that mankind has so little control over nature and world when there’s monsters out there that can destroy us without even a second thought. Just replace the fast-paced car chases with giant monsters, and that’s “King of the Monsters” in a nutshell.

But the problem with this is that Godzilla was never solely about the action. Sure, monsters fighting monsters counts as action, but there’s so much more to Godzilla than just kaiju brawls. The 1954 “Godzilla” is an allegory, not just for the horrors of the atomic bomb and nuclear testing, but the turmoil and pain of an entire nation after losing their identity and honor following World War II. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” isn’t just about its titular monsters duking it out, but a message about distrust and hatred consuming mankind to the point of destruction and how easily greed can ruin not only one man’s life but so many lives. This is what Godzilla is about, it is not an action franchise, but a monster franchise.

 

 

Or more specifically, a daikaiju franchise. This is a genre that is steeped in many other genres – monster films of old, like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “King Kong,” horror, science fiction (in the same way as many 1950s sci-fi movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or “War of the Worlds”) and a dash of comedy every now and then. Throw in a bit more action than you’d see in other monster movies and a good helping of Japanese ideologies and you’ve got the daikaiju genre. I certainly wouldn’t classify the Godzilla movies as strictly action or horror or sci-fi, but as a combination of all of them. Much like the debate that Star Wars isn’t science fiction, I’ve come to the same conclusion in both cases – both Godzilla and Star Wars are so many genres that they create their own new genre.

So to see Godzilla reduced to nothing more than a dumb, brainless action movie that has nothing to say other than “giant monsters are cool” is more aggravating than I care to admit.

The filmmakers don’t seem to think that the monsters are any more than vehicles to get to the next action sequence. Sure, the monsters have personalities, but they don’t do anything other fight or get us closer to fighting. The biggest example of this is Mothra, who starts out fighting Monarch as they try to contain her for study, while introducing us to our plot MacGuffin, the Orca, and then does nothing until the third act when she’s needed again. She then guides our “heroes” to the lost Godzilla, despite having never met Godzilla before, and then doesn’t show up again until Godzilla needs help fighting King Ghidorah.

It feels pretty degrading when one of the most beautiful and poetic monsters of all time is nothing more than a plot device.

Part of the problem is dumbing everything down, almost like the filmmakers don’t think that the general audience will enjoy a monster movie and just made a cliche action movie with lots of monsters instead. There is so much patronizing and condescending treatment of the audience that there’s no room for the monsters to be anything other than action vehicles and plot devices. The previously mentioned scene of our lead mother and her daughter explaining their backstory and summarizing the emotional pathos of the movie is in extremely poor taste, since a lot of this information could come later in the movie in the more quiet moments. But instead, everything has to be spoon-fed to the audience, which only serves to make us seem like we can’t appreciate more subtle moments and makes these characters unlikable assholes who talk down to everyone.

 

 

Speaking of characters, I don’t think there’s a single good character in this movie. Not that these actors don’t do a good job, it’s just that the material they have to work with is poorly written and contrived. Our main lead, Mark (Kyle Chandler), spends most of the movie hating Godzilla for killing his son and yet is eager to get back into helping Monarch track down these monsters and seems to know a lot of about Godzilla’s behavior for someone who hates him. He often seems surprised by the presence of monsters, despite the fact that he made a device that allows humans to communicate with monsters. He goes back and forth between despising monsters and being curious about them that it makes him annoying.

Our “villain” is Mark’s wife Emma (Vera Farmiga). She was also disturbed by the death of her son and decides to go the psychotic route and unleash all the monsters so that the world can be returned to a peaceful state where humans and monsters can exist together…except that the first monster she frees, King Ghidorah, is set on destroying the entire planet and has no regards for humans or monsters. Naturally, this causes me to raise a few questions, for example, why the hell did you release King Ghidorah, the only other alpha titan, first? Emma was supposed to know more about Ghidorah than anyone else, and yet she overlooked the fact that Ghidorah would bring about chaos and panic around the globe. Also, her plan of releasing all the monsters could have gone wrong so easily, like Monarch changing all her pass codes or locking her own or sending the military to each titan site to make sure she can’t get in. But of course, this follows dumb movie logic and the only one who can stop Emma is Mark. Still, she has no fore-thought, just a dumb plan brought on by grief that she has no guarantee will work and a small band of mercenaries that aren’t too keen on following her orders. Behold the definition of incompetent.

The third character stuck in the middle of Mark and Emma’s awful characterization is their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who is superfluous to the story and is only there to stare and yell at the giant monsters and be an annoying twelve year old. She’s supposed to be her mother’s emotional compass and point out when she screws up…except that the only time she does this is after King Ghidorah starts to change Earth’s ecosystem and make all the other monsters serve him. At this point, Emma already knows how much she screwed up, so she doesn’t need her daughter to tell her that she’s a monster. Not only does this make Emma an even less effective villain, but it shows that Madison served to no purpose to the story. Mark could have gone to stop Emma without Madison around, and Emma’s grief was fueled by the death of her other child, leaving Madison with nothing. The only thing she gets to do is be the annoying, bratty kid that only gets more annoying as the film progresses. She is this movie’s equivalent of Miki Seguesa.

But those aren’t the only awfully written characters. The honor of “worst character of the year” goes to Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), a character designed only to spew terrible, unfunny one-liners such as “My God…zilla!” The guy even has the gall to make a joke out of his colleagues sacrifice when he says that he got Godzilla “juiced.” But the worst part of this character is just how gross he comes across, like he’s getting turned on by all this monster stuff and makes the worst comment of the movie when Mark asks he’s recording the arrival of Mothra and responds with “I record everything…EVERYTHING!” It’s one thing to have a character who likes monsters more than other people, but it’s another thing entirely when that same character subtly hints that he has hidden cameras in the bathroom and everyone’s bedrooms. The fact Whitford said that he modeled his character after Rick from “Rick and Morty” says a lot about how unlikable and disgusting his character is.

Then there are small character things that really bother me, like Sally Hawkins character unceremoniously dying halfway through the movie. It’s not even given the same gravitas as Bryan Cranston’s death in “Godzilla” because they never bring up her character after she dies. And for Sally Hawkins to get treated like that after that emotionally beautiful performance in “Shape of Water” is just insulting. There’s O’Shea Jackson Jr., who basically plays an even more dumbed down role of Will Smith’s character in “Independence Day,” reduced to just giving over-the-top reactions to all the crazy monster moments and has maybe two lines that he doesn’t scream at the top of his lungs. Charles Dance plays the lead mercenary who has some interesting quirks, namely seeing humans as the evil ones destroying the planet while also selling titan DNA for his own benefits, but it’s too bad he has about three minutes of screen time and he spends most of that making funny faces at Madison.

But here’s the most damning thing of all, I could forgive all of these confused, poorly written and ill-conceived characters if they weren’t the main focus of the movie. After all, this is a Godzilla movie that brings back three of his classic foes and allies, so surely that would be most of the focus…right? Nope, we follow these annoying, infuriating characters for about 90% of the movie. This is what those critics were talking about – the characterization is so terrible that it makes most of the movie hard to watch. We spend so much more time with this awful people that even the monster scenes aren’t satisfying anymore.

To be fair, the reason the monster scenes in past Godzilla movies work so well is because of the balance between the monsters, the humans and the emotions. If it was all about the monsters, they wouldn’t pack any sort of punch. Monster scenes work better when you know about the people those monsters are stepping on. But the flip side of that coin is that if I don’t care about these characters, then I don’t really care if they die or not. If the movie is going to do such a poor job of making them decent people, then at least give us some good monster action. After all, you’ve already got the templates for great monsters thanks to dozens of classic monster movies, it really shouldn’t be hard to make monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah look amazing.

And yet, somehow, they screw that up too.

 

 

How they screw this up is incredibly simple – even when the monsters are trying to rip each other apart, the movie always puts these unlikable douches at the center of everything. We never really get a good moment of just Godzilla and King Ghidorah fighting without cutting back to what our “heroes” are doing, whether that’s trying to escape, trying to find someone, spout more stupid one-liners or making comments on the fight. For example, the moment Godzilla and King Ghidorah meet is shown almost entirely from within the helicopter our characters are trapped in and how more difficult their survival gets when Godzilla kicks them aside and Mark gets trapped in a bunch of cables. Very little of the fight is shown because we spend more time watching Mark try to untangle himself.

Why do they spend so much time with Mark trapped in the helicopter? There’s two classic monsters fighting each other not even a few yards away! Show that instead!

This gets even worse during the final battle in Boston. After nearly every punch from Godzilla or a bite from Ghidorah, they have to cut back to the humans so they can make some snarky comments. For every ten seconds the movie spends on the monsters fighting, there’s another minute of Mark and Emma either running away from the action or trying to find Maddie. Hell, the city is in ruins and it looks like Hell is breaking through the streets, but they’re practically driving through the neighborhood like they’re out for a Sunday drive while O’Shea Jackson Jr. makes more comments about how he’s glad Mark and Emma aren’t his parents. Because that’s why people came to see a Godzilla movie – for poorly written characters to bicker like a dysfunctional family.

None of the final battle feels rewarding or epic, because it continually cuts back to the human characters at the worst possible moments, never letting the cool moments play out. It never feels like a monster movie because it never spends enough time with the monsters. The only standout moment in the movie with a monster is when Rodan is chasing down the air force while they desperately try to get to King Ghidorah before Rodan kills them all. It is tense, atmospheric, plays up Rodan’s size and speed, and might be the most visually pleasing moment of the movie, with little to no dialogue from our main characters. For once, everyone shuts up and lets the monsters be monsters.

If “King of the Monsters” had more scenes like that, I wouldn’t be writing about why this movie doesn’t work.

 

 

I should also point out another reason why most of the monster scenes lack the proper impact – they’re unpleasant to look at. The primary colors of this movie are yellow and bright orange, mostly because of the fires from the smoking buildings and the storm that is always around King Ghidorah. While that is an interesting concept, it makes the movie hard to watch because of all the flashing lightning and swirling storm clouds. And if it isn’t the unpleasantly colored storm, then the fights are always in the dark. I don’t know why, but every American Godzilla movie has pretty much always been set at night. Why can’t we see Godzilla in the daylight? Because that might make his fights easier to watch? Because then it wouldn’t look like there’s a piss-filter over the entire movie?

Due to the poor lighting and lack of focus during the fight scenes, we never get any good moments to take in the designs of Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah. We get a vague idea of what they look like, but nothing concrete. Mothra’s design is hidden for most of the movie behind clouds and waterfalls, while Ghidorah’s wings are always curled back like a dragon (something he never did in the Japanese movies). You never really get the impression that Ghidorah is bigger than Godzilla in this movie because he’s always hunched over. While Godzilla’s design is certainly improved from the 2014 film and they give him a nice aesthetic with his spines always glowing blue, they didn’t do as well with the other monsters.

One thing that I’m on the fence about is the music. Bear McCreary scores the film and he uses the classic Godzilla theme song from the Japanese movies, as well as some older Mothra songs. This really does bring some extra weight and excitement to some scenes, mostly because Akira Ifukube’s music fits so well with these monsters, whether they’re suits or CGI. I can tell you most of the because moments with Godzila in this movie were because of the classic Godzilla theme playing in the background, making Godzilla seem even more grand in scale. However, not only did McCreary do nothing for the old Rodan or Ghidorah themes (which do exist in the Japanese movies), but there’s one thing that often ruins the music – the choir chanting. For some strange reason, McCreary added a choir to the Godzilla theme song and it is the most distracting thing in the movie. It feels like they’re cheering for Godzilla or trying to motivate the giant lizard who has no concept of cheering. His music would be phenomenal…if the choir was removed. There’s a reason Ifukube never needed a choir for the Japanese Godzilla films, because the music alone carried Godzilla’s weight.

But one of the more difficult problems to explain about “King of the Monsters” can only be described as Godzilla’s impact being lost in translation. In this movie, and the 2014 film, while Godzilla is portrayed as an unstoppable force of nature, the impression is that he either fights for humanity or is a benevolent god that sympathizes with mankind. This was never the case in the Japanese films. Godzilla was many things in the Japanese films, but he never sided with the military or was ever effectively a pawn of the U.S. government like he is in “King of the Monsters.” The implication is that, if we can’t kill Godzilla then the government might as well try to recruit him and that is nothing like Godzilla. He’s been a symbol of the unbelievable power of nature, an allegory for the atomic bomb, the turmoil and pain of those forgotten in World War II and even a protector, but he is not some ultimate weapon when all else fails. That is reducing Godzilla to nothing more than a plot contrivance.

It’s one thing to make Godzilla a guardian of mankind and even a hero, but it’s another thing entirely to make him a pawn of these awfully written characters. This is something that would never happen in the Japanese films, but has happened multiple times in the American films because of our pride and bravado – there certainly can’t be something out there stronger than us or make us look bad, and even if there was then we can use that for our own benefit!

This is what I mean by “lost in translation.” How American filmmakers interpret Godzilla and how he interacts with mankind is vastly different (and inferior) to how Japanese filmmakers interpret Godzilla. Because Japanese filmmakers respect the source material and have felt the weight of how much Godzilla has changed cinema in Japan. Even the more recent “Shin Godzilla” understood this and made a film that not only paid respect to the source material, but upped the size, scale and power to more modern sensibilities, and all to great effect. American filmmakers just see him as an icon of nostalgia at best, and dollar signs at worst. The respect for what Godzilla stands for is lost on American filmmakers.

Case in point – “King of the Monsters” is in love with the atomic bomb. A lot of problems in this movie are solved thanks to the atomic bomb, like bringing Godzilla back to life after being mortally wounded. Even an old reference to something even more powerful than the bomb is used, the Oxygen Destroyer, and that is heralded as a saving grace. I think this might be the most disrespectful thing about “King of the Monsters,” the fact that our heroes never bat an eye over using atomic bombs, or something worse than the bomb, to save the day and sing the praises of the bomb and never once think anything bad about the ultimate killing machine. It comes across as the filmmakers being blind to the ultimate moral of the Godzilla franchise about the horrors of atomic bombs and nuclear testing.

This philosophy of the atomic bomb being a good thing in a Godzilla movie is unacceptable. We don’t even get a moment of quiet reflection where anyone asks if this is the right thing to do, just diving straight into it. They might as well play the clip from “Dr. Strangelove” and have Godzilla riding a nuclear missile. Even in the 2014 “Godzilla,” though they also used an atomic bomb, it was handled with the proper weight and emotion that it deserves, with everyone cowering in fear over what might happen if it goes off and Dr. Serizawa giving a speech about how they’re courting with disaster. That film understood that the bomb isn’t something that should be handled lightly, but here it’s practically used as a joke or another plot macguffin, like all the other macguffins throughout the film.

 

 

It’s easy for me to say that the filmmakers just didn’t “get” Godzilla. The genre is wrong, the focus is wrong, the music is (sometimes) wrong, Godzilla’s impact on the story world is wrong, the message is wrong. But the thing is that sometimes they did understand Godzilla. They wouldn’t have made a movie with Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan if they didn’t know about the legacy of these monsters. The basic designs of these monsters are translated well, especially with Ghidorah and Rodan and their mythologies remain intact for the most part. The filmmakers gave enough attention to detail with the monsters to show that they do care about showing why these monsters are so iconic to so many people.

Which is why “King of the Monsters” is such a big disappointment. This could have been the greatest Godzilla film, one that honors the legacy of so many classic kaijus and made them bigger than they’ve ever been. They had more money than probably every Japanese Godzilla film combined and filmmakers who love the source material, in an age where we can bring anything we could possibly imagine to the big screen. They had no excuse not to turn in something that would make long time fans pee their pants in excitement and the general audience love giant monster movies again.

But what did we get? A mess. A confused, uninteresting, poorly written, tonally mixed up, hard to watch mess that has more in common with cliché action movies from the 1990s than it does with any Godzilla movie. Anything of value is undermined by all these inept and inappropriate decisions to make Godzilla as American as possible. In an attempt to make a Godzilla movie that would appeal to the widest audience possible, they lost sight of what makes Godzilla the true King of the Monsters.

 

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