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YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Godzilla: King of the Monsters / Unicorn Store

By Derek May:

Yin: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

At a fundamental level, it should be hard to screw up these films. Audiences are pre-programmed with particular but limited expectations: we want to see big-ass monsters battling each other and laying waste to everything in their path. It’s the basic formula that’s kept the Godzilla franchise (and those birthed from it) alive for the better part of a century despite an abundance of cheesy costumes, painfully shoddy effects, and sub-par acting. None of that matters as long as Big-G stomps some trains and throws Rodan into a building. And yet, Hollywood’s first attempt at bringing the property to the States with 1998’s Godzilla was an infamous disaster in its own right.

It fared much better with 2014’s eponymous reboot, which was fun, but lukewarm enough that questions about the larger universe it hoped to establish were raised and progress slowed. Production company Legendary Pictures took a more measured approach to keep the franchise going, and when Kong: Skull Island was released in 2017, it was a critical and commercial hit due to its Apocalypse Now tone, respectful treatment of the big ape himself, rich backstory, and intriguing characters. Oh, and naturally Kong fought giant creatures and crushed stuff. It was the shot of adrenaline the series needed.

And now, Godzilla: King of the Monsters aims to continue that trend by expanding the world of these titanic creatures, bringing them all together in the biggest, most spectacular ways yet while going further to provide plenty of emotional heart, stakes, and excitement.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty said in an interview before the film’s release that he didn’t want this sequel to hold back. He wanted to cram as many battles and epic levels of destruction as he could, because he recognizes that’s what the audience is craving here and now, not two movies down the line. It’s a smart move, and this film certainly delivers on that front with levels of destruction that’d make Roland Emmerich blush. Finally, we get to see some of the franchise favorites duke it out, including the pterodactyl-esque Rodan, the toughest butterfly around, Mothra, and the biggest boy on the block, the three-headed behemoth himself, King Ghidorah! The fights are epic, but not always delivered in ways you’d expect. Plenty of biting, clawing, and blasting action abounds, but some moments are experienced from unusual angles or perspectives without ever sacrificing the fun of seeing these mega-beasts go at it.

But what truly surprised me was the treatment of the human factor. In most alien/monster/disaster films, the humans tend to overshadow the creatures. Think Transformers as a good example of the misuse of people in movies where we’d much rather see the humanity in the non-humans and spend time developing and getting to know them. The humans serve an integral purpose, of course, as an access point into that world, as well as a means for vicariously experiencing the events. They can also be an emotional tether. But if we only care about the humans and not about the creatures, then the creatures truly are alien to us, and serve no other purpose than as an action delivery system.

What was so refreshing about Kong, and now again with GKotM, is that we get to know the creatures equally well. They are truly characters with their own internal lives, thoughts, motivations, and decisions. And we get to understand them not only through the humans who talk about them, but from what we actually see and experience from the creatures onscreen. In other words, we get a balance that still gives us our human entry point, but also connects us to the other beings on an understandable level. This makes the film far more engaging and exciting, as we feel it from every side, not just one, and the action then has far more significant stakes.

What we get in this second film is a Godzilla who is a treated as a character, and who as an arc that continues to realize the promise from the first. There, Godzilla arrived, took care of business, and returned to his home in the sea, but the question became: was he friend or foe, reactionary animal or sentient hero? These questions are at the heart of the sequel, with debate on either side. But it’s Godzilla himself who seems to answer definitively, especially in relation to the other “Titans” of the pre-humanized world. Godzilla isn’t king in name, or simply because he’s tough. He is essentially bestowed the title through his actions, which seem deliberate and considered. But how does a fifty-story, non-speaking creature communicate that? By a few beautifully expressive moments behind the CGI eyes, but more importantly, by what he chooses to do or not do, and how he acts in opposition to the even-greater threat.

Thus enters King Ghidorah, the ancient rival to Godzilla’s supremacy on this planet. When Ghidorah is awakened from his millennia-long slumber, he proceeds to wrest all the other creatures under his control. Though Godzilla steps in to do his job, it’s those pesky humans who muck up the works. And thus, they are left to ponder which is better, a world with or without Godzilla? You’ll just have to watch to see.

Ghidorah is a menacing villain not only because of his power but because of his intentions. The threat to the natural order, to the balance of life on this planet, is clear, and thus the stakes have never been higher. While Godzilla can certainly wreak havoc in the course of exercising his duties, he can also create—a fascinating twist. Can his opponent claim the same? And so the clash of these humungous rulers leaves the humans essentially at their mercy, and leaves room for a more intimate story that still very much connects and drives the larger tale.

The element that binds the collective film universe is the organization knows as Monarch, a secret society that studies these ancient, massive beings. While Kong presented the nascent struggles of the organization’s early years, GKotM reveals their direct role in the modern political and military landscapes. Cast members Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn all reprise their roles from the 2014 film, but now we see the breadth of Monarch’s global reach with the addition of Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, acting veteran Bradley Whitford, and a host of amazing talent in O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, and Elizabeth Ludlow. Each delivers a solid performance that grounds the film both in reality and emotion—but Whitford really stands out as the member who is undoubtedly having the most fun. His humor and ability to revel in the absurdity of being caught in the battles of mountain-sized monsters breaks much of the tension and keeps the tone on an even, fun keel.

But the story really revolves around the interplay between Monarch members of the Russell family, played by Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobbie Brown. These characters represent the most profound personal risks, as well as the various ideological arguments, with no less than the future of humanity at stake. The question comes back to whether the Titans are here to help or harm, or more disturbingly, if they can be purposed to humanity’s will. What I love most about this film is that this question is essentially not up to the humans, as is it with most films of the genre. With creatures of such immense and dominating power, the interventions of humans is significant, but ultimately inconsequential. Godzilla is your king, and you can get on board or spit in the wind.

There’s a prominent theme of environmentalism and eco-harmony throughout the film, which doesn’t necessarily preach but tries to simply show that while humanity can kick and scream and try their best to dominate, sometimes it’s better, wiser, and stronger to find a way to accept and coexist. The lesson is learned quite painfully, but if the conflict between Godzilla and Ghidorah showcases anything, it’s that human beings might be better off knowing which side their bread is buttered and try to help rather than harm.

This all culminates in a far greater level of depth than a Godzilla movie likely has any right to. And there will no doubt be audience members who find some of the time taken to explore these themes and to dig into these characters as tedious. I, for one, found it wonderful and refreshing. I thought the balance was perfect. The humans and creatures felt integrated into the story, sometimes fighting, sometimes cooperating, but one side truly and organically affecting the other. The personal and emotional traumas of the humans were given relevant exploration without ever feeling too domineering, and the philosophical differences drive as much of the divisions as anything else. But it is all delivered with a fairly light touch, complementing the over-the-top destruction rather than hindering it.