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.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters feels like an honest and respectful throwback to some of the great, campy films of the Toho era, and thus will provide plenty of the smashing, crushing, and explosive action that fans crave. For those wanting a little more veggies with their meat and potatoes, the film also has a healthy balance of excellent character development from both the human and creature side, as well as a bit of philosophical nuance.
And now that the big man has claimed his throne, there’s only one ruler who might threaten to usurp, and in 2020 we should see who comes out on top when Godzilla vs. Kong hits theaters. Given the quality of the franchise thus far, I’ll certainly be there to bow in humble homage opening weekend.
YANG: Unicorn Store
The coming of age story is a film and literary stalwart for good reason. Every human being on the planet has experienced the stresses of moving from the ethereal freedom of childhood to the harsh and sometimes crushing realities of adulthood. Some, however, move from one to the other kicking and screaming. And thus, sometimes we get a coming of age story about someone who’s already well of age, and just needs that final push. It’s a rich area to mine, because those of us who have gone through the process often lament it and would give anything to have remained in that realm of childlike wonder and possibility for as long as we could.
Singer-turned-actress Brie Larson (best known as Captain Marvel in the MCU) makes her directorial debut for just such a tale. Netflix’s Unicorn Store follows the fantastical-yet-relatable journey of Kit, a young artist with a passion for sparkly self-expression and an effervescent need to believe in the magic of life. Naturally, the real world is less than kind to her, but after surrendering her artistic dreams for the mundane drudgery of an office temp, she is given a miraculous opportunity: to own a real-life unicorn. But surprisingly, it’s not as easy as signing on the dotted line. The Salesman of “The Store” (Larson’s Captain Marvel co-star Samuel L. Jackson) presents a list of requirements that Kit must meet in order to earn her desired magical friend. And over the course of conquering these challenges, she discovers what it truly is she’s been needing all her life.
The story unfolds with a heightened sense of reality. Most of the characters exude a slightly off-kilter sensibility, particularly in the scenes within the corporate office environment. There, colors are heavily muted in grey tones, and workers interact in a zombie-like state of misery and abject resignation to their lot. It’s often hilarious to see Kit attempt to mimic that existence, something akin to a child trying on their parents’ shoes and trying to walk about like it’s all perfectly natural. It’s a great device, and a clever artistic choice.
But by extension, one might expect Kit’s world to be more in contrast, but it’s really not. Kit herself is a bit of an oddball, but not really so odd on the whole as to feel truly set apart. And the rest of the world is relatively familiar. And thus, the tone of the film feels just shy of where it really needs to be. There are any number of possible ways to have gone about it, and Larson’s choice here feels like someone with the right idea, but perhaps just short of the experience needed to pull it off. I couldn’t help but think by the end that had she attempted to do this sort of tale as a second or third outing after getting a little more of a clear artistic voice, it could have taken it to that next level it’s reaching for. This is a tough one to pull off on your first go round, requiring such a delicate balance of surreal charm and real-world opposition. And while it’s a fun, enjoyable, and sweet film, I don’t think it has the impact that it necessarily could have.
That being said, much of it works amazingly well. Larson’s vitality and struggle is heart-warming and endearing. We certainly relate to her feelings of being stifled and even in her early attempts to acquiesce to an uninspired life. But what’s really clever is that her journey isn’t limited to what she does, but to what she needs in order to be fulfilled. And as it turns out, it’s also that all-too-relatable theme of simply being understood and loved for who you are. In that regard, Larson conveys the themes very well, and you can’t help but feel uplifted and inspired by the end of the film.
In no small way is that all due to Larson’s work in front of the camera. She does a good job with some of the sillier, almost beautifully naïve moments. But she also can’t hide her own natural inner strength, which more often than not effectively compliments the character; yet once in a while you notice the mask slip slightly, with Kit seemingly a little more self-assured than perhaps she was meant to be. But it’s a very subtle nitpick in another otherwise highly enjoyable portrayal.
On the other end of the spectrum is the breakout performance of actor Mamoudou Athie as Virgil, Kit’s love interest. Virgil is perhaps the most grounded character in the film, and yet, despite his logical concerns about the situation, supports Kit and her goals. And in fact, that is the embodiment of the story at large: you can stand with and behind someone and accept them without fully comprehending them. It’s a choice. Athie’s indelible sweetness and wit create a beautiful example of being on the outside looking in without judgement. The budding relationship between Virgil and Kit eschews many of the typical rom-com tropes in favor of a more natural friendship that blossoms to a more realistic stage. Their bond is one of mutual acceptance—a refreshing take on the typical love story.
And of course, Sam Jackson supplies the most outrageous role in the film, clearly enjoying the hell out of his character’s eccentricities. Jackson seems to combine some of his best elements here, from the joyously ridiculous to the supremely authoritative. All of which makes sense given The Salesman’s role as spiritual guide, subtly nudging Kit to where she truly needs to be. He certainly represents the magical aspects of the film with aplomb, and my only issue is wishing he had even more screentime.
The remaining cast seems equally pleased to be there. Veterans Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack play Kit’s beleaguered parents who struggle to find a way through to their seemingly wayward daughter. Their continuing good-natured prompting feels all-too real, and they each find a perfect line between well-intentioned pushing and stern consternation. Likewise, seasoned character actors Hamish Linklater, Nelson Franklin, and Karan Soni (who must have signed a lucrative deal given how many Netflix films I’ve seen him in recently) give strong supporting performances that provide some of the best one-liners in the film.
In all, Unicorn Store is a fun and fanciful film with a clear and relevant message, delivered with strong and endearing performances from the cast and a delightful touch of whimsy and magic. For me, it could have used a touch more of a visionary palette to really dig into this heightened world. But even so, it’s a strong debut from Larson, and I’d certainly be curious to see what she ends up directing next.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the realities of this adult world, it’s worth taking the time to feel a bit bolstered by the magical message of Unicorn Store and remind yourself that life does indeed need a bit of that childlike wonder and play to help us through, not matter your age.