"Adults believe in gods, so why can't kids have their own gods too?"
-All Monsters Attack
In Ishiro Honda’s 1969 stock footage-fest, All Monsters Attack, one of the most maligned monster movies, an adult says this of the young protagonist. To him, Godzilla is not a war allegory. He’s a patron saint of playful disorder. He can inspire a child to conquer fear in the fantasy of their everyday lives. Despite reusing footage and featuring the series’ most childish monster content (including a half-melted child kaiju that blows smoke rings and a volleyball match with a lobster), All Monsters Attack is serious about what this content means. It is still at heart a spiritual film, as all of Japan's Showa-era Godzilla movies are, and is never far from being about nothing less than the spirit of a nation’s people in changing times.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters was harpooned by critics, who cited the film's weak story content. But those critics were largely overruled by the series' fandom, which vaguely confirmed the movie as a tribute to the Showa era of Godzilla films (roughly 1954 to 1974) in large part because of its series callbacks and monster carnage, treated as an acknowledgment of the character's "silly" past. But by missing the tone of that era, all but ignoring its entire cultural spirit in favor of American cinema-isms, Michael Dougherty's addition to the franchise also misses everything that made silliness special, which is also what made it secretly serious. Its tributes to familiar action amount to little more than hasty references, diluted by self-aware humor that fits too comfortably in the post-Michael Bay blockbuster landscape to feel anything like a film that Honda or the underappreciated Jun Fukuda would have made. It feels far more like the brand's answer to the Transformers sequels, even pulling in that series' principal editor, Roger Barton, to give it the same slap-dash energy (he also edited Terminator Genisys, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and more of that mold).
Even when facing the direst moral consequences, the characters in King of the Monsters react with the flippant anti-showmanship of the camera-muggers in Bay's disasterpieces. They do it even when the world is clouded in screams and dust and Washington D.C. is underwater in a sea of smoke, with millions dead, the monsters smashing together like thunder. Though this is all due to their actions (or could have been prevented by them), the characters react with sassy indifference. “Whoa, that lizard’s JUICED!” “Damn right” “Is it me or has Godzilla been working out?” “You telling me Mothra and Godzilla have a … *thing* going on?” “Ghi-what?” “She said ‘gonorrhea.’” “Ghidorah!” This running commentary is a constant, soul-deflating stream of noise throughout King of the Monsters. It contrasts on principle with the Japanese films' treatment of irreverence, which often resulted in a character's ironic death or other comeuppance. KOTM would have benefited from paying tribute with the worst of its sass-munchers; instead, it obsessively kills only the most reasonable and interesting characters, leftover from Godzilla (2014). By the end, no action scene is so awe-inspiring that Barton could resist hacking it to pieces with cutaways of the people who are left, drinking coffee from their magic spaceship and imperviously taking verbal dumps on the film’s tone. This tone, even if nothing else was an issue, prevents KOTM from connecting with the Toho films, which took the silliest imagery with the crucial reverence of a documentary on Japanese parenting. This is a film by contrast that takes the grandest consequences with the nonchalance of a water-cooler discussion about football scores.
The film feels apologetic from the outset as Godzilla crashes the screen within seconds, as though soothing the complaints about Godzilla (2014) in a rowdy audience was more relevant than pacing. Lawrence Sher's cinematography is a try-hard attempt to imbue the film with thematic intent against the incompetent editing. The result is an almost admirable riff on McGarvey's superior aesthetic from the 2014 film, recreated about as well as could be hoped by the artist who shot The Hangover sequels and The Dukes of Hazard reboot. Though some shots in King of the Monsters believe in their mythic reverence for a single frame of meticulously placed imagery (a shot of Ghidorah on a volcano, for instance, with a cross in silhouette in the foreground), one shot is all the impact they have. They have no mechanical or transitionary beauty in reference to any other shot. These scenes have some postcard prettiness but no lasting impact because they aren't part of a greater sequence (characters even reuse this shot of Ghidorah to deliver exposition from a computer, as though Sher's camera was an actual camera taking perfect photos in the reality of the film, emailing them to the protagonists, perfectly framed with crosses in the foregrounds). The visuals never cohere into something greater; they linger just long enough to be recognized from the trailers, as though its cinematic heritage stops at the expository level of a high-definition desktop wallpaper.
Despite its easygoing desire for monster thrills, King of the Monsters is the second-longest Godzilla film to date, second only to Roland Emmerich's 1998 remake. And despite leading with the monster more quickly than any film in recent memory, this Godzilla doesn’t have a tenth of the scale or dramatic heft that he did in Gareth Edwards’ film. The number of monsters is ambitious in the sense that recreating the brawls of the old Toho films is a long-awaited promise for American Godzilla fans. Yet nothing in KOTM matches the sheer labor of scale and beauty of the bridge scene in Edwards’ Godzilla, or the weighty fear of the landing in Hawaii, or the heart-pounding power of the final fight with the MUTO. Edwards rendered a new monster with more awe than Dougherty does with Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Rodan combined (though the Rodan sequence is the nearest the film comes to putting its cocktail of postcard beauty and juvenile humor to good use). Even the cast of highlights (underused in Edwards' film too), including Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Ken Watanabe, is somehow even less impactful here. Hawkins' character dies at one point and I didn't even realize it happened until she didn't show up for the next scene. It's such a non-event that I wouldn't even consider it a spoiler. It felt as much a result of the actress's availability for the shooting schedule as the intentions of the script.
The lack of “awe” in King of the Monsters is not the film’s main problem. Not all Godzilla films have had an epic scale, after all. Some involve volleyball matches with lobsters. But none of them have ever delivered the clash of tonal information that Dougherty has concocted here. Godzilla films don't "have" to destroy cities with reverent, apocalyptic imagery, but none of the ones that did also allowed characters to punt exposition to each other while quipping like kids watching a car crash (and even if they did, those characters would pay for it). Action and reaction are in a constant tug-of-war in this film, with one creating stakes and the other dispelling them just as quickly. Even as Millie Bobby Brown's character survives a "near-miss" from being inside a stadium when it explodes, she looks on with smug joy as Godzilla breaches the shore to start fighting her adversary forty feet from where she's standing (her parents call for her through cupped hands as though anyone could hear anything in all of that). These are the reactions of people not really there, not really in danger, though the film talks like the stakes are high. Her reaction, like a kid from one of the later Showa films, happy to see their hero Godzilla, conflicts constantly with the action and visual senses of a Michael Bay shrapnel tornado – the sheer carnage of sound and smoke seems debilitating, though the recognizable people all seem immune to its impact, safe in a studio a thousand miles away. The boy in All Monsters Attack dreamed of Godzilla on his island in a world that he could control with his imagination. He wasn't grinning like a psychopath from a pile of corpses and flames.
The hoops King of the Monsters jumps through in its torturous 132-minute runtime to make the plot “work” are not even worthy of a first draft. Characters change demeanor in a second, just to create a specific moment of feeling, or to push a literal button that releases monsters into the channels of hypertubes in the hollow earth to disperse them around the world to avenge the death of a woman's son (I wish a part of that was an exaggeration). Its assessment of itself as worthy of the Godzilla heritage is not as blissful as its disregard for the conventions of good blockbuster filmmaking to get there. In pacing, the sheer confusion with which scenes turn over on a dime to new nonsense, with characters manufacturing reactions to drive home an intended idea of drama, King of the Monsters is one of the worst written films in its budget bracket I have ever seen in a theater. For all the complaining surrounding Godzilla (1998), not only is KOTM's tone more similar to that film than any other Godzilla movie ("What is this? The virgin lizard?") but even that film was comparatively grounded in terms of scale and exposition, more like a classic B-movie filtered through Emmerich's sass. There's a point in KOTM where Millie convinces her mom (Vera Farmiga) to stop killing billions of people basically by asking her to, so that they can recruit Godzilla to fight the monster unleashed by the terrorist she teamed up with; meanwhile, the hero scientist characters are laughing because "Ghidorah" sounds like "gonorrhea." With that kind of information clash, the only choice is to give in and stop thinking about it, which is clearly what Dougherty and Zach Shields did in the writer's room.
King of the Monster's most frustrating aspect, the depressing clincher, is that it expects the audience to grasp and accept by default the implications of what it presents, no matter how nonchalant the reference. The oxygen destroyer, the world-ender from the original 1954 film, makes a brief appearance in KOTM as a minor plot point that the audience is supposed to take with deeper significance than the movie works to create (it’s a one-and-done scene played off as vaguely relevant). Even in its most vacant moments, such as a scene in which every principal character piles into a car and drives from a monster that could walk the whole distance in a step (Emmerich must have re-enacted the DiCaprio pointing meme in the theater), the screenplay expects the audience to read meaningful family conflict into it. Farmiga's mother character would only be as enjoyably deranged as her actions imply if the performance was silly, yet the film demands this aspect, of all things, to be taken completely at its word. For the audience to understand and redeem her in the end on the basis of "family issues" requires a leap in mentality larger than the entire scope of the film's drama. It is a moment of absolute moral blackout when the film expects the viewer to do the mental heavy lifting to understand this character while offering nothing more in her defense than a side-note shouted over an absurd action scene. The script, even if it survived that long, cannot recover from that dramatic negligence.
I learned to stand up to bullies because of Godzilla. I learned how to take movies seriously by seeing the silliest stuff imaginable rendered with the awe of a post-war fable. I learned how imaginative the worlds of the movies could be. And I feel like I'm the last person on earth intended to enjoy King of the Monsters, a film that turns a brand that works for children on an adult level into one that feels made for adults on the level of a producer's idea of an impatient child. It aims for gratitude from those who know “of” the symbols that it reuses, hoping for a laugh of recognition as much as for a whiff of Disney’s box office appeal, disguised as awe, or even gratitude. But it does not represent the mythology that it borrows. And it does not respect the basic intelligence of the most mediocre action movies, even as it remains unaware of the tone that made the Japanese Godzilla films special beyond those genre conventions. It all but brags about how little it understands them.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters represents more than a misguided blockbuster and the worst Godzilla film ever made. It presents in miniature the modern moviegoer’s inability (or the modern producer's impression of it) to accept sincerity as a valid tone for a movie about silly things like monsters and magic. It does not do it for children, because children accept even the goofiest creations as gods when they seem to represent the crucial feelings in their own imaginations. Had it been made for children, it would have been as serious as a holy text. No, the film did it for the adults who don't remember what it's like to believe in this, who can’t find it in themselves to call a monster movie a great film without qualifying it, or to consider a serious reaction to a silly image as anything but lame. That ability to believe in sincerity is what has gone out of blockbusters since the Showa era of Godzilla films and what Edwards tried and failed to bring back to them. It’s why those Showa films remain vital artifacts of cinematic imagination, defying every modern quip-infested snark-off, including this one, one spiritual monologue at a time. And lacking it is why King of the Monsters didn’t believe in itself any more than it believed in its audience’s desire to. If anyone who made it has seen a Godzilla film (other than Emmerich's), their reading comprehension skills are downright worrying.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures