My expectations were pretty low when I went to see GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. Most importantly, there was much more direct footage of Godzilla and other radioactive monsters, all referred to as “Titans,” than what was shown in the disappointingly sluggish 2014 prequel (titled simply GODZILLA). The pace was comparatively faster yet easy to follow. I’ve loved Godzilla since watching on television some of his very first movie (GODZILLA, a Toho Studios production from 1954) when I was five and-a-half years old.
Some of the main cast from GODZILLA returns in this sequel, with a few tragic losses happening throughout the movie. The multi-government-led scientific organization Monarch is back to work with researching signs of Titans becoming active from out of their respective places of dormancy around the world. This chain reaction arises from eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (played by veteran British actor Charles Dance) proceeding to release a series of them to wreak havoc on the world. His motivation is to bring the planet’s life back into balance via having much of humanity, particularly in urban centers, killed off by these ancient guardians of nature, since humans are responsible for climate change and other grave environmental issues. He and Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) join forces to accomplish this paradoxically well-meaning yet ultimately sinister goal, much to the chagrin of the rest of Monarch’s main team and the U.S. military. Jonah also selfishly wants to harness the Titans’ power and untapped resources. However, this is only briefly referred to and then hinted at further in a preview scene of the upcoming sequel.
A combination of scientific research, including studying and manipulating sound waves the Titans emit, and reviewing of ancient folklore about these huge creatures results in Monarch identifying Godzilla as an age-old “benevolent” force who can lead the other Titans back into a calm, subdued order. His rival super Titan “Monster Zero,” the storm-causing, three-headed dragon (though not referred to as such in the movie) Ghidorah, will bring chaos and death over everything if he is not defeated. His intentional awakening out of deep ice in Antarctica by Jonah and a mis-led Dr. Russell starts a powerful action scene of giant monster destruction, probably the best on the big (and small) screen I’ve ever witnessed. The immediacy of the danger is well-filmed and timed as main characters and soldiers try to escape via military helicopter to avoid being crushed by Ghidorah or vaporized in his irradiated, fire-lightning breath. We see the dragon’s sinister, regenerative heads nipping at each other and roaring at the puny humans, then reactions of horror as men shoot their ineffective rifles and one shouts, “Holy shit!” Quite an entry for the arch villain creature, and the only one identified as being of extraterrestrial origin.
Closeups of different gargantuan monsters’ faces near humans, such as by a helicopter in one scene, an underwater facility in another, and a fighter jet in yet another, serve to make them feel more present and real to the audience, with one such moment effectively startling me even on my second viewing. This was a monster thriller of quality I’ve been longing to see since childhood, thanks to CGI and other cinematography technology finally achieving such state-of-the-art advancement.
Being the long-time fan of Godzilla that I am, I was again somewhat disappointed to see how his physical design was changed. His snout has been shortened since the 2014 prequel, whereas when it was longer and larger in earlier movies, he had more teeth and, hence, seemingly more substantiveness. However, I can only imagine what the designers were thinking about this latest incarnation of such a star monster of the cinema. Perhaps a shorter snout made him seem more tough like a pit bull, I don’t know. Anyway, I was able to let go of this bother to some extent as I watched the enormous two legged lizard of the sea do his grand stuff, including breath out white radioactive fire, his mighty spines gloriously lighting up.
The other benevolent Titan is Mothra (“Mosura” in Japanese), who is the first monster we see in the movie. Initially in giant larva form, she spits out a sticky webbing out of self defense shortly after hatching before a circle of armed men placed there to contain her. She then cocoons herself in a nearby waterfall and later rises forth as a grand, brightly shimmering moth to assist Godzilla, her relationship with him being symbiotic, though not fully explained how. This ultimately did not matter to me, as I was able to accept the Monarch team’s exposition that some of the Titans are peaceful and working in harmony with each other. They all follow an alpha leader, like a pack of wolves does. Godzilla has historically been in this role, similar to the god Zeus over the other deities of Greek mythology, the term Titan being aptly derived from that particular pantheon.
Mothra is referred to as being the queen to Godzilla’s king, flying and fighting beside him to help restore order with her radioactive beauty and insectoid strength. She is followed and studied over several generations by attractive identical twin women, the latest being Dr. Ilene Chen and her sister Dr. Ling (both played by Zhang Ziyi), each of Monarch. This movie does not explore the spiritual-religious, deity worshipping element/implications so much as it subtly alludes to all of these through closely associating Mothra with the lineage of twins. This gives the royal-seeming moth a pleasant mystique, equating her with beautiful femininity, angelic light/heavenly grace, and the cycle of death and rebirth. The too-briefly shown theme of women twins drawn to Mothra also seems to act as a dutiful acknowledgement to the queen Titan’s miniature women fairy companions, played by Japanese twin pop singers The Peanuts, in the 1961 movie MOTHRA, and other actresses in the same recurring roles throughout several sequels starring this colossal insect. (I readily admit to never having seen any of these earlier movies.) I only wished that the celestial, exquisite Mothra/Mosura had more screen time in this latest Godzilla production. But, alas, she was unavoidably underused in an already crowded narrative where the king monster himself was at least not short shrifted this time around. The movie was just over two hours in length as it was. For all of the interesting elements of the story to be fully explored, almost an hour or so of footage/digital imagery would have to have been added, so sacrifices were clearly made and, on balance, fairly.
One giant monster is colossally ridiculous, an earless bipedal mastodon of sorts we the viewers briefly see on a few television newsfeeds. I believe it shows up again at the very end. What were the designers and director thinking here?? Perhaps it was meant to be comic relief? Mr. Snuffleupagus of Sesame Street turned radioactive giant mutant, I guess. Give me a break. Fortunately, it at least had no starring role the way Ghidora, Rodan (an enormous bird-pterodactyl-like creature originating from a volcano), Mothra, and our hero Godzilla did. The crab-like critters, of which there was one in the prequel, return, which is fine. They look believably scary and interesting in a primal way.
While the monsters were indeed the true stars of the movie, I did especially appreciate some of the people cast. Ken Watanabe returns as Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, the thoughtful wise man and conscience of the movie. Through him, we viewers are encouraged to be curious about and sympathizing of Godzilla. Ishiro’s younger colleague, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi), is a folklorist who shows pertinent antiquarian bits of texts and images of sea and land monsters to the rest of the Monarch crew and military personnel. She bridges the Titans from their primeval past to the present, providing personal information such as their actual names. She and her twin sister reflect the beautiful, graceful, harmonious side of nature, embodied in one of the two’s (Dr. Ling’s) personal deity, already discussed above. This relationship of veneration is simply relayed through Dr. Ling’s facial expression upon witnessing the initial rising of Mothra. At that point, hope for the planet more clearly enters the picture. All is not evil or lost after all.
Charles Dance as the ruthless Alan Jonah uncannily seemed so much in both appearance and presentation like the late screen thespian Peter Cushing, star of many Hammer Horror Studios productions and in the first STAR WARS movie (as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin). I was impressed with Dance’s similarity to such a man of grave elegance and sincerity. His presence packed a punch and surely will continue to in the sequel.
Aisha Hinds is believable as an Army Colonel, conveying a balanced mix of concerned and commanding. I was glad that she was both bald and African American, normalizing more unique, nonwhite, gender nonconforming women being in strong leadership positions in a mainstream movie.
To appeal to youth in the audience, teenaged actress Millie Bobby Brown (of the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS) stars as Madison Russell, who takes it upon herself to try and change her mother’s mind about allying with eco terrorist Jonah. She manages to get into the thick of the action as the movie progresses, changing from guardedly defiant to scared and vulnerable, becoming a predictable but sweet vehicle for a very temporary union between her estranged parents. Such sappiness for the sake of adding a more relatable, family element felt formulaic and bland. This movie’s power and originality lay with the monsters and their impressive development in form, immediacy, and even a kind of earthly or– for Mothra– celestial divinity. Certain human characters already discussed particularly supported and reflected that power, making them stand out against an uneven script of sometimes lame dialogue.
In this movie’s universe, these Titans have existed for millennia and longer, helping to keep a tense balance between humanity and the rest of nature, whereby whole cultures had worshipped them. The undersea origins of Godzilla are gracefully explored here, implying that he is a cyclically sleeping dragon of sorts. The radiation of each Titan is deadly yet life-giving, a mysterious mix that is both amusingly and fascinatingly referenced during the film’s clever end credit sequence. These beings’ existence is aptly tied in with climate change, some embodying a means of worsening it, others a way to ameliorate it. In sum, the movie is an allegory, with the humans ultimately more villainous through causing centuries of damage to the earth. The Titan monsters represent both destructive and ordered forces of nature reacting and roughly trying to set things right, even at the expense of humans, whose only salvation is to align with some of these mighty Titan forces or perish. Enter good guy Godzilla, whose boundless, radioactive rage is well-directed. Long live the king.