Revealed at Comic-Con last July, the first trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters was glorious. The prospect of an elemental assault on the senses, wall-to-wall fights with 17 monsters — maybe even some poignant family drama — seemed to rise up before one’s ensorcelled eyeballs with every subsequent trailer.
If Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was the ultimate mechs-versus-monsters movie, then King of the Monsters promised to be the ultimate kaiju-versus-kaiju movie, a gift to Godzilla fans everywhere. Based on some of the early reactions as the movie drew nearer this May, I was expecting to be bludgeoned into submission by a repeating sledgehammer of kaiju action.
There’s some of that in the movie, though not as much as you might think. To talk about what works and what doesn’t in King of the Monsters, we’ll need to open a barrel of radioactive spoilers. Grab your hazmat suit, then, and let’s get to it before the earth unleashes a fever to fight “the human infection” and we all perish.
As a film-loving Tokyoite with a natural affinity for Godzilla, I was hoping for something special from King of the Monsters. Coming out of the theater, my initial review of the movie was, “Maa maa.”
This is not to be confused with a cry for mother. Quite the contrary, as a cry for mother would imply more feeling, whereas I was trying to communicate a stoic lack of it to my wife, who is Japanese and could therefore understand without me translating that “Maa maa,” means, “So-so,” or, “Well, well.”
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a maa maa movie, more Justice League than Avengers, on the scale of all-star kaiju gatherings.
I watched the movie twice on opening weekend, purely out of academic interest, and I felt myself growing more charitable to it the second time around. (Repeated exposure: the real secret to liking something.) Any way you slice it, however, King of the Monsters has some issues, many of which plainly originate at the script level.
Keeping Up with the Russells
King of the Monsters is one of those movies where you may be hard-pressed to remember the names of any of the characters unless you cheat and look them up online (which I will shortly demonstrate that I have done). Given that it’s a sequel to a Godzilla flick where the title character had roughly eight minutes of screen time, was anyone else surprised by how much of its two-hour length is still devoted to jabbering humans?
Actors like Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga, and Kyle Chandler do display more immediate charisma than Aaron Taylor-Johnson did in the last movie. (I want to make a clear distinction that “Plain” Aaron Taylor-Johnson is different from Nocturnal Animals Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is a scene-chewing beast.)
That just means they’re facing more of a Bryan Cranston predicament here in that they’re always-reliable actors who are saddled with a spotty script. There are indeed many fine actors in this film but unfortunately, some of them, like Zhang Ziyi, are stuck with lines such as, “You’re murdering the world!”
Even Farmiga, the self-styled “DJ for the monsters” — whose turntable analyzes and emits bioacoustic patterns — can’t quite sell all of her dialogue. Her character, Dr. Emma Russell, is a scientist working for the cryptozoological agency Monarch. She’s the one who floats that idea of “the human infection,” revealing herself to be in league with a group of ecoterrorists, led by Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance, in full Tywin Lannister mode).
Film reviews, ostensibly of the non-spoiler type, have been bad about revealing this particular plot point, but the movie treats it like a kidnapping at first when Dr. Russell goes off with Jonah’s ecoterrorists. Since it was Bring Your Daughter to Work Day at the loosely secured cryptozoological compound, her daughter, Madison, is with her when she unmasks herself as a genocidal madwoman: bent on saving the world by killing it.
Overpopulation, pollution, war … the checklist of her grievances with humankind sounds reasonable on paper. Dr. Russell talks to Madison about restoring balance a lot, enough to make the Thanos comparisons with her feel justified.
Madison has already gotten dangerously close to one of the monsters, Mothra. She watches in horror as her mother proceeds to summon the walking and flying disasters that will purge the earth of its human infection and allow cities to be overtaken with the spread of wild greenery. These symbolic disaster-monsters are part of the earth’s natural defense system, she tells us.
There’s a climate change metaphor in there somewhere. For his part, the other Dr. Russell, Emma’s ex-husband, Mark, is a real take-charge kind of guy, one of those Gary Sues who is always qualified to speak and who does so as if he were in a perpetual state of simmering anger. It all boils over when he delivers the meme-worthy stand-and-shout of, “You are out of your goddamn mind!”
Now the Nuke Biscuit
Speaking of memes, who remembers the one from the last movie with Ken Watanabe saying, “Let them fight?” It’s referenced in King of the Monsters by Bradley Whitford’s character.
Keep in mind that Whitford is the same actor who played the father in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This same father threw a house party where there was one random Japanese guest in among two black guests and a bunch of Caucasians.
In King of the Monsters, the only human character who stimulates a hiccup of emotional engagement is Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by Watanabe. That’s mostly because he’s our one-man stand-in for the soul of Godzilla’s home country.
In the 2000s, Watanabe emerged as Hollywood’s go-to Japanese actor, a role he has continued to fulfill in the MonsterVerse for Legendary Pictures. When Serizawa pilots a sub into the lost city of Atlantis (or some such dead undersea civilization), he’s carrying the ball for a whole nation.
Before sacrificing himself for the good of the many, he feeds that ball, or biscuit, to Godzilla. It’s like a radioactive doggie treat for the prone monster in his lava lair below the sea. Serizawa pets the monster on the nose—a callback to his insistence earlier that humans would be analogous to Godzilla’s pets, not vice versa.
That the biscuit is a nuke and its blast eradicates Serizawa is uncomfortable enough as it is, but in the last movie, we also saw him show a U.S. military commander his father’s stopped pocket watch from the Hiroshima bombing.
In another sequel, that might have come back into play more. The movie might have reminded us of its significance with a stray moment of dialogue so that viewers with no memory of a movie pocket watch from five years ago could appreciate how Serizawa’s death was bringing him full circle with his family history.
Instead, what we get with Serizawa as he cradles the watch is Mark asking him the time, to which Serizawa responds, “Time to get a new watch.” The decision to leave the watch’s significance unspoken and internalized with him is understandable from the perspective of creating a quiet character moment but it comes at the expense of lucidity. This movie, as a stand-alone, doesn’t clearly express it and so so what you have is essentially a character whose whole arc, as it were, is reduced to an Easter egg.
Blink, and you’ll miss the meaning of that watch … but you won’t miss the nuke biscuit. On my second viewing, I caught myself nodding as the setup for this scene began, as if to say, “Ah, here it comes. Now the nuke biscuit.”
As the script shuffles Serizawa off with it to meet his death, Whitford’s character, the ghost of Get Out, is there. The content Caucasian who will survive this movie says to the Asian who won’t, “It’s been an honor, man.”
Sir, you have no idea. Fortune cookies did likely reach the United States by way of Japanese immigrants but the ones with messages inside are now associated with Chinese restaurants, so when the movie has Serizawa joking about a long message he read in one, it does leave a question mark hanging in the air about whether the screenwriters knew the difference between Chinese and Japanese.
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