The last time Godzilla graced the American marketplace, it was in 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards. For those of you who don’t religiously follow my reviews, which is all of you, I didn’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautifully shot. But it was a Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) film before it was a Godzilla film. People compared it to Jaws with how he teased the appearance of the Big Guy, and back-handedly insulted the whole franchise by saying the human element was always boring and poorly done – so it wasn’t a dealbreaker with Edwards’ snooze-fest. Ultimately, the reception for Godzilla 2014 was positive – for what it was.
And that was a fucking insult to the franchise.
Speaking as someone who has watched every single film in the original Japanese with subtitles, not the ironic fans who think the dubbing is hilarious, Edwards missed the entire point of nearly every Godzilla film after the first one. He tried to “class it up” with his arthouse stylings, and only served to make it about himself rather than about the King of the Monsters.
Luckily, since then, directors who know and love the franchise (and aren’t up their own asses) have been brought on board both in the U.S. and in Japan. Continuing the Legendary Entertainment expansion of the Monsterverse, we then got Kong: Skull Island, where director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) understood the love of giant monsters and delivered what was easily the most surprisingly satisfying film of 2017, and then Toho Films released one of the greatest Godzilla films of all time, Shin Godzilla, directed by Hideaki Anno (Evangelion 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan I & II).
Both films have re-established two of the three central ways that Godzilla films have developed over the past 60 years. Shin Godzilla embraced the intent of 1954’s Gojira, presenting Godzilla as a force of nature, indifferent or hostile to humanity (much like the entire Heisei (1984-1995) and Millennium (1999-2004) periods), while Kong laid the groundwork for this film, where Godzilla becomes the defender of humanity, as in the original Shōwa period films from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) to Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), without becoming fodder for an audience of children like the middle Shōwa period (the less said about Son of Godzilla (1967) and All Monsters Attack (1969) the better.
With all of this in mind, I have to say that with Gojira (1954) standing as the greatest Godzilla film, both Shin Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters tie for second place as best films in the franchise (you can check out our other favorite Godzilla films here).
From the opening moments, where Godzilla’s signature roar explodes out over the audience, to the unironic embracing of classic Godzilla scenarios – like Monarch itself, or the idea that some Titans are protectors of humanity while others threaten our survival, to diving right in to the idea that Ghidorah is an alien being and his rivalry with Godzilla extends back to before the dawn of recorded history – this is Godzilla film made by a fan for the fans.
And yes, that means it’s not for a mainstream audience. To quote Repo Man extraordinaire, Bud: “Ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.”
The human element in a Godzilla film usually serves a very limited purpose depending upon which type of film we’re talking about. If we’re looking at Gojira or Shin Godzilla, the human element serves to give us a ground’s eye view of the horror of nuclear or ecological disaster. When we’re talking about the early Shōwa period films, of which Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a direct callback, the human characters provide a melodramatic contrast to the larger than life conflicts that the daikaiju represent. This is iconic storytelling, not realistic drama. The focus is on Good vs Evil and mostly black and white moral concepts, whether that involves alien forces manipulating humanity in order to stage a coup or simply following a family that has fallen apart come back together at the most opportune and dramatic moment. What Edwards forgot last time is that a family drama storyline needs to be integrated into the A-plot or a B-plot (and possibly played for laughs).
What Godzilla: King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) understands is that, put simply, human characters are there to witness and react to the appearance of forces beyond their understanding and control. The human drama is at its most basic: the collapse of the family unit. The melodrama is at its most immense: the reemergence of godlike powers before which we are powerless to defend ourselves. Both of these approaches to narrative converge to tell a story of people who are humbled before nature, who strive to create connections in the face of immense indifferent forces, who hope and pray that by doing the right thing, end up on the side of the winners in global power struggles.
That the main threat in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a terrorist group determined to wipe out as much of humanity as is necessary to establish a sustainable future, isn’t lost on fans of Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. It’s an argument that is hard to argue with on the surface. There are too many fucking people. We’re fucking it all up. We need a culling.
Depending on when you ask me, I might agree.
But unlike Avengers, here it’s not a nice, clean disintegration of half of humanity. Here it’s a violent purge that shows no mercy or distinction between young or old, innocent or guilty. Here, it’s just bloody chaos. City-destroying Armageddon that once let loose, serves to provide the motivation for a form of moral redemption and heroic sacrifice.
So, yeah. I didn’t have a problem with the thinness of the human drama.
And oh my god (zilla!), the monster battles are simply breathtaking. Each kaiju’s initial reveals are gloriously huge and awe-inspiring. And the battles manage to create CG spectacles that echo the traditional “men-in-rubber-suits” approaches of the classics while also giving each creature realistically believable movements and attacks. While at times, with the camera work swooping in and out to keep our focuses on both the massive scale of the kaiju and the human scale of the people in peril, the narrative flow breaks down, it’s never to any extent that might derail enjoyment.
There is a very talky stretch in the middle that could possibly have used some trimming, but that is my only nitpick. All of the performances are eons beyond what we got last time, with Millie Bobby Brown and Vera Farmiga shining.
Overall, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a triumph. It’s sluggish performance at the domestic box office (not quite hitting $80 million after its second weekend) says more about American audiences than the quality of the film. Having already scored $216 million overseas (for a total of nearly $300 million in two weekends), I’m a little comforted, but I hope that the diminishing returns won’t make Legendary second-guess the release of Godzilla vs Kong next year and tinker with Adam Wingard’s (You’re Next, The Guest, V/H/S, Death Note) direction.