The impossible is possible; the unbelievable is believable. As sure as God made green apples Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the first great summer blockbuster of the year. Monsters roar, buildings crumble, and characters find redemption. All while amidst a stunning spectacle of lights, images, and sound.
I was not a fan of the last Godzilla. It seemed to take itself far too seriously for my taste. Strangely, Dougherty takes the material no less seriously than Gareth Edwards. He just understands that if an audience puts down money to see a Godzilla movie, it might be a good idea to have Godzilla in it.
More importantly, Dougherty never confuses taking something seriously and having a heap of fun as being mutually exclusive. The Godzilla movies of old would often destroy popular Japanese landmarks. Godzilla: KOTM does likewise. I couldn’t help but laugh as Fenway Park, the sight of so much baseball misery and tragedy was the setting for one final showdown between titans.
Among the many clever things Dougherty and his team do is give us a simple plot. Instead of Kaiju, they are called Titans. The super-secret organization, MONARCH, dedicated to studying Titans are in danger of being taken over by the United States Military. One by one the Titans wake up and a Titan pissing contest ensues.
Dougherty staffs his movie with character actors. Actors who are often off to the sides keeping the film afloat while the “movie stars” carry the film. What this does is allow a sense of play to constantly hum through the film. A science-fiction action movie filled entirely with “red shirts”. In any other movie, these actors would either die in the first twenty minutes or die off screen. If they did live it would usually be in the shadow of the hero’s death.
Funny enough the script by Dougherty and Zack Shields gives the humans just enough to do so as to give us breathers in between all the magnificent splendor of the Titans awaking from their slumber. Shields and Dougherty give the humans just enough to do to pull at the stings and distract us from the downtime. It’s workable melodrama but performed by some of the most reliable actors working today.
Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler are estranged husband and wife, Emma and Mark. Both are dealing with the death of their son, Andrew, from the previous movie. Farmiga and Chandler can play these roles in their sleep. But, and this is important, they’re not sleepwalking. No, they are having fun with the material in a way that if handled by lesser actors might lend itself to camp.
Their surviving daughter, Madison played by Millie Bobby Brown is the heart of the movie. Far from a shrinking violet, she is a girl caught in the middle of her parent’s dysfunctional inability to grieve. Brown’s Madison is a hard role to nail if only because she isn’t playing a “special” girl so much as just an average girl.
The other actors can’t help but breathe life into their characters, after all, this is what they do. Bradley Whitford as Dr. Rick Stanton is forever moaning and sniping in the background. After discovering everything they knew about Godzilla and the other Titans were wrong Whitford’s Rick breaks out a flask. Shoulders sagging he unscrews the cap as he comments on how everything we know is wrong.
The great Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa is even given a hero’s moment and a maudlin goodbye. Watanabe is often used to bring integrity or menace to his characters. His Serizawa is a man convinced and devoted to Godzilla. In any other movie played by any other actor playing a character who all but pledges fealty to Godzilla would get a round of demeaning laughter from the audience.
Yet, when finally he meets the great Titan we can feel the gratitude and love he has. Putting his hands upon Godzilla and whispering “Goodbye…old friend,” shouldn’t bring a tear to my eye but it did. “Goodbye…Old friend” is a line all but banished from writer’s rooms unless used for a joke. But Watanabe, Dougherty, and the rest of the filmmakers, somehow reach into that fetid pit of cliches and make it work.
Even Zhang Ziyi as the intrepid Dr. Ilene Chen wrestles out some genuine character work out of what others would wrongly see as schlock. The mileage she gets out of a line such as “Shut up, Rick,” is astounding. It is a moment topped only by a moment of Ziyi pulling back her hood to reveal she is, in fact, her identical twin sister, Ling. Mothra fans will understand exactly why this moment sparks such rapturous joy.
All of this pales to what everyone going to see the movie really cares about — the monsters. Boy howdy does Dougherty know how to put on a show. Amazingly, the spectacle is a strange mesmerizing haunting action-packed spectacle. Unlike the Jurassic World franchise which travels in shallow schlock mixed with mitigated lunacy, Godzilla: KOTM leans into the spectacle but never forgets to bring the awe.
The monsters have a personality. Each one is given an entrance or a reveal. I’ve seen a great many small films this year but I haven’t seen many great big-budget extravaganzas. One Titan, in particular, Mothra, flies off with Godzilla’s own movie. Her entrance is a breathtaking almost dream-like moment filled with shimmering light and neon colors. It is a moment of, take a shot, pure cinema. I found myself, literally, gasping at the sight of her.
I talk a lot about “cinema” and how some movies are more cinematic than others. Godzilla: KOTM is the most cinematic blockbuster of the year so far. Lawrence Sher frames the monsters with love. It’s his camera which helps in giving each Titan a distinct and recognizable personality.
Dougherty and Sher allow for moments of awe. Mothra’s re-birth, for example, the camera is stationed far away from the waterfall in which her cocoon sits. As her wings span out a brilliant blue light shines from within highlighting her wingspan and reflecting off the water. It is a moment of utter and serene beauty.
Another scene has Godzilla fighting Ghidorah in the Antarctic while Mark and the rest of the MONARCH team watch helplessly stranded below. Ice, snow, and freezing rain along with radiation blasts from both Titans rain down on these poor people stranded in a plane on a runway to a top-secret research facility. I hate it when that happens.
Combine all of this with Bear McCreary’s score and we have a rousing epic. McCreary uses an orchestral version of the original theme songs. Godzilla’s theme is still the heart thumping full base portent of the majesty to come. Mothra’s is the same lilting and haunting theme minus the lyrics we know and love. It all comes together in a way that all but lifts us out of our seats.
Godzilla: KOTM is pure de fun. Yet, like all science fiction, it tackles complex themes like climate change, the military industrial complex, and western colonization. But it never gets bogged down in these things. Dougherty gives us enough to chew on but never enough to distract from the beauty and texture of Rodan’s wings. The texture of the Titans I found particularly fascinating. I know it’s all computer generated but when Sher would have close-ups of the monster’s paw or leg they looked and moved as if they were rubber suits. It gave Godzillas and the others an odd tactile sense. As if we could reach out and touch them.
The movie is serious without ever taking itself too seriously. At one point the US government gets the bright idea to unveil its newest weapon to attempt to destroy Ghidorah. Once again, Dougherty brings in the perfect actor, David Strathern. It is a bit part, one scene. But few actors could have delivered such a deliciously outrageous line, “We call it the Oxygen Destroyer. We have no way of knowing if it will work or not. God help us all.”
Strathern was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow. A part of me giggled at the thought of that role being part of why he was chosen. There is just something about the no-nonsense way he delivers, “God help us all,” which tickled me to no end.
It never tries to hide the casualties of the destruction done by the Titans. People get eaten and die. Most big tent movies revel in destruction porn without costs or allude to the costs in later movies after an outraged fanbase demands they address them. Godzilla, however, was born of the atom bomb and instead, sidesteps the typical destruction porn, in a way that’s almost cathartic. The old movies walked a strange path. A mix of gleeful destruction while also showcasing a people’s ability to survive and rebuild.
More than anything Godzilla: KOTM behaves with the rambunctiousness of a child and the heart of a weather-beaten elderly person. Clearly aimed at adults it attempts to harken us back to a time when we played and made up stories on our own. Yet, always reminding us that pain and suffering is a part of life and must be faced head-on.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures