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Non-Review Review: Godzilla – King of the Monsters

“There has to be another way!” a character pleads at one point in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Another responds, “There is no time for debate!”

This is King of the Monsters in a nutshell. A film where there is never time. There is just a constant bombardment of stuff happening. There is noise. There is shouting. There is shaking. There is exposition. There is spectacle. All thrown at the audience with an intensity that will overwhelm even the strongest flinching reaction. King of the Monsters isn’t just the proverbial ten pounds of sh!t in a five pound bag, it is those ten pounds being constantly fed to a whirling rotating blade. It is almost impressive that the fan lasts as long as it does. Almost.

A monster mash-up.

King of the Monsters is a sequel to both Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, and it somehow finds a way to synthesise the the most incompatible elements of both films into a monstrous mess of a single narrative. King of the Monsters is a movie of single-minded focus on what it is trying to do, and what it is trying to do is to cram as much monster madness and mythology into a two-hour film as possible. That single-minded focus leaves little room for any of the niceties of normal cinematic narratives.

King of the Monsters is frustrating and infuriating at times, but it is mostly just exhausting.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Rodamn.

Realised in 2014, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was a little overly earnest and a little to myopic in its storytelling, a little too grounded in the perspective of the human characters at the core of the film, to really take in the majesty of the eponymous monster. It was a valid experiment, even if it wasn’t a total success. King of the Monsters seems to have been designed as a minor course-correction to the earlier film. Notably, the film retains most of the wider ensemble and a focus on nuclear family from Godzilla, even as it dumps Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as leads.

Structurally, the film retains the basic outline of Godzilla, with a strong emphasis on a nuclear (geddit?) family attempting to navigate the trauma of profound personal loss. In Godzilla, Ford Brody lost both of his parents (in one way or another) to the gigantic atomic monster, but found himself curiously aligned with it. Similarly, King of the Monsters focuses on a family unit devastated by the loss of a young son during the creature’s rampage in San Francisco.

This is an interesting set-up. Notably, the introductory sequence of King of the Monsters, as survivors crawl through the rubble searching desperately for their loved ones amid the ruins and the flames, evokes the opening sequence of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, as mortal humans tried to navigate the carnage caused by a clash of titans. This opening scene is effective and affecting, as Mark and Vivian Russell try to make sense of a universe where all of their assumptions have been so violently up-ended.

Indeed, King of the Monsters overs its fair share of urban devastation, with most attention focused on the United States. Although the film travels from China to the Antarctic to Mexico, the most detailed urban devastation unfolds on American soil; the opening takes place in San Francisco and the climax in Boston. Washington, D.C. both burns and sinks beneath the might of these monsters, a country reduced to rubble.

Things come to a head.

As with so many modern blockbusters, the film evokes a very particularly kind of urban devastation. There is a strong emphasis on death from above and bodies buried beneath rubble. Over the course of the film’s runtime, even mythical cities are reduced to ruins. This is the trauma of 9/11 replayed in blockbuster format, just as it is in films like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. There might even be something appropriate in this. Godzilla has always stood for a particularly traumatic experience for Japan, so maybe such a translation makes sense.

King of the Monsters might be trying to reframe that monster in that particular context. Certainly, the emphasis on familial trauma in Godzilla and King of the Monsters seems to echo the cultural experience of the 9/11 attacks, the loved ones lost and the families shattered. Spielberg understood this with War of the Worlds. There is one especially evocative image in King of the Monsters, with the cracks on the screen of Maddy Russell’s iPad fracturing the screensaver of her loving family unit. Something has been broken, something has been lost, and something cannot be replaced.

However, there is something quite uncomfortable in how King of the Monsters approaches that metaphor. At one point, Mark Russell consults with veteran monster expert Ishirō Serizawa about the death of his son as a result of the monster. Serizawa urges his old friend to move on and to forgive the creature, to harness its energy and its might. If the United States government appeared befuddled and confused by the creature in Godzilla, then King of the Monsters has no such mixed messages.

At the climax of the film, as this monstrous creature lays waste to Boston while wrestling with another bigger and nastier monster, Mark has his epiphany. When the army consider ordering a tactical withdrawal from the theatre of conflict, Mark is having none of it. “No,” he states. “This time we join the fight.” This is the worldview of King of the Monsters, in which the harnessing of a lumbering and monstrous metaphor for the formative American trauma of the twenty-first century by the military industrial complex is treated as a moment of triumph.

Having a blast.

In the world of King of the Monsters, monsters exist and leave shattered lives in their wake. It is best to exploit those monsters, to use them, to exploit them. Again, this feels like a fundamental difference in how American and Japanese popular culture treat power on such an unimaginable scale. It is perhaps revealing that the superhero movie has been the dominant form of American blockbuster int he twenty-first century, but the most prominent Japanese example of the form is arguably Akira.

Of course, King of the Monsters exists in post-Batman vs. Superman world. As a result, the carnage feels weirdly empty. There are some shots of panicked crowds and fevered evacuations, but the attacks upon American soil feel weirdly empty. Boston is a ghost town as Godzilla tears through it, save for a handful of named characters and a few supporting extras. There is no mention of the civilian death toll as monsters plow through skyscrapers around the world and crush villages underfoot.

As such, the spectacle of King of the Monsters never inspires awe in the biblical sense. The “titans” in the film are frequently compared to gods and deities – “the first gods” to rule over man – however there is no sense that these entities share any tangible space with mankind as a whole. Cities are reduced to ruins, scars carved across the face of the planet, and yet the violence seems sanitary and bloodless. There is an empty and uncanny quality to all this, recalling films like Aquaman. This renders the use of 9/11 imagery and iconography tasteless and ill-judged.

However, King of the Monsters is more than just a sequel to Godzilla. It is also a sequel to Skull Island. While reaction to Godzilla cooled significantly after its release, Skull Island benefited from a number of very canny narrative choices. Skull Island understood that the human characters were seldom the draw in monster movies and so populated its cast with broadly drawn archetypes, instead of foregrounding them like Godzilla had done. Skull Island also understood the advantages of a jungle setting to avoid the dour urban devastation of modern blockbuster cinema.

Cloudy with a chance of monsters.

Watching King of the Monsters, it feels like the production team embraced Skull Island at the worst possible moment during the development cycle. The influence of Skull Island seemed to arrive too late to allow King of the Monsters to learn from its isolated setting or its broadly-drawn cast of archetypes, two of key strengths of Skull Island. Instead, King of the Monsters employs the most shallow and superficial attributes of Skull Island.

Most obviously, King of the Monsters aims for a broad and goofy sense of humour similar to that of Skull Island, a knowingly self-aware and playful tone. This is not a bad idea of itself; after all, these are movies about giant monsters knocking the stuffing out of one another. However, these jokes and gags do not work in the context of an overly earnest metaphor from familial trauma that casually reduces dozens of cities (and implicitly millions of lives) to dust. The jokes often seem in poor taste, with King of the Monsters avoiding wry gallows humour for cheesy irony.

The character of Sam Coleman, played by Thomas Middleditch, the biggest problem here. Coleman exists as a walking punchline, a socially awkward goofball who gets treated as a joke by everybody around him and who lives down to that reputation. The big problem with this is one of timing. King of the Monsters never judges the right moment for a punchline. At one point, as a rescue ship with children on board tries to make a landing, Mark Russell asks for help opening the landing bay doors. When Coleman volunteers, Russell quips, “Anybody else?” Not the time, Mark.

The other more fundamentally flawed inheritance from Skull Island is the frantic and exhausting sense of pace. King of the Monsters covers an incredible amount of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Skull Island got away with its accelerated pace in large part due to Vogt-Roberts’ poppy music video direction, something sorely missing from King of the Monsters. More than that, Skull Island could breeze over a lot of the plot beats because it understood what the audience wanted; it was okay to rush exposition and set-up, because that allowed the movie to get to pay-off.

No need to get cross about it.

In contrast, King of the Monsters rushes through everything. The film introduces a whole cavalcade of monsters, includes a complicated series of twists and turns, a number of concealed motivations, a convoluted back story, a matrix of elaborate relationships between the monsters, and an unnecessarily detailed mythology. However, King of the Monsters is so preoccupied with getting through every item on the list that it never stops to enjoy any of the steps along the way.

King of the Monsters features Charles Dance as a gun-totting eco-terrorist who sells monster DNA on the black market. King of the Monsters features a villainous monster that is a hostile alien invader usurping the eponymous monstrous monarch. King of the Monsters features a brief sojourn to the lost continent of Atlantis, revealing the long buried (or drowned) shared history between man and monster. King of the Monsters seems to earnestly imply that gigantic radioactive monsters are the best way to combat climate change.

All of these ideas are insane. All of these ideas are fun. King of the Monsters should be wallowing in the absurdity of it all, embracing each ridiculous development one after another. Instead, the film burns through these crazy ideas with all the excitement of an accountant running through an audit list. King of the Monsters seems more concerned about getting to the next scene than it is with enjoying the scene that it is currently in. This is deeply frustrating, rendering the entire film pointless.

More than that, the earnestness with which King of the Monsters approaches its subject matter lends a great deal of weight to some uncomfortable subtext. Were it more fun or more playful, it might not matter that King of the Monsters falls back on the eighties cliché of villainous environmentalists. However, the po-faced sensibility of the film leaves a bad taste when it serves as an ode to the military industrial complex riding to the rescue of some well-intentioned-but-dangerously-stupid environmentalists.

Snow other way.

(It does not help that King of the Monsters explicitly genders this divide, with Mark siding with the military and Vivian working as an environmentalist. There is a very strange, but insistent, subtext running through King of the Monsters in the way that it treats female characters like Sally Hawkins’ Vivienne Graham or Mothra as “the mother of monsters.” It would be inaccurate to describe how the movie treats such characters as “fridging”, as this would imply that any male characters (or monsters) seemed to particularly care either way.)

To be fair to director Michael Dougherty, there are some lovely individual shots in King of the Monsters. There are various moments in the film when the creatures looks stunning and impressive, whether it is Mothra extending her wings from under a waterfall or Ghidorah demonically perched atop a smouldering volcano with a cross in the foreground. However, the action is clumsy and awkward. The composition and framing in these sequences is disorienting and distracting.

A lot of this is down to design choices. Godzilla glows with a pulsing neon blue energy that is extremely bright, which makes it a poor decision to stage the character’s first major fight sequence on an Antarctic tundra in the middle of a blizzard. Similarly, Rodan is rendered in shades of brown and red for verisimilitude, with the cracked hide and dull tone of a reptile. This makes it difficult for the creature to stand out in brown clouds and against dull brown backdrops. The frantic editing does not help matters.

All of this is exhausting, as the cast is fantastic and the premise is robust. Unfortunately, King of the Monsters spends too much time getting in its own way. Making a good monster movie is not as difficult as King of the Monsters makes it look.

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