Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters first published by Little White Lies

Michael Dougherty is perhaps best known for directing and writing Trick ‘r Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015) – both horror features coming with a good deal of festive black humour – but he also helped write the big-budget blockbusters Superman Returns (2006) and X-Men Apocalypse (2016). So he is especially well placed to be helming (and writing, with Zach Shields) Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a creature feature on a massive, er, scale, peppered with the odd blackly funny line. This is in fact the third instalment, following Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ prequel Kong: Skull Island, in Legendary’s MonsterVerse – a mega-franchise which not only models itself on Disney’ MCU and Warner Brothers’ rival DCEU, but which similarly figures its creatures as superheroes and supervillains slugging it out in a world where humans are for the most part helpless bystanders or collateral damage.

Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood reboot of Godzilla (who first appeared in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, and has since been in 34 features) played out like a long, slow reveal of the monster. Dougherty’s sequel opens with a flashback to that film’s climactic mayhem and its harrowing ground-level effects on a family, and then unfolds, like Zack Snyder’s 2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in the aftermath of this hidden god’s first very public appearance. Ever since then, the cryptozoological research group Monarch (the MonsterVerse films’ equivalent of MCU’s S.H.I.E.L.D.) has been tracking Godzilla and monitoring many other ‘Titans’ found dormant beneath the Earth’s surface. The theory, already proffered in the franchise’s earlier entries, that these behemoths have long existed to bring balance to the world, is here more fully explored, as their epic battles are made to allegorise and embody the cataclysmic upheavals of nature that manmade climate change is bringing to us all.

At the heart of Godzilla: King of the Monsters lies conflict. If the great technological MacGuffin here is an acoustic device named ‘Orca’ that echoes the characteristic sounds of the monsters to summon or repel, anger or calm them, then the film’s central conflict is also echoed, at micro- and macrocosmic levels which resonate with each other so that the human and Titanic struggles always seem interrelated.

Godzilla’s big fight against two ‘Mutos’ in 2014 tore apart not just San Francisco, but also Doctors Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), the husband-and-wife team who had developed Orca together, but whose young son was killed in Godzilla’s devastating onslaught. Now divorced, they are driven by divergent ideologies: Mark wishes to destroy all monsters, while Emma sees them – or at least some of them – as a force for global good.

This same division can be seen between Monarch and the military, ever disputing whether to preserve or pulverise the Titans. Meanwhile ex-military renegade ecoterrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) has stolen the Orca device – along with Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) – and plans to introduce colossal chaos to the current, terminal world order.

Once reawakened, lepidopteran Mothra, three-headed King Ghidorah (Carpenter’s The Thing meets the mythological Hydra) and winged Rodan – regulars of the Godzilla franchise’s Japanese strand who all, according to the closing credits, appear as themselves here – will fight their own battles in an attempt to destroy or perhaps to renew life’s hopes on Earth. 

So this is a power struggle that reechoes at the domestic, the urban and the global level, as our environmental anxieties, and the different approaches to tackling them, all assume monstrous form and are resolved – at least until Adam Wingard‘s coming sequel Godzilla vs. Kong – in outsized combats where coexistence, collaboration and a respect for nature’s might are key to the continued survival of our species.

Massive and relentless, constantly adapting and evolving, but also a conservative guardian of the ecosystemic status quo, Godzilla may be a monster, but he is much less of a threat to the planet than several of his fellow monsters, or indeed than the more monstrous of the human players. Also, he is our monster – for, in a surreal xenophobic touch, it turns out that local leviathans are more welcome than alien abominations (even when the latter migrated here multiple millennia ago). 

In the parallel rush by Jonah and Ghidorah to topple incumbent hierarchies, to kill the king and to set an unruly replacement on the throne, the fate of dangerous, destructive Godzilla proves intimately intertwined with that of the entire human race. In all these dramas, there is plenty of room for human heroism, sacrifice and redemption to keep viewers emotionally engaged, while the spectacular city-levelling fights mounted by Dougherty and his vast crew of SFX and CGI wranglers bring the shock and awe, showing in concrete – and concrete-smashing – form the dire, unpredictable consequences of messing with nature or with our world’s delicate equilibrium. 

Godzilla: King of the Monsters rattles and races along through a variety of set-pieces to a literally explosive finish, while leaving the impression that a Pandora’s box, once opened, may unleash a perpetual pandemonium of sequels. The sheer scale of these humongous creatures’ sizing off is such that it may in the end seem like an abstract pissing contest (or a Top Trumps card game) to determine whose irradiated emissions create the greatest damage – but fans of kick-ass kaiju are going to have a blast.

Anticipation: Underwhelmed by Godzilla, adored Kong: Skull Island

Enjoyment: It’s an eco-apocalyptic monster (s)mash!

In Retrospect: Full of sound and fury, signifying… sequels

© Anton Bitel