Review by Tim Robins
Directed by Michael Dougherty
Starring Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and Charles Dance
Members of the crypto-zoological agency Monarch face off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah. When these ancient super-species-thought to be mere myths-rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity’s very existence hanging in the balance…
I cannot advise you strongly enough to avoid Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest offering in an attempt to build a MonsterVerse based around so-called ‘Titans’ including King Kong, Godzilla, Mothra and Rhodan.
Having cheerfully avoided the latest Hellboy reboot (I love the Mike Mignola’s work on the character and I refuse to let a CGI farrago get in the way of that), I chanced this yet-another-take-on-Godzilla partly because, not being at all interested in the character, all the film could do, I thought, was spoil my memory of playing with the 1972 release of Godzilla from Aurora, those superb model-makers who filled my childhood bedroom with glowing claws and fangs.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters only works on the level of its CGI which credibly brings the various creatures to life. However, for me, the overall aesthetic choices made about how the monsters and their world are rendered only contribute to making the film totally uninvolving.
Back in the day, the aim of CGI monster effects was to place fantastical creatures in naturalistic settings (the bugs in Starship Troopers, for example). However, a film such as Batman Vs Superman: The Dawn of Justice, particularly the climactic fight with Doomsday, or the TV series Game of Thrones seem to place the CG creations in an un-naturalistic, painterly environment. The result is a succession of striking tableaux that look like animated versions of cover paintings by Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo. This looks great in a coffee table book, but on screen, instead of being caught up in the drama, I felt like I was watching a slide show of pre-production concept art.
Plus, the film is so dull that it actually is like watching paint dry.
The producers seem to be labouring under the illusion that they are updating Toho’s silly man-in-a-monster-suit affairs and presenting characters such as Mothra, Rodan et al in the way that they should be done for the 21st century. But aesthetic taste is not only culturally specific; it also impacts on the sense the audience makes of the characters. For example, Godzilla’s face grew more like a lucky dragon, the more the character became heroic; and the absurd fight scenes played to the contemporary craze for wrestling.
Watching Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I was reminded of a marvellous study by Marie Gillespie, who researche British-Asian families’ reaction to two productions of the Mahabharata – one a prestigious British production, The Mahabharata, by theatre director Peter Brook, the other Mahabharat, a long-running serial made in India that to my eyes looked garish, silly and less convincing than Monkey. However, the British-Asian audience were highly critical of the Brook’s The Mahabharata, partly because all the symbolism brought to bear on, for example, the colour of the gods’ faces was missing. Brook’s version was not so much incomprehensible as inauthentic and wrong. So while enjoying the painterly renderings of Ghidorah, I was also aware that what I was watching was a form of cultural appropriation.
Another example of Godzilla: King of the Monsters distinctly Hollywood take on the Godzilla mythos is the insistence on focussing on a family drama, namely the Russell family, who have pretty much fallen apart after Godzilla apparently stepped on their son five years earlier. But, much like the death of Joe Brody’s wife in Godzilla (released in 2014), the death of the son creates a lacuna that the film’s narrative not only fails to close but also exacerbates by killing off another family member.
A more accomplished director, notably Stephen Spielberg, would ensure that any family rifts would have been resolved by the film, no matter how implausibly for example the family reunion at the end of War of the Worlds or the way Roy is rejected by his earthly family but is rewarded by being welcomed into an alien community at the end of Close Encounters of The Third Kind. In Jaws, Spielberg even wrote out an affair between Brody’s wife and oceanographer Hooper that’s in the novel, because he didn’t want the audience actively hating the characters as they fought the shark.
A bigger problem is that a family can’t plausibly have the agency to orchestrate a global disaster wrought by monsters. Of course, the film does have larger groups, namely the Monarch agency and a bunch of eco-terrorists, led by an underused Charles Dance. But, in the end, the fate of the world rests on a mom-pop-daughter team. Both parents seem to have job descriptions that just allow them to boss around whomsoever they like.
Watching Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) commanding scientists to do his bidding reminded me of the absurd movie adaptation of The Sum of All Fears. In the book Ryan is the Deputy Director of the CIA, but not in the film where his ability to order the Oval Office around is something of a mystery.
There’s a good reason 1950s’ monster movies focussed on the military and supporting egg heads because, in the end, who really wants to watch Kramer vs Kaiju?
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
• The Art of Godzilla: King of the Monsters by Abbie Bernstein is available now from Titan Books – an in-depth behind the scenes look at the movie. It’s packed with concept art, on-set photography, and insight from key members of the production – including director Michael Dougherty, telling the story of how Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah were brought to terrifying life.
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