Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writers: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport”. This King Lear quote is one that I kept returning to as I watched the latest Godzilla film. There’s something mythological about the way the monsters are portrayed here in their awesomeness and ineffability. It’s there in the primitive, superstitious mentality through which the human characters behold and regard the titans that roam the Earth as reflections of their own feelings and actions. Throughout the history of our species since the earliest days when disease, famine and ecological disaster were understood as divine punishments for our sins, human beings have always longed for some form of theological order to make sense of our chaotic and incomprehensible universe. Our perception of the world is so rooted in our emotional and sensual experiences that we often cannot help but feel that those forces beyond our control are somehow shaped by our existence. Lifted from one of his most tragic plays, the above Shakespeare quote demonstrates the human tendency to comprehend such intangible forces in human terms, through such recognisably human emotions as deliberate cruelty and malice. And yet the rain feels no more malice as it extinguishes our fires than it does benevolence when it feeds our crops; it simply exists. It’s through this frame that the movie invites us to observe and consider Godzilla.
King of the Monsters is the third instalment of a proposed cinematic universe for movie monsters that promises to one day deliver a King Kong-Godzilla crossover. It intends to bring together the many Toho-created kaiju, the Hollywood-created ape, and presumably some other famous, yet-to-be-announced movie monsters into a single shared narrative. In this universe these giant super-species are all part of an ancient ecosystem that predates human history. They have been in hibernation for millennia but are now waking up in response to the destructive and pollutive effect that human activity has had on the Earth. The environmental message isn’t subtle, but then subtlety isn’t really what you look for in a movie about giant monsters beating the shit out of each other. The films in the series so far, which include the 2014 Godzilla and the 2017 Kong: Skull Island, have been unambiguous about human activity (nuclear and chemical warfare, fossil fuels, overpopulation) being the direct cause of this awakening, leading some of the characters in this film to believe that the global catastrophe they bear witness to is humankind’s fateful reckoning. Through the eyes of these characters we are invited to consider Godzilla as both the scourge of civilisation and the saviour of humanity. Both views however presume that Godzilla is directly conscious of humanity’s feelings on the matter and that he (it?) has a moral stake in the earth-shattering brawl, a presumption that the movie also invites us to question.
The movie is an ensemble picture where several different characters offer vastly different takes on Godzilla and the monsters that he engages in their apocalyptic battle royale. Some we’ve met in previous films such as Dr. Ishirö Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), both of them scientists who have devoted their lives towards studying the monsters for Monarch, the secret government agency responsible for keeping track of the beasts. There are also many new characters, the most important of whom are a family whose lives were fractured by the events of the first film. Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is a scientist who left Monarch following the death of his son in the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco five years prior. His ex-wife Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) remains a part of the agency and is continuing the project she and Mark started together, the development of a device that could allow them to communicate directly with the monsters and manipulate their actions. Living with her is their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who is also fascinated by these colossal, ancient creatures. Before long we learn that it wasn’t just the grief over their loss that drove the husband and wife apart but also their fundamental ideological disagreement over how the titans should be treated. Emma believes that these monsters could be used for the betterment of mankind whereas Mark feels that every last one of them ought to be eliminated.
The character who actively brings about the Armageddon that makes up the majority of the film is Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). He is an eco-terrorist who believes with the full resolve of a religious zealot that Godzilla is the Earth’s answer to humanity’s desecration of the Earth and he wants to awaken the rest of the monsters still in hibernation in order to accelerate the cleansing of man and his sins. As was revealed in the trailers that preceded the movie’s release, Emma is on board with Jonah’s crusade and joins him in his plan to wake up the remaining creatures, many of whom kaiju fans will immediately recognise. These include Mothra, a giant moth whose glowing wings are put on dazzling display in images of breathtaking beauty, Rodan, the giant pterodactyl, and Ghidorah, the malicious, three-headed behemoth and the greatest challenger to Godzilla’s dominance over the titans. Emma and Jonah believe with all their hearts that if these monsters are allowed to roam free and bring an end to the toxic, barren, depleted world that humanity created through their indifference and greed, then biological balance will be restored and the futures of the planet, the monsters and even of the human race will ultimately be assured. But therein lies the question: what price must humanity pay for the sake of the greater good?
The movies in the MonsterVerse so far, whilst financially successful, have not had the best track record with audiences. Many were disappointed by the Gareth Edwards Godzilla for how overly philosophical it was and how little screen-time the titular monster ended up getting in the end (about seven minutes) while others were let down by the Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong for going overboard with the monster-on-monster action in the absence of any compelling characters or story. King of the Monsters attempts to offer a middle ground between these two approaches, combining the thematic ambition of the former with the abundant action of the latter. The execution is not always successful however; there are too many action scenes that take place in dark settings obscured by rain or snow and the film’s genuinely intelligent and compelling philosophy is undermined by its inability to trust the audience. The overall moral and ideological conflict of the film is present in the family drama between Mark, Emma and Madison, as are the themes of grief and trauma that are personified by the monsters who have been summoned to bring about humanity’s end. A film that placed more focus on the trio could have made for the kind of moving, high-concept family fantasy that Spielberg used to do so well. The film however devotes far too much time to such side characters as Dr. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) and Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), who serve as little more than surrogates, reacting to these seismic events on behalf of the audience and explaining the significance of any given moment for fear that the viewers might not understand for themselves.
King of the Monsters fits into a category of science-fiction cinema that is so deeply concerned with themes of faith and spirituality that it could almost be called a religious picture. It reveres the titanic creatures with a divine sense of wonder, both at its most awe-inspiring and terrifying. Godzilla and his kind are gods among men; their powers are nearly beyond comprehension and their intentions are ultimately unknowable. The film enables us to appreciate their grandiosity by framing them in profoundly human terms. The movie cares deeply about the ordinary people caught up in this catastrophe and how they all must feel about living in this strange new world where titans reign supreme. Much of the film’s time is devoted towards exploring the implications and realities of this universe they’ve created and it is positively bursting with countless astounding images in which the ideas it wants to convey come to stunning life. Such images include Godzilla swimming through the pitch-black depths of the ocean illuminated only by the fiery pale-blue lights on its spine, Mothra unfolding its resplendent wings against the luminous backdrop of a waterfall, and Ghidora roaring triumphantly atop an exploding volcano as the camera dramatically sweeps to reveal a crucifix in the foreground. The movie is certainly uneven and has plenty of problems where plot is concerned, but at its most visceral and thoughtful it is truly a work of magnificence.