Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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.

★★★★

Advertisements

The Conjuring 2

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente

Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson


In his sequel to The Conjuring James Wan focuses on another famous paranormal incident from the 1970s: the Enfield Poltergeist. When watching the director at work in this time period, it is immediately apparent how much he has been influenced by the horror films of this era such as The Omen, Poltergeist and, aptly enough, The Amityville Horror. He has drawn from these movies cinematic tricks and techniques that elevates his style of horror above the usual crop of lazy, unimaginative movies that think making a viewer jump is the same thing as scaring them. The Conjuring 2 is essentially a showcase of 70s and 80s horror movie practices put together by a director who understands how and why they work. While the sequel isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, whose characters resonated a little more strongly and horror was meted out a little more evenly, The Conjuring 2 is still a worthwhile film that shines like a beacon amid the endless stream of tired, mediocre horror movies still being made today.

The film opens in 1976 with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) investigating the Amityville Horror. During a séance Lorraine receives a haunting vision of a demonic figure and a dark premonition of Ed’s fate. So unsettled is she by this vision that she begs Ed to stop going on investigations for a while. A year later the Hodgson family in London starts encountering strange experiences in their home, most of them involving Janet (Madison Wolfe), the second oldest of the four children. Once it becomes clear that these occurrences are paranormal, the mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) starts looking for help from the church. After it is discovered that Janet might be the victim of a demonic possession, the story becomes a media sensation and eventually reaches the Warrens. Lorraine, still troubled by her vision and fearing for Ed’s life, reluctantly agrees to follow Ed to London but warns him not to get too involved in the case. There they hope to discover the true nature of this demonic threat and save the Hodgsons from the spirit haunting them.

There are some great moments of horror in this film. Using some of the tricks he’s picked up from the horror movies of this era such as the uncomfortably long takes of Kubrick’s The Shining and the eerie lighting of Friedkin’s The Exorcist Wan is able to create some truly creepy scenes. A good example is when Ed Warren first attempts to interview the spirit possessing Janet. Here the camera is fixed squarely on Ed’s face and depicts his reaction while Janet sits out of focus in the background. This staging places an amplified focus on the creepy voice coming out of this 12-year-old girl while also allowing for a strong degree of ambiguity in regards to whether or not the Warrens actually believe that this is an authentic paranormal threat. The scares however are not as consistent or as effective as they were in the first film due to issues of tone and pacing. There are number of scenes that, while not bad, are just unnecessary and could easily have been cut out to allow for a tighter, scarier experience. One such example is a scene where Patrick Wilson does his best Elvis and serenades the family with a rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. It’s fun, but distracting.

As in the first film Wilson and Farmiga are utterly devoted to their roles and deliver equally strong performances. Farmiga is particularly compelling as Lorraine undergoing a crisis in confidence and faith. Challenging her faith is the fantastically designed demon nun haunting her visions with sacrilegious images and a premonition of Ed’s death. She struggles throughout the film to keep Ed safe and to keep herself from going insane and Farmiga sells every second of it. The Hodgsons are not quite as strongly defined or relatable as the family in the first film which means that some of the horror loses its weight. Frances O’Connor is fine but doesn’t really leave much of an impact as the distressed mother. Wolfe does a decent job playing the little girl being tortured by this spirit but I cannot help but compare her to Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s terrific turn as the same character in Sky’s The Enfield Haunting.

The Conjuring 2 doesn’t quite hit the mark to the same extent as its predecessor or indeed any of the films it so clearly emulates. However, with the aggravating number of cheap, lazy horrors being made today, any film in this genre made by a director with actual cinematic competence is welcome. Wan is certainly a capable director and his technical skill in producing horror within the vein of movies made in the 70s and 80s is indisputable. He shows a remarkable level of attention to detail in his desire to pay homage to these films as can be seen in his accurate recreation of the time period. His mistake with this film was getting carried away with it and adding in more than was needed. A little more time in the editing room might have allowed this film to be the equal of the first Conjuring movie. Nevertheless The Conjuring 2 still delivers the scares where it counts and is worth a watch, if only because decent horror movies are a rare commodity these days.

★★★