I was looking forward to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, having been a fan of giant creature features since I was a young boy. The blend of massive-scale action and affirming our need to respect nature is a winning combination for me. Then I watched it, and it was one of the dumbest films I have ever seen.
Admittedly, it wasn’t quite as poor as the 2014 Godzilla, itself not as dire as the 1998 Godzilla, but it was more moronic than either of those entries in the national embarassment that is American-made Godzilla movies. While the film did deliver on the giant monster action, it failed in every other aspect.
The Military and Godzilla
While it is possible to enjoy entertainment without likeable characters (see Succession, for example) this usually involves constructing a more elaborate world with more dramatic irony than is possible in a movie about giant monsters spitting fire at each other. People with memories will recall that the previous Godzilla film also suffered from a serious surfeit of enjoyable characters, or indeed characters of any kind. It has people in it and they do stuff, but they are almost utterly devoid of personality and emotion.
This wasn’t entirely the film-makers’ fault – the Pentagon’s Phil Strub told them to remove all the potentially controversial (read: interesting) stuff about the naval EOD tech protagonist, so that he would become a recruiment poster for the US Navy. In making him as inoffensive as possible, they also made him profoundly bland:
I actually got the Godzilla script twice. The first time I got it was when I was negotiating with the writer for Man of Steel. Man of Steel was a picture I thought was hopeless, hopeless – could never work on this stupid thing. And I was persuaded into sitting down with the writer, who for once was not this young person right out of film school…
…He said ‘I’ve got this other script, Godzilla, that I’m just doing a polish of, can you read that?’ and so, I did, and I told them ‘absolutely hopeless’, I mean some of the stuff in there would have made a good comedy, but that’s it, and so then a couple of years go by and it turns up again. And I thought ‘oh no, not again’ and so I read the script and one of the things I noticed was this character, not necessarily the main character, but this young man, this young Navy EOD officer, it was just the most loathesome kinda creature. I mean he was a liar, a manipulator, there was something wrong with he and his wife…
…So the one thing is that the film-makers weren’t happy with the script either, and our strategy is to usually try and minimally… So I just had a conversation with them and asked ‘why is this person so… what’s with this negative character, what are you getting out of that?’ and he really didn’t have an answer, so they were open to suggestions, so we made them and they were happy to incorporate them.
The writers and producers of King of the Monsters have no such excuse, as the film was turned down for military support. A document from mid-2017 from the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison office shows that they rejected the request from the producers. The report notes that draft scripts were provided to the Army, Navy and Air Force but ‘None are interested in providing support.’
So all the blame has to be placed on the shoulders of writers Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields, for presenting us with a panoply of characters, none of whom have any character.
For example, Kyle Chandler plays an utterly stereotypical estranged/divorced father who reunites with his family because Godzilla much like Bryan Cranston in the 2014 film. His entire character arc takes place in the opening 20 minutes – he is introduced as living out in the wilderness while his ex-wife develops some magical noise box that she hopes can control the Titans (the giant monsters). When his ex-wife and daughter run into trouble, he comes out of hiding to try to help or rescue them. From there until the end of the movie he has very little to do except emphasise how important his ex-wife and daughter are to him, which isn’t believable because if they were so important he wouldn’t have abandoned them in the first place.
It seems to be a default in Hollywood that whenever they’re lacking an emotional core they resort to something about broken families being reunited, working on the assumption that this is relatable for the majority of the audience. But given the rates of divorce and single parenthood in modern day society, a lot of people feel absolutely nothing when watching this tedious, hackneyed familial melodrama play out. I was certainly one of them.
Ex-wife, played by Vera Farmiga, is no better. She gets involved with some eco-terrorists to try to unleash the Titans in the name of bringing balance back to life on earth. Leaving aside the misanthropy of this storyline, with all the usual ‘humans are a cancer on the planet’ hyperbole, this is just a really dumb plan. She’s supposed to be a ‘strong female character’ and a scientist, but she’s little more than a physical moron. Her plan goes horribly wrong, kills millions of people (that we never see) and, inevitably, she sacrifices herself at the end to try to save the handful of people who are left.
Charles Dance is the eco-terrorist in question, and on paper he’s supposed to be the primary villain. But he never says or does anything particularly villainous – most of the destruction results from ex-wife’s sheer stupidity, rather than the villain’s desire for vengeance. If anything, Dance is a gentleman terrorist, too polite to get his hands dirty.
Thomas Middleditch, Bradley Whitford and Sally Hawkins all play scientists who work for Monarch, but they are pretty much interchangeable because none of them have personalities. All three are talented performers who are capable of so much more, so it’s unclear why they felt the need to ridicule themselves by signing up for this humiliating retardation.
Ken Watanabe reprises his role as Dr. Ishirō Serizawa, but his entire purpose in the film is to say seemingly-profound things in a gutteral Japanese accent, before becoming a kamikaze pilot when Monarch decide to nuke Godzilla. Because he’s Japanese. And the Japanese used kamikaze pilots in WW2. So it has to be the Japanese character who commits suicide. Because he’s Japanese.
(This is both racist and imbecilic.)
Indeed, the only character capable of expressing or evoking any emotion throughout the entire film is Madison, the daughter of estranged father guy and scientist ex-wife lady, played by Millie Bobbie Brown. While she is basically playing the same ‘teenage girl vs the monster’ role as she does in Stranger Things, she at least manages to inject some tension into proceedings and seems like a real person, rather than an actor reading lines. Give it another 20 years and no doubt she’ll be phoning it in on films such as this, just like Whitford, Hawkins and the rest.
What we might ironically call the ‘plot’ is perhaps even more witless than the characters. Everything that anyone does in this film is beyond cretinous. Meta-cretinous, if you like.
Humans are killing the planet, so ex-wife scientist lady joins forces with eco-terrorist gentleman to find and release several kaiju over time, in the hope they’ll kill enough people that it’ll stop global warming, or something. This is more or less the same as Thanos’ plot in the penultimate Avengers movie, but at least his quasi-genocide was instantaneous. Ex-wife and eco-terrorist’s plan is much more drawn out and causes suffering on a scale never seen before.
Or seen in this movie, to be honest, because they never actually depict it. We get loads of interior shots of helicopters as they transport the protagonists around so they can do things so the next page of the script can happen, but very little of the general public being massacred with extreme prejudice by Titans. Dialogue tells us that there is mass destruction and carnage, but because we don’t see it, we don’t care.
In any case, the plan goes horribly wrong because they release Ghidora, who then summons a couple of dozen other Titans (also referred to but not actually depicted on-screen), leading to a worldwide calamity. While ex-wife and eco-terrorist stand around blaming each other, a 12 year old girl does more to save the remnants of humanity than Monarch, the scientific establishment and the governments of the world put together.
In fact, almost everything they try to do to prevent the calamity only makes the problem worse. While this could have been a nice commentary on the foolishness of real-world authorities, it isn’t. It is just an accident of very bad screenwriting.
For example, Ghidorah and Godzilla have a fight shortly after Ghidorah rises up and starts laying waste to Mexico’s apple orchards. So Monarch’s military wing, headed by the criminally-underused David Strathairn, launch an oxygen-deprivation bomb at them, hoping it will kill both of them. This fails miserably, as they forgot that Ghidorah can fly and thus escape the blast radius quite easily, but appears to kill Godzilla, who can’t fly because he’s a 300 million ton dinosaur.
I repeat: everything that anyone does in this film (with the exception of Elle from Stranger Things) is beyond cretinous.
Having apparently murdered humanity’s only hope, our protagonists go into a holding pattern of bickering with each other and solving minor problems like rescuing an inconsequentially small handful of people who we’ve never met before and who play no further role in the story after they are rescued. The second act of this film has basically nothing at stake, as everyone is either powerless or too much of a dunce to do anything constructive.
Then, they realise Godzilla might be alive and in the process of looking for him they accidentally discover the lost city of Atlantis. In order to bring Godzilla back to life so he can defeat Ghidora (who is revealed to be an ancient alien because that TV series has proven popular and focus grouped well) they decide to nuke him. This completes the reversal of the role of nuclear weapons in the Godzilla franchise. The original Japanese movies were strictly anti-nuclear, with Godzilla’s destruction representing that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, nukes are some kind of kaiju defibrilator, capable of bringing a comatose Godzilla back to life and blessing him with super-powers.
In the process the nuke destroys the underwater city of Atlantis. The greatest historical discovery humans have ever made is obliterated within minutes of being found. Because fuck civilisation, fuck understanding, fuck learning the lessons of the past. Let’s just throw a nuke on the bonfire and hope for the best.
In the end, Nuke-Zilla defeats Ghidora quite easily, though not before Mothra and Rodan are sacrificed because they needed to cram in as much monster-fighting screentime as possible to cover up for the chasmic abyss that is the rest of the film.
How to ruin the world’s longest-running film franchise
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not just a dumb, stupid, moronic, imbecilic, simple-minded, dopey, half-witted, doltish, braindead movie. It’s also strategically thick.
Next year will see the release of Godzilla vs Kong. Or possibly Kong vs Godzilla. I can’t remember and it makes no difference. But having spent two hours watching Godzilla fighting Ghidora and Rodan and laying waste to most of the known world, and the recently-discovered lost city of Atlantis, there’s nowhere for the franchise to go.
For one thing, both Kong and Godzilla are beloved by monster fans, so they can’t kill off either of these pieces of lucrative CGI real estate. For another, however dramatic their confrontation might turn out to be it will feel like an anti-climax compared to the epic scale of violent action in King of the Monsters.
A good monster-on-monster battle is like a prizefight. No one wants to just see two lunkheads get into the ring and thump each other. There have to be qualifying bouts leading up to the title fight, and ideally plenty of trash talking and allegations of steroid abuse at the weigh-in. That’s what brings in the big audiences: a sense of anticipation.
But Kong vs Godzilla will be another Batman vs Superman – the lack of build-up and failure to establish the conflict between the central characters makes the fight just another struggle between computer-generated bullshit. Kong plays no role in King of the Monsters, and aside from one line about the Titans heading for Skull Island the film does nothing to set up the next installment of the story.
While I’m all in favour of letting people with special educational needs run beloved entertainment franchises off a cliff (vis Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Batman, Superman and James Bond), it really isn’t that hard to do better than this. A logical progression would have seen Kong vs Godzilla arrive before King of the Monsters, as a teaser for the full pantheon of Titans. Instead, we’re reduced to watching the cinematic equivalent of a charity benefit fight between Mohammed Ali and Richard Pryor, when we should be getting Ali-Frasier.
Please note: It is not that I was expecting much from this film, and it did contain some enjoyable moments. The highlight for me was when a military fighter pilot ejector seats right into the mouth of a kaiju – no doubt one of the reasons the Pentagon rejected the script. I appreciated the attempts – however superficial – to flesh out the Monsterverse by incorporating myth and legend.
But when the most charismatic character is a giant dinosaur created by 12,000 computer animators and the second most charismatic is played by the least experienced actor in the cast, something has gone horribly wrong. One of the consequences of CGI is that the ability to depict almost anything reduces film-makers to childish fantasists who make films where the entire plot consists of ‘and then, and then, and then’. Everything happens for the sole purpose of enabling the next thing to happen – a series of means to other means, with no end in sight.
To answer my title question – no, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not the dumbest movie ever, but it is like watching a $200 million Ed Wood film. Off the top of my head I can only think of one feature in the last decade that was more dimwitted – Geostorm.