There was a time when I longed for American movie studios to start making Godzilla movies, if only for the selfish reason of not having to wait two-to-five years for them. Now, of course, I can get pristine copies of every Godzilla movie delivered to my door, dubbed or subbed. I should be happy as a clam instead of constantly on the knife edge between anxiety, depression and inarticulate screaming. But Godzilla’s finally found a giant monster he can’t defeat: Late Stage Capitalism and its gods-forsaken industrial production line of a Culture Industry.
Legendary Pictures announced what they’ve been trying to get us to call “the MonsterVerse” way back in the Long-Long Ago of October, 2015. Right after they announced they were making a King Kong movie for seemingly no reason, beyond justifying a remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Oh, wait…I’m sorry…a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong. See, it’s not a remake because they switched who got top billing and they’re plainly uninterested in any of King Kong vs. Godzilla‘s human characters.
In between the two Kong movies, we got a Godzilla movie that feels like it was made by an algorithm. An algorithm fed, not on other Godzilla movies, but on the generalized idea of what a Godzilla movie is, as held by people who either don’t watch Godzilla movies, or fast-forward to the monster fights when they do. Kevin Smith got dunked on across Twitter this year for suggesting that a Godzilla movie with no humans might be the best idea. And while that’s the type of thinking that leads one straight to making Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I have slightly more sympathy for it than I would otherwise. After all, if the humans are as boring and lame as this crew, why not excise them all and make the movie shorter?
When this came out, I expected it to get crucified on a cross made of brick dust. The average, non-G-fan critic tends to hate PG-13 city destruction because they feel it exploits 9/11…and heaven forbid anyone get away with exploiting 9/11 for their own aesthetic ends. Political ends, oh yeah – if you’re a politician you can exploit 9/11 for years and still go on TV and chill with Ellen, or schmooze with Michelle Obama, and the “#Resistance” won’t even throw its shoes at you. But if you’re a film maker, then you’re in our world, motherfucker, and we will come for dat ass.
Not that it’ll make a difference…but since we live in a society (heh) based on pretending that we have political power, even though we don’t unless we have “fuck you” money, we need some kind of outlet for our simmering rage that doesn’t challenge power structures, even on the most superficial level. So we yell at directors…if we know their names and have hated more than one of their previous films. Luckily, most of the people who saw Trick ‘r Treat and Kranpus actually liked them, including me. And nobody besides me remembers Michael Dougherty’s writing work on bullshit like Urban Legend 3 or…Superman Returns. Ugh.
Of course, it’s hard to say how much directing work Dougherty actually did on this picture, it being a special effects-heavy summer blockbuster from one of the Big Four studios. Half of it was probably pre-visualized ages before Dougherty even signed on, leaving our director with little to do besides direct his human cast and sit awkwardly through pre-release interviews. In this worst of all possible worlds there will be no more Ishiro Hondas or Jun Fukudas. Even Shusuke Kaneko, whose 1990s Gamera Trilogy is still the kaiju film trilogy to beat, fell into the trap of making a Godzilla movie swaddled in nostalgia for previous Godzilla movies, because the Japanese movie industry is approximately zero percent better than its American counterpart. And that was twenty goddamn years ago. We’ve fallen a long way down since then, the miracle that is Shin Godzilla aside.
Even my own, casual, algorithmic scans indicate my fellow G-fans like King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra, so here they are. Scans also indicate “Ghidorah: Bad, Mothra: Good (except for that one time when they were both good) and Rodan’s the kind of an opportunist who’ll go with whoever has the high hand, so there’s the plot.” But that can’t be the whole plot: this is a movie, not a nature documentary with giant monsters…as entertaining as thinking about that might be. Especially now. “I’m Marty Stouffer and this is Wild America…” Marty Stouffer, in this case, being played by Kyle Chandler, who will forever be known in my house as “Early Edition Dude.”
Early Edition Dude is Dr. Mark Russell, anthrozoologist and divorced dad, who once upon a time worked for this universe’s non-governmental giant monster monster monitoring organization, Monarch. Which I still have trouble taking seriously, since I’ve watched way too much Venture Bros. and can’t even see their name without silently reading it in Chris McCullouch’s Monarch voice. Dr. Early Edition and his now-ex wife Emma (played by Vera Farmiga from The Conjuring universe) perfected a way to communicate with the monsters (or “titans,” as they’d have it) via the frequencies that they all seem share…despite clearly being from different Phylums and Classes in the animal Kingdom, never mind Genuses and Species. This device is called “the orca,” which I also have trouble taking seriously, since that’s the name of a 1977 Jaws rip-off about a killer whale seeking vengeance upon the humans who killed his pregnant mate. I’m tempted to call Orca a genuine “American kaiju film,” but doing so would only bring up the question of whether Jaws is a giant monster movie. Which would only raise further, even more philosophical questions…and here I am, already getting distracted.
The Drs. Russell split up after losing a child in the climactic battle of San Francisco, as depicted in 2014’s Godzilla. Dr. The Conjuring took the surviving child, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things), back to Boston, while Dr. Early Edition went back to studying smaller things with simpler taxonomies, like wolves. But just when he thought he was out, Monarch pulls him back in, because Dr. The Conjuring and Madison have been kidnapped, and the perfected orca stolen, by a band of “eco-terrorists.” Led by…oh, shit, it’s Charles Dance in the house! Hide your kids, hide your wife, we’re paying ever Lannister’s debts out here!
Everyone’s Evil English Dad plans to use the orca to awaken all the titans, hoping they’ll destroy human civilization and save Earth from all the environmental catastrophes we’re causing and ignoring. Because he’s played by Charles Dance, who maxed out his Charisma stat back when Game of Throes was still a six-pack in George R. R. Martin’s fridge, and because I’m a lefty film critic in this hellish twenty-first century of ours, I have some sympathies for him. Unfortunately, I have no sympathy for the film he’s in. In fact, I must indite it for being yet another big-budget franchise film that goes to all the trouble of casting Charles Dance, uses him for ten minutes, max, and then decides to Save Him for the Sequel. In the pantheon of Movie Crimes, that’s at least criminal negligence.
But instead of being invested in Charles Dance’s quest to wipe out human civilization, I’m supposed to be invested in Dr. Early Edition’s divorced dad quest to get back together with his family…which is funny, since that’s the “human interest” plot of almost every Roland Emmerich disaster movie except 1998’s Godzilla. (And even there, Broaderick’s Dr. Nic wastes a good chunk of that film trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend.) As such, I was enured to the plight of Divorced Dads long before I discovered what they say to each other on the internet when they think no one else is listening. (Surprise, it’s mostly bigoted bullshit and conspiracy theories.) Any film centered on their plight is going to have to work overtime to make me care, and this film felt it could get away with making Dr. Early Edition instantly hyper-competent. You’re telling me you have this whole crew of professional monster-watchers, and none of them thought to treat Godzilla the same way you’d treat a stray dog? They needed Dr. Early Edition to tell them, “Hey, maybe don’t posture like you’re a threat unless you want to rumble? Maybe speak slowly, in a clam, soothing voice? Maybe give him the occasional treat?” The term “Mary Sue” gets thrown around by misogynist idiots so much that most seem to’ve forgotten its male equivalent. But I haven’t, so I’m calling it: Dr. Early Edition is a Gary Stu. As such, he’s boring and I could care less about the status of his nuclear (ha! Double entendre!) family. Even after Dr. The Conjuring turns heel.
Yes, it appears Charles Dance got to Dr. The Conjuring at some point and she was in on the whole “orca theft” thing. So much so that she, and not Charles Dance, gets to make the big Villain Speech about how all this monster mayhem is necessary because pollution (which is real), overpopulation (which isn’t) and the complete failure of our political systems to do anything about either. This is “eco-terrorism” as conceived by people whose idea of an “eco-terrorist” begins an ends with the Unabomber. Read his manifesto these days and you might be surprised how many right wing assholes (especially here on YouTube) have just outright plagiarized his critique of “leftism,” secure in the knowledge he won’t sue. Of course, they’ve expanded that critique to include leftisms that didn’t even exist when Teddy boy wrote his book, and they ignore that one line where he straight-up says, “The conservatives are fools,” but time is a flat circle…and who has time to read these days?
So, with Dr. The Conjuring’s help, Charles Dance’s merry band of ex-SAS opperators free Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Rodan, forcing Godzilla to travel the world battling them all, with the good folks at Monarch trailing close behind. There’s some nice city destruction, enough perfect shots to keep One Perfect Shot’s Twitter well stocked, and some decent monster action in fits and starts throughout. I do appreciate the spectacle of Boston getting reduced to molten glass. I like the care taken by the army of special effects artists to characterize all the monsters, despite their stiff, reptilian or insectoid faces. And I’ll give props to any film with the stones to just go, “Hey, guess what? The Hollow Earth is real.” Fuck the Flat Earth, and all the Flat Earthers – I grew up reading Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we’re all about that Hollow Earth around here. Axel Island, Pelucidar, the series of tubes through which Godzilla travels – get all this into my veins. Especially since underground civilizations regularly threatened to destroy the worlds of Japanese sci-fi films throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Here, the underground civilizations are long dead, but their sunken, cyclopian cities remain…preserved in vast, often radioactive caverns where only Godzillas dare to tread. He retreats to one after the military hits both he and Ghidorah with (what else?) yet another Oxygen Destroyer. It fails to kill either, but maims the Big G so much that yet another Dr. Serizawa must sacrifice himself to give Godzilla little nuclear pick-me-up. Say goodbye to Ken Watanabe, folks. Hope you weren’t waiting for he and Charles Dance to share a scene. Their combined acting powers would’ve broken this whole universe in half anyway, so I guess it’s for the best.
Yes, I’m being snarky, but do you see what I mean about this being an algorithmically generated Godzilla movie? There must always be a Dr. Serizawa, and he must always sacrifice himself for The Greater Good. Godzilla and King Ghidorah are doomed to fight across all the dimensions in the multiverse because of the same, self-reinforcing cycle that keeps each new reboot of Superman fighting Lex Luthor and General Zod is at work here, and just as insidious. Ghidorah’s the monster Godzilla’s fought the most in his sixty-year career, and so he will remain. There will always be a team of well-meaning science types frantically trying to aid Godzilla in his battle against a worst monster, and the only real question is, how actively will they be supported by the military? For two films in a row now, these American Godzilla movies have explicitly placed the G-man on the same side as the US military. And this makes sense in a way I find grimly ironic. After all, the first giant monster to destroy Tokyo was the US Air Force.
A better title for this film – since it did the thing video game reboots do of just using the same title as the original, forever frustrating all our cataloging efforts – is “Godzilla vs. Fanservice.” And, unfortunately for us all, Fanservice won. A $400 million box office take for a $200 million movie is not all that much in this billion-dollar blockbuster age of ours. That means that, while some of my fellow G-fans no doubt felt serviced by this sucker (I see you, I hear you, and hereby validate you with my powers of…having a show on the internet, for whatever that’s worth, which is not much) the civilians bounced right off of it with all their prejudices confirmed.
I have witnessed this happen first hand and it’s terrifying. To the general population, Godzilla movies are chores, where the gratification of watching fifteen-to-thirty minutes of monster action, tops, is delayed way past the point of satisfaction. Stapled to one-to-two hours of boring humanity, painting in the numbers of an obvious plot. And you know the worst part? Sometimes, they aren;t even wrong. It falls to we, who know better, to communicate the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way.
The crusading reporters of Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ichiro and Junko, are many things, but they are not boring. Ditto with Fuji and Glenn, the astronauts who save the world (with a little help from their friends and family) in the original Monster Zero. Or the crew (“hijackers,” really) of the Yalen in Godzilla vs.The Sea Monster. Hell, even Maki, Yoko and Professor Hyashida from Godzilla: 1985 are…well, ok, they’re a little boring until the end, but they’re part of a larger story about Japan’s place in a mid-1980s, Cold War world. Same way the Hideaki Anno Players of Shin Gojira start off a little stiff but get better as things go on. Their very stiffness is a commentary on the calcified gerontocracy that defines 21st-century Japanese politics…and American politics, for that matter. But my fellow Americans will call me a Russian bot if I try to start that conversation.
And that’s not even getting into non-Godzilla kaiju movies. Or just American ones. For my money, Tremors is still the boss to beat, then The Blob remake, and then there’s a big old gap before we get to Pacific Rim. Then there’s another big old gap, and everything else is on the far side of that. Including this. But I’m biased. I can’t watch this without thinking about the five other Godzilla movies I could be watching instead. This King of the Monsters is either the third remake of Ghidorah – The Three-headed Monster, or the second remake of Destroy All Monsters. And in this worst of futures, isn’t it time we started asking for a little more? We can do better. Certain filmmakers already have in the past. Or, if we can’t do better, can we at least get something that won’t bore our friends and make us fast-forward to the action scenes? I mean, is there a higher force at work here? Are we asking too much of life…? Damnit, now I want to watch Tremors again. Tremors is still good, folks. Watch that instead.