What makes a good American Godzilla film?
It’s a seemingly simple question that has nonetheless eluded Hollywood since time immemorial.
As it happens, not even the near-algorithmic problem-solving skills of American film studio executives could untangle the complicated history of Godzilla and, therefore, deliver a satisfying answer.
Originally conceived by Japanese filmmaker Ishirō Honda as an examination of national trauma following his home country’s devastating defeat in World War II with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1954 film Godzilla is a harrowing parable in which collective paranoia physically manifests itself as the titular dinosaur-like monster that demolishes everything in sight.
The seminal film has since given birth to the kaiju (strange beast) subgenre and a surprisingly durable media franchise that capitalizes on the primal appeal of monster-versus-monster melees, foregoing explicit political allegory with each passing entry.
These two discrete halves of the franchise — its origin as a standalone film that doubles as a vital sociopolitical document and its subsequent incarnation as a series of increasingly kid-friendly action films — seem to have confounded Hollywood, which had been thriving on the traditional concept of single-minded film franchises for decades.
As of this writing, there have been three Godzilla films that were entirely produced by major American film companies: Roland Emmerich’s pop-cultural sensation Godzilla in 1998, Gareth Edwards’ franchise reboot in 2014, also titled after the iconic monster, and, most recently, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019, a direct sequel to Edwards’ film.
The three Hollywood blockbusters approached the Japanese source material with slightly different styles, but they all operate under a common principle: Godzilla is at its most fun when it’s on pure popcorn mode.
Yet the critical consensus surrounding these Westernized Godzilla films has been mixed, to say the least.
Roland Emmerich — fresh off the success of Independence Day in 1996 — tried applying a generic disaster-film formula to the legend of Godzilla, making the titular monster a murderous overgrown lizard akin to Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus rex that hunts New Yorkers for lunch and eats raw fish for dinner.
The big-budget blockbuster was met with lukewarm reception among the general movie-going public, while also gaining immediate notoriety among hardcore Godzilla fans and purists who derided it for having allegedly committed the cardinal sin of stripping the monster of its discernible character traits.
Many years later, indie darling Gareth Edwards — plucked from relative obscurity following his intimate sci-fi feature, Monsters, to become Hollywood’s poster boy for directorial authorship in the mid-2010s — chose to align his take on Godzilla closer to the original 1954 film in tone and visual aesthetics.
As a result, Edwards’ Godzilla turned out to be an exceptionally brooding summer blockbuster. The film’s bold decision to spend most of its duration meditating on the insignificance of humankind in the overwhelming vastness of nature made it popular among critics, who were charmed by its intelligence.
However, it also drew the ire of fans who had come to expect full-blown fights between mythical beasts instead of what they perceived as pretentious philosophical mumbo-jumbo.
That brings us to Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest American Godzilla film that looks to offer an olive branch to the increasingly alienated fan base.
As though apologizing to the fans for the last two Hollywood versions of Godzilla, Dougherty has spared no expense in making them feel at home through his new film: King of the Monsters features not one, not two, not three, but four classic monsters from the long-running franchise.
Not leaving anything to chance, Dougherty even had composer Bear McCreary cram every classic individual monster theme into the film, just in case the fandom were be annoyed by the lack of musical intertextuality.
Furthermore, Dougherty sells King of the Monsters on the premise of an all-out action galore involving all of the monsters, therefore doing his homework to reassure fans that it is indeed the American Godzilla of their childhood dreams.
King of the Monsters revolves around a group of scientists — portrayed by an overqualified ensemble cast that includes the likes of Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi — in a race against time to prevent the extinction of the entire human race as a host of ancient monsters rises from the depths of the Earth to overtake the planet.
This time, the human protagonists enlist the help of ol’ reliable Godzilla to beat the other monsters to a pulp.
As usual, the paper-thin plot provides just enough basic narrative throughline to justify a barrage of large-scale monster battles between fan-favorites Godzilla, Mothra, Rhodan and King Ghidorah. Per tradition, the human characters are treated as little more than insignificant specks, who are often ping-ponged between one gargantuan creature to another just to keep the pretext of a coherent narrative moving.
Despite all these overt concessions to the hardcore fans, however, King of the Monsters still ends up being a palpably uneven film.
Dougherty’s film strains to incorporate the original franchise’s inherent goofiness into the relatively grounded world that Gareth Edwards introduced in his 2014 reboot.
For every digression into silly kaiju mythology, there is a poorly-timed quip that metatextually acknowledges how ridiculous the entire affair is. The film both grits its teeth and laughs at its own jokes at the expense of the viewer. These botched attempts at comedy make for a fine source of unintentional hilarity, if nothing else.
The action doesn’t really kick into high gear until at least the one-hour mark, where the widely-advertised kaiju warfare truly gets mobile, briefly evoking George Miller’s hyperactive Mad Max: Fury Road but with military jets and airborne titans in place of modded cars and War Boys.
That said, for a film touting megabrawls between multiple mythical monsters as its centerpiece, King of the Monsters visually falls short.
The computer-generated images rarely transcend the rigid painterly compositions that seem tailor-made for striking desktop wallpapers, rendering what are supposed to be fluid and legible showdowns between gargantuan cinematic icons somewhat kinetically restricted and visually muddled. The standard-issue orange-and-teal color palette doesn’t help to liven things up, either.
King of the Monsters may still serve as a perfectly serviceable kaiju picture among life-long fans who have been looking forward to seeing their favorite childhood monsters be rendered in high-end visual effects for years.
However, casual fans such as myself are bound to be left thinking about the film’s glaring ineptitude.
As unlikely as it may sound, Dougherty’s film is similar to Honda’s 1954 masterwork in that they both function as cultural snapshots of their respective eras.
In Honda’s film, Godzilla represents the hysteria of post-war Japan. Meanwhile in Dougherty’s film, Godzilla and his cohorts rise from dormancy to symbolize the current trend of fan entitlement.
The question remains: what makes a good American Godzilla film?
After all these years, the answer remains as elusive as ever. (wng)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.