Godzilla: King of Controversy

It's worth noting that critics aren't always right. Upon its initial Japanese release, Gojira (1954) sold over 9 million tickets but left critics cold. According to Director Ishiro Honda, it was considered exploitative and too fantastical to project all the suffering incurred by World War II and two nuclear bombs onto a mythological dinosaur. Fittingly enough, it was American critics that lauded the frankness of the allegory even in the heavily expurgated Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956), eventually legitimizing in Japan the very monster that the United States metaphorically created.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), overwhelms and awe with the reverent rendering of its cast of beloved creatures. Growing up with the old Toho VHSs, Mothra might have been my favorite friend/rival of Godzilla, but I don't think I ever got misty-eyed watching her swoop down in beautiful bioluminescence. Simultaneously, Ken Watanabe's character (Ishiro Serizawa) does much of the same obligatory moralizing he did in the previous installment, but this time includes cringe-worthy irony. After a particularly rambling monologue,  someone asks "Did you just make that up?" Serizawa jokes "I read it on the back of a fortune cookie...a really long fortune cookie." I sighed. I chuckled. I died a little inside.

Many critics are grappling with a crisis of conscience in rating a kaiju film that delivers majestic (if dark and stormy) monster battles but contains lines like these. As the latest property steeped in nerd-culture to receive a big release, King of the Monsters is beginning to represent the seeming disparity between critical opinion and fan appreciation. But while any critical take on this film necessarily involves lampooning the writing, many rightly acknowledge the human trappings are a needless folly, as the supposed monster should be the heart of the story. (Yes, in this film one human says to another: "You're a monster." The burn is radioactive.) Why then the dilemma? Perhaps because the story is that dumb and the spectacle is that good?

Ghidorah.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters  (2019)

Ghidorah. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

To frame the discussion of this film as story vs. spectacle does a disservice to the weight and ambition of its visual storytelling. The arresting tableaus of Ghidorah astride a volcanic crater dwarfing a foregrounded crucifix, or Godzilla recuperating atop a chthonian ziggurat, serve to infuse the final battle with the godly grandeur of a true clash of titans the likes of which I have never seen. But the story those images tell is not simply unsupported, it is tonally at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of the film. The critical concession that fans will love this movie seems to imply that the ideal Godzilla is the benevolent b-movie slugger with only pretensions to his horrific roots. As a critical fan, my affection for action hero struggles throughout with my love of the monster. I'm not sure if I believe that I have to choose one or the other, but in this movie they are at war.

Director/Writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus, Superman Returns) is an understandable choice to hype up the franchise after Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) attempted the solemnity of the original and arguably achieved mostly tedium. Similarly, Dougherty's co-written script is reverent of its creatures in concept and attempts homage. The premise that Godzilla and his fellow Titans are antediluvian gods awakened to put humankind in its place delightfully captures the fanatic devotion in me that wants this franchise to shine. Bear McCreary's score is every bit as phenomenal an achievement as the deifying visuals, what Dougherty refers to as a "Monster Opera" giving distinct themes and voices to the central kaiju.

As much as I enjoyed these elements of what is clearly a labor of love, all that majesty and dread is spoiled by the incessant, mystifying decision to undercut it. Yes the plot does feel like family drama by way of monster chess, but if I squint I can see good intentions. It would be one thing if the human characters were as melodramatic as their predecessors, it is wholly another that they are practically self-aware. Amidst a set-piece, someone even stops in their tracks to mutter "Oh, shit" before being vaporized! As much as I support Dr. Rick Stanton’s (Bradley Whitford) prattling on about Edmond Halley's Hollow Earth theory to try and explain the film’s logic, he is the epitome of its ironic cynicism. The comic relief comes as much from Whitford's fine performance as from the sense the character knows he's in a bad movie. It is at once both refreshing and galling. Maybe my personal distaste for this comes down to my penchant for mysticism. In short, you can't invoke the sacred awe of animistic gods, regard them from post-modern distance, and expect me to remain enchanted. It amounts to sacrilege.

Which brings me to the treatment of our protagonist. If Godzilla is a character, (or if as Dr. Serizawa suggests, Godzilla is Jesus), his supposed death and subsequent resurrection should carry more weight. His fall results from an apologetic intrusion by the mostly absent government pragmatists. Admiral Stenz­­­—portrayed by the cinematic face of J. Robert Oppenheimer, David Strathairn—drops in to solemnly say "May God forgive us" before launching the oxygen destroyer that killed the seminal Godzilla. It's difficult to decide if it's a cool reference or a flimsy attempt at gravitas. The human-engineered revival of Godzilla through thermonuclear explosion is meant to be a poetic reversal, but as shown it ends up confusing the metaphor. It would be nice if Serizawa somehow conveyed contrition on behalf of humankind for crippling Godzilla in the first place before artificially rousing him from a natural recovery for human ends, somehow make good on saying "We would be his [pet]." But what he does, essentially, is boop the snoot. His deference is that of a child approaching a mascot, not that of a man approaching a god.

I'm aware that even among critics this was a favorite scene, to me it's as cool as it is inescapably problematic, so I guess Godzilla remains as divisive as ever. If only this installment committed purely to schlock and could function free of the ideological baggage carried by the world's largest victim of nuclear holocaust. To be fair I'm not sure I would like that film either, but I acknowledge it would have its place. The legacy of Godzilla is as much allegory as it is camp, but the former suffers in such proximity the latter. For all the talk of fealty, I say Godzilla deserves still more respect than he gets in King of the Monsters.