“Make Peace With the Demons:” The Awe of Titans in ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’
When 2014’s Godzilla hit and established Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse, it was met with mixed response, but mostly positive. It was a far cry from 1998’s Godzilla, which had little if anything to do with the films that had come before it. It depicted a Godzilla much closer to the one everyone knew and loved, but the most common criticism—by far—was that it didn’t depict enough of him. I actually love the way Godzilla was depicted throughout the bulk of that movie, to be honest. It’s probably the single feature that best gave a true sense of the colossal size of Godzilla. We feel how impossibly massive this creature is in a way we had never really felt before. But did I want more of him? Absolutely. Did I wish he was fighting monsters from his decades-long cinematic history instead of a new pair of insects made up for that movie? Without a doubt. I enjoyed the hell out of 2014’s Godzilla in theaters, just seeing the Big Guy given such a budget to work with, but from the moment it was announced that the follow-up would be introducing not one, or two, but three of Godzilla’s old pals and rivals, my excitement shot through the roof.
Even still, I think it was when the sequel landed Michael Dougherty as director that I knew it was in the right hands. Listen to Dougherty on any podcast or read any interview and it becomes immediately clear: this guy worships monsters. He loves them on a Guillermo del Toro level, and I think that’s what most of the best monster movies need. Only someone who adores otherworldly creatures in the way that del Toro does could have made The Shape of Water, and in that instance, it clearly paid off. I am not saying Godzilla: King of the Monsters is Dougherty’s Shape of Water, of course. The subject matter between the two is very different. However, it’s also not as far off as you might think.
The admiration for monsters that Dougherty has always seemed to carry is not only something that King of the Monsters desperately needed, it’s also the best thing about it. Hell, that is the movie. As many questionable narrative choices as there might be, at the end of the day, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a respect and genuine awe for monsters, to a degree almost never seen in a blockbuster of this size. It is the heart of the film. And as much as the movie didn’t land for so many, it’s one of the major reasons why I love it so much. This is a movie that worships monsters to such a degree that it makes the idea of not worshipping them seem ridiculous, and it’s probably right to do it. And as grating as the human characters can get, the Titans are the stars, here, and they are treated with respect at every turn. It might sound cheap to say that the monsters are the real stars, to give a pass for so many annoying humans, but at the same time, I think that’s the idea.
When you really step back to look at it, “The monsters are taking center stage and the humans are stupid and clueless” is literally the plot of the film. Titans are waking up, roaming the Earth, there are Monarch outposts all over the globe to contain them, it’s a system that is not built to last and it’s already bubbling over before the movie even begins. It is wholly unsustainable. And I think that goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the characters in this movie act the way they act. They are, for the most part, not annoying for no reason. They’re annoying because people are utterly clueless when they’re going extinct. Human beings have absolutely no idea what their role is when they’re not the top of the food chain, after all, we haven’t really had to worry about it since the end of the last Ice Age. After the events of 2014’s Godzilla, humans have found themselves not only bumped from the top spot, but hilariously plummeting toward the bottom of the list. In that context, it makes every kind of sense that virtually every human character is scrambling incoherently and making one bad decision after another.
Of course, some bad decisions outweigh others, especially when it comes to the film’s two human antagonists, Emma and Jonah. On paper, Emma’s logic is somewhat sound, I guess. Her basic thesis is, “if we co-existed with the Titans once, we can do it again,” and that’s the reason she gives for unleashing giant monsters upon the world. But, tying into the film’s central theme, she is only doing it because she has re-assessed the natural order and is one of the few people willing to admit humanity’s place in it. So much of the conflict between the characters in this movie stems from the fact that humans are utterly unable to admit defeat, even when it’s staring them in the face. To give Emma some credit, she’s at least got that much figured out before the movie even begins. Of course, it’s still absolutely out-of-left-field when she takes a dramatic turn toward redemption at the end. After all, Emma had helped orchestrate the deaths of thousands. She unleashed King Ghidorah on the Antarctica outpost, knowing there were people who were about to die if she did. She unleashed Rodan, refusing to allow time to evacuate the city, singlehandedly causing a massive disaster as the creature immediately laid waste to that whole area. At a certain point, it’s much better and more endearing for her as a character to admit that Emma wanted to kill people than to suddenly pretend she didn’t.
Because of that, Charles Dance’s Jonah at least provides an interesting counterbalance, and perhaps a more well-rounded character overall. On paper, he has the same goals as Emma: unleash the Titans in hopes of bringing back rapidly depleting resources and restoring natural order. There’s a turning point, though, when they realize that Ghidorah is not a benevolent King, and is not planning on sharing the world whatsoever. That humanity is days, if that, away from total extinction. And Jonah is fine with it. That’s a respect for monsters that, in some ways, outdoes almost every other character, because his solution is basically just to hand the ball over and say, “it’s yours.” I think it’s very frustrating that the moment this character is revealed to be, for all intents and purposes, a death-worshipping nihilist (AKA the moment he’s truly getting interesting) he is basically written out of the movie.
Still, as I said, it’s the monsters themselves that are the heroes. And not just in the typical blockbuster sense, in that they’re the big special effects people showed up to see. They’re literally the main characters. If there’s a hero’s journey happening here, it’s Godzilla’s. And Ghidorah is about as obviously evil as a villain gets. There should be a twirled mustache on each of his three heads. At the start of the movie, Godzilla’s been missing. But it mostly appears to be an absence born out of a sense of peace. This truly doubles down on the notion presented in the 2014 film that Godzilla is a symbol of natural balance, that he is there to basically uphold the ecosystem, because a creature with his level of power could absolutely ransack the earth if it wanted, and Godzilla is basically a guardian to keep that from happening, from stopping other Titans as soon as they step up to the gate. He’s basically nature’s bouncer. I also love the idea that a creature born of radiation, a walking, living nuclear reactor, would be presented as this paragon of natural order, it’s honestly a fascinating contradiction.
The respect and awe paid toward these monsters comes through most obviously in the visuals. It’s in the way they’re framed, in the way they’re designed and just in general in the way they’re depicted. Sometimes they’re beautiful, sometimes they’re horrific, but whenever they’re on screen they’re presented in a way that is genuinely demanding to be revered. Seeing Godzilla’s atomic breath in the previous movie was a great moment mostly meant to service an action beat. Here, we get a moment when Godzilla’s breath is shot directly into the air, just to light up the sky, crack the Heavens, to send a message announcing the return of the King. It’s stunning not just to look at, but in the overwhelming dramatic presence Godzilla holds at that moment. When Mothra unfolds her bioluminescent wings for the first time, it is gorgeous. And it’s meant to be. If any creature should be truly beautiful in this movie, it’s Mothra, a kaiju that has basically been a peacekeeper from the very beginning. And then, of course, there is the fantastic moment in which Ghidorah perches atop a mountain to let out a cry worldwide for the other Titans to fall in line, to worship it, all with a church’s large, darkened cross framed in the foreground.
The awe of these Titans in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not just confined to the narrative plot itself, though. Make no mistake, there’s a respect being paid here to Godzilla’s entire cinematic legacy. From their designs (only Mothra is really given a radical new interpretation) to the sounds they make, all of that history goes into the way Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan are depicted here. And that’s saying a lot, because these are all monsters that have been around for decades. As much as the film is reinterpreting and adding to the mythology, every character is stunningly faithful to their roots. Rodan is a prick who is always going to side with the most powerful monster in the room. Mothra is a protector and an ally of Godzilla when Godzilla is behaving himself. And Ghidorah is an absolute Hell Dragon who wants nothing more than to destroy everything. Every one of these traits carries over from the films of the past. Each of these could have been nothing more than a rampaging beast and audiences would still have loved it because of the spectacle, but there is so much care put into how these creatures are treated.
It doesn’t stop there, though. The respect toward the past is being paid on every level. First and foremost, there’s Bear McCreary’s score, one of my favorite things about the film. It’s not only booming and epic in a way that feels (smartly) totally ceremonial, it provides orchestral reinterpretations of each of these monster’s individual themes, which have all been around for decades. Hearing the original Godzilla march booming through my theater’s speakers? Never would have believed it. I never thought that I would ever see Mothra take to the sky in a big budget American movie, in general, but to hear her theme accompany her as she does it? I don’t even think I could have ever imagined that possibility.
That respect being paid toward the Godzilla films of yesteryear also has a bearing on, well, the entire plot. Take several of the complaints that people had about the film. A device that can basically mind control colossal monsters? An oxygen destroyer designed to take Godzilla out of the picture? People betraying their loved ones suddenly and without warning? Are these jarring concepts to pile on top of each other? Sure. Are any of these the first time they’ve happened in a Godzilla movie? Not by a long shot. Because of that, even though it is in some ways a very American blockbuster, King of the Monsters is also not, because it’s really embracing tradition in a way that reboots of this type often don’t, and honoring the way those stories are told.
At the same time, there are additions to the mythology, there are things that have never been done before that are extremely fascinating and—most importantly—are perfect within the context of the film itself. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is ultimately a movie about faith. It’s about putting faith in things that can destroy you, something central to the entire idea of respecting nature. With Godzilla being a representative of natural order, a symbol and not-so-subtly a god, it is absolutely perfect to finally see Godzilla at home, wounded and recuperating amid the ruins of an empty temple. This is a shrine to him, and it’s barren. The people who once worshipped Godzilla, who lived in harmony with him, have been gone for a very long time. Instead, humankind now wants to kill him, and at this point in the film, has nearly succeeded. When Serizawa shows up at the temple to detonate the nuclear bomb that restores Godzilla’s strength, it’s not just a plot point to get the monster back up and running in time for the big climactic fight. It’s the heart of the film. It’s about belief. Serizawa is the perfect character to do this, to sacrifice himself because of his unwavering confidence in Godzilla’s ability to restore natural balance, because he is the only character who has had unwavering faith in Godzilla from the very beginning.
This creature has been abandoned by humanity, even by specific characters he has saved from total destruction more than once. And he’s by and large a benevolent god, he’ll save their tiny butts from scary monsters no matter how rockets they toss at him. But this scene highlights how alone he is, how different the world is from when he was young. This isn’t just a self-sacrifice moment, and certainly not a sacrifice that comes out of nowhere. It simply takes an act of belief this strong, something Godzilla has been without for so long, to bring the monster back. Textually, it’s the bomb’s radiation that gets Godzilla back on his humongous feet, but in the overall thematic context of the film, it’s that ultimate moment of spirituality and devotion that does everything to restore Godzilla’s strength.
Conversely, Ghidorah represents the perfect rival to Godzilla, given that Godzilla is effectively a nature god and Ghidorah is not of the natural world. This thing fell from the stars, either from outer space or outside the universe. Nothing is more of a threat to an ecosystem than a totally alien element, something that is not from there, that does not belong there, as it can absolutely ravage the environment it is introduced to. Ghidorah is one hell of an invasive species. Certainly, Ghidorah is likened to a devil more than once throughout the film, but I think the idea of the creature simply being an outside threat, an alien germ that presents a threat to the natural environment, is ultimately more interesting. It is truly an antithesis to Godzilla in every way. For one thing, Godzilla does his best to be at peace with the humans, was once worshipped by them, whereas Ghidorah can’t even get along with itself. Its three heads are always hissing or biting at one another. Ghidorah controls the other monsters through fear, through control, and starts using nearly every Titan on Earth to basically destroy everything in sight, because that gives Ghidorah an absolute wasteland to rule over. This isn’t just a disregard for nature, this is contempt. It only makes sense that a creature that hates the natural world and a creature that protects it would butt heads. Lots of heads, at that.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters both is and isn’t a mindless kaiju slugfest. It’s exactly what you expect out of a Godzilla movie, perhaps even more than you expect and at the same time, it’s the rare kind of blockbuster that absolutely adores its subject matter. It’s the kind of film that could only have been made by someone who truly loves monsters and that love and respect translates to the screen in some impressive ways. It is not a perfect translation of the Toho films and their legacy because there’s no way, as Americans, to recreate the enormous cultural factors that both went into creating Godzilla as well as presenting him every time he appears on screen in any of the productions from Japan. We can’t balance that combination of fear and respect in the way that the culture behind its creation can. Having said that, while there have been decent American versions before and, hopefully, after it, Godzilla: King of the Monsters still remains as accurate and respectful a portrayal as America is ever apt to produce.
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