Those American Godzilla Movies Strike Again

“Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.”
– Ishiro Honda

Who would’ve thought we’d make it to the year 2021? More that such a number could ever be real than those of us who’ve survived ought to ask this question. Because aside from the considerable turmoil of history in a perpetual state of climax, that number alone is the stuff of science-fiction. Blade Runner took place two years ago. Johnny Mnemonic takes place this year. I know that millions of Americans quit their jobs over the summer, including myself. I returned home to New England after six years in Los Angeles. A natural arc, we might say, but to me, 2021 is an afterlife. It’s too many years after the logical terminating point. We stopped seeing each other, stopped making physical contact; we have to process the world through literal filtration. It’s a world of screens and constant mediation. Even the movies don’t feel real.

Godzilla vs. Kong is the latest light-based program in the machine conspiracy that life exists beyond the dome, and perhaps it’s the most essential. An ostensible clash of two cinematic traditions, it’s more of a throwback to a different school of blockbuster, the disaster spectacle of the ‘90s and 2000s. When the experimental hoverships bounce along the skyscrapers, I’m reminded of the Universal movies of the era, the kind that become theme park attractions. But it’s an incomplete homage, stained by the imprecise laserjet, fully automated but evidencing none of the conviction of its complex, technical craft.

There’s something off about the whole thing. How it is, the way it works. In the anime OVA Space Adventure Cobra, the protagonist zips from place to place with instant gadgets and automatic vehicles. In Godzilla vs. Kong, the half-titular King Kong takes seconds to crawl out of the center of the Earth. He literally goes to China. I’m told there was a wormhole, one of our new lore terms. Another good one is “psionic uplink,” which is how the newest Serizawa pilots Mechagodzilla. And with the revelation of Mechagodzilla, we also learn that King Ghidorah’s necks are so long, the heads communicate telepathically. Is that a retcon? They couldn’t even fit all the psychic talk in one movie, so they had to extend it to the previous one.

It’s shorthand. Characters make up exposition on the fly by jumping to wild but proven-correct conclusions based on the observation of incomprehensible sights. “Oh, Kong’s powering up the axe,” or whatever. Okay. We’re in the center of the fucking Earth. Led, I think, by Alexander Skarsgård’s Dr. Nathan Lind, the cast of characters in the MonsterVerse episode is no longer made up of archetypes, because archetypes have discernible edges. Lind and friends are unspecific, can sort of go anywhere and do everything. Which one is the Roland Emmerich scientist? Dr. Lind and Dr. Ilene Andrews are both scientists, but Andrews is mostly a mother and Lind becomes the Roland Emmerich soldier. It’s a shame, because he starts out almost idiosyncratic before flattening into the Guy Who Does Things, like Ford Brody. Remember Ford Brody? In each new setting announced by chyron, there is no chain of command — King of the Monsters flashbacks — so Lind reasonably overtakes every mission. He even pilots the hovership, whose specs I’m sure are proprietary. Maybe he read the instructions psychically.

Godzilla opens the movie by attacking a city, which is a big surprise after his defense of humankind against the barrage of Titans — the Battle of Boston, perhaps. However, he only destroys one building, or at least, the industrial company park owned by a single company, Apex Cybernetics. I’d think this was common knowledge, but only teenage Madison makes the leap that something’s up with Apex, not Godzilla. It’s her unique experience with the Titan king, sure, but the depiction in the movie is that she’s the only one in the world with a good idea (or in the universe, as I’m sure the franchise will take us to space at some point). Madison takes this to her dad Kyle Chandler, Madison Sr., and in the scene where he tells her she’s crazy, I see all these extras milling about in the background but they don’t in combination effect a sense of place. Where is this? Who are all these people? Why don’t they have good ideas? No archetypes, no military, no organizations or governments. Ironically, this is a subversion of shorthand.

Apparently, Chandler is now the head of Monarch, the beating heart connecting the pieces of this franchise, because the old Serizawa was killed in Atlantis by a nuclear bomb. Let’s take a moment to think about the introduction of Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park, for example. A classic scene that lives on in the halls of Internet humor, we start with Dodgson arriving, which walks us through a space before the scene actually commences. “We got Dodgson here!” It’s an outdoor restaurant with breakfast food, so we have a sense of time as well as space; we’re situated. And if you want to read something into Nedry being greedy as he’s eating a big meal, sure. More importantly, he’s able to interact with things more than the tables and cork boards Kyle Chandler hovers around. Even if I knew this was Monarch, I’ve never been entirely clear on what Monarch is. Aside from the beating heart.

The silver lining is a movie which so casually relinquishes context begins to feel streamlined. Whenever the monsters attack and the mayhem begins, these non-spaces suddenly depopulate anyway. There are two or three requisite shots of people running, but Godzilla vs. Kong has a positively video gamey affect. It helps us focus on the main cast, I suppose, and as minimalist as the characters are, at least they’re coherent. The sinister-seeming people turn out evil in the end, and the good-style people are proven good. I did like the mother and daughter characters, but I will admit a general weakness for Rebecca Hall. I think it was pretty stupid that Eiza Gonzalez’s character is killed specifically by King Kong, because she spent her entire screentime insulting him? It’s more throwaway poetic justice than the infamous “earned death” of Zara in Jurassic World — one feels grosser than the other. The primary villain is killed mid-monologue, probably a single narrative beat sooner than expected. It’s concise. It even caught Brian Tyree Henry by surprise.

Brian Tyree Henry plays a character named Bernie Hayes, and honestly, he’s a bright spot. Of course, the reported post-production revisions which trimmed Lance Reddick significantly (and Zhang Ziyi entirely) leaves Bernie Hayes the only main Black character, and his tokenism recalls the comic stylings of, say, Michael Bay. The difference here is that Hayes exhibits the most agency in the film, barrelling into dangerous situations and getting by on quick but impacted wits. He’s funny and he’s clever, once referencing a villainous-looking woman at Apex Cybernetics as “the woman with the villain haircut,” for example. Boy, that’s got a familiar ring, doesn’t it?

Amidst the thrum of modern blockbusters, there’s a story that Patrick Stewart wouldn’t sign on to Star Trek: Picard if it was gonna be “jokey.” If he means sort of “self-referential,” I think he got burned, and yes, Henry plays the Alison Pill character. He’s the one who, without saying it, says “They fly now.” But it’s complicated, because he’s a game performer and the character is actually charming. So it’s just funny that these movies’ idea of personality is characters who speak directly to the audience, who are us. We are the most interesting characters in the movie, and that’s the saddest aspect of movies I’ve ever realized.

In the beginning, it was Bryan Cranston talking about only taking the role in Godzilla (2014) because of one difficult-to-identify scene in the script. From here on out, for Hiddleston to Dance to Hall, these are movies that barely got Bryan Cranston. All of these actors are from indies and TV shows; this one’s the paycheck. It’s a big blockbuster, but unlike Star Wars, they’re not contributing to modern myth, and unlike superheroes, they don’t get to be big on the poster. They’re not even on the poster. You don’t get to be the first X superhero, and in fact, you’re the part of the movie people don’t care about. Upon the film’s release to surprise success in the era of COVID, the fans wondered immediately about the future of the MonsterVerse. Godzilla vs. Kong is a stepping stone. The conclusion I draw, true or not, is that this was a passion project for nobody involved. The director Adam Wingard comes from indie horror, and his only trademark carried over is the moody, neon lighting. When King Kong and Godzilla fight in Neo Hong Kong, we can wonder which superheroes would be more at home here. Or maybe Battle Angel Alita?

This is the kind of thing that irritates my nerd insecurity, irritates it back into being. Part of growing up was realizing that if I ever wanted to make movies or produce any kind of creative work requiring the labor of others, it’s asking a lot. Yes, my theoretical self can pay an appropriate wage — better than — but why would I even want to think, “I’m paying you, don’t ask questions”? That’s not how insecurity works. I’d be asking adult professionals like Rebecca Hall to portray aliens and robots, and I couldn’t even ask girls out in high school. It’s silly, this Godzilla and King Kong business — but I know that, damn it! I’ve conjured the sunglasses from They Live with my cleverness and see through the press tour chatter where the actors talk about their characters — Rebecca Hall sees Dr. Andrews as like Jane Goodall, but I think that was more to inform her own performance than necessarily reflects in the story — and it’s a vision of the beautiful people just dropping by. They pulled the “giant monster” card out of the blockbuster grab bag this month, just like the actors who showed up late to the Marvel party and got stuck with “Ghost” or “Maya Hansen.” Alexander Skarsgård leans over the helicopter console and says, “Looks like round two goes to Kong,” and it’s just like, “What the fuck?”

I don’t hate this movie, but I do hate what it represents, and I hate that I’ve had to adopt the “sky is falling, I’ve recognized a pattern” persona to express my frustration. Perhaps the problem is the expressal of frustration to begin with. Let’s just be content! No. Not when this movie feels this passionless. It feels like nothing, like — you know what — a fake movie, like The Rise of Skywalker. The pattern is that we’ve entered a new era of blockbuster filmmaking, where monopolies duel one another and IP acquisition is more important than the creative execution. Movies like Godzilla vs. Kong have writer’s rooms now because they’re being formulated all at once. It feels like we’re always seeing the same thing because every five movies are really one movie. Who owns the vision for an individual film? Not directors but the damn megacorporations, who are themselves beholden to their own perception of its consumers’ nostalgia. That’s who’s directing movies: Nostalgia. And he ain’t no Kubrick!

I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast Kaiju Transmissions, and they mention that the satire suggested by Jurassic World was screaming for a director like Joe Dante — and I cringed a little. Do I want a Jurassic World that’s more of a black comedy? This is how bad it’s gotten. I’d rather the existing, bland Jurassic World over the version which would feel directed, and personal. It’s not just a problem with Hollywood, it’s a problem with me, with us. Am I getting this wrong, or is the saturation of the market with relentless content met at pace with a decreasing interest in discerning it? Because why bother? Why think about what we just saw when the next thing plays automatically? We have a word for that. We also have a novel set of motives to watch that next thing. Nerds watch movies so they can be part of the conversation. Marvel fans want to spite DC fans or vice versa. Probably vice versa. Metroid fans pleaded with gamers to support Dread (stan Loona) because it’s the “underdog franchise.” Aren’t those conflicting terms? And all over, people will tell you to participate — support Black artists or queer literature or Asian-American voices. (See how I put that last one in there?) Right or wrong, we don’t just watch movies because they “look good” or “might be good.”

As a result, we might just watch Godzilla vs. Kong, even though its craft is invested in a film that feels like a very long trailer, teasing future sequels and with that goddamn shorthand, the pacing dispenses with place and character, all with the furious anti-gravity of overabundant green screen. Nobody touches anything, there is no texture. And we all know how trailers these days compress our feature-length trailer into a three-minute regular trailer, a spoiler digest. The experience of Godzilla vs. Kong as a movie offers so little meaningful beyond the trailer that the two are indistinct. And that is a remarkably cruel criticism, especially since in the end, I don’t think anyone feels duped. This is what we asked for. I mean, nobody asked, but we didn’t specifically say “No.” We didn’t pick up the remote to stop the countdown. This is Hollywood on Autoplay.

Godzilla vs. Kong released in March 2021, and I finally watched it in October 2021, which was my loudest protest of a movie yet. After a series that’s gone one for three, I was hoping to skip the latest altogether. What possible surprises could it have in store? First of all, I couldn’t bear the thought of ever looking at this Godzilla design again. I don’t know why he has such a tiny head and an enormous body. It might not be so bad, but they always shoot him at the least flattering angles, like straight-on, so he comes out like a dark trapezoid of anger. And then King Kong? Despite being less of a literal gorilla than we’ve seen him, he’s always been a terrible monster design. I’m with Eiza: he’s a fucking monkey. To be fair, he was the first monster, and we’ve only seen wilder stuff since — all the way from Guiron to Knifehead, and who could forget about Baragon and Barugon — but nevertheless the monkey does nothing for me. Generally speaking, too.

Of course, this movie also has the unenviable task of combining two disparate aesthetics: the American Godzilla, a Japanese monster devoid of any Japanese character, and the new Kong — just Kong — an American monster whose solo movie was rich with Japanese influence. Thus, we arrive at “Mechagodzilla” laser-killing the island creature Skull Crawler in a dark, nondescript corporate/science environment. None of that goes together. Though this is maybe the best rationale for a Mechagodzilla yet, I’ve never seen a worse look for it. Yes, the anime Mechagodzilla, yes, Ready Player One — this one takes the cake. And believe me, I hear myself. This is what nerds used to sound like, and in the darkest corners of the Internet, they still do. It’s gotten to the point where the asleep-at-the-wheel criticism that the monster movie “favors the monsters over the humans” has opened up a brand-new dimension of pissing me off. To you jerkoffs, maybe it is just “monsters” when monsters are on screen, and “monster action” all the same, but I’m telling you, it isn’t. This is the genre, and it’s important.

When it comes to the titular Godzilla versus Kong, unfortunately, it’s the least of the three in our comparison triangle. Woeful as AVP: Alien vs. Predator may be, at least it features a centerpiece brawl between the Alien and the Predator. It’s not what I would’ve wanted coming from the comics, where the Predator can take on multiple Aliens at once, but it did showcase each opponent’s unique skill set. Like flicking acid from the tail — remember that from the originals? Wouldn’t be out of place in Alien Resurrection, I suppose, but the point is, there was some consideration as to how the Alien would versus the Predator on film. Then we have our crown jewel of the crossover versus, Freddy vs. Jason. Ironically, the prospect of Jason and Freddy fighting is the most creatively stumping of all, but they figured it out (after, I’m told, dozens of script drafts).

When we enter the realm of giant monsters fighting, it’s a new complication, as should’ve been demonstrated by my upcoming column “Analysis of a Kaiju Battle.” I’ve been having this problem for a long time, that one day I realized I haven’t beheld a monster fight I’m perfectly happy with. I can enjoy the laser battles of ‘90s Godzilla or the man versus monster suit of the giant hero shows, but there’s always something missing. This frustration surely coincides with a personal migration in taste from giant monsters to martial arts, which would be a move from design of the combatants to design of the combat. There are also good examples in surprising places, like in King Kong (2005) and the end of Jurassic World — and I know, trust me, I know. Those are both CGI entirely, but the former bears a compelling dynamic between the gliding camera and the choreography, itself smartly matching the gorilla to theropod anatomy, and the latter fully commits to combat between armless opponents, using Jurassic Park III as foundation.

In our 2021 installment, the monsters bump into each other with arms swinging, and then bounce off, and aside from the clear hooks from Kong, it’s a guessing game what just happened. What I’m really looking for is either a monster battle by way of animals fighting, like Jurassic World, or cool choreography like King Kong. This is what we’re missing in Godzilla vs. Kong, so when the two classic monsters fight, it feels exactly like Godzilla fighting King Kong — just as I imagined, that one time sitting in the DMV.

Godzilla vs. Kong arrives at, perhaps, the only time it could have, in our age of franchise crossovers and seemingly unlimited CGI. Theoretically, I’ve seen Mechagodzilla fight the Iron Giant, or King Kong playing basketball with LeBron James? (Is that what happened?) Part of the rejection of Ready Player One and Space Jam: The New Legacy was, I think, a reaction to how cheap it all feels, not only the cynicism of nostalgia bait but when CGI reaches a saturation point and becomes color and light. I mean, these days, modders can put King Kong in Skyrim. Fan films look really good. It isn’t enough anymore to simply have CGI Godzilla and CGI King Kong. It was enough when Godzilla breathed his atomic fire in Shin Godzilla, the most basic Godzilla thing, because that scene was insane, but there was also enough “movie” surrounding it to elevate a staple. Even a simple pleasure can be made extraordinary. Godzilla didn’t even versus anyone in that movie, but when he’s fighting King Kong — what happened?

Now, this is a key part of the apocalyptic YouTuber persona: entitlement, and I admit I’m an ungrateful, unpleasable shit. I watched James Rolfe’s review of Godzilla vs. Kong, and like everything he produces — including his rather foul-mouthed Angry Video Game Nerd videos — it’s wholesome and unpretentious. This is beyond the nevertheless legitimate “I don’t want to dislike a movie.” I really don’t want to be this guy. I know I’d get defensive if anyone else was saying this shit. Remember Game of Thrones? I strongly objected to that show for a number of reasons good and bad — too much sexual assault, too popular — but when it ended and the conversation took on the pallor of regret, even embarrassment, suddenly I was rocketed back to that time before fantasy was cool, and it was terrifying. I don’t want anyone to feel as I do about Godzilla vs. Kong. I don’t want people to reject it as I have. I only mourn that for giant monsters to be “cool,” they have to be this, when they can be so many other things. Unfortunately, for American filmmakers, Godzilla is a giant monster, and while he’s also a giant monster to Japanese filmmakers, it’s a world of difference.

An inconvenient fact for G fans is that the 1954 Godzilla was not the inception of the genre, and like Osamu Tezuka taking cues from Walt Disney, perhaps Japan owes its daikaiju eiga to the States, baby. The American adaptation of The Lost World originates the giant monster destroying a city, with the brontosaurus in London so memorably animated by stop-motion inventor Willis O’Brien, who’d go on to breathe life into King Kong in 1933. Specifically, Godzilla follows immediately after 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but that monster, the Rhedosaurus, was a giant animal on the loose, though awakened by a nuclear detonation. Its defeat is final, a return to the small-town Americana typified by 1950s scifi. At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Kyohei Yamane leaves us with this: “I can’t believe that Godzilla was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.” Speaking of insecurity; I guess this is back when movies were still emerging from the Greek chorus. Regardless, the substance more than the delivery is compelling. Godzilla is himself a force of destruction, but he’s also a harbinger. The world has been irrevocably changed, just as it had been by the advent of nuclear weapons.

In the essay “Monsters of the Rift: Kaiju as Ciphers of Unbalance” featured in the book Giant Creatures in Our World, author Jase Short discusses how daikaiju eiga can be considered weird fiction, or even cosmic horror. They write that kaiju are not “intrusions from another realm, but symptoms of the unbalanced world,” and especially notes the progression of Tohl Narita’s monster designs for Toho and Tsuburaya Productions, favoring surrealism over enlarged animals. Another inconvenient fact, often bandied with the release of a new Godzilla movie, is that giant monsters are physically impossible. “Godzilla’s cartilage would be about 12 times stronger than a human’s, preventing his knees from exploding like overripe tomatoes.” It’s always so graphic. These physics-bending creatures who could not possibly exist, summoned by the folly of mankind and arriving with the destructive force of hurricanes and tsunamis, they’re Lovecraftian disruptions, something captured memorably by the alien terror of the Angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion. As toku expert Mike Dent notes in a guest post on Zimmerit, the foundation for Eva is Ultraman — kaiju, not mecha, and as Hideaki Anno’s take on Godzilla demonstrates, kaiju can be scary as hell.

The disruption, as Justin Mullis writes in his essay “Notes from the Land of Light: Observations on Religious Elements Seen in Ultraman,” is inherently narrative. Japan’s weird fiction as expressed by daikaiju eiga is an evolution of far older folklore. One particular precedent for later cinematic kaiju — including himself — is the eight-headed dragon Yamata no Orochi, inspiration for King Ghidorah. The sword-wielding Shinto storm god Susanoo arrives and slays Orochi, and while the clash of deities isn’t unique to Japanese mythology, this would make a cool tokusatsu scene. There’s also Namazu, the giant catfish thought to be responsible for the Edo Earthquake of 1855, “punishing the Japanese people for succumbing to avarice and acrimony.” Mullis also introduced to me the “Yonaoshi Gods,” or “gods of world renewal.” Like the Ragnarok or Revelation, this is about the scourging of Earth with natural disasters and war, in this case to tear down “the current corrupt infrastructure so as to provide the necessary rejiggering needed for a new more equitable society to start over.”

Godzilla is neither alien nor entirely natural, mutated by weaponized radiation and ushering us with considerable devastation into a new world. Famously, the Godzilla series begins with this sort of darkness, as a cinematic god of world renewal, and quickly descends to the farce of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Much the same way, the dark and serious Godzilla (2014) develops a Showa era of its own with Godzilla: King of the Monsters and finally Godzilla vs. Kong, all color and silliness. The strangest consequence of all this insecure, self-aware resignation to movie trailer filmmaking is that Godzilla vs. Kong is not weird. Yes, they travel to the center of the Earth via wormhole, but that’s how you’d plot-logically get there. That’s where the center of the Earth ought to be, at the center. It’s so fucking matter of fact, and as soon as it’s there, it’s gone. We went to Atlantis in King of the Monsters. Serizawa was killed there by a nuclear bomb! In these movies, so much has gone into anthropomorphizing King Kong and Godzilla, giving them a recognizable hierarchy which can’t decide if it’s about apex predators or a literal monarchy — if we remember, again, the knee-bending coda of the aptly titled King of the Monsters. These are dudes. Guys. Sometimes they’re even composed in the frame like people would be. It isn’t an incorrect interpretation of the monsters, because such a thing isn’t possible, but it is a boring one which shuts out opportunity. They are harbingers of nothing, gods of nothing, and they do very nearly nothing.

Nothing is sacred about film production and distribution in the digital age. Even the gulf between the 2017 Ghost in the Shell adaptation and the 2021 Cowboy Bebop feels significant, because the former bore stakes and the latter is just another old IP licensed and hot-wired to life, soon to be shoved into the unholy catalogue alongside such thoughtless incongruity as Castlevania, The Witcher, and even Godzilla. Netflix is the Wal-Mart of streaming platforms, though the others are all Target, I suppose. Sometimes these shows are good, but the content gold rush is shoveling so much material out of decades-old development, breaking the spell that once separated film and audience. You couldn’t just make Cowboy Bebop, you had to leave it to professionals who themselves couldn’t piece it together. Sorry, Keanu. But of course it was so simple. Just do it. Maybe you’ll do it again in ten years. It took sixty for King Kong and Godzilla, but you could’ve fooled me. I’ve been watching this movie the whole time.

3 thoughts on “Those American Godzilla Movies Strike Again

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