Saturday, June 1, 2019

Let them fight?


GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Absurdly good monsters keep getting interfered with by mostly-mediocre humans, but damned if "absurdly good monsters" ain't good enough.

2019
Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by Zach Shields and Michael Dougherty

Spoiler alert: not that this movie can in any way be meaningfully spoiled, but "moderate," for the sticklers


When Gareth Edwards' 2014 attempt to bring Toho's classic monsters back to life and back to America managed to hit reasonably big, but divided critics and audiences in the process, it was inevitable that its direct sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was going to course-correct, and address the concerns Godzilla's detractors had.  Since the underlying tone of it (grim, gritty, explicitly apocalyptic) was not one of their concerns, the correction wasn't likely to be half as aggressive about it as Godzilla's sideways sequel/prequel/franchise-mate, the joyous and goofy Kong: Skull Island; still, it was bound to be a noticeable one.

The irony is that King of the Monsters has wound up even more divisive still—actually, a lot of people just fucking hate it, and, reading its notices, they've got their own "explicitly apocalyptic" thing going on—but even disregarding the "loved it/liked it" camp and focusing on the "hated it" camp, they're divided, too.  Not in their opinions, but in what seems like the interpretation of more-or-less objective facts—between people who hated it because it has bad characters and serves solely as an excuse for a lot of rad monster action, and people who hated it because it has bad characters and does not, in fact, adequately address the concern that Godzilla '14 had nowhere nearly enough rad monster action.  And this was confusing as hell until I saw it for myself, and realized, in a sense, both things can be true at the same time.  Sticking with those "objective facts," then, let it be known that KotM has a solid half hour of what can be reasonably described as "monster action"—out of 130 total minutes of movie—and that's right about on par in relative terms, and high in absolute ones.

But KotM also does something I don't know if any Godzilla movie has ever done, which is fail utterly to decenter its human characters, and this is a problem for a whole host of reasons—most obviously, it means a great many very unwelcome cuts to human beings in the midst of all that high-priced monster mayhem, sometimes for a sense of "scale" (that's what buildings and landmarks and nameless victims are for, guys), and sometimes because the story truly is more interested in, for example, following a fucking jeep with our human heroes in it, rather than what King Ghidorah's doing.  This wouldn't be ideal in the best of situations, and this isn't anywhere close to the best of situations, because in a small victory for consensus, nobody really disagrees that KotM does indeed have mostly bad characters.  But this divided focus also means that, more often than not, the human cast is actively driving the situation, somehow gaining the attention of monsters that have historically resisted noticing anything short of a tank round to the face, which radically contravenes the themes of not just Edwards' Godzilla movie but the one we're in the middle of watching, too, which repeatedly likens humans to ants and the kaiju to actual, literal gods.  (Now, this isn't strictly fair.  Thanks to a small third act revelation, KotM unveils that it does have some ideas of its own about the relationship between humanity and kaiju.  It's just that those ideas are incoherent and I don't like them.)


Anyway: Edwards' Godzilla, it pays to recall, was more spiritually akin to Ishiro Honda's Rodan than to his Godzilla '54.  Godzilla is impersonal in that original, but only because the mode of warfare he represented was impersonal.  But, like the giant pteranodon movie, Godzilla '14 was no metaphor for atomic warfare, nor even the fallen nature of man; that would require it to care about man.  Sure, it was about climate change, but only obliquely; Godzilla '14 knew that something would eventually come along to close our chapter of the book of life, whether it was our own poisons or something else, maybe something totally beyond our control.  It was about billions of years and the indifference of time.  It was about how our lives, our families, and our civilizations are invisible once set against the scope of it all, subject to random death imposed by monsters that do not even belong to our evolutionary lineage—creatures of an age so far back we can't even really conceive of how long ago it was, living atomic engines that rose from the Hades before the Earth had oxygen, perhaps before the Earth had seas.  (Yet despite its fundamental bleakness, Godzilla '14 offers a strange paean to humanity, just as Rodan's somehow-tragic final minutes did.  For when its MUTOs struggle vainly for love and survival, we can recognize their tragedy like it was happening to us. They are monsters, and they cannot care about humans; but we are human, and we can care about them.)

In any event, it probably didn't need to underline its points with an Aaron Taylor-Johnson life model decoy, nor with annoying peekaboo tactics with its monsters.  But it did work.  And so it's fair to say that Edwards' Godzilla demonstrated that a movie like this can get away with, at a maximum, one meaningful glance between a monster and a man.  KotM demonstrates exactly the same thing, but by negative inference: there are no fewer than four scenes where a kaiju fixes its gaze upon a human, recognizing their agency and intelligence; you know, just like when you step on an ant, you make meaningful eye contact with it.  It reaches almost visceral levels of genre wrongness (it likely doesn't help that the Legendary/Warner Bros. monsters are something like ten times the mass of their Toho forebears), as tiny individual people become targets of these newly-branded "Titans," sometimes as appetizers, but never more offensively than when they see a human being and return our anger and fear right back at us.  It does work the once, in a much different emotional context: when Godzilla has been laid low, and has retreated to his radioactive lair, and when a character has come, in full awareness of his own meaninglessness, to help and to commune with the being he expressly worships as a god.  It is not the only scene that conveys real feeling, but it's probably not a coincidence that almost the only other ones also feature Ken Watanabe.


Well, KotM has a story—perhaps unnecessarily, but it has one—and follows on from the Toho films' Heisei and Millennium Era traditions more than the Showa, I'd say; for the sake of realism (question mark implied), these movies have had a monotonous tendency to focus on governments and their super-scientific vanguards, reaching a bureaucratic singularity of sorts with Shin Godzilla, which is mid-tier Godzilla but valuable precisely for its unique embrace of avowing the human struggle as a collective one (not to mention a refreshingly uncynical attitude toward bureaucracy).  Yet KotM has the bones of a Showa Era plot nevertheless, ultimately boiling down to one more exercise where somebody's come up with the right sounds to make the monsters of Earth do their bidding (Invasion of Astro-Monster, Destroy All Monsters, The Terror of Mechagodzilla, and so on), except now the controlling intelligence isn't alien.

So the human who's cracked the kaiju code this time is Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a scientist for this shared universe's SHIELD-for-monsters, Monarch.  Less a spoiler for the audience than it is for the characters, Emma's an eco-nihilist who uses a raid by terrorists led by her ally Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) as a cover for stealing her own monster-manipulating device, bringing her tween daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) along with her as they unleash all the hidden monsters Monarch's been hiding from the world, starting with Mothra, which isn't so bad, but graduating quickly to Ghidorah, which any kaiju fan knows is infinitely bad.  Faced with this threat, Monarch's good guys (Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Ziyi—it kinda feels like a typo in the film, too—Aisha Hinds, Bradley Whitford, and many others) bring in Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), Emma's ex-husband, which is sort of this movie's original sin, insofar as Mark somehow isn't tasked with rebuilding the device he helped design.  It makes him, arguably, the most needless major character ever seen in a Godzilla movie (exclamation point very implied), yet he is our hero anyway, despite being present exclusively to barge jaw-first into meetings and DEMAND. ACTION. and REMIND. YOU. OF. HIS. DAUGHTER. and be extremely condescending to the designated comic relief butt-monkey (Thomas Middleditch, not exactly breaking his own mold here), whose designation is nonetheless kinda odd, considering that we're not actually shown him being incompetent or anything like that, just kind of a dork.

Of course, it's simply paint-by-numbers four-quadrant plotting of the lowest order, with relationships sketched out in order to provide a vague human interest element undergirding the gravity of the extinction-level stakes, and is a little too lazy to do anything other than fail, though it might've been acceptably anodyne, Taylor-Johnson style, if not for the negative charisma Chandler brings; clenched and unpleasant is probably a natural enough reaction, but it's not worth watching for over an hour of screentime.  But while Chandler has the least honorable role, there's not a single actor in the ensemble who isn't smeared with some undeliverable line at least once.  KotM has an urgent need to be less dour than Godzilla '14, which I can respect—Godzilla '14 is endlessly dour, and there's something a little juvenile about the notion that a Godzilla movie shouldn't occasionally own its silliness—and we can be happy that it doesn't lean as hard into quippy comedy as the later, worrisome trailers made it seem.  The downside is that it's mindless about it, and for every joke that's successful (Middleditch gets one genuinely fine gag regarding kaiju pornography, but it's in the first ten minutes) there's another that feels forced-in because of where it lands, often enough in the midst of the ongoing end of the world, and the worst are very bad, culminating in a moment where a character confuses the word "Ghidorah" with "gonorrhea," which is the only moment where I personally understood how someone could hate this film.


Because despite the many gripes I have with it, I don't hate it.  (We've been over the major ones, though I have several minor ones, like how Godzilla '14 established a plausible, consistent ecological hierarchy for its kaiju, based on radioactive primary producers and predator-prey relationships, whereas KotM takes its title literally and decides to double down on the weird Dark Enlightenment leanings of the How to Train Your Dragon sequels; the final shots are, as a result, either incredibly stupid, incredibly great, or both, though on the plus side KotM has the decency, a rarity in these days of overlong blockbusters, to end exactly when its story does.)  Anyway, I do a lot more than just "not hate it."  For what it gives me, I want to love it.  Its ineptitude prevents that, but I like it an awful lot.

Not because it's especially well-directed.  Whether Edwards burned out after the debacle of Rogue One, or whether Edwards simply wasn't hired back, he isn't here now.  The baton of leading this Monsterverse has passed to Michael Dougherty, and when I say KotM is his best film, that's kind of a backhanded compliment, given that the nicest thing to be said about Trick 'r' Treat is that it's a harmless EC comic with good cinematography, and I don't have anything nice to say about Krampus at all.  One invaluable thing about KotM, then, is that it reminds us that you're not actually supposed to apply auteur theory to every damn thing you see, even if a director has a screenplay credit, and that things happen in collaboration and not every "vision" is one guy's; I mean, I assume it's Dougherty overseeing the desperate, largely-unsuccessful performances, the inconsistent human-scale action, the exposition that seeks to domesticate the genre and mostly only winds up making it stupider, the incomplete mini-stories with nameless victims, all that.  I'm very sure he's behind the use of few terrible refocusing quick zooms in his all-CGI shots—a cliche I thought had already died, and hope does, since when it's literally animated you're not signalling to the audience "documentary realism," you're signalling that you wasted $10,000 worth of effects on not putting an imaginary camera where it needed to be in the first place.

But KotM really belongs to production designer Scott Chambliss and to an army of VFX artists.  Representing the current apex of the house style that, for whatever reason, has accrued to recent Warner Bros efforts regardless of which VFX houses did which parts, the mean way to put it would be Obscuring Particle Effects and Glowy Crap: The Motion Picture, but I don't want to put it meanly.  On this one axis KotM truly excels: it was easy to be worried about a design mentality Chambliss has had the temerity to publicly compare to Rembrandt (i.e., "dark as fuck"; and William Blake, whose Great Red Dragon series is being borderline plagiarized, is rightly referenced in the film itself), but as long as Chambliss' design is guiding Dougherty, KotM never sets a foot wrong.  These Titans, shrouded alternately by darkness and light, evoke awe and cosmic horror as little in the genre has done before—it even beats Godzilla '14 for quantity, if not quality (for perhaps nothing shall ever beat Godzilla '14's brutal climax, though KotM makes a game attempt).  Ghidorah's mere presence is literally breaking reality, and the images make that clear.

The iconography at work, at least in the visuals, might be intermittent, but it's sublime, the monsters rendered elemental and Expressionistically color-coded.  (The new roars leave something to be desired, notably Ghidorah's: the iconic cackle keeps seeming like it'll break through, but, frustratingly, never does.  Likewise, Bear McCrary's score violates the not-broke-so-don't-fix-it rule, gratifyingly incorporating Akira Ifukube motifs but, obviously, not nearly enough; it's never been clear why these neo-Godzillas need "original scores," as such.)  But the designs: if Godzilla, bottom-heavy like a bowling pin with a bear's face, remains a somewhat bad design, at least it carries power, and KotM does powerful things with him; Rodan is superb, like fire in the sky; Mothra's imago is ethereal beauty incarnate, but given sharper edges to signal her ferocity (though her larva is maybe the slightest bit too anthropomorphized).  Last but never least, Ghidorah strikes a discordant note by being so impossibly strange, hewing more closely to the original design than any of them, befitting his origins as a Lovecraftian intrusion into the Earthly realm.  (I might've thought Ghidorah regrowing a head was stupid, but I have to check myself on that, considering my favorite thing about Ghidorah in a Toho movie is when he was reborn inside a giant exploding space ruby.)


All the monsters have strong personalities (Godzilla, doughty and implacable; Mothra, optimistic and brave; Rodan, untrustworthy and craven; Ghidorah, chaotic and hubristic).  The battles between them are reverent and otherworldly, but—despite their obscurity—always readable.  The best, perhaps surprisingly, starts as a fight between Rodan and Monarch's air force, which merges into a duel between Rodan and Ghidorah.  It features a callback to another world of kaiju entirely, a modernization of a scene from The Giant Claw, widely considered one of the goofiest, cheapest American monster movies of the 1950s (so, you know, strong competition).  It doesn't play as a joke.  It plays as love, and maybe I can spot Dougherty a little respect here, because love for the genre does come through even at KotM's worst.  At its best, you feel adoration for the genre, and a passion for pushing it to as-yet-unseen heights, like when Rodan battles Ghidorah in a blazing orange sky.  KotM takes extreme advantage of the possibilities of CGI, offering its flying monsters options Toho suitmation and puppetry never could.  It provides novel match-ups that I never knew I needed to see, too: the only thing bad about Mothra vs. Rodan is that it makes Mothra and Rodan redundant to the fight against the ultimate evil from outer space.  The thing about King Ghidorah is that he's Godzilla's archnemesis, and the single coolest kaiju of all time.  The other thing about King Ghidorah is that it wasn't until today that he finally lived up to his potential as a foe.

So as long as Dougherty's problems with constantly reframing focus on the humans aren't dragging our beloved kaiju down, and so long as dialogue problems (which are, of course, also co-writer Dougherty's problems) aren't screwing up the mood, King of the Monsters is extraordinarily good.  This is a deeply-caveated way of saying the movie is good, but bad a lot of the time, too.  Well, that's tradition.  But it's never boring, it's rarely terrible, and how Internet Hyperbole Culture has come to declare this film one of the year's worst is absolutely inexplicable.

Score: 8/10

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