Preliminary thoughts from last night’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters screening

Last night, ten AMC theaters did free advance screenings for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a full nine days ahead of its official US release date. This was nominally for the cinema chain’s Stubs Premier members and press, though at no point was I actually required to show membership credentials to get in. (There was a catch, however, in that tickets were only available on a first-come/first served basis at the cinema itself, meaning that to ensure a seat one had to drive to the theater first once tickets became available and days later to actually attend the screening.) I was lucky enough to be within reasonable striking distance of one such theater, and, somewhat serendipitously, wound up with a seat numbered G14 (right in the center, believe it or not).

Upon entering the cinema, I noticed a kiosk set up selling movie-related merchandise next to the concessions. This has long been a tradition in Japanese theaters, but it appears to be taking hold in the US as well, at least at high-traffic and ritzy locations. The Godzilla pickings were limited to some Funko products and nothing was theater-exclusive (not quite at the Toho Cinemas level yet), so I left them alone.

The audience in attendance seemed to skew heavily on the Godzilla fan demographic side, with only a few casual movie goers who probably go to anything free, and a smattering of callous individuals who lit up their phones during the screening, presumably because they wanted to get kicked in the head. Energy was boisterous in the theater, but thankfully it was kept to cheering and applause rather than riffing and talkbalk. Needless to say, Ifukube themes were like catnip in there.

Oddly enough, there was a promo for the very movie about to play before it played, in which Michael Dougherty and the cast gushed over the film we were all there to see anyway. Dougherty went on a tangent about how Toho had a cinematic universe going back into the 60s, but didn’t really explain who or what Toho is, and that was where I first began wondering: how much of this is going to make sense to the casual moviegoer? This wound up being a recurring theme throughout the rest of the show, actually.

So, hey, now it’s time to segue into talking about the movie itself. Not to worry, there will still be a podcast on this topic eventually, but dang it, I need to vent and it’ll be a while before the gang can all synchronize schedules for this (notice how we still don’t have a Detective Pikachu episode up yet?). I’ll start relatively spoiler-free, then get more specific.

Generally:

I liked the movie. This should shock nobody. There has not been a Godzilla movie that I don’t like. If I wanted to get quoted on all of Legendary’s publicity materials, I’d even go so far as to say “Best American Godzilla picture”, “Best Godzilla movie of the Reiwa era”, etc. I look forward to seeing it again, and there is enough content onscreen that it demands repeat viewings to absorb it all. But, I do have a few qualms and quibbles, and, based on first impressions, I don’t know if I’m going to revisit this quite as much as Kong: Skull Island or Krampus. There’s a lot to digest about it, still.

Dougherty is clearly a Godzilla fan, and King of the Monsters is a movie made for Godzilla fans. Much like Legendary’s previous movie, it hits the right notes to do the iconic monster characters justice, and that alone is a noteworthy accomplishment, considering how very wrong it all could have easily gone. It’s chocked full of allusions and Easter eggs, so hopefully it winds up being comprehensible for general audiences who aren’t quite so in the thick of it. However, it’s also very much a continuation of the 2014 movie and of Skull Island, and as such has to develop its own unique vision for the franchise, seeming to go with a more semi-apocalyptic slant to the world-building than we’ve seen in Godzilla previously.

The monsters look fantastic, though there’s always a layer of smoke, water, clouds, or something else obfuscating them. It’s very atmospheric that way (pun intended), it gives color palettes to associate with each monster, and I understand how that helps the special effects process, but a little more of monsters just out on a clear day would have been nice (Ghidorah can be scary enough if he’s not in a hurricane; it feels like it puts the whole natural disaster allegory a little too on the nose). One other factor that perhaps clouds my perception here is just how very much has already been given away by the various trailers, so there wasn’t a real “wow” moment, like when Godzilla first uses his breath in 2014. Despite this, the main four are gorgeous, and while I wasn’t really sold on the Mothra design from the toys, her execution in the picture itself was excellent. So, all four look good.

The music is excellent; my only complaint is sometimes all of the surrounding sound effects completely drown it out. Looking forward to picking up the soundtrack.

The human cast is okay, and has a better story function than in 2014, but their actual story is not as compelling as, say, Brian Cranston’s in that picture. Several of the characters border on irritating in the same way that much of the Jurassic World cast does, but hey, at least Ken Watanabe has more to do this time around. There’s a lot more humor than there was in the Gareth Edwards film, and unfortunately it didn’t really work for me most of the time, but perhaps I just had a migraine. (There’re some unnecessary shaky handheld shots early on that give it an independent film vibe, which doesn’t mesh well with IMAX.)

Oh, and there is a post-credits scene, and a nice tribute to both Haruo Nakajima and Yoshimitsu Banno, so stay through the credits. I didn’t even like the recent Serj Tankian cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Godzilla, but the way it’s used there is pretty excellent, too.

 

Potential spoilery stuff:

…you have been warned.

Oh, boy, where do I begin? Well, to start, the cast here, and the constant references to the cinematic universe concept, generally gave the impression that this is a remake of Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster. Well, it ain’t that. Ghidorah being alpha-predator instead means that all the other monsters do his bidding, which results in the odd position of Rodan as a sort of lackey, like we’d normally expect Gigan to take. This is, however, consistent with Toho’s longstanding tradition of nerfing all kaiju who are not Godzilla, so gone are the days when we could expect to see Ghidorah solo nine Earth monsters at once.

Ghidorah’s heads also fight each other sometimes, and like, I dunno if I like that. They made a big deal about how each has its own mocap actor and all, and it goes with the whole theme of pack animals, but it still rubs me the wrong way a little.

Mothra and Godzilla get along, though… do they ever. Like, in a way that we thought they were only joking about. Granted, Godzilla has had allies before in the movies, such as Rodan and Anguirus, but the human characters commenting never “shipped” it before. There are going to be some uncomfortable ramifications of that part of the movie in fan art from here on out. (We can also start the headcanon debates about Mothra’s relationship with Zhang Ziyi’s character.)

Then there are the original kaiju that we’ve heard teased… look, don’t expect too much there; we’ll have to go to artbooks to get most of their names, and they have total about the same screen time that Varan does in Destroy All Monsters. There was one that I sort of wondered if he was just Kong with big fangs, but I guess not. I imagine Cast will make figurines of a few of them someday, but not much else.

Oh, speaking of DAM, there’s a secret underground science base, like something out of Pacific Rim! I really dig the redirection towards over-the-top scifi that King of the Monsters takes compared to the other MonsterVerse installments, though I would’ve liked the new flying battleship to have some sort callback name like Super X or SY3…. I can acknowledge that asking for a giant drill on the front would perhaps be asking too much.

The story’s McGuffin is a sonic device used to control the monsters, as we’ve already seen in the Godzilla: Aftershock comic book, but it’s not a hilariously kitschy plastic toy here. It’s a nice callback on several levels, as sound in some form or another has a history of controlling everything from Godzilla to Titanosaurus to the Xiliens, and if we’re not going to have a proper musical number dedicated to Mothra (cowards!), it’s a nice touch that it’s introduced when communing with her. I’m a little disappointed that the device was never strapped to a robot named NIGEL and sent to its demise, however.

The movie continues 2014’s trend of kinda sorta being a Gamera movie, particularly opening on a family’s tragic backstory a la Gamera 3. The film’s environmental themes, paired with an ancient undersea civilization and a last line that was so close to Gamera 2 that I nearly threw something, really cemented this. The people involved keep claiming that they haven’t watched the Gamera trilogy, which is inexcusable (why not watch the best kaiju movies ever made if you’re making a kaiju movie?), but in this case sort of believable… I can’t imagine that they’d go this close on purpose!

While the 2014 movie was rather cavalier about its use of nuclear devices, this one continues the trend with the casual deployment of an oxygen destroyer. This is an example of what gives me pause about the film at times: the character awkwardly namedrops a doomsday device with significant baggage to the franchise, and there’s no real setup of what makes it a big deal. It looks pretty when it goes off, for sure, but it’s ultimately just a bomb, blowing up and not skeletonizing a lot of fish, and it doesn’t seem like anything horrible enough to never use again…presumably the military’s got them stockpiled. This all might have been a red herring, though, as there’s a weird sort of inverse oxygen destroyer moment near the picture’s climax, when Serizawa earns his freaking name.

The numerous casual nods to Skull Island and the brilliant end credits sequence (which almost reminded me of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead) do a good job of tying the almost mutually exclusive MonsterVerse worlds together (I love that they’re not letting go of hollow Earth theory), so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next, and I wouldn’t mind if Dougherty got another shot at it in the future. Even at over two hours, the movies is at the brim with lore, and there’s clearly a lot more that can be done with it.

And, on that delightful note, I’ll take a break. Don’t worry, there are things I didn’t spoil yet, but we’ll be back with a more full discussion after I get to see it again and the rest of the gang can chime in. You should see it too, obviously.

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