Let’s Get Weird: How KING OF THE MONSTERS Does Right by Toho

There’s a moment early on in Godzilla: King of the Monsters when Millie Bobby Brown’s character, de facto human protagonist Madison Russell, is brought into a massive chamber inside an underground science base in Antarctica to gaze upon a towering ice prison inside of which she, and you, can see the shadowed outline of Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon, from space, ancient nemesis of Godzilla and one of the ‘Titans’, massive prehistoric monsters that serve as guardians and destroyers of the natural world.

“Monster Zero,” Brown whispers, her voice overcome with awe.

It’s a beat that probably won’t mean much to audiences not already familiar with the pantheon of giant monsters (or kaiju, as Pacific Rim educated the world) that have been having Tokyo-leveling punch-ups with clockwork frequency ever since the great Gojira wandered onto land all those years ago. For those not in the know, “Monster Zero” is just the name of this cool-looking dragon-thing, which won’t be properly identified as “Ghidorah” for a while. But as someone with a great deal of affection for the rubber-suited antics of Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, and all the rest of the menagerie propagated by the creatives over at Toho Studios, the “Monster Zero” callback made me cackle like you wouldn’t believe.

Because in that moment, writer-director Mike Dougherty called his shot. After years and years of trying to bring Godzilla to American audiences, a filmmaker finally figured out that the way to make this line-up work is to turn directly into the skid of how unapologetically strange and delightfully weird these characters are, and play their tangled mythology dead-straight.

With 2014’s Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards did an immaculate job returning the big green guy to his status as a truly monstrous, and, um, ‘godly’ force of nature. We can argue all day about the human characters in that film, and whether or not Godzilla got enough screentime in a movie that bears his name (I almost wonder if the prologue to King of the Monsters was mandated by the studio to make sure that Godzilla was on camera within the first five minutes [kinda like how Kong: Skull Island reveals the new King Kong within moments of starting), but one inarguable strength of the film was how Edwards sold the sheer size and scope of his leading man. In remaking Godzilla as a titanic and terrifying force, Edwards brought the beast back into line with his earliest incarnation in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Gojira, a film which continues to perplex modern audiences whenever they tune in for a bit of campy, man-in-suit fun only to be rewarded with a grim, somber horror parable about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

But more or less immediately after that debut, the Godzilla films pivoted to the kid-friendly craziness that we all know and love. This initial run of films from 1954–1975, known as the Showa Period, started out with relatively simple one-on-one battles, pairing Godzilla against the likes of King Kong or Mothra. But by 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, once again directed by Honda, functioned as a kind of Avengers crossover event, as Toho brought together three popular giant monsters from separate series, Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan, from the movie Rodan, to save the Earth from Ghidorah, the aforementioned three-headed dragon, from space, who is a huge jerk.

If you haven’t seen Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, man, it is something special. The high point of the film is a climatic “monster summit” in which Mothra, in her larval form, interrupts a punch-up between Godzilla and Rodan to urge them to join her in battling Ghidorah. Godzilla and Rodan have no interest in protecting humans, and the three creatures argue their respective points in view in shockingly articulate debate, translated from monster-screeches by the twin fairies that accompany Mothra everywhere (look, it’s a whole…just go with it).

What’s important to note about this scene, and all the other marvelous moments of weirdness throughout Ghidorah and many of the other Showa Period films, is that all this material is played straight-as-an-arrow. Toho would eventually get around to embracing colorful camp and kid-friendly jokes, with something like All Monsters Attack serving more as a winking, meta-fictional goof than an earnest attempt to enrich or explore the ongoing stories of the series.

But at their best, the films cheerfully fill out their in-film universe with magical creatures, diabolical aliens with convoluted plans for world-domination, and a dense mythology and ecosystem surrounding the kaiju and their various incarnations and relations to each other. In this way, Godzilla, Mothra, and all the rest feel like genuine characters, not just interchangeable skins you can lay on top of otherwise indistinguishable avatars of destruction. In the same way that wrestling fans excitedly anticipate certain match-ups or heavily invest in different stories and rivalries, there are monsters you delight in seeing, meet-ups you hope for, and creatures you groan at whenever they turn up (i.e. when it was announced that Rodan would be in King of the Monsters, I was like, “Aw maaaaaan, Rodan?”). This kind of world-building is endlessly fun and rewarding, but it only works if you commit to it completely and pursue these threads to their fullest and strangest potential.

With King of the Monsters, Dougherty tips you just enough winks (usually courtesy of Bradley Whitford) to let you know that it’s OK to find all this monster business ludicrous. But otherwise, the film just keeps doubling down on its own lunatic nature, supported by a game cast ready to read each successive bit of nonsensical exposition with the gravitas as if they were performing Hamlet at the Globe, and a VFX team capable of bringing the most exorbitant of imagery to full-bodied life, to the point that at times King of the Monsters feels like wandering through someone else’s fever dream of a kaiju mash-up.

So you’re goddamn right that Dougherty preserves Ghidorah’s backstory as an alien. And holy hell, of course the movie incorporates a version of Mothra’s companion twins. King of the Monsters is so at ease with its own gonzo rules that it’s almost a throwaway detail that Godzilla recuperates from especially taxing battles by retreating to his keep: a huge radioactive chamber inside of a temple in, essentially, Atlantis, where he was once worshipped as a god.

As our human characters trek to this underwater charging station, they pass walls decorated with tributes to Godzilla and his fellow monsters. Later, Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) actually ventures into Godzilla’s…throne room? Church? Nap area? Dougherty’s camera cranes back to take in the full scope and majesty of this place, but he never lingers, never tries to impose an explicit expositional explanation for what we are seeing. At other times, such as in the big info-dumps about Titan activities all over the globe, or during the rapid-fire montage that serves as the film’s end credits, Dougherty races through entire movies’ worth of plot and world-building, instead letting the information overwhelm and blow right by. This is noteworthy if for no other reason than that at other times King of the Monsters bends over backwards to explain and re-explain the ‘rules’, with certain story points being hammered ad nauseum with bald-faced exposition dumps. When it comes to the mechanics of the story, Dougherty can’t explain enough, but when it comes to the nature of these creatures, monstrous, alien, and divine, he’s pointedly elliptical.

Maybe that’s contributing to why it seems a number of critics and audience members are rejecting the film on sight? Godzilla, Mothra, and the rest, as characters do not fall within our traditional understandings of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. They are animals, monsters, gods, and catastrophic natural events, all rolled into one within physical, temperamental beings. The endings of both Godzilla ’14 and King of the Monsters find the human heroes acknowledging their own irrelevance in the face of such forces, with King of the Monsters going the extra step to conclude on the somber realization that the human race has entrusted its well-being, and world, to a humongous beast they can never truly know or feel safe around.

The result is a movie that doesn’t feel anything like we expect from American blockbuster films, but it feels perfectly in step with this character and the films that have carried him into the 21st century. If that’s not what audiences want, well, then I’m sad to hear that. But I would rather Dougherty go out swinging the way he has, embracing everything strange and singular about the Toho legacy of monsters than bending over backwards to produce something more down-to-earth and palatable.

In an era when special effects can create virtually anything, and where every form of media is stuffed stupid with the fantastic and other-worldly, it’s difficult to make something that actually registers as awe-inspiring, something where the ‘Spielberg Face’ registers as genuine amazement and wonder rather than empty, easy reaction shot. Dougherty successfully sells you on what it would be like to live in a world where gods stomp through baseball stadiums and monsters rule the day. To do it, he didn’t need to reinvent the series, he just needed to embrace the things that have always made Godzilla and his kind so very special.

After all, there’s a reason he’s king.

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