Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) by Michael Doughtery
Review by Logan Kenny
Overpopulation is propaganda.
Fascists argue that there are too many people in the world for our resources to cope with and advocate the culling of the poor folk who they blame for the planet’s pain. Instead of the blame being positioned onto those who control the distribution of resources, the rich hoarders who have enough money to buy food for everyone on the planet, or the oil companies knowingly destroying the planet for more money, the blame is always brought back to the everyday people for breeding too much and creating an unstable population. They never mention how much food we produce as a species, how much is wasted because of corporate bullshit, or really how taking away half the population would do anything to make the planet a better place. Yet, many people believe this idea, especially as the world starts to fall apart around us.
Hollywood in recent years has been positioning their antagonists’ genocidal wishes as a combat to overpopulation, having these long monologues so that the audience can understand and somewhat sympathize with them despite their extreme actions. Art in the mainstream can reflect and influence the cultural views of the time, and seeing people defend Thanos’ plan in Infinity War while he kills four billion people and had the ability to create more of/redistribute resources really reveals to me how much this society is conditioned to hate poor people.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t the only movie to retreat into fascist ideology for the sake of trying to appear culturally relevant in the era of climate change. The aforementioned Avengers: Infinity War and Ron Howard’s Inferno also come to mind as films where the rich and powerful are given apt time to reflect their eugenicist views with the only counterarguments of the protagonist being that “it can’t happen here, it can’t affect us.” The Hollywood machine acts similarly towards the villains of their pieces, refusing to address the ideas that the rich and powerful are responsible for the destruction of the planet, because that would take introspection and responsibility for their own failings.
King of the Monsters becomes yet another instance of justifying the American government’s atrocities and perpetually disgusting worldview, a nihilistic fascist movie that sensationalizes the deaths of nameless villagers of color while the well-off, white enabler of these killings gets a heroic sendoff. The argument that these movies never justify these acts is invalid to me, because they’re included for the audience to listen to in the first place. Fascist rhetoric and the lives of billions of people aren’t up for debate – this isn’t a conversation you can throw out there to add introspection to your dastardly villains.
Continuing to express the argument so clearly and so barely combated (intellectually or morally) makes you culpable in these ideas spreading further.
Even if you can put the eugenicist politics aside – which I believe you shouldn’t – and just try to view it as apolitical spectacle, Godzilla: King of the Monsters fails on every conceivable level. If you come to a Godzilla movie for the action and the blockbuster chaos of kaiju fights, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Every fight between Godzilla and any of the other beasts in the film is shrouded in fog, clouds and darkness, blocked out by a series of storms and CGI sludge. There’s no clear geography or clarity in these beings’ movements or fighting; there’s no style or panache in how they lumber and destroy one another. It is noise and clutter that is broken up by lackadaisical cuts to the human characters every 30 seconds or so. Whenever the hint of momentum starts, it’s immediately broken down by the need to cut to an actor screaming in the background or further another subplot from within the sprawling screenplay. There’s never any expression of individuality to each of the creatures. Godzilla has been robbed of any political depths or personality, reduced to a giant lizard pawn in the American military complex.
Mothra, a fan-favorite character, has been transformed into just another ostensibly cool creature to cause more brimstone; there is no soul to any of these designs. This film is less interested in history or personality or the reasons why these characters and stories have survived and continued to resonate with audiences, instead believing that all people want is grey, meaningless collision. It is so needlessly cynical in every facet in its creation – cynical not just in tone, but in how little it cares about creating anything that’ll last or connect to an audience member. The imagery is relentlessly ridiculous and overbearing whenever you can see anything: in particular, the blinding light when Mothra births from the cocoon to emphasize how divine her presence is, as well as a literal shot of a cross in the forefront of the frame when Ghidorah is shrouded by flames in the background.
Symbolism and imagery is either blackened by an incomprehensible blur or highlighted in the most insultingly disingenuous way.
The disrespect to the culture of these characters goes much further than just its shots of war. Godzilla originated as a response to the nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This series was a response to American imperialism and the horrors of radiation, the natural tragedy of losing so many innocent people to devices that inhumane. For decades, the Godzilla films and characters have been intensely popular in Japan, not meaningless genre cinema and empty blockbusters, but a form of national catharsis and enjoyment. Godzilla isn’t just a giant monster, and treating the character as such is a disrespect to the foundations from which he was created. King of the Monsters looks at the history and the influence of nuclear warfare on Japanese people and spits on it. There is only one named Japanese character – played by Ken Watanabe in the only good performance in the film – and he sacrifices himself by detonating a nuclear bomb in order to revive Godzilla. Not only are the optics of the only Japanese man in your movie dying by nuclear radiation to benefit the American government bad, but framing nuclear warheads as something that could be used positively is insane! What the fuck! It’s also absolutely convinced in the merits of the American military. Shots of roaring fighter jets coming through the smog to help guide Godzilla, the intense humanity and empathy given towards the imperialist soldiers and generals that isn’t spared for people outside of that system, the iconography of the American flag seeming to loom over everything... It feels disrespectful to transform something so quintessentially Japanese into just another facet of dirtbag American propaganda, erasing all traces of its legacy with nuclear fire and CGI muck.
For a movie this long, it’s jarring how few of its characters mean anything, from the central arcs we’re clearly supposed to care about, to the casual disregard for other human life. A scene that I think expresses this movie’s faults perfectly is an Antarctica set piece where ground soldiers are looking up at this celestial being that they have no capacity to understand. They stare into the eyes of a god through their rifles and increasingly realize that they’re about to die — that all the bullets in the world are meaningless when fired at this being.
King of the Monsters frames this by having one of them say “oh shit” and then cutting away to a crash of ice, indicating that they’ve died. There is no tangible humanity in this movie – death doesn’t mean anything but as a way to show how dangerous these monsters are, and it even seems conflicted on how it feels about the monsters themselves. The arguments of the film are between people wanting to kill them, people wanting to control them, and people wanting them to bring the balance to the world (genocide) – and by the end, it seems completely contradictory in every sense? I’m not sure what thematic ground it wants to cover or what it wants the audience to feel at the conclusion, and there’s nothing really substantial to debate or understand from this. There’s no moral dilemma or debate you can have with other audience members as it lacks any groundwork to make these ideas anything more than spitballs from a crew that clearly didn’t know what story they were trying to tell.
The central human characters are atrocious. King of the Monsters is centered on a dysfunctional family that lost a son and brother in the first Godzilla attacks, and who’ve coped in different ways as a result. The majority of the protagonist’s journey is about finding his family and making up for the absences that his grief caused. The problem is that the film is so vague and obviously insincere in its depiction of trauma and loss that it’s impossible to care. There is no genuine introspection on his behalf – just monologues about alcoholism and how he let his family down. The first indication that they lost a child is through a home video with an extra child and vague mutterings about both of the parents not really being okay. It is clearly tacked on to add another emotional incentive to the narrative and is written/performed as such. It’s tasteless and manipulative, utilizing a dead child to not create empathy with the characters’ stakes, but to justify overpopulation and make Kyle Chandler’s solemn nod of admiration towards Godzilla more palpable. The performances definitely don’t make it work. The constant need to supplement moments of deep conflict with self referential humour result in the tragic performances of Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford, who both bring nothing to the movie aside from casual annoyance and jokes about how the monsters’ names sound like gonorrhea. Vera Farmiga has never been this bad in a movie before, giving actively one of the worst performances of the year – and I know how much talent she has. Chandler’s trying, but he’s handed a character with no journey, shifting from viewpoint to viewpoint with no real rhyme or reason, culminating in a sequence that seems completely distanced from resolution. The film suggests that people with trauma and grief should either kill themselves or live to be burdened with a new pain – before a shot of Godzilla’s crew of monster bros take centre stage and these lives fade back into the background. This movie is disgusting!
This is the type of movie which has a daughter tell her mother “you’re a monster” right after a shot of Godzilla to pose the question: what if humans were the real monsters all along? It’s the kind of movie that takes 132 minutes of your time without saying or doing anything of meaning or purpose, the type of work which has no reason for existence but money. At least other portentous cynical blockbusters have a modicum of talent at faking sincerity and spectacle, but this can’t even clear that low bar. I remember seeing an argument on Twitter once about how a movie of this size and scale can never be the worst movie you’ve ever seen, as there’s clearly some low budget disaster which is technically weaker. My response to that is at least those smaller films, as bad as they might be, were made by people who wanted to create something. This is not just bad in every conventional way, it reeks of the importance of people who’d rather be doing anything else. Budget and a large crew actually make it worse to me, so much money and talented people being devoted to a project with no originality, no ideas, no cool images or fights, nothing but relentless tedium and noise. This isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen (it’s not even the worst I’ve reviewed for this site in my 6 months), but it’s the most pointless – the one that adds the least to my life for having experienced. This movie made me angry about all the creative people and Japanese voices who don’t have western exposure while this makes money off of their culture. The need for Americans to involve themselves in everything is relentlessly tiresome. Some things just aren’t yours to take. There is no time for any grace notes or appreciation of legacy, just a cataclysm of shit.