Beginning my weeklong series examining this 1991 Godzilla monster/time travel/cyborg/political philosophy epic.
One of my projects for this blog is to watch through and comment on the series of Godzilla films that were released between 1984 and 1995, known as the Heisei Series. You can see my post on the first of these films, Return of Godzilla (Koji Hashimoto, 1984). Unfortunately the second film, Godzilla vs Biollante (Kazuki Ōmori, 1989) isn’t readily available, and it’s been years since I’ve seen it. So I have to skip to Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (Kazuki Omori, 1991), the third film.
A difficulty in thinking about Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is understanding just what this movie is trying to be. It is not the carefully crafted work of a filmmaker with a personal vision, the way that Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Godzilla was — or Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla. It is not the light children’s entertainment of the 1970’s movies. It is not the over the top craziness of Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2004 Godzilla: Final Wars.
By 1991 movies in the United States were in the era of the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster. Terminator, Predator, Alien, etc. had not only been big hits but spawned successful franchises. Everybody watched them, not just science fiction and monster fans. The Godzilla films of the 1980’s and 90’s tried to join in. With relatively bigger budgets, more serious tone, and less stylized visuals, they sought after the growing audience of viewers wanting spectacular fantasy and high intensity action. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah was made in 1991, seven years after a new series started up with 1984’s Return of Godzilla. That desire to emulate Hollywood filmmaking is evident. In Return, for instance, when there was a change of location, there would usually be an establishing shot, a subtitle of the location’s name, and possibly even a complete sequence of a character driving up, getting out of their car, and walking up to the entrance. Ghidorah just cuts rapidly between locations and times, assuming a modern viewer can keep up. The subject matter and visuals of popular American sci-fi films exert their influence here as well, particularly the Terminator franchise.
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is trying to take two classic Toho monsters and work them into a 90’s sci-fi action film. We should look at the results with that goal in mind. But director and screenwriter Kazuki Omori does not abandon the history and fundamentals of what makes a Godzilla film. When Hollywood itself tried to take on the task, it stumbled badly with the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, seeming to think that Godzilla as a trademark, as a licensing property alone, was the source of his power. Godzilla needs to be more than that. For all the awkward Hollywood homages and attempts at imitating hit American films, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah remembers that Godzilla is always about something.
He appeared in 1954 as a metaphor for the dangers of the atomic bomb. By his second film he was more a natural disaster who could be mapped and forecasted, like a hurricane. In the 60’s and 70’s he became a superhero — and embodied a child’s fantasy for power and agency in a world where he literally didn’t fit. Later series found even more ideas and symbols to embody in his ever larger form. Godzilla is a radioactive Moby Dick, onto which people can endlessly project their own fears, obsessions, hopes, and nightmares. In Godzilla vs King Ghidorah several different characters have their own interpretations of what Godzilla is. They have conflicting philosophies about the world, particularly Japan’s place in the world, and look to Godzilla as to embody their beliefs.
In working on this essay I kept wondering why I had so much to say. While I find it entertaining, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is not actually a very good movie. It’s not especially well written, has some cringingly bad scenes, and several major plot holes. But it always has something going on. Every scene has some idea or thought or resonance with Godzilla as a film franchise. It keeps trying to do things, visually and thematically. It fails as often it succeeds, but the attempts are worth watching and thinking about. Let’s look at how this movie unfolds and see what it has to say.