Godzilla: King of the Monsters — and a little bit of Proust

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019) was better than the previous U.S. Godzilla film, Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014), but still pretty bad. That earlier film was so awful it left a lot of room between it and “okay” for other bad films to live. I don’t intend this as an extensive negative review, but rather a comparison of what didn’t work in this film with what I do enjoy in more successful movies of this genre – movies I frequently wished I was watching instead of this one. What I thought of most often was Godzilla: Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004) with its frantic energy and love of all things crazy and over the top in “kaiju eiga,” — the giant monster movies which Godzilla epitomizes. A better example to call on though is Hideaki Anno’s 2016 blockbuster Shin Godzilla.

The biggest thing that American Godzilla movies seem to miss is that a sequence showing giant monsters fighting should be *about* giant monsters fighting. The titanic, city-wrecking melee shouldn’t be functioning just as a background for humans playing out an uninspired family drama. It is like the film’s creators have a hesitancy or lack of faith in the very monsters that are supposed to be their stars. Shin Godzilla itself has a lot of focus on its human characters, their scenes were their scenes. It is fundamentally a film about people, but once monster action started, that’s what we were meant to focus on. If a sequence did involve both monsters and humans, it was about their actions and reactions to each other, not an “A” plot and a “B” plot to cut between.

The Godzilla: King of the Monsters battle scenes were technically impressive, but rarely left much emotional impact. They played out just as you’d expect. If you tried to imagine what this film looked like from a few still pictures, you’d probably be on target. Marcel Proust wrote that we often approach art by seeking the familiar, what we know we like and have liked in the past. What truly moves us though is discovering the unexpected. One of the most classic Godzilla tropes is his powering up for his atomic breath. A glow begins along the scales on his tail, moves up the large spines along his back, building up to a radiant blast from his mouth. We’ve seen this many times, and both recent America films make a big deal of it. It is “fan service” giving us what we are supposed to want in such a familiar way that we know exactly how it is going to play out. Shin Godzilla sets this up this familiar situation – only to unsettle us by having Godzilla belch out not firey incandescent vapor, but a torrent of black bile that ignites into a napalm-like holocaust that incinerates entire city blocks. Godzilla’s jaw enlarges and splits unnaturally as the energy focuses into a brilliant laser knifing through skyscrapers.We’ve watched Godzilla use his atomic breath for decades, but we have never seen or expected it to appear as it does here, and so it shocks, amazes, and terrifies — things Godzilla: King of the Monsters never does. Shin Godzilla has several such moments that throw the viewer off balance, messing with our expectations, and leaving us almost unbelieving that we are really seeing what is there on the screen. Godzilla’s first appearance on land in a floundering, tadpole-like form leaves us unsure what we are meant to be feeling. Is it funny or an incomprehensible nightmare? Godzilla: King of the Monsters, like most Hollywood epics, never really tries to surprise us and telegraphs exactly what it expects us to feel as it runs through its check-list of set pieces and tropes. And if ever those feelings risk developing any weight, there’s always a character available to make a wisecrack or funny profanity to keep us from actually experiencing anything lasting.

Making an effective giant monster fight is a serious challenge for any film. The best Godzilla films present the conflict as humanity against an elemental force. We are struggling against a walking atomic bomb, an untouchable natural disaster, or the embodiment of supernatural vengeance. It is more problematic when a film pits Godzilla against another giant monster. Through the history of the franchise most of Godzilla’s fights have looked like professional wrestling matches. That has been part of the fun and can be appreciated as the stylized dance performances they, like pro wrestling, are intended to be. Trying to be more serious or “real” is a problem. Director Shusuke Kaneko approached the issue with his trilogy of Gamera moves between 1995-1999 by breaking the rules and playing with the expectations of the genre in his own way, but that’s a big enough topic for another day. The recent American Godzillas – as well as other giant monster films such as the Pacific Rim series – try to deal with the issues by throwing vast amounts of money into the visual effects. The results continue to be uninspiring.

One of the best realized giant monster fights in live-action or animation is in End of Evangelion, an earlier work of Shin Godzilla’s director Hideaki Anno. This was the feature film conclusion to the anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The fight is climatic confrontation between the character Asuka in her giant robot/cyborg Eva Unit and a squad of faceless winged giants. There is balletic combat, horrific violence, and an environment torn apart by this deadly dance of gods. In the midst of all this auction, the real the focus is on the very human Asuka. Every aspect of the titantic external battle is representative of the character’s personal story arc and ultimate mental breakdown. The two elements, internal and external, of character and conflict are united.