In interviews, director/cowriter Michael Dougherty has called his Godzilla: King of the Monsters “the Aliens to [the 2014 Godzilla]’s Alien.” The comparison is an apt one. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott in 1979, was a moody, slow-burning horror film, prizing dread and atmosphere over character or plot. Its 1986 sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, shifted gears dramatically: it was an adrenaline-fueled action-adventure movie with a wisecracking ensemble cast. It was also great, but in an entirely different way.
Similarly, King of the Monsters diverges radically from its predecessor’s vision and demands to be judged on its own terms. In my (shamelessly effusive) review, I likened Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film to Jurassic Park, and it’s easy to liken King of the Monsters to the ill-fated sequel, Jurassic Park: The Lost World – it’s bigger, dumber, and schlockier. There are also overlapping plot points: Lost World and King of the Monsters both feature A) children with separated parents and B) teams of heavily-armed mercenaries led by droll Brits who are out to use the creatures for their own ends.
The most cogent comparison to be drawn, though, is this: while Edwards admirably captured the somber spirit and urgent gravitas of Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla, Dougherty goes straight for the vein of cheerful, hokey absurdity that characterized its twenty-plus sequels from the ‘60s on. Setting Edwards’ grey, gloomy film side by side with Dougherty’s candy-colored extravaganza is almost like putting the black-and-white original next to one of its many Technicolor sequels – silly, willfully fantastical films like Mothra vs. Godzilla or Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster. It’s an intrinsically less interesting choice in many ways, but it’s also an entirely defensible one, given the history of Godzilla’s onscreen appearances and how difficult it would be to replicate Edwards’ singular vision.
Dougherty is half the director Edwards is, but he strikes the right tone. King of the Monsters is a profoundly, almost offensively silly movie, but at the same time, it is an expressive, sincere one: a throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink movie, exhausting and endearing in equal measure. You will either roll your eyes or pump your fists.
It’s just one gosh-darned thing after another, but it works on a level beyond simple camp because Dougherty understands what makes these films work at their best: their inherent goofiness is grounded in clear themes. Godzilla was about the atomic bomb; Rodan was about mining and conservation; Mothra vs. Godzilla was a life-affirming parable about mysticism and technology. Once you get on its wavelength, King of the Monsters manages to be completely ridiculous and completely sincere at the same time. It frequently makes little to no literal sense, but it almost always makes complete psychological and/or thematic sense. It’s an unashamedly silly B-movie with hefty ideas on its mind and big emotions in its heart. I understand why others might be less charitable, but I am inclined to be forgiving because big summer movies rarely have aspirations like these anymore. Even as we debate whether or not it works, we’ll find so much more to mull over and be affected by than we would in a mediocre product like Captain Marvel. Although an unwelcome smattering of elements – a bit of bathos, Easter eggs to tease future sequels, etc. – are too close to the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the 2010s for comfort, this feels like a blockbuster from another era: the early 2000s or late 1990s, when everyone (including Dougherty himself) was riffing on Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. King of the Monsters is not afraid to commit the cardinal sin of our current moviegoing climate: cheesiness. Instead of striving for palatability, it’s willing to take risks: to be broadly, melodramatically emotional. Its roots in pop psychology give it a nearly dreamlike aspect. Titans wrecking cities are a backdrop to – or an expression of – the healing of family trauma.
In the most high-stakes custody battle to grace the silver screen since The Brood, the plot centers on Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga), who are competing for both the affections of their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and the fate of Godzilla and his ilk. King of the Monsters begins with tragedy, as Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco claims the life of Mark and Emma’s son, Madison’s brother. The parents flee from Godzilla in different ways. Mark numbs himself and runs away, turning to drink and holing up in the lakeside cabin where Tony Stark was recently seen taking up residence in Avengers: Endgame. Emma tries to find meaning in the tragedy, or rather to make meaning out of it, with a harebrained scheme to restore balance to the planet by unleashing Godzilla and his monstrous peers. She even pauses the action mid-film to spout some Thanos-style environmental hooey in a miniature TED talk, the worst offender of the film’s many chunks of talky exposition. If Edwards’ Godzilla was all about the limits of human control, King of the Monsters uses the Russell parents to present two responses to that feeling of helplessness. Mark becomes complacent, while Emma doubles down on efforts to regain control. Throughout, Dougherty conflates gods and monsters, referring to Godzilla and the other titans as “the first gods,” who were worshipped by primitive civilizations. Emma wants to become a benevolent god, but her meddling with forces beyond her control and comprehension makes her (in Madison’s words) a monster instead. Instead of running away from their trauma, Mark and Emma must relive it. In its closing passages, the film circles back to its opening tragedy, as the Russell parents search for another child in the burning wreckage of another city. They find Madison curled up in a bathtub in the fetal position. By facing trauma together, the family unit is reborn.
The idea that trauma leads to transcendence is the central premise of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy, which concluded with Glass earlier this year, and King of the Monsters feels like that film’s bigger-budgeted cousin. Both Glass and King of the Monsters are about the presence of the miraculous in the modern world – the way the extraordinary emerges through the crucible of tragedy, and the way a scientifically emboldened society threatens to suppress it in favor of mandated mediocrity.
King of the Monsters opens with senate hearings being held to determine whether or not Godzilla and the other titans – avatars of everything beyond man’s control and understanding – should be embraced or exterminated. (The Dougherty-written X-Men sequel X2 began the same way.) The governments and militaries of the world argue for extermination. The Monarch organization – a “crypto-zoological agency,” according to the official summary – argues for a return to a “natural order” in which humans and titans exist in harmony. One might even detect a sly conservative bent in the name “Monarch” and the organization’s belief in an inherent cosmic order toward which all our actions should be oriented. The humans’ Monarch is a symbol that points to another, higher monarch: the titular king of the monsters. (Cue the Godzilla/The Crown think pieces – and good luck to this summer’s impending Lion King remake topping the Circle of Life that closes this film.)
Dougherty frames man’s need for the extraordinary, the miraculous, in an overtly religious (even biblical, theological) context. One could almost summarize the film as a goofy but oddly detailed science-fiction riff on the Book of Revelation. (Yes, really.) Godzilla’s nemesis, King Ghidorah, is Dante’s Satan: a three-headed dragon with massive wings, who we first meet trapped in ice. Later, we learn that he is an alien creature who “fell from the stars,” like lightning from heaven – “a false king.” As scientists review artistic depictions of Ghidorah culled from different cultures, Dougherty throws in Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which brings us back to Revelation. Also: Mothra’s wings visually resemble the woman’s wings in Blake’s painting, because this is just that kind of movie.
(Charles Dance’s Alan Jonah, the film’s human villain, also gets a significant Biblical surname. He spends no time in the belly of a whale, but he does rail against humanity’s sins and decide we deserve no mercy because of them. You half expect a worm to eat his gourd so it withers.)
If Ghidorah is Satan, it is hardly a leap to see Godzilla as Christ. King of the Monsters could be retitled, only half jokingly, as The Passion of Godzilla. The theology gets thorny if your stand-in for Jesus is a radioactive dinosaur, of course, but Dougherty is surprisingly committed to it. Then again, perhaps it should not be a surprise, considering this is the fellow who co-wrote Superman Returns, the most blatantly Christological Superman movie (which ended with the empty tomb, among other things). Moreover, in X2, he gave us a prominently Catholic superhero who recited the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety – literally every word. When it comes to religious symbolism, Dougherty is not one for subtlety. In King of the Monsters, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) intones without an ounce of irony, “[Godzilla] died for us.”
In the film, Godzilla goes through the usual gauntlet of semi-Messianic death and rebirth rituals: he is killed by those he came to save, descends into a hellish underworld, and returns triumphant at the end of all things. (I’ll rein it in in a second, but you could almost call King of the Monsters the New Testament to the 2014 film’s Old Testament. I’m mostly joking.) We are told Godzilla is the “key to coexistence,” which is another way of saying he acts as mediator between mankind and the titans, and there’s even some pseudoscientific gobbledygook about combining his titan bioacoustics with human ones – a riff, certainly, on Christ’s dual nature as God and man. They say “Jesus” in this movie about as much as you could get away with in a PG-13 version of Miller’s Crossing or In Bruges.
The psychological and theological elements of the film intersect in Mark’s storyline (which – to make one last Shyamalan comparison – is essentially Mel Gibson’s arc from Signs). As the film begins, Mark is bitter over what he has lost to Godzilla, but as it goes on, he slowly regains his faith, finding meaning – a higher purpose – in the suffering that he could not comprehend before. “These moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith,” Serizawa tells him. In large part, King of the Monsters is a film about the way the transcendent (dare I say the divine?) is revealed to us through tragedy, a metaphor for the way belief makes sense of life’s suffering.
The reawakening of Mark’s faith coincides pointedly with what may be the film’s finest passage, an excursion to Atlantis to revive a crippled Godzilla. (Again: Yes, really.) Dr. Serizawa, always the true believer, sacrifices himself to detonate a nuclear warhead that will restore the creature, who feeds on radiation – a kind of martyrdom that explicitly reverses the ending of the ’54 film, in which a scientist (also named Dr. Serizawa) descended into the ocean to kill Godzilla. There, mankind’s technological mastery was opposed to nature; here, technology is used to restore it. Moreover, the mythic, quasi-biblical overtones are clear. The fiery setting marks this as a descent into hell – a literal underworld that doubles as Jung’s collective unconscious (of which water is the archetype). It is in the collective unconscious that our ancient myths reside. Dr. Serizawa reaches transcendence by descending into this realm, wearing a suit that recalls both the ’54 film and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The submarine commander is named Bowman. Spoiler: Godzilla is the black monolith.) In the 2014 film, Serizawa sees Godzilla’s back – like Moses on Sinai, I noted in my review. Here, to press the analogy further, he touches Godzilla’s face and calls him “old friend,” recalling Exodus 33: “The LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”
It would be a stretch to call Godzilla: King of the Monsters a religious film, yet it feels wrong not to call it one. Dougherty does not seem to really believe in any of this stuff. His vision is limited; he locates the extraordinary, the transcendent, in the natural, material world. At the same time, there is an earnest striving here for a sense of awe that is best described as religious. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis: “I sometimes wonder whether we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.” At one point in King of the Monsters, a nameless soldier crosses himself, and the child sitting next to me at my screening mimicked the gesture. I was not surprised. Here is a film, like Star Wars, that awakens the imagination to a sense of wonder, a sense that there is more to the world than what we see every day – a sense that there is something grand and miraculous out there, something extraordinary.
In its own enthusiastically loopy way, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is extraordinary.