We tend to think about kaiju movies the way we think about simple math problems or strict recipes. A good one, common wisdom holds, must have a certain amount of destruction, monster brawls, and other effects-driven sequences. Scenes with human characters should be incidental, and under no circumstances should they exceed a certain percentage of the film relative to the monster stuff that gets us in the door. These are the guidelines, often recited in the face of kaiju films that skew people-heavy or any criticism that holds them to more traditional standards like “characterization” or “plausibility.”
The release of 2014’s Godzilla came with a lot of testy tapping of that kaiju rulebook. Director Gareth Edwards is most visibly indebted to the haunted quality of the 1954 film directed and co-written by Ishirō Honda, but he leaves much of the destruction for the final act. By doing so, the traditional monster fight becomes less a form of traditional, cool-things-blow-up gratification than an apocalyptic last resort; the whole thing is a slow build, without a lot of screentime for its title creature.
Honda’s original Godzilla famously allegorized a world of violent uncertainty, dread, and powerlessness created less than a decade prior when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But so many years after the fact, with Godzilla more widely known for wrestling other monsters in subsequent, sillier films (many of which were also helmed by Honda), modern viewers cried foul. They’d paid for a movie starring Godzilla, not one where he flails in the background of scenes that center the guy from Kick-Ass.
In response, the next Godzilla movie, 2019’s King of the Monsters, dialed up the monster fights while still trying to maintain the human perspective (to admittedly tepid results). Godzilla vs. Kong is the logical conclusion of this attitude, nudging humans as far to the periphery as far as it possibly can, resulting in a film that is hardly the worst of the “MonsterVerse” series but may just be the emptiest.
Let Them Fight (Again)
Godzilla vs. Kong divides its human characters roughly along party lines established in the title. Returning to Team Godzilla from the 2019 movie is Millie Bobby Brown, newly radicalized (G-pilled?) by a paranoid podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry) and his espionage at the shifty Apex Cybernetics. Apex bankrolls a journey to the center of the earth headed by a Skarsgård (Alexander) who believes the planet is hollow, housing a whole subterranean world that might contain the means to fight a newly-hostile Godzilla. To get inside, he needs the instincts of a creature with ancestral ties to the place, like Kong. To get Kong, he joins up with a Kong caretaker (Rebecca Hall) and her adoptive daughter (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf native girl who communicates with her enormous gorilla friend via sign language and whose entire tribe is conveniently dead so that no one is doing an overt colonialism by dragging her along.
And those aren’t even all the characters; like the last film, the human cast for Godzilla vs. Kong is hardly small. The difference, however, is in the way the plot moves, fast-forwarding through as much about the people as it can get away with in order to quickly show the monsters putting up their monster dukes in bombastic CGI skirmishes. Blink and you might miss a character played by Lance Reddick, and there’s one guy (Shun Oguri) whose characterization has been pruned to just what we can assume from his last name. People still explain things a little more than they ought to, but there is a greater tendency to handwave incongruous developments and preposterous technology, a “just roll with it” spirit that feels pleasantly in line with the old Godzilla sequels.
The straightforwardness should be refreshing, and sometimes it is. Under director Adam Wingard, Godzilla vs. Kong is thankfully not the umpteenth blockbuster to spend at least 140 minutes laying out the minutiae of its universe while chasing the superficial high of a Big Reveal that we’re going to forget by next evening. At 113 minutes, it’s the shortest of the MonsterVerse films, marginally less egregious in deflating tension with bad jokes. Some of the fight scenes risk incoherence through quick-cutting that doesn’t always highlight environmental elements like an anchor chain, lingering less on each explosive wind-up in favor of monsters that move and fight much more quickly than men in suits ever could. But the action does mostly work, staged with a clarity that no longer obscures the monsters in smoke and snow and rain like the 2014 film (to moody effect) or its 2019 sequel (which was mostly just hard to see).
This is ostensibly the sort of thing we want, the no-nonsense conflict that breaks out because when one big monster growls at another big monster the wrong way, them’s fightin’ words. It’s right there in the kaiju rulebook, the structure by which we define these films as kitsch classics. But this narrow conception of what a kaiju film can be, what we believe a kaiju film should be, is rooted in the perceived artlessness and disreputability that has plagued the subject matter since its inception.
High and Low
Like a lot of old genre movies, kaiju films were released as double bills and tend to be blissfully short (and therefore perfect for those of us who have trouble committing to anything that might ask us to sit still for too long). They’re straightforward enough for children to follow, and as the genre developed it began to target that demographic quite specifically. They are not particularly well-regarded. With a couple of exceptions—the original Godzilla long ago won the fight to be recognized as a serious work—we have chosen to throw our weight behind the faintly embarrassing space occupied by the films that followed, responding to the claim that they’re goofy, fake-looking, and stupid with a shrug and a “yeah, so what?”
We don’t necessarily disagree with the charge that they’re stupid; instead, we take issue with the idea that a stupid movie is a bad thing, an infringement on our right to switch off and watch a guy in a monster suit put his foot through some miniatures. But somewhere within these familiar mental processes of justifying a thing we like to ourselves, there is the overcorrection: the idea that it can only be one way, that being meaningful and being a little silly must be mutually exclusive. Not only do we deny these films’ capacity for human drama and human interest, but we have come to shun it. For the sake of our perceived sanity and our self-respect, we don’t challenge the wider opinion of these movies as mindless entertainment of dubious value. Instead, we more or less embrace it, and that is a dismissal of its own, labeling the format as a no more than a meaningless wrapper for special effects.
Godzilla vs. Kong is a manifestation of that dismissal, its disinterest in themes and character painfully evident in the hurried, cut-to-the-bone quality of its perfunctory storytelling. But the best kaiju movies — even the most deeply, unapologetically silly ones about a flying pollution monster or Godzilla’s adopted failson — manage to bridge the gap between creature action and human interest. From 1962 to 1975 alone, 13 Godzilla films were made under Toho’s studio system (the 1954 Godzilla was followed by a hasty sequel mere months later, but the franchising didn’t begin in earnest until ‘62’s King Kong vs. Godzilla). There are even more beyond that, tangential films that would later cross over with Godzilla media or other, effects-driven movies that shared casts, writers, and directors (often Honda): Gorath, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Matango, The Mysterians, Mothra.
But none of these movies rely on their effects alone. Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster is one of the most acclaimed Godzilla films, and it dedicates a considerable amount of time to an amnesiac princess who predicts the future because she’s possessed by a ghost from Venus. In these scenes as well as its monster battles, the film exhibits a spirit of cooperation present in much of Honda’s work (take, for example, the downright idealistic collaboration of all nations in Battle in Outer Space). The enormously underrated Terror of Mechagodzilla centers a doomed romance alongside some light body horror to frame our growing reliance on technology. Even the original King Kong vs. Godzilla is primarily a corporate satire, depicting the efforts of some unscrupulous TV folks to use Kong as a mascot, continuing themes explored in Mothra from the prior year.
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In a basic need for variety, so many kaiju films are really about people, and you’ll have a bad time with them if you can’t get at least a little invested in the scenes about people. For as short as these movies tend to be, they’re tedious to sit through with only the basic thrill of crushed models in mind. The human scenes add flavor to an inherently limited concept; they establish the context, the stakes, and the thematic parallels. These types of scenes are the difference between watching a movie and just looking up a fight compilation on YouTube before YouTube got so good at taking those down. The 90s Gamera films, for example, use human death on a small scale to establish a creature’s capacity for harm early on, and we extrapolate the growth of that threat once the monster inevitably grows to the size of knocking over buildings.
I won’t argue that I remember kaiju film characters long after the fact, or that they compare favorably to films where interpersonal drama is the sole focus. But whether or not these scenes succeed from a basic entertainment perspective (and I’d argue they do more than we typically expect), they exemplify how the enduring appeal of kaiju films is so directly tied to their humanity on not just a plot level but a big-picture sense of their very construction. This is most overt in the tactile ingenuity of the miniatures and costumes in the oldest ones, now hardly able to pass for the real thing (if they ever were) but still tangibly there, a thing that was made; behind the visible craft there is the knowledge that it is, in fact, a craft being honed over time. Certainly there were people behind the cameras and computers of Godzilla vs. Kong, but the sleek unreality of CGI lacks the same personal, crafted quality.
And in a general storytelling sense, you can feel different filmmakers working through ideas, recalibrating their movies according to audience interests. To give the genre any sort of extended look is to consider the varying philosophies and approaches to a similar concept, to consider the limitations of their creation under a studio system and what emerged as a result. Even in relatively short spans of time, the depictions drastically shift; 11 years after Ishirō Honda’s original Godzilla conveyed so much of its horror in symbolic terms, his Frankenstein Conquers the World directly engages with WWII: the still-beating heart of Frankenstein’s monster is passed from the Nazis to the Japanese and then believed lost to the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima. Through its human scenes, the film delves into notions of scientific ethics, complicity, and how to accommodate devastating, irreversible change. It is also a movie about a jumbo reincarnation of Frankenstein’s monster who accidentally crushes a house because he lobs an entire tree at a bird and misses; it is a much more interesting film for having those seemingly disparate halves, and Honda treats both with enough weird sincerity to keep one from swallowing the other.
With a scene where Kong pulls a magic axe from the ass of the hollow earth, Godzilla vs. Kong certainly has the sillier half covered. But human connection and thematic relevance are absent in a way that seems quite intentional. You can feel the film relegating itself to no more than the image of some monsters breaking some stuff, and stripping the genre of its human factor only dilutes the relevance and contextual power; a film like 2016’s widely acclaimed Shin Godzilla, which is primarily a bureaucratic satire, doesn’t get made within those confines.
By playing so rigidly to expectations, Godzilla vs. Kong regresses into glib meaninglessness; the old approach of Americanizing these films by sloppily hacking out whatever didn’t involve mashing monsters together has produced an entire new film in itself. Regardless of whether the prior American Godzilla films succeeded in their (occasionally misguided) attempt to turn the character into a universal harbinger of nature’s fury, at least they didn’t feel like they had outright given up trying to say something.