I can only remember a handful of times where I’ve gone to the cinema to see a film twice. I can remember even fewer occasions where the second viewing didn’t diminish my opinion of the film once I walked out of the theatre, where, stripped of the surprise of seeing the story play out for the first time, I was left with a keen sense of narrative shortcomings or fundamental problems (as happened a few years ago when I went for a second viewing of Django Unchained within a week, and suddenly found myself kind of irritated and turned off by it). And I am all but certain that I have never been to see a film twice on my own, without it being dictated by other people’s schedules or requests. And yet, here I was, at 4pm on a Thursday, in the cavernous Cineworld ScreenX in the dreaded Wandsworth shopping centre, using up a half day’s holiday from work to sit with a grand total of 3 other paying customers to see Godzilla, King of the Monsters for the 2nd time in 5 days.
Like most British kids, I wasn’t really aware of Godzilla outside of vague cultural references until Roland Emmerich and my uncle Dean Devlin (not my uncle) capitalised on the steamroller success of Independence Day to launch their mega-hyped big budget blockbuster take on the character. And while all the Puff Daddy and expensive marketing and badass toys couldn’t mask what a strange, disappointing stumble the film ended up being, I didn’t see it as being some horrendous betrayal of a cultural icon. I just thought it was shite, and moved on (although I did buy Deeper Underground on CD single at Our Price).
But in reading reviews of this latest film, it became apparent how many kids in the USA were brought up on Godzilla movies, shown as a cheap source of content for cable TV networks on weekends across the country. They took special umbrage at the liberties taken with the character by Emmerich & Devlin. What is also apparent is that a good number of those people who identify as huge childhood Godzilla fans are keen on Michael Dougherty’s bombastic sequel, while general critical consensus has pegged the film as a noisy disappointment. Some have even gone so far as to compare it unfavourably with the Michael Bay Transformers movies. Brutal. From this, you could easily assemble a simple narrative: the film is kind of a mess, but indulges the whims of the hardcore faithful, whose affections are easily bought because they are predisposed to liking something that panders to their tastes.
So why was I, whose only exposure to Godzilla in my youth was the widely (and fairly) derided 1998 version, so desperate to see it again that I’d sacrifice annual leave from work AND set foot in the Southside Shopping Centre voluntarily in order to do so? I had seen Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, and while I was impressed with a few sequences and the way it balanced the dread and genuine horror at the sheer scale of the destruction it depicted with a sense of awe towards the huge monster at the core of it, I found my attention span being severely tested. Too often the film just bumped around waiting for something to happen. Bryan Cranston’s character had an organic reason to be the centrepiece of the narrative, and his bug-eyed borderline overacting epitomised the kind of sincerity and commitment that I think you have to bring to a film like this in order to overcome the inherent silliness at its core. Once he is summarily dispatched in favour of the blank and miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s one-note ‘military guy’, things become kind of a dour slog, at least until some artfully directed destruction closes proceedings.
I’ve since seen, and really enjoyed, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Tōhō revival Shin Godzilla. I loved that it declined to follow a main human protagonist at all, instead depicting a vast bureaucratic web of government ministers, civil servants, infrastructure workers etc. and their efforts, some well-meaning, some bumbling, some self-serving, to react to the nightmare unfolding in Tokyo. It recaptures the inherent weirdness, the sheer maddening fear that would ensue if this were to happen today, much more successfully than its American cousin. It’s testament to the work of the directors that they could evoke this feeling despite the overwhelming familiarity we have with the image of a big scary monster stomping on city blocks. It was around this time that the theatrical trailer for Godzilla, King of the Monsters arrived on the scene and hooked me completely.
My interest was piqued by the presence on the director’s chair of Michael Dougherty – his Trick ‘r Treat is an annual Halloween staple for me, and Krampus was a festive black comedy-horror miracle that ranks, for me, up there with Gremlins. If he could bring any of that wicked sensibility to a major budget monster movie, I figured it’d at least be worth my time. And this trailer was GORGEOUS. Shimmering colours, spectacle, and that sense of otherness that Shin Godzilla had brought back to the monster movie. These monsters looked weird, as well they should. And it all looked hefty, grandiose, in the best sense. Still, we’ve all been fleeced by a pretty trailer before (I sat through the picturesque emptiness of Tron: Legacy based on its neon-glow marketing), and my anticipation levels were set somewhere around ‘cautiously optimistic’.
Over the last decade or so I’ve watched people become wide-eyed zealots for Marvel, obsessively cataloguing and storing plot information over a span of almost two dozen films to better appreciate every little nuance and callback. During that time, I’ve watched most of the movies once, usually on TV, and enjoyed several of them to a greater or lesser extent. Or I’ve seen people rage and attack or defend Star Wars with an unbridled fervour, debating every line and scrutinising whether it violated a sacred set of expectations they created for themselves, based on a trilogy that ended before most of them were born, that they have committed entirely to memory. During that time, I went to the cinema to see them with my brother because we watched the films a lot on ITV when we were kids and it meant we could get pizza beforehand and have a night out (not including Solo – skipped it). I wondered what had happened – had I not once been a fan? I’ve never been one to lash out at people who didn’t share my love for whatever movie or band or book I was crushing on, but I had always had the capacity to be enraptured by something and mildly obsess over it – to return to that fevered state of pre-adolescent love for a piece of media that was silly and inessential and all the better for it. To want to buy pointless, tacky merchandise and display my weird obsession for something on a shelf, for nothing more than my own amusement. Ignoring the anti-consumerism thread I could wander down here (“why do you need all this…stuff”, I hear in Billy Bob Thornton’s weary, drunken Santa voice), it had been a while since this fever had gripped me and I started to feel like perhaps it was a spark that had been extinguished. Sure, I still liked things- I mean, I still had music that I loved and would play over and over again, and pretty much every t-shirt I own was bought at a gig in the post-show glow of sweaty tinnitus and adrenaline. But movies used to mean that much to me. And while I had powerful, emotional, serious films that could still move me and provoke long, meandering trains of thought, I thought perhaps my time in the trenches with the kind of enormous, pop culture, modern myth blockbusters that lit up my formative years was through. I wasn’t sad, exactly- it just felt like a late-coming-of-age milestone had to be acknowledged. MOVIES, the big ones, the spectacular follies, the main cultural currency of the day, weren’t really my thing any more. I’d go see some from time to time, I’d probably kind of like a lot of them, and then I’d forget most of the details within a week. My relationship with popcorn cinema was now purely platonic, and increasingly distant.
And so we come to last Sunday, as I sat down with my illicitly smuggled supermarket beers to watch Godzilla, King of the Monsters. A film I had no reason to think would be anything more than a well-executed monster mash, a two hour sugar rush diversion to pass an afternoon while my partner was off having a brunch; worst case scenario, a mere placeholder to shuffle the pieces on the board so Warner Bros. could set up its Kong vs Godzilla throw-down a couple of summers hence. And then I felt it, gradually…that unmistakable chemistry when something just meshes with your sensibilities. That undercurrent of awe that I admired about the otherwise underwhelming 2014 movie? That undercurrent became a flood. It can only be described as reverence. Characters encounter the titans and stand there agape like Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, dumbstruck with astonishment and realisation at just how small they had suddenly become. I’ve missed this kind of wonderment being depicted on screen: as mentioned, we’ve become so accustomed to the impossible, to seeing otherworldly creatures and unimaginable chaos and carnage, that audiences and filmmakers alike seem to have forgotten how to react. Scenes like the Monarch team coming face-to-face with Godzilla himself, swimming towards them in their deep sea command post, bracing for violence and reluctantly following Mark Russell’s advice to open the protective shields and lower their weapons: the fear, the fascination, etched on every face in the room. It’s so palpable. The build up is slow and methodical, his bioluminescent spines glowing through the murk of the deep ocean as he swims towards them. Eventually, his face, like some ancient deity statue, looms over the window, and he inspects the fragile creatures inside. Satisfied, he drifts away, and the entire room exhales as one. And the cap on the scene, when Godzilla rushes by again without warning and whips the thick brine against the glass, shaking the foundations of the base. Through performance, blocking, editing, and incredible effects work, we understand what it must feel like to be in the presence of a colossus like this, to know that you are powerless and completely at his mercy. The balance it strikes in showing us just enough to hook us in, without allowing this monumental figure to become ‘normal’ to the viewer is retained throughout the running time. We see 4 major kaiju, and multiple others are glimpsed later (in a multi-screen monitor shot that reminded me a lot of Cabin In The Woods, when the various culturally specific monsters are unleashed in different parts of the world), and they are given a great deal more screen time than in Evans’ preceding film, which followed the Jaws rule of keeping your creature off screen as much as possible. Here, they are given full sequences, with close ups, and yet they are never normalised – they are always spectacular.
This is a kaiju movie. That’s why it exists, that’s its main function. But a film which was nothing more than an endless smash-‘em-up monster brawl would become wearisome, so we need to have human characters at the heart of the film because that is how cinema works. People respond to people. We go to see ourselves reflected on screen, or at least some aspect of ourselves. A common complaint about the human drama in this film is, well, that people don’t think it’s very good. For a number of reasons, but the repeated assessment, even from those who liked the film, is that it falls flat. I wish I had a pithy rebuttal, some set of Robert McKee-esque narrative rules or tricksy micro-focussed appraisal I could spin to fool people in to thinking that they are wrong in having an opinion about something, but I was far too enthralled in the film to be taking mental notes about story structure or character beats. Simply put, I had no complaints about it. For me, what worked was that all that human drama was in service of the kaiju. Much like every character asking “Where’s Poochy?”, the titans were the focus of every human interaction in the film, by and large. Emma and Mark Russell, one former and one current Monarch agent, had their relationship shattered after the destruction of San Francisco by Godzilla. Their daughter Madison is being raised on a Monarch research site, absorbed in the organisation’s research in to the creatures. The rest of Monarch, and the military who oppose their methods, and Charles Dance’s ecoterrorist gang, are all engaged constantly with Godzilla, Ghidora, Rodan and Mothra. It’s a film that doesn’t carve out much time for anything else, and I love it for that. Sure, we have a divorce plot at the centre of the film, but some of our greatest ever blockbusters take some simple, widely accessible and primal sense of the nuclear family unit as a template to earn our emotional attention while they surround it with action (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens and the aforementioned Jurassic Park, to name just three). And in Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, we have central performances that step up to that broad, committed sense of urgency and conviction that allows a film as absurd as this to really fly. They lay the track down and keep it on the rails long enough to get us to the mayhem.
And what mayhem it is. The creature designs are distinctive, expressive, and earn every bit of that reverence and terror that crosses the faces of our human avatars. King Ghidora, Monster Zero, is a pure nightmare, a Lovecraftian apparition usually too vast and awful to be captured within the camera frame. When we do get to see the whole creation, it’s in tableaux so cheesily iconic that I broke out in a broad grin at the audacity of these 1980s power metal album covers come to life. They sold me on the majesty of the first unfurling of Mothra’s iridescent wings, and made me fear for her safety when she flies in to battle in the film’s all-out third act. The critical consensus was right about the indulgence on display here – there’s a heady joy that you can sense from Dougherty and team as they get to orchestrate the battle royale they must have pictured in their heads while they watched those rubber-suited stuntmen from generations previous stomping cardboard office blocks while toy tanks barracked them with firecrackers. This is so clearly a love letter to the genre from people who understand and adore it.
That, I think more than anything, is what kindled such a strong reaction in me. It’s a hallmark of all the films I love, and you can feel it here – enthusiasm. It’s not a technical exercise, a reimagining, a continuation of a recognisable IP, a product. It feels genuine, to the point that its earnestness most likely comes across as goofy and maybe even laughable to many. But as a tribute to and celebration of Godzilla movies, I can tell you that this has absolutely worked its magic on me, and is reverse engineering a kaiju fan as we speak. Thanks to the Internet Archive, I’m able to go back and pore over the various eras of the Tōhō series, barely scratching the surface of a fixation which I have no doubt will keep me engaged for years to come. Digging through these wildly uneven, frequently hokey films, picking up the quirks and foibles of the different creative teams who pass through and leave their fingerprints on the characters, looking forward to spotting all those little Easter eggs that Dougherty and team sprinkled though King of the Monsters in future rewatches when I inevitably pick up the Blu-ray disc.
I could go ahead and list all the plot points of the film now, recount the story, apply some serious-person critical analytical skills, but it would end up being no more insightful than hearing an 8-year-old describe a dream.
A critically-derided, financially disappointing second installment in a mid-tier, licensed IP cinematic universe experiment probably shouldn’t be inspiring this kind of reaction. This is supposed to be summer season grist, destined to clog up your streaming services in a few months to be watched some listless Tuesday evening and forgotten immediately. But that, I guess, is the great thing about going to the cinema. Even in this era, where every major film goes through the reaction/backlash/backlash-to-the-backlash process before most of us have even found a free evening to get a ticket, an anomaly like this can still blindside you. And sometimes, the most unlikely candidates can reduce you, or rebuild you, in to a wide-eyed fan again.