Mothra vs Godzilla vs Godzilla vs Mothra

Keeping track of which titles are available to stream on what platform when is a constant struggle for sub-professional movie nerds.  This has been doubly true in the past year, where the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred & warped the traditional theatrical window into near oblivion.  That might explain how I showed up to HBO Max intending to watch the new Godzilla vs Kong film a week early, confusing the date of its Chinese market theatrical debut for the date it was supposed to start streaming on HBO Max in America.  Getting jazzed to watch a big-budget kaiju spectacle only to discover I’d have to keep that excitement on ice for an entire week was a letdown, and I was determined to do something with my giant-monster energy in that moment of panic so as not to waste it.  I needed to watch Godzilla fight a formidable foe that night, so I scrambled to come up with which opponent would be a worthy replacement for the mighty Kong.  The answer was immediately obvious, as the last time I saw Godzilla breathe atomic fire in 2019’s King of the Monsters re-sparked my interest in the mystical femme kaiju Mothra, who I’ve seen in too few of her own onscreen epic battles.

Choosing to watch Godzilla battle Mothra might’ve been a quick, easy decision, but it immediately led to another, trickier what-to-stream crisis.  Having appeared in 15 feature films to date, Mothra is second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen battles in the sprawling Zillaverse.  Whittling down the list of options from there was a complicated process.  I removed titles where Mothra appeared on her lonesome, terrorizing only the puny, Earth-polluting humans in her path.  I was looking for a fair fight.  I then discarded titles like Destroy All Monsters & Giant Monsters: All Out Attack where Mothra had to share the screen with the dozens of other kaiju baddies who have beef with the King of the Monsters.  That left me with two clear contenders for the perfect Godzilla vs Mothra match-up, which should’ve been obvious by their titles alone: 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Choosing between the two of them was essentially a coin-toss—given their near-identical titles—so I did the only sensible thing: I watched both.  And they were both great.  All I can really do here is attempt to distinguish them from one another in case someone else finds themselves in that hyper-specific scenario – wanting to watch Godzilla fight Mothra and having to make a snap decision on where to satisfy their kaiju craving.

The 1964 film Mothra vs Godzilla is the platonic ideal of what you’d want out of a retro kaiju battle film.  A beloved classic from Godzilla’s Shōwa era, it’s earned both populist praise as a fun action romp featuring two of the greatest movie monsters of all time and the recent stamp of approval from The Criterion Collection as a culturally significant work of Art.  In the movie, Godzilla is a monstrous personification of nuclear waste & coastal erosion who can only be vanquished by the righteous Earth-protector Mothra.  Only, the corporate greed of the smiling chumps at Happy Enterprises make Mothra question whether humanity is worth saving at all.  The foot-tall fairy women from Infant Island who represent Mothra’s wishes (as Happy Enterprises jokingly declare have “the power of attorney” over the beast)—and can summon her in song—eventually broker a deal for Mothra (and her freshly-hatched larvae) to fight Godzilla to protect humanity for destruction.  In the ensuing battle, she flaps up punishing winds with her wings, puffs out a poisonous pollen, and drags Godzilla around by his tail until he retreats back into the ocean.  It’s wonderful.  The entire movie is a pure, kitschy delight, registering as the Godzilla equivalent of The Bride of Frankenstein in its balance between cutesy humor and retro terror.

1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra (marketed in America as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) is a little clunkier in its build-up to its titular monster battle, even though it repeats most of the 1964 film’s broader details.  The Infant Island fairy women (originally played by The Peanuts) may have been replaced by a new generation of foot-tall mystic beauties called The Cosmos and the easy-target villain Happy Enterprises may have been replaced by the hubris & pollution of Humanity as a species, but story-wise Godzilla vs Mothra is near-identical to Mothra vs Godzilla, just as it is in title.  Only, it delays that traditional story with some hokey Indiana Jones-style adventurism and the crash of a CGI asteroid in its early goings, needlessly inflating its runtime.  That unnecessary delay may mean that Mothra vs. Godzilla ’64 is the better film overall, but once it fully unleashes its monster mayhem Godzilla vs. Mothra ’92 has much more exciting kaiju fights, which is a pretty major qualifier.  Mothra fully emerges into battle about an hour into the film in a cloud of poisonous, glittering pollen, and attacks Godzilla with sparks, lasers, and underwater brawling in a huge step up from her original move set.  She’s also teamed up with a goth frenemy named Battra (decorated with Guy Fieri flame decals on its wings) who adds an entire new dynamic to the titular fight.  Together, they shock Godzilla into submission, smash a Ferris wheel into him, and ultimately, as the kids would say, “throw the entire man away” as a team.

I’m not enough of an expert in the kaiju battle genre to declare a clear victor here.  All I can report is that the two Godzilla vs. Mothra films have their own distinct flavors despite the ways they overlap in narrative and lore.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is a perfectly calibrated rubber-monster creature feature from start to end, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise in what you’d expect from a Shōwa era kaiju picture starring these particular two monsters.  By contrast, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) is a much more uneven picture that spends a little too much time building up to its creature-feature payoffs.  However, its actual kaiju battle scenes are much more exciting than its predecessor’s, staging absolutely gorgeous rubber-monster battles within the hyper-femme color palette of a teen girl’s bedroom.  Choosing between the two movies is no easier now that I’ve watched them both, so my selection process would have to revert to the kinds of arbitrary filters that narrowed down my field of options in the first place.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64) is ten minutes shorter, currently streaming in HD, and carries the art-film prestige of Criterion Collection canonization.  It wins by default, but Godzilla vs. Mothra (’92) put up a hell of a fight.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Pool (2020)

I usually hate when a horror movie opens with a sneak preview of its own climactic violence, then rewinds the clock back to when everything to was peaceful just a few days before. It’s almost always a sign of the film not trusting its audience to be patient for the payoff, a cowardly reassurance that things will escalate if you hang around long enough. I’ll make an exception for the recent Thai creature feature The Pool, however, where that sneak preview serves an entirely different function. The film opens with its hero dazed & dehydrated at the bottom of a drained pool, fighting off a killer crocodile with only a bucket and few splintered furniture legs. In this case, the preview plays as a useful warning to the audience about the film’s budgetary restrictions. The CGI crocodile looks absurdly, unfathomably cheap, as if our sun-damaged hero is fighting a 2D photograph of a croc clipped out of a magazine. Instead of promising mayhem to come, the film is just being honest about the limits of what it can deliver, making sure the audience is on board with its bargain bin CGI upfront before wasting our time with less pressing concerns like dialogue, theme, or plot.

In essence, The Pool is a bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a young couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. Between The Shallows, Crawl, and 47 Meters Down, we’ve been gifted a few solid confined-space aquatic horrors in recent summers, which does put The Pool at a slight disadvantage considering the limited resources it’s competing with. It has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor, then, making sure the audience has a fun time even if not an extravagant one. In most of our hero’s attempts to escape the 6-meter concrete walls of his swimming pool prison, everything is just out of reach, amusingly so. A charger cord saves his phone from falling into the water just long enough for him to barely miss catching it; a Pizza Hut® delivery driver misses his calls for help because he’s briefly tethered to the drain by his wallet chain; a ladder lowered into the pool by strangers rolls away as he approaches it because it’s attached to a precarious stack of pipes. There are two major obstacles to survive in this picture: a cheaply rendered crocodile & an absurdist Rube Goldberg contraption designed specifically to keep him in place.

And then, just when you think The Pool is going to play everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Its flash-forward preview of the killer croc warns the audience of the film’s limited budget, but there’s no such accommodation for its wild shifts in tone. This is fun, upsetting trash that’s eager to push its limited scenario to its furthest extremes, alternating between slapstick gags & vicious cruelty without much notice. I will not spoil the shock value violence of its third act, so I’ll just report that I genuinely gasped once I got there. Weirdly, there’s also a thematic undertone to the film that suggests it might be Pro-Life propaganda. Otherwise goofball characters discuss in severe, worried tones about how “abortion is illegal, and also a sin”, and the killer croc herself only really lashes out to protect her eggs from being eaten by her fellow starved prisoners. I honestly don’t know what to make of that thematic swerve, nor do I know what to make of the film’s harsh shifts from broadly comedic schtick to nasty ultraviolence. All I can say is that I’m impressed that a film this cheap & this unassuming managed to surprise me at all, especially considering its reliance on a flash-forward prologue.

-Brandon Ledet

The Exotic Ones (1968)

I don’t know how useful this review of the 1968 creature feature The Exotic Ones (aka The Monster and the Stripper) will be to anyone reading it, since the film is very precisely my exact personal brand of trash. This locally-set novelty attempts to combine the Roger Corman rubber-suit monster movie with the post-Russ Meyer nudie cutie into one perfect swinging-60s trash pile. It has so much fun establishing a nonstop party atmosphere on its French Quarter strip club set that it goes to Matt Farley levels of effort to delay the inevitable disruption of its horrific monster – almost a full hour into its 90-minure runtime. This movie has nothing on its boozy, lingerie-clad mind beyond ogling as many burlesque performers as it can before it must sober up and deliver the horror genre payoffs promised on its poster. It’s a sloppy, horny, locally flavored party film with no clear themes or purpose beyond the cheap, simple pleasures of Bourbon Street hedonism; it’s also my new best friend.

Bourbon Street mafia types abduct a swamp-dwelling sasquatch known as The Swamp Thing from the Louisiana bayous (played by rockabilly musician Sleepy La Beef) and force him to perform onstage as part of a cheap strip club act. In color! You can pretty much guess how the story plays out once the “monster” (a shirtless, hairy oaf with vague caveman features) is displayed for the public, assuming you’ve seen any monster-in-captivity movie released since 1933’s King Kong. The Exotic Ones delays those tedious plot concerns for as long as it can manage, though, saving the entirety of its creature feature narrative for its final half hour. Everything that precedes that third-act genre shift is just a parade of go-go dancers, burlesque performers, and various other salacious sideshow acts. Some slight attention is paid to fabricating a rivalry between the club’s newest act (a shy R&B singer who’s reluctant to strip for tips) and its long-established queen bee (a daredevil stripper with flaming titty tassels and drag queen eyebrows), but it doesn’t amount to much. You can guess which one the monster falls in love with once he arrives to the scene, can’t you? And which one taunts him into a rage? You’ve pretty much already seen this movie, outside the specific quirks of its strip routines, and the producers wisely pack the screen with as large of a variety of them as possible to keep you alert & entertained.

The Exotic Ones very quickly won me over as a fan with its opening newsreel-style introduction to New Orleans as a city – a rapid-fire montage that was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s strip club “documentary” Mondo Topless. Machine gun-paced cuts of strippers & French Quarter storefronts assault the audience as a beat-reporter narrator invites us onto “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night.” It’s not exactly hyperbole when he describes Mardi Gras as “a time of reckless abandonment,” but the monologue is still deliciously overwritten & tonally chaotic – harshly juxtaposing a “Get a load of this filth!” moralism with tantalizing shots of naked, gyrating flesh. I personally loved seeing local 1960s sleaze-joints documented with the same reverent, drooling eye that was typically reserved for notorious prostitution hotspots like Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” or New York City’s 42nd Street porno theater strip. I don’t know that a New Orleans-specific remake of Mondo Topless disguised as a dirt-cheap monster movie is exactly the movie most audiences needed in their lives, but it is exactly the one I needed in mine.

Judging by most genre nerds’ boredom with the Ed Wood-penned Orgy of the Dead (a film I’m personally fond of, to my discredit), this movie’s 5% monster mayhem, 95% strip routines mixture will likely not win over everyone. The go-go strip routines and the surprisingly gory violence are both far more enthusiastically wild & erratic than those in Orgy, but you must already be on the hook for that genre imbalance for the formula to work on you. It seems that even the film’s own producers—June & Ron Ormond—weren’t entirely sold on the artistic merits of this kind of amoral hedonism. Shortly after The Exotic Ones‘s release (and a life-threatening plane crash) the couple shifted into making fire & brimstone Christian propaganda meant to scare audiences away from the temptations of Hell. Oh well. I personally could have watched a hundred Bourbon Street monster movies in this same vein, but no party lasts forever – not even the “reckless abandonment” of Mardi Gras.

-Brandon Ledet

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet