I was initially careful not to divulge too many third-act details when reviewing Godzilla vs Kong, but it’s been an entire year since it first premiered so I don’t mind spoiling it now. The only reason Adam Wingard’s kaiju smash-em-up is the best American Godzilla film to date is that the monster fights promised in its title felt exceptionally tactile & novel for a modern CG blockbuster. And what really launched those fights over the top was the WrestleMania-style surprise entrance of Godzilla’s mechanized doppelgänger Mechagodzilla in the third act, injecting an excessive rush of adrenaline into a movie was already plenty entertaining before the bionic monster’s arrival. The delight of that last-minute surprise really leaves audiences on a fist-pumping high, forgiving all the mundane humans-on-the-ground storytelling it takes to get there.
Looking back at the delightful surprise of Mechagodzilla’s most recent onscreen appearance, I can’t help but wonder if the robo-monster should always be presented as a last-minute swerve. At the very least, I can say for certain that its first franchise appearance in 1974’s Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla would’ve been greatly improved if its existence weren’t teased in the title & poster. There’s a brief, glorious moment in the film when Godzilla is being framed for mayhem he didn’t commit by the mechanized imposter, frustrated that other kaiju and the citizens below believe he has turned heel. The film could have been an all-time classic if that conflict was allowed to drive the plot, delaying the reveal of the “space titanium” under the faux-Godzilla’s “skin” as late in the runtime as possible instead of immediately degloving it. Basically, I wish Mechagodzilla was the Gene Parmesan of the series.
There is plenty of novelty to be found elsewhere in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla without that surprise reveal. While Mechagodzilla is almost always a manmade weapon in subsequent films (including in Godzilla vs Kong), it arrives on Earth as space alien tech in its first appearance. The sub-James Bond espionage antics that thwart that alien plot can be a little dull (an unfortunate holdover from the previous entry in the franchise, Godzilla vs Megalon). The aliens themselves are amusing knockoffs of the Planet of the Apes creature designs, though, which adds a post-modern mash-up quality to the premise. The film also doesn’t entirely rely on the novelty of Mechagodzilla to freshen up its monster roster. It also features appearances from Anguirus (a spiky armadillo) and King Caesar (a personified Shisa statue) in its Royal Rumble rollout of surprise combatants. It’s a fun picture as is, even if it had much greater potential as a kaiju whodunnit.
To be fair, I’m not sure Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla needed to be especially novel to be worthwhile, considering that it was already arriving fourteen films deep into the Godzilla canon. Fifty years and twenty-two Godzilla movies later, there have been plenty of boring, uninspired kaiju duds with way less to offer than this standard-issue monster flick. At the very least, it attempts to establish its own playful sense of style between the kaiju battles in its cave-painting illustrations, Brady Bunch news-report grids, and double-exposure shots of religious prophecies. It’s no Godzilla vs Hedorah in that respect, but few movies are. Most importantly, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla gets by on the exact same merits that made Godzilla vs Kong such a delight: the inherent entertainment value of its pro-wrestling style kaiju fights (which are often shockingly bloody in this case, imagery that was often softened in its American edits). I just can’t help but wish that it also held back Mechagodzilla for as long as possible in the same way Godzilla vs Kong did, though. It could have been an all-timer instead of just another good’n.
I’ve been long-overdue for a nostalgia-check rewatch of the 1998 Godzilla film, directed by notorious Hollywood dingus Roland Emmerich. Since it was the first fully American Godzilla production, the hype leading up to that film’s release was immense and—a child at the time—I bought into all of it: the tie-in Saturday morning cartoon, the rap-rock soundtrack CD, the Taco Bell-exclusive merchandise, all of it. The film was a critical flop and a commercial disappointment, but I was young enough (and offline enough) to remain blissfully unaware of its reputation as the biggest embarrassment to-date in Godzilla’s 30+ film franchise. That tainted rep has been difficult to ignore in recent years, though, as other 90s Kid™ nostalgia traps like Mortal Kombat,Space Jam, and Spice World have enjoyed retroactive critical appraisal from goofball Millennials (myself included, on all three counts) while Godzilla ’98 has maintained its cultural standing as one of the worst blockbuster misfires of all time. I had to revisit the film to see for myself whether it was the monstrously entertaining creature feature I remembered watching as a kid or the putrid, bloated travesty everyone else reports it to be. As per usual, the truth is that it falls somewhere between those two extremes.
The 1998 Godzilla isn’t especially horrendous nor especially great by any particular metric; it’s passably entertaining for a goofball blockbuster spectacle marketed almost exclusively to children. I honestly believe that the film would’ve been remembered fondly if it had just been a dinosaurs-attacking-NYC movie instead of dragging Godzilla’s name into its CGI buffoonery, since the creature’s legendary run with Toho set an expectation it was never going to meet. A $100mil Roland Emmerich production was never going to sincerely grapple with the post-nuclear emotional devastation of the original 1954 Godzilla, nor was it ever going to indulge in the wildly imaginative free-for-all of weirdo outliers like 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah. It basically just uses the Godzilla name as an excuse to stage one-off, city-crushing gags with a square-jawed T-Rex that has practically nothing to do with the creature’s post-War Japanese origins. I can see how that half-hearted appropriation of the Godzilla legacy was insulting to adult fans of the original Toho series, but I can also personally report that it did not matter at all to the dipshit 12-year-olds the movie was marketed to, at least not while we enjoyed watching a CGI NYC get smashed up real good by a giant dino. In retrospect, both sides of that level-headed critical divide were likely exaggerated responses to what the film could and did deliver.
The reason I’m suggesting that Godzilla ’98 might’ve fared better as a dino invasion movie is because that’s where it’s heart clearly was anyway. It borrows practically all its ideas, images, and musical cues from the first two Jurassic Park movies, announcing its intention to outdo the iconic Spielberg series in an early teaser ad that showed Godzilla’s gigantic foot crushing the museum-residing skeleton of a T-Rex. It recreates the first Jurassic Park‘s raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence, its street race T-Rex chase, and even its gender-reveal pregnancy twist – all ported over to the city-invasion context of The Lost World. Tri-Star Pictures could’ve saved a lot of money and a lot of critical grief if it had just set gigantic dinosaurs loose in modern Manhattan instead of bothering to license the Godzilla name. The film is basically an overly expensive mockbuster version of what Jurassic Park had already accomplished, except with a novelty urban setting that adds a fun new bubblegum flavor to the mayhem (like the gag where the central group of heroic New Yorkers drive a Yellow Taxi cab directly out of Godzilla’s mouth onto the Brooklyn Bridge). What’s amusing about Godzilla‘s function as a shameless Jurassic Park knockoff is that it was a big enough production to inspire its own parasitic mockbusters – copies of a copy.
Enter notorious schlockteur Charles Band, whose long-running exploitation enterprise Full Moon Features was no stranger to producing straight-to-VHS, proto-Asylum mockbusters of legitimate Hollywood films. Smelling chum in the water as soon as Godzilla‘s production was announced in the mid-90s, Full Moon rushed to establish a kaiju-themed sub-label called Monster Island Pictures, offering kid-friendly, straight-to-VHS alternatives to the incoming Roland Emmerich behemoth. As the major-studio Godzilla film failed to produce its own sequels, Full Moon’s Monster Island Entertainment also failed to sustain itself long-term – throwing in the towel after just two films. It’s safe to say that neither 1996’s Zarkorr! The Invader nor 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster had much of an impact of the pop culture landscape at large, only registering with the naive, kaiju-hungry children who happened to rent them from video stores at the height of Godzilla fever. In retrospect, however, they hold a kind of vintage kitsch appeal as lost 90s Kids™ relics. They’re the exact kind of real-deal VHS schlock ephemera that now gets ironically spoofed in retro throwbacks like PG: Psycho Goreman but rarely get revisited in earnest. I couldn’t help but fall further down that Godzilla mockbuster rabbit hole myself, though, especially since they’re also the exact kind of cultural runoff that’s readily streaming for free on Tubi.
Although Kraa! The Sea Monster was the Monster Island Entertainment title released the same year as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Zarkorr! The Invader is the one that feels like its direct knockoff. The titular Zarkorr is a gigantic reptile with magical fire breath and metal-on-metal roars, which makes him pretty indistinct as a Godzilla alternative. All the film’s city-crushing monster action is fairly limp as a result, despite the inherent cuteness of a rubber-suit dragon creature stomping down a dinky miniature of Newark, NJ. Thankfully, the film does indulge in plenty of goofy Charles Bandian bullshit outside of those tedious monster attacks, even if it’s not quite enough to make up for the giant-reptile mediocrity. Its on-the-ground humans plot involves a gone-postal mailman who’s selected by an invading alien race for a kaiju-themed experiment specifically because he’s the most Average man alive. As a test of humanity’s collective wit & resolve, its most unremarkable specimen is alone tasked with the destruction of the dragonlike Zarkorr, who’s stomping his way to the man’s shitty New Jersey apartment for an inevitable showdown. The Charles Band-specific novelty of that set-up is in the presentation of the aliens’ message, which is delivered by a doll-sized Valley Girl teenager on a set with jumbo-scaled prop kitchenware. That familiar Full Moon obsession with dolls & miniatures doesn’t do much to jazz up Zarkorr’s mediocre kaiju mayhem, but it’s at least a momentary distraction from the tedium.
Monster Island Entertainment didn’t really go off the rails with its Godzilla mockbusters until 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster, which feels more like a pilot for a Power Rangers-style action series than it does a proper kaiju film. Its plotting is deliciously, deliriously inane. A space warmonger named Lord Doom (costumed to look like Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom, naturally) sends the kaiju-scale fish monster “Kraa The Warbeast” to Earth to steal the planet’s warmth so his own homeworld doesn’t freeze into oblivion. Earth’s only protectors are a small crew of Power Rangers-style space cops who lurk just outside of orbit but cannot reach the planet’s surface due to a malfunctioning spaceship. They have no choice but to enlist on-the-ground help from a wisecracking crab creature with an obnoxious Italian accent, their only nearby agent who can pitch in to stop Kraa before it’s too late. The kid-friendly punchlines and visual gags are just as eyeroll-worthy in Kraa! as they are in Zarkorr!, but the fanged-fish kaiju design and deranged Full Moonian plotting go much further in distinguishing it as a stand-alone novelty. If it weren’t for its rushed-to-market 1998 release date and its Monster Island Entertainment production title, you might not even recognize it as a Godzilla mockbuster; it’s its own uniquely goofy thing, which is more than you can say about Emmerich’s extensively market-tested Jurassic Park knockoff.
The most sublime moment in this entire trio of photocopied kaiju novelties can, of course, be found in Kraa! The Sea Monster. During the first monster attack, Kraa takes the time to destroy a building that prominently features a billboard advertisement for the 1998 Godzilla, starting with a close-up shot of the better-funded film’s iconic logo before it’s ripped to shreds by the rubber-suited fish monster. In another meta-referential visual gag, Kraa! The Sea Monster spotlights a theatre marquee advertising a screening of Zarkorr! The Invader. The best any of these three films could hope to accomplish is as a memorably goofy byproduct of corporate synergy. I had fun revisiting a few individual gags in the 1998 Godzilla film, but none are as fun to think about or revisit as the film’s extratextual tie-in marketing, where Godzilla squares off against the likes of Puff Daddy, Charles Barkley, or the Taco Bell chihuahua to cash in on the momentary kaiju craze it stirred up in American pop culture. As a shameless exploitation filmmaker of the lowest order, Charles Band inherently understood the novelty value of that kind of pop culture cross-over synergy, something his Monster Island Entertainment sub-label pushed to its goofiest extreme with Kraa! The Sea Monster. None of these movies are essential viewing, but Kraa! is the one that’s the most honest & playful with its kaiju mockbuster appeal. To match those dubious creative heights, Godzilla ’98 would’ve had to fully commit to a Jurassic Central Park premise it was too timid to openly indulge.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the psychedelic kaiju classic Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, 1971).
01:20 Guy Maddin 02:30 White Rock (1977) 04:28 Ariel (1988) 07:10 Return to Oz (1985) 09:55 Logan Lucky (2017) 10:50 The New Mutants (2020) 14:40 Mr. Roosevelt (2017) 20:25 Starstruck (1982) 32:30 Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) 36:22 Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
The last time WrestleMania came through New Orleans, I indulged in a few of the smaller satellite shows that popped up around the city, including one put on by an extremely nerdy promotion out of NYC called Kaiju Big Battel. Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium after midnight, watching a kaiju-themed wrestling show with a shockingly sober, wholesome crowd, was a one-of-a-kind delight — an experience I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully replicate. The wrestlers were mostly costumed in giant plush outfits—dressed as hamburgers, 1950s robots, literal dust bunnies, and cans of soup—smashing each other into the cardboard cities that decorated the ring they used as a goofball playground. I guess it’s possible to take an unfavorable view of an American company boiling down the kaiju genre to such broadly silly terms, considering its heartbreaking origins as an expression of post-nuclear Japanese national grief in the original Godzilla. However, the further I dig into the Godzilla canon in recent months, the more I’m starting to realize just how faithful the Kaiju Big Battel brand of novelty wrestling is to its Godzilla roots; it’s just calling back to a later, decidedly kid-friendly era of Godzilla filmmaking detached from the giant lizard’s grim-as-fuck origins.
If there’s any one Godzilla movie that could be blamed for cheapening the monster’s brand with broadly silly slapstick comedy, it’s likely Godzilla vs Megalon. Thanks to an ugly pan-and-scan transfer with an English dub that was allowed to temporarily slip into the public domain, it’s the Shōwa era Godzilla film that was most widely available to the American public for decades — lurking in creature-of-the-week television broadcasts, gas station DVD bargain bins, and MST3k target practice. Godzilla vs Megalon appears to have a dire reputation as a result, diluting the larger Godzilla brand with misconceptions that the series was always dirt-cheap and aimed at little kids’ sensibilities. I can’t personally attest to the quality of that much-seen pan-and-scan edit of Godzilla vs Megalon, but the Criterion restoration that’s currently steaming online is both beautifully colorful and wonderfully goofy. It was obviously a rushed, cheap production, but the kaiju battles have a distinct pro wrestling charm to them that makes for great late-night viewing, transporting me back to that Kaiju Big Battel show in the best way possible. I can’t say the movie doesn’t deserve its reputation as the bottom of the kaiju media barrel, but now that the more important, prestigious Godzilla films are widely available in their original form, I think there’s a lot more room for audiences to appreciate the film’s delirious, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness for what it is.
The humans-on-the-ground plot of Godzilla vs Megalon feels like repurposed scenes from a 1970s live-action Disney espionage comedy, by which I mean they’re not very memorable or worthy of discussion. What’s really worth paying attention to here is the pro wrestling booking of the monster fights. The film is a tag team match. In one corner, we have the debut (and final) match of Megalon, a profoundly idiotic beetle worshiped by the underwater occultists of Seatopia. In the other corner, we have the movie’s face: Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman rip-off robot with an insanely wide grin — also appearing in his debut (and final) match. Neither contender is enough of a draw to carry the movie on their own, so they’re paired with charismatic tag team partners to help get them over with the crowd. Megalon is paired with Gigan, a much lesser robo-Godzilla derivative than Mechagodzilla, whose non-presence essentially turns this into a squash match. Jet Jaguar, of course, is paired with Godzilla, a legitimizing tag team partner whose popularity should have been able to forever endear his new robo-friend to children everywhere. That proved to be an unsuccessful gamble in the long run (Jet Jaguar was never seen or heard from again), but Godzilla appears to have fun trying. He performs here with the broadly expressive physical language of a wrestler playing to the backseats in a packed auditorium, aiming for big laughs and even bigger wrestling maneuvers that any kid should be delighted cheer on from the crowd.
To its credit, Godzilla vs Megalon does vaguely motion towards the eco-conscious concerns of larger Godzilla lore in its early goings, pitting both the kaiju and the underwater sea cult against us surface humans after our nuclear tests pollute the atmosphere. The film isn’t earnestly about those themes, though, no more than it’s earnestly about Godzilla or Megalon. This is Jet Jaguar’s show through & through, as evidenced by the grinning robot closing out the show with his own badass theme song — the same way pro wrestlers replay their entrance music while they lift newly-won championship belts in victory. Jet Jaguar was created specifically for the film as contest entry from a small child (explaining the not-so-vague resemblance to Ultraman), which is a pretty blatant excuse to sell new kaiju toys & merch. Because the production was rushed, underfunded, and marketed specifically at little kids’ sensibilities, there isn’t much destruction of towns or cities (outside some crudely inserted stock footage from better-funded Godzilla films), so most of the monster action is staged in an open field, away from the necessity of expensive miniatures. The result is basically the movie version of Kaiju Big Battel: dudes in goofy costumes body slamming each other in fits of broad, slapstick humor. It sucks that the kaiju genre was once only associated with that kind of silly novelty entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, especially now that the more serious end of the genre is more widely respected and readily accessible.
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.
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.
Director Michael Dougherty has gradually made a name for himself in genre nerd circles over the past decade with just three feature films. I can say without a doubt that his biggest budget, highest profile release is the worst of the bunch so far. Lacking the perversely dark humor of his cult classic horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat and the delirious camp of his Christmastime fairy tale Krampus, Godzilla: King of the Monsters displays none of the personality or wit that has earned him goodwill among horror aficionados over the years. Even as Dougherty’s least interesting release to date, however, I still found King of the Monsters to be entraining enough as a big-budget monster flick on its own terms. In fact, I’d even argue that it’s the best entry in its kaiju-revival franchise’s recent run, which began with Gareth Edwards’s “post-human” blockbuster Godzilla in 2014 and continued with the Vietnam War Movie parody Kong: Skull Island in 2016. Whereas Edwards’s Godzilla was punishingly dour & sidelined its own titular monster until the last minute and Skull Island indulged in frequent but short bursts of monster action with no dramatic heft to them at all, Dougherty’s follow-up finds a nice balance between the two approaches. He may have only stumbled into a decent-enough monster movie through the Goldilocks method of finding the perfect temperature for porridge that was already made before he arrived, but hopefully that accidental success will help fund more interesting projects from him in the future – like a Trick ‘r Treat 2.
The standard complaint for all modern Godzilla moves is that they don’t feature nearly enough screentime for Godzilla. It’s as if people are misremembering early entries in the franchise as being all-out monster action from start to end (which they never were). There is plenty else to complain about in King of the Monsters, but I feel like balancing screentime between monster action and human drama is the one thing the film happened to get right. It’s a pretty major detail to nail, at least, and a significant factor in why the film is not a total waste. Dougherty & company take a Pokémon-type approach here in collecting all our favorite skyscraper-scale yokai for lengthy onscreen battles that are only occasionally interrupted by the tedious humans who witness them. Relying on Skull Island & the 2014 Godzilla to justify the indulgence, the film operates in a world where there are seventeen (and counting) kaiju positioned all over the globe, hibernating until it is their turn to battle for our entertainment. Mothra gets an armored makeover, but is still allowed to be a majestic beauty; Rodan looks like a flaming update to the goofball vulture from The Giant Claw; Ghidorah is bathed in a metal-as-fuck swirl of dark clouds & lighting, so that every frame where he’s featured could pass as an 80s-thrash album cover. It almost doesn’t matter how often Godzilla himself appears on the screen, since he has plenty company amongst his loyal (and disloyal) monster subjects. The bare minimum a Godzilla movie must achieve to be worthwhile is striking a proper balance between its human and giant-monster characters. King of the of the Monsters excels only at that singular metric, but the accomplishment is enough to allow it to skate by elsewhere.
I have nothing especially urgent to say about the film’s human characters or its themes of nuclear pollution, since every detail outside the monster action is so thin & half-hearted that it immediately slips through your fingers. From a movie industry standpoint, I suppose it’s interesting that any film with a cast this saturated with familiar faces would’ve been an automatic box office smash in the 90s blockbuster days of megaproducers like Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay. If nothing else, central actors from two of the most widely obsessed-over television shows of the decade (Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things & Charles Dance from Game of Thrones) star in substantial roles and were featured heavily in the film’s advertisement but failed to draw in wide audiences in droves. I suppose you could use that failing as evidence that star power no longer means anything in Hollywood filmmaking, but the truth is that it’s never meant anything in Godzilla films in particular. This franchise lives & dies by the quality & frequency of its monster action, and King of the Monsters tests the limits of that dictum by wasting zero effort on anything else besides collecting various kaiju & parading them around for our entertainment. I had the same reaction gazing at these gigantic, destructive creatures as I did watching the parade of pint-sized cuties in Detective Pikachu – mild, adequate amusement. The only difference is that I’d describe the monsters here as “badass” instead of “adorable,” give or take a Rodan. It’s understandable to want something more from Michael Dougherty after the precedent he set with his two previous, superior films, but I also don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to calculate the exact right amount of kaiju action to include in your kaiju film. No matter what, people will always complain that there wasn’t enough, but I do think King of the Monsters got it right.
The 2016 theatrical release of Shin Godzilla was an incredible experience for varied reasons: it was an excellent course corrective for a series that hit a slump with Gareth Edwards’s lumbering 2014 Godzilla film; it packed a surprisingly acidic taste of unexpected political satire among its kaiju action; Godzilla himself is always exciting to see on the big screen no matter the vehicle, etc. Most significantly, though, as an American audience, I appreciated the chance to see a Japanese Godzilla production faithfully translated in its original tone & intent on the big screen, which is a frustratingly rare experience. From the original 1950s Godzilla to the 1985 American-Japanese coproduced sequel to beyond, the standard for most Godzilla imports is for them to be heavily re-edited & altered in translation in their American dubs. In the case of Godzilla 1985 (titled Return of Godzilla in Japan), many of the scenes not involving the monster itself were swapped out with inserts of war rooms packed with American actors, completely altering the story. There’s no telling to my English-language ear what might have been lost in translation in Shin Godzilla’s journey to America, but I highly doubt that anything so egregious transpired there. It’s something I appreciated even more in retrospect when recently watching Godzilla 2000: Millennium for the first time. While the American dub of Millennium doesn’t quite substitute entire scenes with American actors like Godzilla ’85, it does drastically alter the tone & intent of the original Japanese script in a show of bad faith for the attention spans of American audiences and the inherent appeal of the original work. Shortened by nearly ten minutes and punched up with intentionally campy dialogue not included in the original script, the American release of Godzilla 2000 is yet another example of the typical fuckery this long-running franchise is subjected to in its trips across the ocean and the language barrier.
Luckily for Americans, there’s a baseline enjoyability to all Godzilla movies that transcends these bad faith translations. As the 24th entry in the franchise and the start of its own “Millennium” era, you might suspect hat Godzilla 2000 would find it necessary to change up the basic formula to keep itself fresh. Instead, this is largely the same kaiju action vehicle all Godzilla movies are, just with updated effects. Chronologically a sequel to the 1954 film, Godzilla 2000 finds its titular lizard beast returning to the shores of Tokyo to battle a mysterious UFO that has been terrorizing its people & buildings (mostly the buildings). While different organizations argue over whether Godzilla needs to be subdued or destroyed, the monster busies himself by attacking the mysterious UFO with his kaiju fire-breath, to no avail. For its part, the UFO attempts to absorb Godzilla’s DNA to steal his regeneration powers, making it possible for the alien species to adapt to life on Earth. This culminates in the UFO transforming into the (new to the series) kaiju Orga for a classic big-beast battle among Tokyo’s fragile skyscrapers. The fight is played 100% seriously, but the Humorous Dialogue surrounding it can be try-hard goofy in a way that’s difficult to earn a genuine laugh. There’s enough physical humor & basic absurdity inherent to the original Japanese cut that there’s no need for these additional wisecracks, which include a military general bragging that his missiles will “go through Godzilla like crap through a goose.” Har, har. I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of making a Godzilla film that’s shorter & campier than the series’ dead serious nuclear origins (Godzilla vs. Hedorah is my favorite in the franchise, after all), but the joke-writes on Godzilla 2000 do seem especially hokey, outside maybe the brilliance of the “Get ready to crumble” tagline. Either way, they didn’t cut any of the sweet monster action in the American release, which is a universal pleasure that can never be truly lost in translation.
As frustrating as it likely was to have its Japanese cut goofed-up for its domestic release, I’m sure it was still a massive joy to have a Godzilla picture back in American theaters in the year 2000. The few previous Toho-produced Godzilla films were straight to video affairs (I’m guessing the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla picture gave the series enough of a popularity-boost to transcend that) and kaiju movies are obviously meant to be seen as big and loud as possible. That’s largely because special effects are their main draw, whether or not films like Godzilla ’54 and Shin Godzilla back them up with Big Ideas. Special effects-wise, Millennium offers an exciting mix of the old and the new. Godzilla & Orga are still actors in rubber suits stomping around hand-built miniatures. That original-flavor special effects recipe is spiced up with a more current influence, though, particularly the matte painting & set piece spectacle of the early Spielberg eraand the shoddy CGI of post-Spielberg disaster pictures. Godzilla 2000 arrived long after the 90s disaster epics wave of titles like Twister & Independence Day (not to mention Godzilla ’98’s own participation in that aesthetic), so it shouldn’t be so jarring to see Toho’s tried & true brand of Kaiju action mixed with that influence. Still, the visual references (to Twister & Independence Day particularly) are too specific and too plentiful not to stand out in this context. I’m sure that the Japanese cut of Godzilla 2000 is the superior piece of writing (and I probably should have watched it before filing this review) but even the goofed-up American version of the film retains enough visual spectacle, both in classic kaiju action & in its 90s disaster epic aesthetic, to be well worth a look. That was likely especially true for those who caught it on the big screen in its initial theatrical run. It would have been vastly preferable for Millennium to be afforded the Shin Godzilla treatment of a faithful American translation, but this is still a badass monster movie where Godzilla lays an extensive beatdown on a sky scraper-sized UFO beast. It would be near-impossible to ruin that.
30+ entries into the Godzilla franchise, it’s funny to think that the longest-running film series of all time would still be able to surprise its audience, especially after all of the violent/philosophical/chaotic/campy/what-have-you places it’s already gone in the past. That’s why I was shocked & amused that the franchise’s latest Japanese reboot, helmed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka That Thing from Tumblr that Baffles Me), was entirely different from the kaiju genre piece I was expecting when I entered the theater. Shin Godzilla is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of following Gareth Edwards’s mistake in recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.
In an American production the tendency would be to push for a lone hero to save Japan from its kaiju problem. A Japanese film about Japanese temperament, Shin Godzilla instead looks for the virtues in collaboration & the power of the hive mind collective. It’s largely in the first half of the film where this kind of political philosophy is played for satirical humor. A condemnation of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the film follows a bewildered Japanese government as they hold meetings upon meetings upon meetings about what to do about Godzilla in a process that produces inaction through belabored decision-making on what exact action to take. By the time any order is given the situation has shifted and the multilayered meetings & special emergency councils start all over again, like a rotary dial. Everyone is fearful of “rushing to judgement” and reads their opinions directly from print-out reports, so that nothing ever gets done in a Kafkaesque political process that goes in circles chasing its own tail. This slow process is depicted through the quick edits of a modern comedy, producing an interesting dynamic in its form vs. content divide. What’s even more interesting is how that dynamic evolves along with its titular laser-shooting monster. The ever-shifting official titles for the government’s ranks-climbing employees and their special councils & task forces for the “unidentified creature emergency” stop being played for laughs at a certain point and the tone understandably becomes morbid. Somehow even the slow, measured groupthink satirized in the first half is explained to have its own virtue and is eventually celebrated, especially in comparison with the rash, easy-fix violence proposed by foreign bodies like America & the UN. It’s a much more thoughtful & nuanced mode of political self-reflection than I ever would have expected from a giant monster movie.
Speaking of giant monsters, I guess it would be a shame to review a Godzilla movie without talking about Godzilla itself. Like with Pulgasari & Hedorah, the kaiju in Shin Godzilla is a rapidly evolving creature that starts off pathetically ineffective & maybe even a little cute. That is, if anything that could be described as a lopsided feline turkey with dead fish eyes & blood-gushing gills could be considered “cute.” When Godzilla reaches its final form it’s named “God incarnate” out of respect for its adaptability & its capacity for survival, but it starts as a half-formed, difficult to look at mess of mismatched biology. It’s a stumbling weakling that only makes it more frustrating when bureaucratic inaction allows it to evolve & soldier on into near-immortality. The film’s CG renderings of its creature-driven mayhem can come across as a little cheap or odd-looking, recalling the bizarre digital imagery of titles like Big Man Japan, but it’s no more visibly artificial than the costumes & miniatures of the Godzillas of old, all things considered. Also, Godzilla’s final form is so undeniably badass that the film’s digital means aren’t really worth questioning or nitpicking. Like with most Godzilla films, the creature is second to the concerns of humanity’s response to its presence here, but when the god lizard is in action it’s just as weirdly fascinating as ever. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow.
There wasn’t a whole lot of laughter at our fairly well-attended Shin Godzilla screening, which means either that I’m exaggerating the film’s merit as a political comedy or that the satire isn’t translating consistently well across cultural lines. It’s been reported that Anno specifically wrote the film as a response to the government’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiishi disaster, where a tsunami caused a full-blown nuclear meltdown in Japan. I’m sure there’s plenty of rewarding political subtext you could read in Shin Godzilla‘s take on that tragedy, but it has a much wider scope of intent than merely addressing that one issue. Everything from Japan’s general foreign policy to the looming shadow of Hiroshima to the country’s very sense of national identity is tackled here. Shin Godzilla barrels through all of these ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the experimental framing & mixed medium experimentation (including moments of found footage aesthetic) of an indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could, no matter what some audiences seem to believe they want from the franchise. Outside of a few clunky details like a stray stumbling in screensaver-quality CGI or a goddawful stab at an American accent, this is Godzilla done exactly right. Its philosophical ideas are enthusiastic & exciting and the monster exists only to serve them, the exact ideal for a creature feature not aiming for cheap genre thrills or easy camp.
There’s a fascinating-looking book I’ve been meaning to read about the true life story of a couple who were effectively held hostage by now-deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and forced to make big budget propaganda films at his whim (A Kim Jong-il Production:The Extradordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power). South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee worked against their will to create North Korean versions of films Kim Jong-il, a huge movie buff, was obsessed with, except with a government-positive message at their center. This concept is already difficult enough to wrap my mind around in the abstract, but it’s even harder to reconcile with the reality of the one Shin Sang-ok movie I’ve seen from the era, the 1985 Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari.
Even without its exceedingly surreal context as a document of unlawful imprisonment under Kim Jong-il’s thumb, Pulgasari would still be highly recommendable as a slice of over-the-top creature feature cinema. I’m far from an expert in the hallmarks of kaiju cinema, but the film felt wholly unique to me, an odd glimpse into the way the genre can lend itself to wide variety of metaphors the same way zombies, vampires, and X-Men have in American media over the years. The titular monster ranges from cute to terrifying, from friend to enemy over the course of the film, which is a lot more nuanced than what I’m used to from my kaiju. Most of all, though, Pulgasari is fascinating in its self-conflicting nature as both a brutal tale of political unrest and a cheap thrills indulgence in goofy monster movie camp. The film’s bewildering backstory aside, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Just like how the size of its titular kaiju grows exponentially throughout its runtime, the budget of Pulgasari surprisingly expands as the plot trudges along. Beginning with an isolated village not unlike the bare bones sets of Yokai Monsters: Spooky Warfare, Pulgasari first appears to be a dirt cheap production. Its story is consistently engaging even through these humble beginnings, however. A small farming community on the brink of starvation due to a bad harvest & governmental over-taxing sees many of its young men taking up arms among mountainside bandits to raid government storehouses for survival. The government does not respond well to this transgression. The village is seized, its farm equipment melted down in order to forge military weapons & all suspected mountain bandits cruelly jailed. The oldest, widest member of the village prays with his dying breath for the gods to save the human race from government cruelty & the gods send Pulgasari. The demonic savior first appears as a miniature threat, but eventually balloons monstrously large, as does the film’s budget. Huge, large scale battles loaded with expensive special effects & tons of extras take over what initially feels like a limited scope fairy tale and ultimately blooms into a full-blown epic.
Let’s take a minute to discuss the awesomeness of Pulgasari himself. When he’s first brought to life through dying prayers & blood magic, he’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and is so ridiculously cute. Pulgasari’s costume is a little more flexible than Godzilla’s, so when he moves around he looks like a dancing toddler in a lizard’s costume & his miniature set includes the oversized props of films like Attack of the Puppet People. He grows from there by eating iron, taking bites directly out of government weapons, establishing himself as a hero of the people despite his demonic visage. Pulgasari grows large & terrifying, eventually looking like a cross between a lizard & a bull, and proves to be impervious to all weaponry. The visual charm of the monster wears of by the time he’s mountain-size and a scene where the government attempts to set him on fire stands as one of the most hellish, metal images I can remember seeing on film in a good while. Eventually, Pulgasari grows too large for his own good, unfortunately, and starts to strain the people he once protected’s limited resources with his unquenchable thirst for iron.
You might think that the way Shin Sang-ok made this film subversive was by portraying an evil, totalitarian government that drained the life out of its people, but that idea actually belonged to Kim Jong-il. The dictator saw that message as a warning of the dangers of capitalism when it goes unchecked. Okay. Shin Sang-ok, instead, stabbed at his captor’s legacy by likening him to Pulgasari, a hero to the people that would eventually betray them by growing too large & too greedy. Either way you read the film, it’s fascinating that that it was ever made under North Korean watch & I’m now all the more curious to read A Kim Jong-il Production as soon as I get the chance. Pulgasari doesn’t need that context to stand as a remarkable work, however. If you went into the film blind there’d still be plenty of spectacle & clashing tones to stick with you in a way more generic, non-Japanese kaiju novelties wouldn’t. This is not the by-the-numbers vagueness of Reptilicus. It’s something much more essential & idiosyncratic.