Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (2000)

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 era and 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Shin Godzilla (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Pulgasari (1985)

EPSON MFP imagefourhalfstar

campstamp

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.

-Brandon Ledet