Monday, 3 June 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Whether or not it's a deliberate stylistic choice, Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters manages to perfectly simulate the disparate energy of the long-running series' 1970s entries. In those films humans and monsters each seemed to live in their own bubble universes, rarely, if ever, intersecting organically. Back when Jun Fukuda was working through slashed budgets, mankind was trapped in flat, knockabout setpieces that, at best, only thematically complimented the wild, smoke-clogged phantasmagoria dreamed up by special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano. In Dougherty's film the human cast is stuck staring at monitors, filling in blanks that the film often makes no attempt to illustrate.

Vera Farmiga plays Dr Emma Russell, a bereaved paleobiologist working with Charles Dance's anti-Nick Fury to reestablish Godzilla and pals as Earth's dominant species. The screed she zaps at her former colleagues and loved ones cites climate change, as well as mankind's increasing, ruinous impact on the ecosystem, but only as surface detailing. Her argument is conveyed as gabble, the good doctor denied the fluency, not to mention mania, to make her points register as truly seductive. The audience isn't invited to consider the validity of this extreme approach to a Green New Deal, they're told to be bored by the unfocused lecture. Russell even seems to be on the verge of pointing the finger directly at corporate America before diverging into an extremely general, not to mention toothless, point about the military's preference for hasty, overwhelming action.

Most of Godzilla: King of the Monster's human scenes sputter along, postulating and explaining the actions of the feature titans. Dougherty and Zach Shields' screenplay isn't quite brave enough to let the sombre, apocalyptic mood stand, employing humourless zings to hurry things along, diverting our attention away from anything suitably melodramatic. King of Monsters feels like a throw-back in this sense, kin to the late-90s / early-2000s noise blockbusters that regurgitated 70s disaster films with computer corralled destruction. The one exception to this leaden take on plotting involves Ken Watanabe's Dr Serizawa walking his American equivalent through his decision to sacrifice himself to kick-start a half-murdered Godzilla.

Serizawa holds an old family heirloom - a pocket watch frozen at 8:15, the moment Little Boy detonated over Hiroshima - and talks about making peace with the demons that make the world the way it is. Of course Kyle Chandler's handsome all-American Dad doesn't catch on. His thinking is fixed shallow - find my daughter, defeat the monsters. In fact the only other character in the film who seems to understand the great weight Serizawa is carrying around is Godzilla himself. King of the Monsters positions them as Children of the Atom, the only two who seem to understand nuclear weapons not as explosive, ejaculatory energy but as devices of towering, unalterable permanence. In a film that goes out of its way to reimagine Toho's distinctly Japanese menagerie as naturally occurring manifestations of Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian mythology, Serizawa's moment with Godzilla allows a contradictory, even subversive, perspective to creep in. It forces us to consider how cultures and their people are mutated by a proximity to nuclear weaponry. Judging by King of the Monsters, you either delight in their application or suffer beneath them.

That's only one part of King of the Monsters though, the other (much better) half revolves around the monsters themselves, mountainous creatures so amazing that they seem to alter reality itself. King Ghidorah, the malleable space dragon used to represent everything from a nuclear capable China to the last hope of future-shocked American capitalism is here imagined as the Serpent of the Apocalypse. A Satanic ruler who has fallen from Heaven, able to summon beasts and Behemoths from the Earth to do his evil bidding. Ghidorah is an ungodly mass of snaking heads and thrashing, spiked tails, dancing inside soot black clouds reminiscent of the turbulent maritime paintings of JMW Turner (The Slave Ship meets Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the "Ariel" left Harwich). In the 1970s Teruyoshi Nakano dialled into power plant meltdowns and blazing industrial disasters to compliment his cosmic kaiju. Dougherty's film runs with this dazzling idea, gifting us lightning lashed monsters who pulse with brilliant thermonuclear energy.

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