godzilla vs. kong

My Heart Belongs to the MonsterVerse

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Warner Bros.

We’re just four films into the internationally produced, Godzilla-centric series about giant beasts roaming the Earth — the latest, Godzilla vs. Kong, is currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max — but to my mind, it has already become the most interesting of the mega-budgeted “universes” that now dominate popular culture. It tells stories as big and shiny (and flagrantly melodramatic) as anything in the MCU, DCEU, or Star Wars franchises, but at the same time, it has philosophical consistency, a sense of grandeur, and a poker-faced poetic streak, qualities only intermittently spotted in rival series. Godzilla vs. Kong is the biggest hit since 2014’s franchise-launching Godzilla, which bodes well for more entries, but I still don’t think the series gets enough credit for its specialness. It’s easy to undervalue if, like so many viewers, you fixate on the human characters who (as in the Japanese kaiju films from Toho Studios and the Universal Pictures King Kong films made in the States, both of which inspired the modern-day MonsterVerse) are mere supporting players perched ringside, watching titans fight.

As in the Alien series — which, like the MonsterVerse films, is writer- and director-driven — each new installment feels notably different from the last, channeling a different set of mythological, theological, and pop-culture references. Consistency comes from the creature designs imported from earlier films; from the ongoing stories of human scientists, government agents, capitalists, and mercenaries; and from the tragic, sadly relevant idea connecting every installment: that we’re on the cusp of a post-human world and have only ourselves to blame.

That last part is especially striking. This is an ecologically conscious series that ultimately blames every monster incident on human arrogance, treachery, or faulty interpretation of kaiju intent. As such, it is the only franchise that cannot be enjoyed without the viewer accepting complicity in the ecological disaster befalling the planet while simultaneously trembling in awe at the sight of miracles and curses made tangible. These are tragic epics, and that’s the source of their awesomeness. There’s a somewhat humbling aspect to all of the movies, not just because the creatures are so large, but because their rampages are a karmic bill coming due. We knew long ago that it would come to this and here we are, watching cities burn. The MonsterVerse is the “Fuck around and find out” of blockbuster film series.

Another, related bonus: This is the only major American movie series (The Fast and the Furious included) whose central recurring cast is devoid of cops or characters that perform a coplike function. The main characters are kaiju — also referred to as Titans or MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) — which means they are intelligent animals who spend their time doing the sorts of things that animals do: establishing dominance over other animals, claiming territory, looking for food sources and spots where they can reproduce. The humans that follow them around want to understand or explain what the monsters want (or figure out ways to harness or exploit the monsters’ power) and are therefore, by definition, supporting players. They’re Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns, interpreting Godzilla’s atomic soliloquies as he struts and frets his hour upon the stage.

The only serious flaw in the series, to my mind, is the tendency to take certain shortcuts in plotting and put exposition or redundant explanations in the mouths of minor characters for fear that visual storytelling alone isn’t enough to carry the burden of meaning. But if those are indeed crimes against cinema, Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, and everyone who’s ever directed or produced a fantasy, sci-fi action, or superhero film in the last 15 years should be in jail. (Since nobody complains about narrative problems and excess exposition in movies that they like, let’s agree to set those gripes aside here.)

The first MonsterVerse entry is 2014’s Godzilla. It was modeled equally on the original 1954 Toho Studios’ Godzilla (still scary today, because it depicts Godzilla as the living manifestation of the first nuclear-war crime) and Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a secular religious film about dreamers on a pilgrimage). Written by Max Borenstein — who worked on the screenplays for the second and fourth films, wrote the story for the third, and was a writer-producer on AMC’s The Terror Godzilla is the movie that introduced “Hollow Earth” mythology into kaiju lore. Millions of years ago, kaiju lived on the surface of the planet, feeding on radiation left over from the Big Bang until it began to ebb, then moving inside again, until disruptive human practices (nuclear testing, toxic-waste dumping, strip-mining, etc.) drove them back up. The film also introduced Monarch, the series’s answer to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative: a secret international agency of scientists and military officials tasked with studying the kaiju.

Although some viewers complained about the relative paucity of monster footage in Godzilla — the title creature only appeared for seven minutes—the directorial vision of Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One) was so compelling that it made the film a hit. In retrospect, complaints that the human characters are insufficiently developed seem misguided. Here — as in all the sequels to varying degrees — the humans are connected to the monsters in a more spiritual sort of way. The associations between them are elastic and constantly changing shape and meaning, as in a dream where a character can simultaneously represent you, your mother, and the president. In the MonsterVerse films, you can interpret a monster as the avatar or reflection or demonic spirit of a human without it needing to be true for every single scene. At various points in the 2014 movie, for example, Godzilla feels like the reincarnated spirit of the Bryan Cranston character — a nuclear physicist whose wife and co-worker (Juliette Binoche) was killed in a reactor leak set off by one of the MUTOs, which was awakened by strip-mining — and his traumatized son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a war veteran whose specialty is setting and disarming explosives. And there are lots of little moments that encourage the audience to think about what it means to be a monster versus a person, or big as opposed to small. A little boy is repeatedly shown playing with tiny toys; in an early scene, he leaves the playroom dragging a “Happy Birthday” banner behind him like a monster’s tail. Later, the boy’s father (Taylor-Johnson’s character) comforts a terrified child on a stalled monorail in Honolulu, giving him an action figure to play with that is as comparatively small as the humans are to Godzilla.

Invoking dream associations in the manner of Spielberg, the boy, the man protecting him, and the man’s dead father and mother are all variants of one idea: “the child separated from the parent” — which returns us to the idea of the kaiju rampages being triggered by human negligence and corruption. According to MonsterVerse logic, if humans saw themselves as connected to the natural world and accepted their parental responsibility to nourish and protect it, we might never have known about Hollow Earth’s existence, because the monsters never would’ve come out. The hatchings of MUTOs are associated with strip-mining and nuclear fission and other crimes against Mother Nature. These human practices are presented with cold disgust, in stark contrast to the way the film looks at the kaiju, with a naturalist’s curiosity and respect. As in the films of Terrence Malick — a director explicitly referenced by Edwards in shots of real mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects — the MonsterVerse is a world in which nature wars with itself.

Godzilla’s follow-up, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, is a “WTF????” pivot: majestic, nutty, and irreverent. Set in 1973, the film follows a team of specialists — including an obsessive U.S. Army air cavalry officer (Samuel L. Jackson), an SAS commando turned long-range hunter-tracker (Tom Hiddleston), an investigative photojournalist (Brie Larson), and a gloomy and paranoid Monarch official (John Goodman) — on a mission to map the interior of the recently discovered island. Monarch wants to figure out if the Hollow Earth theory is correct; unfortunately, they’ve decided that the best way to do this is by dropping seismic explosives. Fuck around and find out, guys.

Working from a script by Borenstein, Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Derek Connolly (the Jurassic World films), director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) fashioned something that felt like a cross between the official Universal Pictures King Kong pictures, the off-brand Toho Pictures Kong films (1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla and 1967’s King Kong Escapes), and, bizarrely, the American-made Vietnam pictures that flooded multiplexes from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. And if all that weren’t enough, Skull Island is also a science-fiction survival yarn in the tradition of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, wherein squabbling adventurers get picked off by beasts. References abound to Francis Coppola’s 1979’s phantasmagorical anti-war dirge Apocalypse Now (the Imax poster is even modeled on Bob Peak’s Apocalypse Now poster, with Kong occupying Brando’s spot); and there are “Duh, really?” nods to the Coppola movie’s primary source, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (including characters named, God help us, Conrad and Marlow). It’s hard to unpack what the film was trying to say about Vietnam, the Cold War, and American power, but the fact that it even felt the urge to go there ought to bring a smile to viewers’ faces in this era of politically and even geographically dislocated blockbusters that appear to have been generated by an algorithm. And it all adds to the surreal flavor of the exercise, which also makes room for a scene of Kong slurping octopus tentacles like ramen noodles; a long-stranded World War II pilot (John C. Reilly), Kong’s human avatar, waxing ominous about giant ants; and an army lifer (Shea Whigham) dying one of the most hilarious sci-fi/horror deaths since Samuel L. Jackson’s sharkus interruptus in Deep Blue Sea.

The third film in the series, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, expands the story to incorporate global arms trafficking and ecoterrorism. The latter is not represented as an inherently “good” or “bad” thing, but an understandable lashing out against humans who treat the earth as a toilet. Environmental destruction doesn’t just trigger the awakening of the beasts from Hollow Earth. It forces humans to choose sides. They must either accept responsibility for the creatures’ rampages or try to “solve” the problem by finding out how to exterminate them (which would, of course, be treating the symptoms rather than the disease).

This political split is manifested through a family that lost a child during Godzilla’s fight against the MUTOs in the 2014 film. The parents are Monarch researchers. The father, played (barely) by Kyle Chandler, thinks the creatures are rampaging threats and wants to banish or destroy them. The mother, played by Vera Farmiga, is a secret radical who sees humanity as a virus and the monsters as a fever that must wipe out the threat to restore balance to the planet. She has developed a sonar signaling device based on the study of whale songs and means to use it to awaken and steer the beasts (including Ghidorah, a space dragon who represents an external threat greater than any earthly concerns). The ecoterrorists in this film are agents of chaos who believe they’re acting in the best interests of the planet. The viewer has to make the case for why they’re actually wrong.

These characters point at another quality that makes this series unusual: It is the only megafranchise in which the central players, kaiju as well as human, mean something different depending on where you happen to be standing. With rare exceptions, such as the purely chaotic Ghidorah and the conniving industrialist in Godzilla vs. Kong, there are no good guys or bad guys onscreen, among the humans or the monsters. There are no good guys or bad guys, only competing interests. This in itself makes the MonsterVerse films more mature than all but the best Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and F&F movies. Even as it regrettably pitches some aspects of the storytelling at the level of an internationally salable, PG-13-friendly blockbuster, in its heart, it’s asking the big questions. One of them is, “What is good and evil?”

In the 2014 film, Godzilla is treated as a threat, then a savior, but he was only doing what Godzilla would do. Same with Kong in Skull Island and the new movie. In the third film, Ghidorah is coded as an evil space dragon, but we think of him that way mainly because ancient texts have described him as such — and what kaiju doesn’t seem like a malevolent engine of destruction if you’re watching it level a city? Ghidorah and Godzilla are competing alpha predators, as the film makes clear. In the end, Godzilla defeats Ghidorah, and all the other monsters bow to him, but they aren’t doing it because they think he’s a nice guy who deserves their support. If Godzilla had died, they’d be pledging allegiance to the dragon. Thinking otherwise is indulging in a primitive mind-set, wherein lots of rain means the gods have blessed your village and a drought means somebody must’ve pissed them off.

A few major characters in other franchises are fungible this way — Loki in the MCU films is the most raucously entertaining example — but it’s all categorically different in the MonsterVerse. These big Hollywood films often strain to be “modern myths,” but only Legendary’s kaiju films go all the way and embrace mythology’s moral and philosophical elasticity. Their guiding sensibility is more marble than Marvel, more Old Testament than New. God saves and destroys, blesses and curses, and from our perspective on the ground, it can be tough to figure out why He went one way and not the other. In the third movie, we learn the residual radiation left by monster battles has a healing effect on nature. Bad for property values, good for the ozone.

Doing Toho proud, the Legendary monster flicks are more pointedly political than other Western franchises. Through several different “eras” stretching from 1954 through the recent past, the Toho films commented on then-current affairs, though not in ways that most American viewers noticed — especially after the films were cut for time and redubbed (often badly). These Japanese films were political from the start, associating Godzilla with nuclear terror only to eventually treat him as a national folk hero and a champion of humanity, then go back in the other direction and treat him as punishment for human arrogance.

You can trace postwar Japan’s shifting attitude toward the military by watching the films made from the 1950s through the ’70s: Self-Defense Forces play increasingly prominent roles, and as you head into the back stretch, more plots revolve around otherworldly colonizers. These represent a free-floating anxiety about American occupation, as well as Cold War fears of an attack by China or the Soviet Union (previous opponents in war); but in true dream fashion, they mean lots of other things as well. The margins of these films were stuffed with secondary and tertiary allusions. There were stories about the suffering of latchkey children (Godzilla on Monster Island), the dangers of pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), and the tension between Japan and Okinawa (in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, the third kaiju is King Caesar, a bipedal dog-lion known as the mystical guardian of the royal Azumi family of Okinawa). The black comedy Shin Godzilla — a post-Fukushima take on the mythology, and perhaps the all-around best Toho production since the first Godzilla — erases the franchise’s history, presenting a scenario in which nobody has seen a giant monster before and there’s no protocol for handling the issue. Godzilla in this movie is a demonic shape-shifter with dead-fish eyes and glowing red gills. Much of the film’s action is a send-up of Japanese bureaucracy with jokes in the spirit of Dr. Strangelove and Repo Man. When Godzilla appears in Tokyo Bay, the government starts by deciding which department has to deal with him. The hero keeps getting battlefield promotions until, by halfway through the story, his job description takes up half the screen. The plot of Godzilla 2000 is obsessed with DNA extraction and moral as well as physical lineage. The competition by humans and extraterrestrials to get a piece of the monster resonates with humankind’s long history of trying to capitalize on atrocities. Godzilla is once again recognized as a manifestation of human destructiveness. “Godzilla exists in us,” an official says.

Godzilla vs. Kong expands on that idea. It has the “everything plus the kitchen sink” feeling of ’60s and ’70s Toho films — particularly 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah — but it fully commits to the notion of kaiju as extensions of human ambitions and desires. And even in its goofiest lyrical flights (check out the way gravity flips in Hollow Earth, a psychedelic mindscape that might’ve been sketched by M.C. Escher), Godzilla vs. Kong stays focused on the series’s core message that humans must take responsibility for neglecting or exploiting nature. Demián Bichir’s industrialist is perfecting a cyborg assassin powerful enough to destroy the kaiju because he’s in denial about the future. He says his aim is to restore humankind to the status of Earth’s “apex predator” (thus the not-too-subtle name of his company, Apex Cybernetics). Hubris of this magnitude can only make things worse, and that’s why the character’s anticlimactic death (by the fully charged Mechagodzilla, who gains sentience à la Skynet in the Terminator franchise) is so darkly amusing. Like Shea Whigham’s demise in Skull Island, it laughs in the faces of humans who think they’re the main characters in these movies. Mechagodzilla’s rampage is so savage that it feels personal, but we’re left to wonder if the cyborg is purely an extension of the industrialist’s resentment of the kaiju for making humankind change its ways, or if there’s something else going on. Mechagodzilla spends most of the film under human control, thanks to a navigation system that feeds data through one of Ghidorah’s recovered skulls. Mechagodzilla’s unrelenting brutalization of Godzilla could be a spectral revenge-stomping by a dead gladiator, meant to punish the fighter that killed it.

I admit that the preceding paragraph — indeed, this entire essay — is so nerdy that anyone reading it is at risk of going through reverse puberty. The fact that I haven’t been this invested in an American blockbuster series since the first run of Alien films testifies to how mesmerizing I find them. In their bubblegum-Brobdingnagian way, the Legendary monster films represent the last gasp of art-cinema ambiguity in a modern-movie landscape dominated by literal-minded, megabudget tentpole flicks that amount to PDFs of screenplays read aloud by actors dangling in front of green screens. Even when one of the other series tries to get “serious,” it’s rare that an individual film makes you wonder how you’re supposed to feel about the characters, the story, its outcome, and the wider view of life presented on screen. These films are mainly concerned with information delivery and fan service. They stridently insist on being taken seriously as art without (for the most part) making even minor interpretive demands on viewers, much less asking them to enter into a mind space where humanity’s existence is optional and karma is real.

The Westernized kaiju films are a level up. They represent a marvelous attempt to reconcile the past and future, not just of monster movies, but cinema itself. The price of imaginative entry is accepting that humans are not the only important thing on earth, and our refusal to admit it is the reason we’re going extinct.

My Heart Belongs to the MonsterVerse