Ghidorah, and Mothra, and Rodan! Oh, My!

In King of the Monsters, the attempts at a climate change metaphor are on the screen, too, not just in the dialogue. The movie does portray its creatures as elemental forces of destruction.

Maybe I just have Game of Thrones on the brain still, but I don’t think this film is the first time we’ve seen three dragon heads beyond a towering ice wall. First known only as Monster Zero, Ghidorah awakens in an Antarctic night blizzard and where he goes, tropical storms soon follow.

Enveloped in smoke, everyone’s favorite overgrown Pteranodon, Rodan, comes exploding out of a volcano. Someone blithely describes him as a “fire demon” and his flight over the fictional city of Isla de Mara, Mexico, sends shockwaves rippling over it. This sequence — complete with its ejection-seat landing straight into a monster’s mouth — is a highlight, perhaps because it takes place in daylight.

The beautiful, light-giving Mothra spreads her wings out from her cocoon under a raging waterfall. As we’ve established, Godzilla himself is quite at home in the depths of the ocean, where his air-pocketed lava lair keeps up the elemental motif. We also see monsters burrowing up from the ground in other parts of the world. Earthquakes and make-believe “Category 6” hurricanes signal the arrival of the Titans.

This is a movie of many one perfect shots. Isolated images, frames of the film glimpsed in trailers, evoke the awe-inspiring terror and beauty of a new kind of natural disaster.

Yet with characters we don’t care about, the monster fights function as scattered set pieces. It’s like hearing a few good guitar chords flitter by in an otherwise fruitless jam session. The songs didn’t gel for me the first time around.

In this film, nothing hangs together unless you’re using myth as your compass, like Ziyi’s knowing character suggests. Only by putting my brain on pause and surrendering to the spectacle as a paramount part of the Godzilla mythos could I enjoy it—which I did, surprisingly, the second time around. Then I felt more like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, with Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan substituted for lions and tigers and bears.

I may or may not have left the theater with Bear McCreary and Serj Tankien’s closing-credits cover of the Blue Oyster Cult song, “Godzilla,” stuck in my head.  “Go, go, Godzilla,” indeed.

If a quippy soldier played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. can stare up at the sky at a rampaging monster and remark, “You’ve gotta be kidding,” the way only a movie character could, then maybe we all need to settle down from running in mass terror at the sight of a harmless, middle-of-the-road blockbuster. Maybe he’s got the right idea, guys. Guys?

Seventeen Weightless Monsters

We’re not out of the woods yet, Dorothy. Aside from half-formed characters with threadbare personalities like the quippy soldier, King of the Monsters has a few other things working against it.

At times, the creatures have an oddly weightless effect on their surrounding environment. The movie puts us up close with the action but we don’t always feel it when it should be shaking our bones.

Humans are kicked around and blown about in vehicles, only to emerge unscathed so they can speak more lines. Missiles knock men aside but they’re mostly unhurt, able to brush it off after a quick trip to the recovery bed because they’re Gary Sues. The towering ice wall comes crumbling down in massive chunks but not on top of the catwalk or elevator shaft where our heroes are.

Godzilla creates a huge whirlpool in the ocean as he surfaces but when he dives back down, the people perched precariously on top of the submarine next to him only get splashed, like theme park tourists at a killer whale show in SeaWorld. My favorite moment is when Ghidorah flies into the earth’s upper atmosphere and drops Godzilla to the ground, but the resulting shockwave stops just short of hurting anyone or even knocking them to their feet.

“There are some things that you can’t run from,” Dr. Russell says … but in this movie, explosions are not one of them. Witness, also, Madison conveniently outrunning Ghidorah’s energy-beam breath as it cuts through and collapses a building (Fenway Park, I think? It was a little hard to tell through all the smoke.)

It’s a cinematic pet peeve of mine when movies or television shows leave themselves open in the background with unneeded characters. I’m not talking about rhubarb-mumbling extras; I’m talking about the kind of narrative slackness that enabled a desert-island show like Lost to bring in two previously unknown characters, Nikki and Paolo, in its third season.

King of the Monsters has a couple of Nikki and Paolo-type creatures. One of them resembles a woolly mammoth. His name is Behemoth. Yes, I had to cheat and Google that because Behemoth is an all-new monster created just for this movie. His sole purpose, besides showing up briefly on control-room monitors and in news footage, is to gather with other monsters at the end and bow before Godzilla.

That was actually my favorite part of the movie, the very end. It’s also a fun fake-out right before that when one of Ghidorah’s heads comes rising up and you think he’s the one who has survived the final fight. Then we see that his head is in Godzilla’s mouth and the real King of Monsters is swallowing it.

“Long live the King” … but whence these Nikki and Paolo-type creatures? Telling us that there are 17 kaiju wreaking havoc across the earth at the same time is a curious storytelling decision.

Why that specific number, 17? Are we really to believe there are 17 Hurricane Ghidorahs devastating major population centers all at once? Why not just keep it tight and limit the number to four famous monsters, plus two or three others to keep around for the end when everyone is bowing before Godzilla?

This movie is really about Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. That’s all we needed. It would have been more than enough to stop with the re-awakenings after Rodan. You could have had Godzilla and Mothra team up against Ghidorah and Rodan and that still would have been worth the price of admission.

As it is, the film leaves too many monster heads unaccounted for and it has too many human heads talking and joking and confusing us with the faces of their identical twins. Ziyi plays two different characters at two different locations on Earth in this movie, but you could be forgiven for not catching that.

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About the Author

Joshua Meyer is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who has been contributing to /Film since 2017. He has also written for Japan Today, GaijinPot, and WDW News Today. You can find him on Twitter @TheGaijinGhost.