Yes, 'Godzilla II: King of the Monsters' is a Beast-Fest, But It's Also About Our Broken Planet
Godzilla has come a long way from rubber suits. Haruo Nakahima, the original actor who donned the 220-pound suit and stomped over model cities from 1954 to 1972, passed away in 2017. If he were still alive, there’s a good chance Nakahima would be happy to see what Hollywood has done with the monster he’s brought to life in Godzilla II: King of the Monsters. Dedicated to Nakahima and late producer Yoshimitsu Banno, the film is a respectful, delightful homage that should rank pretty high on the list of Godzilla films.
After Gareth Edwards erased all the bad taste of the 1998 Godzilla from our collective mouths with the 2014 reboot, Michael Dougherty helms the third film in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse and kicks it into high gear by introducing more monsters, most of which will be very familiar to Godzilla fans. The good news is that the folks at Legendary look like they’re pretty big Godzilla fans themselves.
The trailers revealed the rather inevitable appearance of King Ghidorah, Godzilla’s perennial rival, as well as Mothra and Rodan, all of whom were hinted at in the post-credits of Kong: Skull Island. There are more monsters, called Titans in the MonsterVerse, about 17 in all, but it’s the big four that take the lion’s share—or monster’s share, in this case—of the spotlight.
The story follows the Russell family, Mark (Kyle Chandler), his wife Dr. Emma (Vera Farmiga), and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown), whose relationships with each other have deteriorated after the 2014 Titan attacks. Mark and Emma are operatives in Monarch, the organization that keeps tabs on the earth’s monsters, and they are working together on The Orca, a device that uses bioacoustics to communicate and possibly control the Titans. When the two are kidnapped by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah, things quickly go south, as the Titans are unleashed upon the world in short order.
The film goes to great lengths to focus the story on the people, anchoring the narrative around a broken family finding ways to heal after a tragedy. It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for a broken planet that needs fixing, and fixing fast. In the old Japanese films, Godzilla was always the response of the planet to man’s ecological atrocities, and Mothra, in particular, has a special place in Godzilla lore as the healing kaiju, the first distinctly female monster in the menagerie, dedicated to restoring the planet.
Godzilla II: King of the Monsters celebrates its lineage with so much reverence that it’s loaded with everything a monster fan can ask for. Mothra is every bit as magnificent and luminous an earth mother as she should be, and her healing is given a nod in one poignant scene that should get all kaiju fans both giddy and melancholic.
The film doubles down on the message from the first film: The planet is dying, and it’s our fault. Jonah and his allies advocate a hard reset, a slash-and-burn approach to restoring balance to the planet using the Titans, and it’s an argument that’s familiar to moviegoers after the massive success of the last two Avengers films. But the threat feels more real than what Thanos (incidentally called the Mad Titan) pontificates about, because global warming and the increased incidence of natural disasters are palpable and real.
But if there’s ever any point in the film where one might think that unleashing the Titans is an idea that might actually have merit—and the film frames the argument so well that it actually doesn’t sound unreasonable to let the kaijus have their royal rumble in order for the human race to have a shot at avoiding extinction—the presence of Godzilla’s number one big bad, King Ghidorah, will quickly disabuse audiences of that notion.
The filmmakers keep Ghidorah’s origins the same as the original films, that is to say, he is a menace that doesn’t quite fall into the earth’s natural order. Ghidorah is bad news and Godzilla knows it. One of the most thrilling parts of the film is the intense rivalry between the two alpha kaiju and pretty much everything else is secondary.
Just as the Russells must go through a harrowing trial in order to heal, so too must the planet. Brown as the young, precocious Madison is a girl you can’t help but love and cheer for. Caught in the crossfire between two highly contrasting ideologies, one that sees the titans as threats to humanity that must be eliminated and another that subscribes to their place in the natural order despite the toll on human life, Madison represents the metaphorical balance that can and needs to be struck in order for the world to survive.
Few American adaptations have shown as much reverence for their source material as Godzilla II: King of the Monsters. The love for Godzilla and all its past films and a history spanning over 60 years is on lavish display in each frame, from the little things, such as the Easter eggs in monster names on the screens of tablets, to the grandest of homages, such as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his moment in the film that directly echoes and subverts the events of the 1954 original. A beautiful scene in itself, it has even more gravitas for fans.
Fans will also recognize the Oxygen Destroyer, although it’s used a little differently here. Even the fact that Ziyi Zhang plays one of a set of third-generation twins working for Monarch is both an homage that’s deeply respectful and a possible and exciting foreshadowing.
The monster fights are intense and begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible—although it might be somewhat disappointing to learn that the Titan showdown is a little less Royal Rumble and a little more Tag Team with all other monsters as glorified extras. There’s ample mention of Skull Island and Kong but curiously no actual cameo, which seems odd considering the next slated film in the MonsterVerse is Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. Be sure to stay for the post-credits scene, which hints that not all is as it seems in Legendary’s plans.
It was important that the film ground itself in the story of one family, because it’s the only way to see such grand scale in perspective. The Titans crowd the world with their sheer size that humanity almost feels insignificant. Laying waste to entire cities and killing thousands is par for the course with these kaiju that there’s really no room for humans, who are mere ants in the grand scheme of things. Focusing on one family’s strained relationship in the midst of giant monsters thrashing the earth helps us recognize what’s important.
The gargantuan stars of the film, who actually cleverly appear in the credits as themselves, deliver a message of hope and renewal amidst the carnage. Despite the spectacle of titans clashing in epic battles that can level mountains, Godzilla II: King of Monsters never loses sight of why we need to care. It is a beautifully wrought film that is deliberately paced, lovingly crafted, and hopefully a mere precursor to more tales in the MonsterVerse.