Friday, June 07, 2019

The Americanization of Godzilla, Pt. 3 (Three Strikes)

I saw the new Legendary Studios "MonsterVerse" offering GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS and wished I had brought my iPad with me; it's the kind of film that begs for a play-by-play report on how awful it is. For example: at one point near the climax, Mark and Dr. Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) - the idealistically opposed (and separated) husband and wife who are presented to us as the emblems of the American Family - are speeding in a commandeered vehicle through a belching hellscape of roaring flames, toppling cranes, and falling flotsam as Rodan and King Ghidorah are fighting in the air almost exactly above them, roaring and tangling ass and looking like some kind of spinning prehistoric swastika in the sky. At the same time they are recklessly (and somehow wrecklessly) navigating this primordial nightmare, Mark and Emma are arguing about - what else? - their kid (STRANGER THINGS' waif Millie Bobby Brown)! They are actually comfortable and accustomed enough to everything that's exploding around them to have a Zuławski-scale, POSSESSION-style domestic row.

This film - the third American go at Godzilla, and the first American "monster rally" fully staffed by Toho creations - was co-written and directed by Michael Dougherty, a 35-year-old Columbus, Ohio native whose scorecard includes the story for X-MEN: APOCALYPSE and the scripts for SUPERMAN RETURNS, the TRICK OR TREAT franchise, and KRAMPUS, which he also directed. Most of his work is co-authored with Zach Shields, so he doesn't come up with this stuff alone. Stanley Kubrick once said that the secret to any successful film was "six non-submersible elements" - in other words, six moments that foreground themselves in the viewer's memory. What the Dougherty/Shields team have spitballed here can be broken down to a number of non-submersibles - in addition to the KRAMER VS. KRAMER heroes, we get the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS shot, the ABYSS shot, the ALIEN 3 shot, the INDEPENDENCE DAY shots, the BLADE RUNNER bad weather, the non-stop emphasis on location print-outs, and Rodan sequences more indebted to 1957's THE GIANT CLAW than anything Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya ever did. There are also "Easter Egg" references to Toho content - there's a Dr. Serizawa, an Oxygen Destroyer, and 2046's exquisite Ziyi Zhang as twin doctors in a nod to the twin fairies played by the Peanuts in Mothra films - but shouldn't "Easter Eggs" be hidden and clever, rather than a series of Trivial Pursuit cards?

The film gives us a Godzilla that resembles the Rock of Gibraltar, a fire-trailing Rodan, a more bug-like Mothra, and a King Ghidorah whose royal form of address stands in open conflict with the film's title. There is also an end credits coda promising us more of the same. Yes, the occasional image is impressive - but they are all too often second-hand, and don't we deserve more?  

In some ways, this pommelling spectacle is a depressingly accurate portrait of America at the moment: it loves its covert operations, its guns, its bombs, its military, its own swagger; it claims an overriding love of/belief in family, yet it reserves its right to independent action and walking out on the responsibility of individual child rearing for the “greater” good; there is no suspense on offer because the sheer barrage of it all, never clearly seen, never lets up; the overbearing militaristic stance is countered by the reverent ecological viewpoint common to so many Toho films only to deem its advocate "crazy" (and - wouldn't you know it? - "crazy" saves the day). Though the world as we know it is imperiled  nothing is taken seriously, least of all wisdom; when an Asian cast member expresses a meaningful observation, he puts us back at our ease by saying it was something he once read in a fortune cookie. Similarly, whenever the characters are confronted with something of genuinely godlike proportions, they either stare back into its face unimpressed, or crack a cheap joke (including the most-quoted line from Carpenter's THE THING, made almost 40 years ago) to scale its grandeur down. Nothing's bigger than the armed forces in this picture.  

It’s an odd thing to say about movies featuring men in rubber suits, but the original Toho films - at their best - recognize that these kaiju (now called "Titans") are animals, fellow creatures that warrant our awe and respect. Here in the US, where “awesome” has come to mean something loud and trivial, filmmakers have so far been uncomfortable with the "God" in Godzilla and diminish him at every turn by cracking "bigger boat"-type jokes, trailer moment profundities ("God Save the King"), and verbal bankruptcies like "Oh, shit!" And when our armed forces can’t get him to bend the knee to their blazing combat, they find a way to recruit him. This is a long way from Toho's Gojira, who did not concern himself with lowly human affairs but was somehow attuned to which threats were merely personal and which were specifically directed against the planet. Gojira was never recruited because a) it couldn't be done, b) the military had already declared open war on him at every turn, even selling him into outer space slavery in INVASION OF THE ASTRO-MONSTER (1965), and c) his planet, his fight. The rest of us could only watch in wonderment. When the fights were over, what was restored was a kind of armed peace between Tokyo and Gojira. Mutual respect - which you don't get here, not least of all because the human characters aren't real enough to be worth it.

I'm surprised by how many people seem to be enjoying this inchoate mess, which they are comparing to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968, never a favorite anyway) rather than the more apropos Toho franchise blow-out GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004). When their argument is “It’s only a movie, I had fun, lighten up,” I can only surmise that’s all most people want - a little escapism with enough self-importance attached to help them feel less ashamed about going along for the ride. Trouble is, I'm "deep" (a word which the high school girls of my youth considered the equivalent of "a leper"). GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS wasn't escapist to me; it felt confrontational from the throwdown of its get-go (or should that be from the get-go of its throwdown?) In its unleashed, careening indiscipline, I could readily see most of what's wrong with our world up there on the big screen, lurking behind any number of queasily transparent masks. Such self-exposure should be purging, but in this case, the operatic chaos, the persistence of noise so loud you can't hear yourself think, simply shows us how truly screwed we are - not only by our shown propensity for bad decisions, but by the ironic glee we take as an audience (a society?) in the clusterfucks of others.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.