It’s 1975 and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, eyes fixed to the 11-inch screen of a portable black-and-white television set. On an otherwise unmemorable Saturday afternoon, Dr. Paul Bearer — as portrayed by Dick Bennick Sr. — launches a barrage of hideous puns in his gravelly voice before introducing the weekend’s Creature Feature: the “Americanized” version of Toho’s 1954 classic “Godzilla,” starring Raymond Burr.
I grew up with Godzilla and an assortment of other monsters. I read Forrest J. Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine; watched the Japanese television series “Ultraman” in syndication; and collected monster toys, from Ben Cooper jigglers and Aurora model kits to AHI Universal Monsters action figures and Mattel’s Shogun Warriors line, which included Godzilla.
It is through a lens of nostalgia that I view and evaluate “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the third film in Legendary's rebooted MonsterVerse. Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, the new movie is the 35th installment overall in the 65-year-old Godzilla franchise. It is a direct sequel to 2014’s “Godzilla.”
Dougherty is best known for his work on the scripts for superhero flicks “X2” and “Superman Returns.” He also directed the horror films “Trick 'r Treat” and “Krampus.” How does Dougherty’s new Godzilla epic stack up against a half century of Toho monster mayhem? It’s a mess … a magnificent, spectacular, exhilarating mess.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” absolutely lives up to the legacy of the franchise’s Shōwa era, following the monster-against-monster blueprint set in 1954’s “Godzilla Raids Again,” which featured the first appearance of Anguirus. At its brightest moments, Dougherty’s film is a love letter to that bygone age when the genre asked its audience to feel as much compassion for Godzilla as any of the human protagonists that got swept up in the epic kaiju battles. It successfully reflects — and even expands — the franchise’s complex internal mythology while underscoring the long-established motif of Godzilla as a symbolic force of nature necessary to offset human hubris.
Of course, the special effects have evolved since the early days of the franchise. Back in the 1950s, Godzilla films depended upon the artistry of talented special effects pioneers such as Eiji Tsuburaya. The early films employed miniatures and “suitmation” to depict large-scale destruction as Godzilla and other giant monsters engaged in battle, usually destroying Japanese cities.
Legendary's modern MonsterVerse utilizes cutting-edge computer-generated imagery. It’s easy for moviegoers to find fault with films that go overboard with CGI effects. Too much CGI can overwhelm the story and overpower the performances of the cast. Thankfully, that isn’t the case in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” — because the monsters are the story.
Here’s a partial monster roll call for the film: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah … and a bunch of other ones.
Of course, there are human heroes and villains. There are people who make stupid choices and people who make inspiring sacrifices. And there is plenty of that excessive human pride that always gets us into trouble. The cast does a fine job, with particularly strong performances from Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishirō Serizawa, Sally Hawkins as Dr. Vivienne Graham, Kyle Chandler as Dr. Mark Russell, Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell, Millie Bobby Brown as Madison Russell and Bradley Whitford as Dr. Rick Stanton. Although Thomas Middleditch does a fine job in his role as Dr. Sam Coleman, I kept waiting for him to sell me on the benefits of Verizon Wireless.
What about the story, you ask? Let me summarize: Reckless humans and titanic monsters vie for control of the playing field, which is Earth. There are no superheroes waiting to swoop in and save the day and there is no dance-off in this movie.
In the 1960s, no one expected anyone wearing a Godzilla suit to walk away with an Oscar for best actor. Likewise, no one is expecting “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” to be a contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s still enjoyable. For franchise fans, the kaiju skirmishes and the closing smackdown will be more than worth the price of admission. Dougherty even manages to add a touch of cosmicism to the mix without ever getting too preachy about humanity’s shortcomings.
Some critics have not been kind to the newest Godzilla installment. Ignore Rotten Tomatoes and recapture your inner monster. Appreciate “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” for what it is: a big, noisy clash of the kaiju titans.
Assistant reviewer B.C. Zumpe, a 12-year-old, shares her thoughts on the film:
My expectations from the trailer were that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” would continue from the previous Legendary movie and Godzilla and the humans would work together to stop Ghidorah. I was hoping that the main characters from the last movie would show up. The film had most of this, but there were also unexpected parts. The only characters from the 2014 film were Dr. Ishirō Serizawa and Dr. Vivienne Graham, two scientists from Monarch, because they are important to the plot. I like how the main characters had their own individual stories.
I think the most memorable human characters were Madison and Dr. Ishirō Serizawa. Madison is Emma and Mark Russell’s 12-year-old daughter. She does what she knows is right, even if the adults tell her not to. Serizawa cares about the titans, especially Godzilla, and will do whatever it takes to help them coexist with humans.
Godzilla, Ghidorah and Mothra were the most memorable monsters. Godzilla is the main monster, and he has to battle Ghidorah to take back his place as king. When Ghidorah is set free, he frees all the titans at once and tells them to attack. Mothra is finally introduced in this film. In the beginning, she is a larva. After cocooning herself, she reemerges as an adult and must choose sides in the battle.
I think the filmmakers did an amazing job balancing the storytelling with the special effects. The special effects were very realistic, and the story was just as great. There were a couple scenes that had an impact on me. I liked that there was a mother/daughter relationship in the movie. I also liked that it has a theme of saving the planet.
Both “Godzilla” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” involve a family theme. One has a father/son theme, one has a mother/daughter theme. This film also has more monsters than the first movie. The 2014 film only had Godzilla and the MUTOs.
I’m looking forward to the next movie, which will be “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The new movie will come out next year. I think it will be a very exciting remake. I’m excited to see what happens.
Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines. B.C. Zumpe, Lee’s 12-year-old daughter, is a middle school student, film buff and aspiring writer and director.