I am the symbol of Creation and Destruction
I am the beginning and the end.
With my tail in my mouth
I am the Circle of Eternity.
Wisdom is in my eyes
And the dusk of wisdom lurks amid my coils.
My track circles the world
And I loop my coils around the Universe.
My head waves among the stars
And the nations fall prostrate before me.
Coiled, head upright, I am the spirit of the sea.
The world-shaking dinosaur was my henchman
And the flying dragons were my footmen.
The ancients knew me.
They reared shrines and altars
And I taught them dim, dusky wisdom...
- Robert E. Howard, "Serpent"
It's obvious why there's such a divide between critics and audiences for Godzilla: King of the Monsters - because it isn't the kind of film most critics would like. This isn't a film you go to see for dialogue, character arcs, or plot points: it's a film to experience spectacle, and ponder what it's about. You will undoubtedly be disappointed by the human characters, the script, and the story - the "people" and "events" which take up the runtime - but that's not the point of a Godzilla film. It's fair to criticise those elements, of course, and there's no real barrier to a monster film having excellent characters, script, & plot: it's just their absense is not a mortal failure. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: when it comes to monster movies, great critics discuss themes; average critics discuss plot; small critics discuss characters.
Since this is going to delve deep into the mythology of the Monsterverse, I'd wait until after you've seen the film - and I do recommend you see it - until reading.
I really, really wanted to do an 8-Year-Old review for this, because as I walked out of the cinema, I came to the conclusion that it was practically made for 8-year-old Aly. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the film actually deserved a more sober, less obviously tongue-in-cheek appraisal. It reminded me, in many ways, of Pacific Rim.
Now, I of course did an 8-Year-Old review of Pacific Rim, and I'm quite happy with how it ended up. But there was always something niggling away at me, convincing me that there was more to it than "I liked it because it was cool." Then I came across this amazing review, which articulated beautifully what was percolating in my subconscious - visual storytelling.
It's very easy, if you are confronting the movie with a linguistic bias, to see the film as "dumb," or, maybe even worse, a movie that's good because it "knows it's dumb" and doesn't aspire to be more. And yes, the dialogue isn't brilliant. Granted! You can totally watch the film and say "There's not a lot going on here as far as witty reparte is concerned, and the plot is pretty simple, so on that level, it's kind of a simplistic movie." You can take that away with you after watching Pacific Rim.
But that's not what my girlfriend took away from it.
She took away this:
"I thought it was really cool how Mako dyed her hair to match her jacket that she wore in the flashback scene. It was like she was still thinking about that day and carrying it with her."
I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that was one of the first things she said to me when the credits were rolling and we were freaking out together over how cool the movie was. She followed that up by talking about how expressive and cool the Kaidanovskys - the pilots of Cherno Alpha - were. These are, remember, two characters with effectively zero dialogue, beyond a few shouted commands during their fight scene, and yet they stood out dramatically within her mind as well rounded characters. And the conversation pretty much proceeded like that - sometimes with me echoing her thoughts, but often with her picking out details that I had missed completely.
She was responding to the film as a visual learner. She was reacting not as a traditionally trained - and traditionally, we might say, constrained - theorist, but as someone that interprets media according to images, body language, design symbolism, and color cues.
She was doing it right.
The rest of us are doing it wrong.
Pacific Rim is not a dumb movie at all. It is a visually intelligent movie.
I had this review in mind when I saw Kong: Skull Island, the immediate predecessor to Godzilla: King of the Monsters in Legendary's "Monsterverse."
The Ape, Roaring And Red-Handed
It was no ape, neither was it a man. It was some shambling horror spawned in the mysterious, nameless jungles of the south, where strange life teemed in the reeking rot without the dominance of man, and drums thundered in temples that had never known the tread of a human foot.
- Robert E. Howard, The Servants of Bit-Yakin
Kong: Skull Island was also called dumb, stupid, loud, all the things under the sun - and if you look at it from the point of view of traditional narratives (tight plotting, complex characterisation, scintillating dialogue etc) then you could come away thinking that it's an abject failure. But films as a medium need not be bound to the same conventions as, say, literature: they don't automatically need to succeed at the same things to be a success. Criticising a monster film for its human characters is, in a way, no better than calling a fish stupid because it can't climb a tree.
Where Kong: Skull Island lacked in characterisation & plotting, it more than made up for in visual storytelling. The story isn't told by characters Going On A Journey (© Philippa Boyens 2000ish), or through a pulpy opening scrawl & lengthy exposition: it's told through montage, cinematography, score, movement - visuals.
|I don't quite know why I like Jordan Vogt-Roberts, but there's something about the guy that just... speaks to me.|
There are overt references to the Vietnam war, and a great deal of subtext on the psychological impact that conflict had on the minds of the soldiers who fought in it, and the world they returned to; there is cosmic horror and hints of ancient civilisations that would do Lovecraft, Haggard, & Burroughs proud; Jordan Vogt-Roberts' direction and Larry Fong's cinematography collaborated to create a lurid, gorgeous visual feast that evoked Eerie and Creepy comics, Weird Tales covers, with the grotesque glee of Joe Dante or George Miller. Through it all, there are meditations on colonialism, imperialism, naturalism, and all the staples of the Lost World genre, reconstructed, deconstructed, and unreconstructed. If the original King Kong was Heart of Darkness as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kong: Skull Island is Apocalypse Now! with a side of Moby Dick - a comparison the filmmakers themselves exploited with the IMAX poster pictured above.
Most of all, Kong: Skull Island recognised that the one thing it had to make most convincing was the title character. My favourite scene in the film wasn't the ominous back-lit shot replicated on the poster (though it was glorious); it wasn't the almost supernatural visual of a ghostly titan emerging from the moonlit mists (though it was brilliant); it wasn't even Kong stripping branches from a tree in a single motion like a samurai stoically unsheathing his sword for battle (though it was AMAZING and not too far removed from real primates making tools).
It's this scene.
This scene has no dialogue; no voiceover telling us what's happening; no subtitles or writing explaining what's going on. You don't need it, because it's all right there in front of you. The wounded human character - Toby Keppel's John Chapman - arrives at a lake: seeing no immediate threat, he leaves his weapon at the shore as he washes. Kong arrives, his relaxed strides dashing waves dozens of feet high into the air. As the Greatest Ape approaches, Chapman runs for cover. Kong pauses, inspecting his arm - he, like Chapman, is wounded.
He crouches, ponders his reflection, touches the still surface, and scoops a handful of water to drink, in a mirror image of Chapman's earlier actions. The difference in scale is illustrated matter-of-factly: Chapman wading into the river is hardly noticed, while Kong's entrance is impossible to ignore; Chapman barely disturbs the water, but Kong's merest touch sends ripples that reach the shoreline; Chapman's cupped hand dripped tiny rivulets of water, whereas a veritable Falls of Glomach cascaded from Kong's great paw.
|That one shot is probably my favourite single image of the many great sights in the film, simply because of the visceral impact of the realisation that Kong makes waterfalls while he drinks.|
Then, Kong freezes, spotting something. He snarls, & snatches forward - not at Chapman, but at a gargantuan squid beneath the surface. Chapman, a soldier whose very life depends on keen observation, waded right out into a river where certain death was waiting for him - certain death he didn't even notice. Kong saw it - not only his size providing an entirely different perspective on the same situation, but presumably his ape instincts & senses being stronger & more attuned than a modern human's.
Even a description of what's happening seems to belabour the point. The scene has multiple purposes: it displays the vast difference in scale between Kong and Man through showing the effects of size simply moving with water; it showcases Kong in a state of recuperation while reinforcing his animalistic awareness; it shows how woefully unprepared even a seasoned soldier is for the nightmare that is Skull Island. Most importantly, it encapsulates Kong's liminal kinship with humanity by mirroring Chapman in so many ways - a mirroring that's all the more striking when you learn that the actor playing Chapman also provided the motion capture for Kong himself.
In this scene, we see Kong is More Than Animal, and also More Than Man. It's no mistake that the director specifically insisted that Kong walk upright, without the typical simian stoop:
A big part of our Kong was I wanted to make something that gave the impression that he was a lonely God, he was a morose figure, lumbering around this island.
We sort of went back to the 1933 version in the sense that he’s a bipedal creature that walks in an upright position, as opposed to the anthropomorphic, anatomically correct silverback gorilla that walks on all fours. Our Kong was intended to say, like, this isn’t just a big gorilla or a big monkey. This is something that is its own species. It has its own set of rules, so we can do what we want and we really wanted to pay homage to what came before… and yet do something completely different.
There’s subtle nods. [The ’33 film] was black and white, so it’s really easy to assume that the fur on the monkey is black, but there’s actually a lot of forums and things that you read and there’s some real poster artwork where Kong’s fur skews more brownish, so we actually pushed his fur in more of a brown as opposed to the traditional black. It really was trying to create this feeling so that when these humans look up at him, they hopefully have a visceral response, saying to themselves, ‘That’s a God, I’m looking at a God.’
- Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Where previous iterations depict Kong as an ultimately tragic figure, a victim of displacement & colonialism, here Kong feels like something else entirely - almost a mythic, supernatural presence. While most cryptozoological takes on the likes of Bigfoot or the Yeti lean into the mundane undiscovered hominid angle, this gigantic primate combines the universal lore of the Wild Man with that of the Giant - fulfilling roles as ancient ancestor, gigantic guardian, and liminal sentinel.
It's like the difference between the unknown mortal, mundane, historical inspiration for King Arthur, and the legendary hero fated to save his people in its darkest hour. Kong straddles the line between a king and a god - an atavistic avatar of the primordial, the ancient, the antediluvian. That doesn't make this Kong better than previous iterations, of course - it just makes this Kong more suited for the mythologically-inspired Monsterverse populated by creatures that defy our very understanding of existence in a manner that can only be described as, well, godlike.
Creatures like Godzilla.
“Who is like the Beast? Who can wage war against it?”
Let me speak of Satha. There is nothing like him on earth today, nor has there been for countless ages. Like the meat-eating dinosaur, like old sabre-tooth, he was too terrible to exist. Even then he was a survival of a grimmer age when life and its forms were cruder and more hideous. There were not many of his kind then, though they may have existed in great numbers in the reeking ooze of the vast jungle-tangled swamps still further south. He was larger than any python of modern ages, and his fangs dripped with poison a thousand times more deadly than that of a king cobra...
... he was the nadir of evil horror, and tales of him became twisted into demonology; so in later ages Satha became the veritable devil of the white races, and the Stygians first worshipped, and then, when they became Egyptians, abhorred him under the name of Set, the Old Serpent, while to the Semites he became Leviathan and Satan. He was terrible enough to be a god, for he was a crawling death.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Valley of the Worm"
Like Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters absolutely excels in cinematography of key sequences. Unlike so many other blockbuster directors, Vogt-Roberts and Michael Dougherty understand that not every special effect shot has to be an action shot. There are many moments in the film which evoke not just terror or excitement, but awe and wonder. Each monster's emergence - from an egg, a cocoon, the ice, the earth, or the sea - is spectacular in the truest sense of the word, filmed from the point of view which most immediately and powerfully states the sheer scale of these creatures.
You'd be amazed at how difficult it seems to be is to achieve this. Yet too many monster films utterly fail at this fundamental facet of monster cinema. For all its merits (which I am indeed willing to concede exist), the 2005 King Kong was particularly bad at this. In that film, the denizens of that Skull Island, as brilliantly conceived and realised as they were in theory, never have the weight and presence that they need to command verisimilitude. This was as much a failure of narrative (the ludicrous vine-acrobatics fight a particular lowlight) as it was a special-effects failure (the incredibly upsetting sauropod chase standing out for all the wrong reasons).
Look at that. Look at it. There is so much going on in a single frame. How many world mythologies - how many End Times, how many Armageddons, how many Ragnaroks - does this image evoke?
To Western audiences, there is a very immediate resonance in the fiery, cataclysmic imagery with all the awesome horror of a John Martin painting. The many-headed Ghidorah, which arrived on the island shortly after emerging from the sea, naturally reminds of the many-headed Beast presaged in Revelations:
There are several other curious analogies one could make to Ghidorah, who is later referred to as a "false king," and the Beast, a "false prophet." Prior to this shot, Godzilla decapitates one of Ghidorah's hideous heads, only for its "fatal wound" to be healed; Rodan, the "dragon," gave Ghidorah its authority by being the first to pay homage to the new King of the Monsters; the "whole world" indeed followed, be it the other Titans who acted its commands (perhaps the "beasts" "whose names have not been written in the Lamb's book of life"?), or the billions of puny, inconsequential humans ("every tribe, people, language and nation") who watched its tyranny unfold in real-time on screens. It even "opened its mouth to blaspheme God" in the hideous call he howled to awaken its brethren following his only rival's demise.13 The dragon[a] stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. 4 People worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”5 The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. 7 It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.
After surviving an unholy blast that killed every living being in its radius and mortally wounded Godzilla himself, one could easily utter, in existential horror: "who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?"
It isn't as if I'm plucking this out of thin air. During one of the many human exposition scenes, we see a collage of multiple depictions of many-headed dragons in art across the world - dragons which, according to the film, are actually the dimly-remembered (and possibly mass-suppressed) memories of Ghidorah. Among those artworks are The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, one of a series of paintings depicting scenes of Revelations by William freaking Blake.
And behold a great red dragon,
But the worldbuilding in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and its spiritual predecessor Kong: Skull Island, makes it clear that this Monster with A Thousand Faces has snaked its many visages into mythologies across the world. As Robert E. Howard traced the snake-demons of mythologies across the world to Old Satha in "The Valley of the Worm," so Godzilla: King of the Monsters seeks to trace back the many heads of the hydra to its source - Ghidorah. Thus, perhaps the Hydrae of Ancient Greece, Aži Dahāk of Persia, Balaur of the Slavic lands, and the Zmey Gorynych of the Russian Steppes are the suppressed folkloric memories ultimately derived from a single, terrible reality - one more monstrous and destructive than even the imaginations of humanity could comprehend.
Hence the revelation that Ghidorah is an alien "invasive species" rather than a natural product of the Earth's ecosystem makes him unnatural, intrusive, A Thing That Should Not Be, likens him to the Shoggothian Worm in "Valley" and any number of other Lovecraftian stories of horrific beings from beyond space and time finding themselves on earth. Ghidorah's clear malevolent intelligence, his command of the elements (his wings really are a hurricane), and uncanny resilience to every weapon at humanity's disposal mark him as not just beyond humanity's capabilities, but beyond its very comprehension. His command of the other Titans suggests not only the False King, but in reshaping the world to suit his alien design, he may be akin to a herald or High Priest of a new order. In the Japanese Godzilla films, Ghidorah was used as a weapon by aliens to destroy humanity & take over the Earth themselves. If Ghidorah is an alien counterpart to Earth's Titans, what hellish world spawned him?
Monster Zero’s dermal layer is gilded with trace amounts of aurum (See Ark Record # 73.126). Metallurgical studies theorize the scales act as a conductor capable of carrying bioelectrical currents through the creature’s body. Injuries have been discovered on several locations on the beast’s body, reminiscent of claw and scorch marks. Exo-Forensics are currently investigating. Muscle tendons on the wings are so hyper-tensile that their massive aerodynamics could generate hurricane-force winds when in flight.
Coupled with its body’s electro-receptor molecular biology capable of conducting electrical currents, water vapor in the air would be heated at extreme levels creating its own localized storm system as it travels. Simply put, if Monster Zero were to fly again, the stratosphere would be torn open by an otherworldly tempest of thunder and lightning our sky has never seen. Cryptolinguistics has analyzed translations of every worldwide case study of Monster Zero in the Monarch database across tens of thousands of years. The ancients called it Ghidorah.
- Monarch website
A final thought is that cross in the foreground. The Christian resonance of a lone symbol of Christ's sacrifice for humanity's collective redemption in the shadow of something so evocative of the Beast is hardly subtle. But there's another story of a vaguely cruciform structure standing before a scene of utter otherworldly destruction - one close to that of Godzilla's origins.
Genesis in Apocalypse
There is a dichotomy regarding nuclear energy in 2014's Godzilla, and by extension its sequel. In 1954, Godzilla was the mythologised apotheosis of Japan's collective trauma over the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, Godzilla was an unspeakable, unknown, barely explicable horror, a merging of the ancient primeval vengeance of Earth's life-spirit with the new monstrosity of nuclear devastation. Much has been said over Godzilla's transformation from monster to mascot, but few as brilliantly as J. Hoberman's observation in "Godzilla: Poetry After the A-Bomb":
Like King Kong, Moby Dick, or the shark in Jaws, Godzilla is a nexus of threats and associations. The monster is clearly the objectification of nuclear war, but just as the epidemic in Camus’ The Plague is not simply the German occupation of France, it’s also something more.
Godzilla has been called the greatest star the Japanese movie industry ever produced, with a star’s magical ability to reconcile contradictions. Combining the Japanese term for whale (kujira) with the English loanword gorira (gorilla), the name Gojira has a subtly foreign flavor—and is written with the characters the Japanese use for loanwords. The cultural anthropologist Anne Allison refers to Godzilla in psychoanalytic terms, as a symptom. The monster may initially appear as an “alien element,” but it is ultimately experienced as intrinsic to Japan’s national identity - specifically, Japan’s new national identity.
The bomb triggers Godzilla’s aggression, transforming an innocent Jurassic creature into a force of primeval destruction. Godzilla resolves the past with the future, the Japanese with the foreign, the aggressor with the victim. The destructive impulses that brought the Pacific War and the bombing of Japan are externalized and then reembraced as evidence of Japan’s martyrdom. Some thought Godzilla the vengeful ghost of martyred dead soldiers. The mutant Godzilla is the object of atomophobia; the similarly radiation-scarred Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Godzilla’s unwilling nemesis, is the subject of atomophobia, suffering from it. Serizawa equates his “oxygen destroyer” with the H-bomb and is persuaded to use it - against the H-bomb, as it were - only by a television spectacle of schoolgirls singing a peace hymn. As this music is reprised in Godzilla’s last moments, it associates the monster with its human victims.
Both destroyer and victim, the monster inspires terror and empathy - perhaps even admiration. In subsequent movies, Godzilla becomes a beloved savior and ultimately a mascot. Plush stuffed Godzillas are a staple of Japanese toy stores. The monster mutates into a teddy bear - but perhaps it always was. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects, which consumed one-third of the movie’s budget, involved actors in latex costumes trampling a miniature city. American kids may have found this “suitamation” ridiculous - even as they loved it - but Japanese audiences responded differently. In part because real people were used, the monster became sympathetic, even poignant. Godzilla’s movements and destructive nature were, as one contemporary reviewer put it, “strangely humanlike.”In 2014's Godzilla, that metamorphosis is even more overt: not only does Godzilla consume & safely process radioactive material in a way impossible to man's current science, he and other Titans are seen to actively regenerate areas which were previously devastated - plant life is replenished, endangered species flourish, ocean temperatures stabilise. This, of course, has a correlation in the natural world: cataclysmic forest fires rejuvenating the soil & encourage new plant growth; the movements and actions of giant animals like elephants and whales affecting whole ecosystems; even the shadow of Chernobyl shows that life can find a way out of catastrophe.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a fun inversion of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa's heroic sacrifice in the 1954 film - the symbolism of his ascent up an ancient submerged Meso-American-style pyramid with the "offering" of a nuclear weapon to a being worshipped as a deity by prehistoric humans impossible to miss - which highlights the dichotomy. In this film, nuclear weapons are part of the reason the Titans have awakened in the first place: not only are they useless against the monsters, they actually make them stronger. But Godzilla's destruction is only bringing an unbalanced world back from the brink of ecological catastrophe, in the way a forest fire cleanses a toxic forest.
We see gigantic creatures as sentinels for Gaia's retribution, from the Last March of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, to Ted Hughes' Iron dualogy, and half of Hayao Miyazaki's filmography. The Godzilla series itself introduced the notion of the Earth itself creating avengers against humanity's indiscretions in Godzilla vs. Mothra. Thus, the offering of a nuclear warhead, which was designed to kill and destroy, as something to save Godzilla (and by extension the Earth) is a complete inversion of the usual use of bombs.
Of course, feeding a warhead to Godzilla had its own danger, with only Mothra's intervention preventing another Godzilla vs Destroyah-style cataclysm. Nonetheless, by the time of the film's end credits, it's clear that humanity has unleashed forces it cannot control, command, or even comprehend - and they are rectifying humanity's own mistakes for the sake of the planet. It's often said we need superheroes because we need to believe in ideals bigger than we are to set right our mistakes: perhaps we don't need heroes so much as monsters to take the earth back from us. For the world is full of examples of nature doing what man has shown itself largely incapable of accomplishing without much effort.
Remember the cross from that Ghidorah shot? It isn't just the obvious Christian allusions that struck me. The second torii gate of the Sanno Shrine in Nagasaki was less than a kilometre southeast from Fat Man's fatal detonation - the hypocentre of a nuclear explosion. The intense radiation and heat blasted the white shrine into blackness, destroying one of the supporting columns. Somehow, against all engineering probability, the last column stayed standing - where it remains to this day.
Beside this gate were two camphor trees. Their leaves and branches were burned away, and it was feared they - like many living things bathed in nuclear fire - would wither and perish. Yet as the torii stood, the two trees survived, regenerating their lush greenery over the decades. Even in scenes of incredible destruction, one holy object remains standing: and even when life was decimated, it survived and regrew, despite humanity's best efforts to destroy everything in a few miles' radius.
Thus Godzilla: King of the Monsters, despite being a film that never shies from truly epic displays of destruction and catastrophe, arguably has one of the most potent environmentalist & pacifist themes in recent cinema.
The World is Gnawed by Nameless Things
A Key! Aye, it is a Key, symbol of a forgotten horror. That horror has faded into the limbo from which it crawled, loathsomely, in the black dawn of the earth. But what of the other fiendish possibilities hinted at by Von Junzt - what of the monstrous hand which strangled out his life? Since reading what Selim Bahadur wrote, I can no longer doubt anything in the Black Book. Man was not always master of the earth - and is he now?
And the thought recurs to me - if such a monstrous entity as the Master of the Monolith somehow survived its own unspeakably distant epoch so long - what nameless shapes may even now lurk in the dark places of the world?
- "The Black Stone," Robert E. Howard
We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Glóin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair.
- Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers "The White Rider"
You heard of the U.S.S. Lawton? Neither did the public. Out of a thousand young men on that ship I was the only survivor. They told my family she was sunk in battle but I know what I saw. It had no conscience. No reasoning. Just destroy. I spent the last 30 years trying to prove the truth of what I learned that day. This planet doesn't belong to us. Ancient species owned this Earth long before mankind; and if we keep our heads buried in the sand, they will take it back.
- William Landa, Kong: Skull Island
You can see with that third quotation one of the big reasons I adore Legendary's Monsterverse so far.
As much as I love the designs for Kong, Godzilla, and the other "hero" monsters Ghidorah and Mothra and Rodan, I also appreciate the wee tributes to past monster films: the "Mire Squid" a nod to King Kong vs Godzilla, referring to Ghidorah as "Monster Zero," retaining the classic themes for Godzilla and Mothra, and of course the Skullcrawlers being the supersized cinematic progeny of the bipedal lizard-thing that menaced the puny humans of the 1933 King Kong (pictured above). These are just the most obvious seeds for the Monsterverse: there are plenty more.
We've seen a few attempts at Universe-Building over the past few years. Some have been successful - the Marvel films, new entries into the Star Wars. Others have been... less successful, be it financially (Universal's Dark Universe being stuck with Dracula Untold & The Mummy) or creatively (DC's been a curate's egg, and the Transformers' film continuity is so self-contradictory it's a wonder they even bothered crediting anyone for the scripts). Why is the Monsterverse successful where, say, Transformers isn't?
Well, let's compare and contrast.
|A display of all the better Transformers films we could've had|
The Transformers films could have been excellent examples of visual storytelling, if Michael Bay was interested in visual storytelling. Bay is clearly an auteur, in that he makes exactly the film he wants to make - the thing is, the film he makes tends to be entirely about visuals for visuals' sake. All the myriad plot points, narrative hooks, and storylines are treated with no greater care than the dialogue - probably a bit less. Which is a terrible shame, as there is more than enough worldbuilding in the Tranformers films which could make for a universe every bit as rich, complex, and enthralling as any of the other cinematic universes nowadays.
The first film alone had a secret organisation that knew about alien lifeforms on earth for decades, a terrifying discovery in the Arctic Ice, the revelation that an alien artifact altered the course of history, the unsettling paranoia of malevolent beings hiding in plain sight, and the drama of an eternal war between cybernetic beings being brought to primitive Earth. Alas, precious little of that was on screen: instead we got the story of a boy and his car, and his girl, and a collection of human characters that didn't really serve any purpose other than cheap laughs & ra-ra military eye candy.
Each of the sequels had plot elements begging for extrapolation and investigation: the Pyramid at Giza being built over an ancient alien power device (Revenge of the Fallen); the Apollo landings having a grimmer, secret purpose beyond the Space Race (Dark of the Moon); an interstellar bounty hunter stalking the last Cybertronians as humans create monsters of their own that they could not control (Age of Extinction). This cacaphony of awesome plot ideas reached a chaotic crescendo in The Last Knight, as we had Arthurian legend, millennia-spanning mystic orders, a world torn in human-machine apartheid, transformers manifesting in important moments in earth history, & apocalyptic eschatology crashing into each other (quite literally) at ludicrous speed. How could something so cool be so uninspiring?
|This is supposed to be AMAZING. WHY ISN'T IT AMAZING|
Because none of the cool stuff matters. It's just a reason to get from point a to point b. There's nothing to them - even the awesome idea of the Knights of the Round Table had 50-foot tall robot allies that turn into a dragon just doesn't have any impact, because it's there and gone.
In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, all the cool stuff has a purpose, a reason, and a role. You are invested in the mile-tall monsters, because they actually matter as characters. All the background information matters, because they add mythic, cultural, and historical resonance to the characters. Ghidorah being an ancient, forgotten deity of destruction & dread adds to his menace & power; Godzilla being an ancient prehistoric creature makes his claim to rule over the Earth greater than comparative latecomer Humanity; the idea of there being multiple creatures which gave rise to monsters and gods of mythologies across the planet cements the idea that these beings are something beyond human understanding - and control.
Rodan's placement on the (fictional) Isla de Mara off the east coast of Mexico is not accidental, nor is Mothra's location in China. Rodan, being a giant flying fire monster, immediately evokes the many firebirds of mythology - the Egyptian Bennu, Greek Phoenix and Aethonem aquilam, Persian Huma, Chinese Vermilion Bird, and of course the many Firebirds of Slavic folklore. But his enormous size & devastating wing-beats also bring to mind the Persian Roc, the Hebrew Ziz, the Norse Hræsvelgr, the Philippine Minokawa, the Chinese Peng - and, most relevantly, the Thunderbirds of Native American mythology and modern cryptozoology, as well as the ancient American Teratorns which hunted man's recent ancestors.
Likewise, Mothra merges the healing rays of creatures like the Ibong Adarma, with the larva-cocoon-maturity cycle of the moth mirroring not just the death-rebirth aspects of the Phoenix & its cohorts, but the duality of moths & butterflies as representatives of death and the soul in Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Slavic, Chinese, Japanese, Mesoamerican, & Native American folklore. The Legendary iteration's addition of Mantid forearms and Vespid stinger emphasises the general pan-Arthropoda nature of Mothra - she is not purely Lepidopteran, but has aspects of all creepy crawlies, with all the comfort and menace that entails. Mothra's egg is placed in a hidden temple built by a hitherto unrecorded civilisation located in the Yunnan Province of China: the Miao people have a "Butterfly Mother" at the centre of their creation myth, while the Bai people have a heritage of Benzhu worship - partly deified ancestors ("local lords"), partly nature deities.
All this is communicated without infodumps or reams of text, though Legendary are circumventing this through their viral marketing, such as the Monarch website. Bits and pieces of this turned up as background or establishing frames in the films, but reading them on their own is great fun. It is here that we find some information on some of those other beasties, and what they could be.
Some of them appear onscreen, albeit briefly. Behemoth, a great shaggy amalgam of ape, giant sloth, mammoth, and other woolly megafauna of the Tertiary, is obviously named in honour of the biblical monster. However, its slothlike gait & location (a cave in the Tinguá Preserve, Brazil) also reminds of the Mapinguari, a cyclopean South American cryptid that may be inspired by the remains of giant sloths, which are regularly found in South American caves. Adrienne Mayor hypothesises that the bones of elephants may have inspired stories of the Cyclopes in The First Fossil Hunters, which included a speculative rearrangement of a Mastodon into a humanoid form. The idea of a South American daikaiju having a Hebrew designation is not an error, but complements the comparative mythology central to the Monsterverse - that the beasts of the worlds' mythologies were inspired by a barely-conceivable reality. I wouldn't be surprised if Behemoth was inspired by Mayor's book, what with the filmmakers clearly interested in monsterology.
Another shortly-glimpsed terror was called Scylla. Scylla's name is a double-entendre: mythologically, it of course derives ultimately from the sea monster of Greek Myth, which Homer depicted with a crab-like shell in The Odyssey: Legendary's version replaces its six serpentine heads with Cthulhoid tentacles. The name could also be a nod to the generic name of the Indo-Pacific Mud Crab. Crabs are prevalent in Greek mythology (most famously in Cancer and Karkinos), and also cultures along the Pacific coast, such as the many crab figures depicted by the Moche people of what is now Peru, and Ai Apaec, the Crab God of the Incas. As with Behemoth, Scylla is drastically displaced from her namesake's territory, this time residing in Sedona, Arizona.
The third new monster seen in the film is the most mysterious: Methuselah. This is the first monster whose name is not automatically evocative of a mythological monster, instead linked to the famously long-lived Biblical figure. Evidently this being is known for its great age. As it lay dormant in a forest near Munich, Germany, it's possible it could be linked to the Wurmeck Dragon, or the Lindwurm, a huge flightless dragon with poisonous breath which gave its name to a poplar alley in the city. But a few things can be gleaned by its testudine form, long-lived moniker, and sporting a thick forest that formed on its shell over its long hibernation: this is very like a landlubber version of Aspidochelone, which was an enormous turtle which appeared to unwary sailors to be a small island.
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The rest of the monsters are, sadly, never seen: they appear only as names on a map. Nonetheless, their very names & locations offer tantalising glimpses at what could be lurking in the deep places of the world. Bunyip has a straightforward cryptozoological inspiration, as does Sekhmet in Cairo and Yamato No Orochi in Japan.
Others rely on comparative mythology, taking names from outside their locales to faraway places that have similar creatures. Quetzalcoatl has an Aztec namesake, but dwells under Maccu Picchu, a famously Incan site: it would be easy to say Legendary was lazily conflating Mesoamerican and South American traditions, but Quetzalcoatl has already been linked to Incan deities for its role, just as it is linked to the Mayan Kukulkan & Qʼuqʼumatz by its appearance. Leviathan, located in Loch Ness, may have a Biblical name, but it wouldn't be the only folkloric connection between Caledonia and the Ancient Near East. Mokele-Mbembe has a familiar inspiration - but its location in Jebel Barkal, Sudan, ties it into Egyptian mythology, where it could be linked to the reptilian monsters Ammit or Apep. Tiamat in Stone Mountain, Georgia could combine the primordial Babylonian goddess frequently depicted as a sea serpent with the ubiquitous Horned Serpent of southeastern Native Americans, including local Mvskoke mythology.
The presence of Typhon - many-headed, serpentine father of monsters and first child of the titan Gaia in Greek mythology, including Scylla - in Angkor Wat could have a number of explanations. It could simply be a link to the many dragon-like beings of Southeast Asian mythology, such as the seven-headed serpent of Cambodian folklore, which has multiple sculptures in Angkor Wat. The fact it is located in Angkor Wat, which was designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Devas & centre of the universe, emphasises the "origin" meaning of Typhon's name. Is it possible that Typhon was, in fact, the very first of these creatures?
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Other monsters are more mysterious. Abaddon, interred under the Manpupuner rock formation known as the "Seven Strong Men," has a particularly foreboding Judeo-Christian namesake: the Fallen Angel of Death and Destruction, King of an army of locusts, whose very name means "the destroyer." Nga, the God of Death, is the closest analogue to such a "destroyer" figure in local Nenet mythology. (As an aside, there are traditions of pre-humans in Northern Russia, such as the pre-Nenet people called the Sihirtia, who may have worshipped "Abaddon" in the same way the sunken civilisation worshipped Godzilla)
Baphomet is interesting for being named for a possibly fabricated (as in, not from a genuine folkloric or mythological tradition) deity from the infamous Inquisition of the Knights Templar. Its location in the ancient Mauretanian capital city of Volubilis, Morocco - which, at the time of the Templars, was in the territory of the Moors - just compounds the mystery. Is the implication that Baphomet was real, or at least, inspired by the being which now takes its name? If so, did the Templars worship it - or did they discover something that the Inquisition did not want the world to know? Or is there something else going on - is Baphomet's fabricated infamy the reason this titan was named for it? Is it a creature that's somehow deceptive or unreal - the origin of the trickster, the Djinn, the demon? Such a strange, intriguing choice.
Some of the creatures aren't even named for monsters, deities, or mythological figures at all. Sargon is based on a historical figure, the greatest ruler of the Akkadian Empire, and thus one of the first Great Men of world history. Sargon is also the generic name for two species of Weevils, which might suggest a coleopteran shape for the monster - the most notable mythological beetles being the Egyptian Scarabs & very weird Khepri, though there is always the Greek Cerambus offers a tenuous link to Capricorn. Sargon's location in Mexico doesn't reveal any significance to me beyond the theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas.
Quite a few Kaijuphiles have their own theories as to these monsters, speculating that some could be codenames for established Toho celebrities - Leviathan as Manda, Abaddon as Destoroyah, Baphomet as King Caesar. However, since they also predicted Scylla was really Kumonga & Methuselah was Anguirus or Baragon, I think it's just as likely at least some of these creatures are intended as original creations like the MUTOs of Godzilla: it isn't clear whether Toho will extend the license to Legendary at this point, and I think the Western studio will want to make their homegrown creations into stars in their own right (alongside the long-established Kong).
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It remains to be seen exactly what tack Legendary will take the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, which has been unsubtly teased ever since Kong: Skull Island's viral campaign revealed Monarch's part. But part of the conundrum with mythologising the Monsterverse is explaining why Kong and Godzilla are going to battle - specifically, who, if anyone, is the "bad guy"?
Both Godzilla and Kong are presented as guardian creatures, protecting the natural order, restoring balance to the world. With Godzilla, the proliferation of nuclear material and the awakening of the MUTOs threatened that balance: in Kong: Skull Island, it was bombing Skull Island and disturbing the Skullcrawlers from their subterranean lair. In both instances, humanity play a significant role in exacerbating the situation, and even attempt to kill the only creatures that could help them. Godzilla: King of the Monsters comes close to destroying Godzilla himself, leaving Ghidorah unchallenged - and leading to truly cataclysmic destruction across the earth. Kong does not challenge Ghidorah in Godzilla's absense, but neither does he respond to Ghidorah's command: he as far as anyone knows, the King remained in Skull Island for the duration of the Titanomachy. Either he felt this was not his fight, or he was preoccupied with something else within his domain.
There are, thus, a few narrative strands to tug on. Most of the titans display a certain level of sapience, and the bio-acoustic element suggests at least a simple form of communication. Perhaps Godzilla is resentful of Kong's inaction against the False King: it was one thing for Kong & Godzilla to leave one another to their dominions, but when the entire planet was threatened, surely Kong should have stepped up to the challenge? As such, Godzilla could think that it was time to "annex" Skull Island, and assert his rule over the entire Earth. Alternatively, perhaps Kong views himself as apart from the Titan ecology, and views Godzilla and the others as no different from the Skullcrawlers or Ghidorah. Or maybe the terrorists from King of the Monsters manipulate both into fighting one another in the interests of causing planetary chaos. (Obviously none of this would be intellectualised other than theories put forward by Monarch scientists: part of the mystique of the titans is that we cannot truly understand what makes them tick).
The question of who will win is largely besides the point: Kong is the clear underdog (undergod?) and the law of drama tends to favour heroic victories against the odds. If I had to guess, Godzilla would absolutely clobber Kong in their first encounter, while Kong would employ his agility & ingenuity to give a better account of himself the next time - either to a draw, or driving Godzilla to retreat. The final encounter would have Kong clearly defeat Godzilla, probably involving improvised weapons, Predator-style environmental traps (yes, Kong is Arnold and Godzilla the Predator), & hitherto unseen abilities like electricity manipulation until the inevitable Outside Context Problem arrives. At this point, Kong is thrashed by the new threat, only for Godzilla to recover, and the two team up to defeat the newcomer, & return to their respective dominions. I know, this is pretty much Batman v Superman, but it's how I expect it to go: it's a decent formula, there's a clear winner, both look strong.
Whatever the case, Godzilla vs Kong director Adam Wingard has a lot to live up to. While his filmography is something of a checquered record, his actual directing for films like You're Next, The Guest, and Death Note is highly regarded. The writer, Terry Rossio, wrote the screenplay for adventure stories like The Road to El Dorado, Disney's Aladdin, Treasure Planet, and all the Pirates of the Caribbean films, so one hopes the unavoidable human characters will be tolerable. And if not, hey: at least the monster battles should be great, while big nerds like me can overthink the mythological and cultural influences.