Godzilla: King of the Monsters is at its best when it is approaching ideas of the divine. Rather than simply feature kaiju-on-kaiju combat, the movie turns these fights into opportunities for religious expressions for the the puny humans on the ground beneath the monsters’ feet. This dynamic isn’t new to giant monster pictures. Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, etc. are all frequently depicted as religious figures in their original film series. The difference in this series of films from Legendary Pictures—Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), and now this movie—is that the entire planet is awakening to immanence of these “titans.”
Again, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is at its best when it is doing the god thing. It is not always at its best. Godzilla and the MUTOs were such a surprise to humanity in 2014’s Godzilla there was scant time for the humans in the movie to explain why the creatures were. Plus, it was the first film in this series, so there also hadn’t been time for the filmmakers to develop the narrative world. Now we’re three films in, and explaining the monsters, why they are, what they want, and how humanity ought to interact with them takes up much more of the movie. These rationalizations undercut the great beasts’ transcendence. More attention is given to developing the characters in this film as well, but that too is time wasted. In the presence of a god, who cares about your character arc? Basically, any time anyone starts talking in this movie, the movie loses its way.
In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it’s what’s left when words fail, the images and the sound design, that truly resonates. The monsters themselves are apocalypses, and the digital compositions of them rampaging across the earth and fighting each other are akin to the kind of apocalyptic imagery people have been creating for hundreds of years. When they roar, their voices are clearly mixes of animal sounds, but there is something unnatural mixed in there as well. (I’m guessing something metal, but the sound designer won’t say.) It’s unnerving in the best way. These are the movie’s most powerful moments.
The human characters are used best in these moments as well. Many times, humans tentatively but compulsively approach the monsters hands raised hoping to touch them. In other moments, as the towering monsters battle overhead, humans find themselves standing staring up in awe unable to run away even though by standing there their doom is eminent. Recognizing the might and majesty of the monsters, the humans are willing to be destroyed, a kind of willing sublimation into what they intuit as the ancient monsters’ more persistent reality.
Whether they feature just the monsters or also the humans, these dialogue-light moments are suffused with religious imagery like pilgrimage, offering and sacrifice, confession, supplication, adoration, and exultation. They are scored by choral arrangements and chants. My favorite of these scenes involves the movie’s most ardent believer, Ken Wantanabe’s “Dr. Serizawa,” approaching the resting Godzilla in the place where the monster once dwelt with his people to make an offering to the ancient one in hopes that the presumed dead Godzilla will rise and be the world’s salvation once again.
The framing of the monsters, the humans’ reactions, and the sound of it all is a potent concoction of what Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto named the “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” – “the terrifying yet attractive majesty of the wholly other,” the bedrock of all religious impulse. Usually at the cinema, this kind of dynamic is only found at the art house, such as in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick. It is rare and refreshing to see it in a blockbuster spectacle like this.
Not that there needs to be one, but to what end? While the original Godzilla movie was a lament for the horrors of nuclear war, and while the original King Kong was an anti-colonial satire, this new series of films featuring the characters are explicitly environmental tales. The monsters are a corrective to the destructive practices of humans. Perhaps that’s how many feel right now, as if only an act of a god(zilla) can save us from the effects of our pollution. I hope that’s not the case, because the other thing that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is clear about is that a corrective of that magnitude comes with a lot of collateral damage in its wake.