Published June 4, 2019
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.– Battle Hymn of the Republic
Modern cinema now survives on the back of its multiverse. It is cliché at this point to say that movie goers can only choose between the worlds of DC, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney, with little between. The underlying strategy of this sort of film making provides studios with regular income and though small movies can and do make money, it is akin to playing among giants. In an attempt to create a new revenue stream, Warner Brothers stepped into the breach with Godzilla (2014) which was enough of a success to prompt its own multiverse. Unlike the lamentable lore of the Avengers or ruined odyssey of Star Wars, the latest movie in the Monster Universe, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, provides gojira fans with not only frenzied monsters but layers of myth and meaning unseen in most blockbusters.
This obsession with stories all set in the same ‘world’ is nothing more than a resurgence in the human need for myth, though arguably today it drips with irony. The tales of the Titans and the gods of Olympus are of course legendary, but Christianity also suffered from fanboyism. The Gnostic gospels are as relevant to the multiverse genre as anything else, though their incongruousness is more obscure than the difference between Ares and Mars. Discovered in 1945 (coincidentally the year when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed), these long forgotten texts provided a different outlook on the story of the New Testament. Underlying them is a more vivid battle between good and evil in the world, where ‘god’ is actually the demiurge, a lesser being who controls our world. Naturally this is incompatible with Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, but it does point to just how much discussion there was around the forming of Western religion. It is clear we have always fought over which stories get told.
At the heart of this debate was the Book of Revelation, the tale of the Second Coming of Christ. In her book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Elaine Pagels explains how there were many books written about the coming Apocalypse, but that it was that of John of Patmos that emerged as the canonical story. She writes how Athanasius, an early bishop, ‘…found an unlikely ally in John of Patmos – especially as Irenaeus had read him.’ He was able to not only see the ‘beast’ of John’s as the Roman leadership, but also heretical Christians of the time. Christians who dissented from the mainstream views were deemed to be the monsters that haunted Revelation, a gestalt force that would drag civilization down. John’s Revelation allowed for the most interpretation, and this is perhaps why it has been so enduring in both literature and as a tool for millenarian cults. From there it was a long road before the Council of Nicaea arrived at a consensus for what would be included in the New Testament. The Emperor Constantine who adopted Christianity also adopted the Book of Revelation as proof of his own holiness and glory as he cast the ‘beast’ out of Rome. Because of this institutional support the other Gnostic stories were eventually suppressed and John’s vision remained.
In a similar vein, the establishment critics of Godzilla: King of Monsters have their story to tell, and it is out of step from the viewing public. The Council of Rotten Tomatoes has spoken. Where Godzilla 2014 was mildly praised by critics and deemed boring by viewers, the new movie has flipped opinions, with reviewers disdaining everything from the ‘mediocre’ plot to the ‘grainy’ visuals while fans relish in finally getting the Godzilla movie they always wanted. This could be a problem of unmet expectations or genuine problems, but truthfully it appears that the so-called experts have once again missed the point. Most of the reviews are dismissive in tone, and a good many relay events in the movie that never happened. One reviewer noted that a jet pilot ejects into the mouth of Ghiborah [sic] when in fact it was Rodan, and another questions why Monarch hid the Hollow Earth tunnels from the rest of the planet, when it is clear they didn’t know about them until half way through the movie. And on it goes. William Blake said that he and his assumed audience ‘both read the Bible day and night; but you read black, where I read white.’ The clashing interpretations of King of the Monsters are similarly tiresome but not unexpected. One of very few good reviews managed to see the film for what it really is: monstrous mayhem mixed with metaphor. The truth is out there if you have eyes to see.
This battle has been a long time coming. The campaign for Godzilla: King of the Monsters began ten months before the release of the film with a trailer that teased the monsters and a serious, environmental disaster theme. The trailers and TV spots since then have been endless, the advertising monumental. Every trailer seemed to set a completely different tone (disaster movie or tongue-in-cheek romp) which either points to a vacillating marketing team or an attempt to capture a larger audience. Not surprisingly the audience is male heavy (70%) and perhaps this is why it is not getting the traction it needed. Something relevant to the white male is bound to be disregarded. What is crazy about this result is that few movies have a run-up to release this long, and the trailers didn’t hide spoilers – viewers knew what they were in for. It promised monster-stomping action and the end result delivered. In the end that might be turning those of the female persuasion away.
The main man behind the vision is Michael Dougherty, and he came on board in 2016 as both director and writer. Thankfully Dougherty was the perfect man for the job. Yes, he is an unapologetic Godzilla fan and the movie is jam-packed with lore that will delight stalwarts, but there are two more significant reasons. The first is that he directed Krampus, a movie notable for its sound design, and Godzilla would be nothing without pitch perfect monster sounds. King of the Monsters is not only a visual delight, but if neon had a sound it will be found in this film. The second reason is that Dougherty worked on a series of Superman comics and if there is one mythical hero to rival Godzilla’s claim for most Jesus-like stand-in, it’s Superman. But where Godzilla 2014 was clearly the story of Jesus as he sacrificed himself for humanity, King of the Monsters is almost obnoxiously a version of Apocalypse. Utilizing his talents Dougherty brings the book of John of Patmos to life. It is surely no coincidence that it was the Archangel Michael who ejected the dragon from Heaven.
Where to even begin pointing out the allusions? Starting with Monster Zero, or Ghidorah, we can see that this monster is very obviously meant to represent Satan, the Antichrist and the false prophet with its three heads. The big reveal shows the beast rising from a pit to hell, and in a possible link to Neon Genesis Evangelion, another Christian-laden series, Monster Zero rises from Antarctica. Rodan is hard to not take as the whore of Babylon as he bows to whoever is in power. There are numerous shots of iconography, including the image of Ghidorah standing on a volcano with a crucifix in the foreground, where the alien dragon looks remarkably like Blake’s Red Dragon (the painting also features in a flash during the movie so this is obviously intentional). Towards the end we zoom in on two soldiers who offer up a quick prayer before entering a hell scape and you have to ask why would Dougherty include those shots if not to further cement the religiosity of the film. The dialogue too is rich with Biblical asides. On entering Ghidorah’s prison one goon marvels and says, ‘Mother of God’ at the immensity of it, before Jonah (Charles Dance), the ecoterrorist leader says, ‘She had nothing to do with this.’ How right he is. Ken Watanabe’s character relinquishes his role and discusses at length about how Godzilla ‘may be the truth of our possible coexistence.’ He is referring to restoring the balance of the world as the Titans roam, but it is hard not to read that as a comment on our relationship with Christ. From start to finish the Bible seeps into every part of the movie.
The critics seem to have for the most part missed all of this, and instead concentrated on the inadequacy of the plot. That of course is easily countered. Many have questioned having human characters at all, but the absurdity of this speaks volumes of the credentials of any reviewer who even thinks it. True, the dialogue is often cheesy, but the tone is consistent, less campy than Pacific Rim and more realistic than the false sentimentality of a Marvel movie. The characters are there for us to follow the action, exactly the same as the first movie (interestingly the reviewers have retconned this judgement in order to lambaste King of the Monsters). They are more a part of the mise-en-scene than anything else. The soldiers feel like real people despite barely any dialogue and you manage to get a sense of their camaraderie. Watanabe’s character sacrifices himself with a nuclear bomb as he looks at his father’s watch – the one forever stopped at the time of Hiroshima. The family drama is perfectly serviceable and the story of divorced parents blown up to causing planet-wide strife in the form of rampaging creatures is quite the take. There is a lovely metaphor at the end too when the daughter, Maddie (Millie Bobby Brown), returns to her childhood home, only for it to come crashing down as monsters rage outside. She screams as a family portrait falls over. Must this be spelled out for those whose jobs it apparently is to comment on movies?
The movie ends on a hopeful note, and the final image of Godzilla reigning over the other Titans is almost worth the price of admission alone. Like King of the Monsters, the Book of Revelation is a positive outlook on disaster. Elaine Pagels concludes her book saying, ‘Yet instead of ending in total destruction, his [John’s] visions of dragons, monsters, mother, and whores speak less to our head than to our heart: like nightmare and dreams, they speak to what we fear, and what we hope.’ That is the best way to take this film, as a glorious nightmare or dream of visions. To try and apply logic to a world where the Hollow Earth is real and the devil is an alien from outer space is to miss the point entirely. Once the film starts rolling it does not let up. It’s almost worth seeing twice: once for the shock and once for the awe.