Let’s get one thing out of the way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a dumb movie. It is one of the dumbest big-budget blockbusters we’ve seen all year, with over the top chaos, a weak cardboard cast of human pawns, and more cliches than the supermarket greeting card aisle. But fear not, for these flaws conspire to make an all around entertaining action extravaganza. There is a certain art to instilling a movie with just the right amount of dumb, and for the most part, Godzilla hits all the right marks.
Before continuing on, we need to clear the air about one thing. Not all Godzilla movies are dumb. Japan’s monster superstar has dabbled in many different kinds of cinema from provocative and political to action packed and suspenseful. We’re here to talk about that portion that fall into the guilty pleasure camp. Along with many testosterone loaded action films of the 80s and numerous low budget slashers like Friday the 13th, one could argue this particular strain of the Godzilla series is one of the cornerstones of dumb cinema. The movies are competently made, reasonably well paced, and always very silly. But in spite of it all, there is a certain likability that keeps audiences coming back. So what are the ingredients to a good dumb movie? I’d say there are three important ones.
RULE # 1 – MEETING EXPECTATIONS
The first thing is a film must deliver on its promises. The Friday the 13th series is among the most popular and profitable in the slasher genre. Just why has the series endured when each sequel is essentially just a carbon copy of the previous entries? Well, that’s why. When you go to see a Friday the 13th movie, you know what you’re getting. A cast of cardboard characters getting killed off in creative ways until only one or two characters is left to face the killer alone. Friday the 13th is like riding the same roller coaster over and over again on different days. Sure, the ride may be the same, but the time of day can add some variety to the mood.
Like Friday the 13th, the Godzilla series has a similar template that has been used in numerous entries. Since the second film, most entries follow the same pattern. The world and characters are established first, followed by the introduction of a new monster. After said monster spends much of the film causing general mayhem, Godzilla swoops in to deal with the problem via an epic, city-destroying smackdown. Godzilla: King of the Monsters continues that tradition in spectacular fashion. It’s certainly not original, but we all have that theme park ride we love. The Godzilla series provides such a ride. It’s as repetitive as it is irresistible.
RULE # 2 – SELF AWARENESS
Another thing about a good dumb movie is it has to be at least somewhat aware of its own dumbness. When it comes to that, you can’t do better than 1985’s Commando, a movie that takes the art of dumbness and turns it into a Rembrandt. While many other action films of the time took themselves too seriously, Commando is aware of its own ridiculousness. From its opening scene to the ending credits, Commando overloads itself with dumb characters, dumb lines, dumb action, all done in a spirit of ironic fun. It’s that irony that saved this film from obscurity. The entire movie is a joke and the audience is in on it.
At times, King of the Monsters doesn’t quite work here. There are moments when the movie tries and fails to elicit genuine emotion from viewers, though it’s so overloaded with battles that the deeper struggles of the characters don’t get much attention. I would argue this was a mistake and the filmmakers should have just gone for it. But the rest of the film is a very self referential kind of movie. There are several series callbacks like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer to calling Ghidorah ‘Monster Zero,’ a name given to him by alien invaders in the Showa era. This all comes to a head in the fight scenes, which are easily the highlight of the film. This is a movie where a giant glowing moth fights a three headed golden dragon that constantly vomits up lightning. You can’t make that without being at least a little aware of how silly that is.
RULE # 3 – LIKABILITY
Another crucial element of good dumb cinema is it should never be annoying. There is a very real difference between lovably dumb and annoyingly dumb, and many films have tried for the former and wound up in the latter instead. Take for example the Transformers series. Obviously a movie about giant fighting robots won’t be a place to go for award winning storytelling. The problem is Transformers fills itself with such loathsome characters and unfunny toilet humor that it becomes obnoxious, and no amount of spectacular action can save it. A good dumb movie avoids this while still maintaining its overall campy tone. Commando’s John Matrix may be as bland as action heroes get, but his motivations and actions are still understandable so we want him to win. It’s dumb, but it still has an earnest likability that keeps the audience from going sour. In that regard, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very likable.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is unapologetically silly, but that silliness is one of the reasons it has proven successful amongst fans. Sure, the human characters don’t work terribly well, but their by the numbers stories are at least coherent. They don’t do enough to breed outright disdain like the cast of your average Transformers movie. Because of this, the action remains unspoiled. The sequences aren’t just elaborate and mesmerizing. They’re also pretty darn creative. Rodan swallows a fighter pilot with one gulp. Mothra binds Ghidorah with her silk. Did I mention Godzilla getting dropped from so high up in the sky that he literally catches on fire as he falls back to Earth? Watching these fights is like watching a kid playing with their favorite toys. Part of you wants to join in the fun.
A TALE OF TWO GODZILLAS
Of course just because a movie is inherently silly doesn’t make it immune to criticism. Commando is stupid, but it still works well as a screenplay with a good structure and pace that allows for the characters to develop alongside the action scenes. Godzilla struggles to find that same balance, which holds it back from being quite as successful as other monster movies, including its predecessors. A lot of Godzilla films are silly, but there are many others that manage to bring a fair amount of menace, gravitas, even tragedy to the table. The original film was a metaphor for nuclear war, the 1984 film explored the tensions the Cold War had in the East, Godzilla vs. Biollante was about one man’s struggle with grief and loss, and so forth. I think it’s fair to say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn’t have that same ambition. It places itself firmly in the silly camp, which is what attracted me to Godzilla in the first place.
I was introduced to Godzilla via the films from the 60s and 70s. For a long time, Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster was my favorite. That film has its share of silly moments, such as a man going into a volcano to retrieve a lost hat, or two fairies translating an argument between Godzilla and Rodan. Looking at it now, you can practically see the wires holding Ghidorah and Rodan aloft during the climactic clash. But for all its flaws, or perhaps even because of them, the film that introduced Ghidorah to the world remains as vibrant and enjoyable as ever. It’s not a somber or provocative film like the original 54 masterpiece, or an almost melancholic tale like Godzilla vs. Biollante. It’s just about monsters fighting. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that movie on steroids. Sitting in the theater, I still couldn’t help but smile at just how unbelievable this spectacle was. It actually managed to be more lovably ridiculous than the rubber suited action of the Showa movies.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters has so many things I hate seeing in movies. The script is an overloaded mess, the dialogue is bogged down with boring exposition, the plot is contrived and complicated, the characters don’t compliment the action. If you name a flaw, chances are this movie has an example of it. But still, watching this movie and knowing all that was wrong with it, I couldn’t hate it. It was never annoying, I knew what I was getting into, and through the entire experience, I saw a group of filmmakers having themselves a good time. If you’re in the right frame of mind, that mood is very contagious. That is perhaps the most important element of a good dumb movie. They’re never done with any greater goal than just having fun. If it at least manages to do that, it wins.
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