WARNING: Spoilers for Godzilla: King of the Monsters ahead.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters changes of the meaning behind the character from 1954's Gojira, reversing its nuclear allegory to present something more ecological. But this doesn't hurt the movie. In fact it instead allows a Western adaptation to finally embrace the true Godzilla.
One of the weird quirks of Godzilla is that, for all his cultural pervasion, knowledge in the West is limited to a few examples, usually those with an English-language release. In terms of the Toho movies, there's really only the 1954 original and 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla (immortalized by its urban myth multiple endings) that enter the discussion, with the nearest reference points being Roland Emmerich's Godzilla 1998 (which is so far from Godzilla that Toho retconned the monster to be a different creature) and Gareth Edwards' Godzilla 2014. That leaves two dozen movies that Western audiences aren't familiar with, ones that most directly define Godzilla far beyond his origins.
Not only are the Toho movies charmingly goofy, they made Godzilla a force for good - or at the least, a neutral danger to be cheered on - incredibly quickly. So while many may look to Gojira for reference, the MonsterVerse Godzilla as a balancing element who can restore the natural order is very much in keeping with his decades of evolution. To do this, the movie presents a key subversion of the known idea. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is most certainly a movie lacking in certain areas - its human cast are mostly underserved - but that's all a result of clear goals.
Godzilla 1954 Is More Than Just An H-Bomb Allegory
Everybody knows that Godzilla is a representation of the H-bomb. He's awoken by nuclear tests and the devastation of Tokyo in the 1954 movie caused by his atomic breath intentionally evokes images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which are named-dropped twice). However, what's perhaps lost on the popular consciousness is that Godzilla is more than just a metaphor.
That iconic Tokyo sequence comes in the second act of Godzilla 1954, with the rest of the movie dealing with the aftermath and a hopelessness in defeating the monster. The solution is another weapon: Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) has discovered a method to break down oxygen molecules in water, which is weaponized as a bomb called the Oxygen Destroyer. Like Oppenheimer before him, the research is in the name of science, but the violent endpoint is all too obvious. Serizawa attempts to hide his discovery from the outside world and, when finally convinced to use the weapon to bring down Godzilla, kills himself in the process to ensure its power is never abused by governments home or away.
The ending of Godzilla 1954 is a somber one. Godzilla, the ancient, uncontrollable force awakened by humanity playing god, is defeated, but it happens by yet another grotesque perversion of science. We're only protected from further evil by the morals - and ultimate sacrifice - of a good man (and, in future Godzilla continuities, the Oxygen Destroyer would create its own Godzilla-rivalling monster, Destoroyah). The message of Godzilla isn't that nuclear war is devastating power outside of man's control; it's that the already-begun destructiveness will escalate, that loss of life is an inevitability, and it's down to those in power to stop it. It was striking in a still-recovering Japan, and remains poignant to this day.
Godzilla: King Of The Monsters Reverses The 1954 Message
Godzilla has changed a lot since that debut, most strikingly in how he became a hero - first when taking down the titular alien-dragon with the help of Mothra and Rodan in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (a parallel that's important to note) - and how the movies shifted tone. The nuclear message and battle between man and nature has remained at the forefront - what is Mechagodzilla but humanity using technology to control the uncontrollable? - but with twists to reflect a changing world where mutually assured destruction is less prevalent; most recently, 2014's Godzilla and 2016's Shin Godzilla used the monster to reflect the dangers of nuclear power and the illusion of assumed global safety.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters takes that and extends. The Cold War may be over, but humanity is no less threatened by our own actions: overpopulation, species extinction, climate change. However, rather than having the kaiju a result of these changes, the film takes the baseline of ecological crisis and presents the Titans, ancient beings once worshipped as Gods, as a hope of salvation; King of the Monsters posits that humans are the problem (it's stated we're collectively an alpha predator) and that releasing the monsters can bring balance back to the Earth. It's a debate of collateral damage and the greater good, and while somewhat over-the-top, is rooted in the transformation of an atomic lizard as a protector.
But what's so important is how Godzilla: King of the Monsters repurposes the scientist dilemma. The Oxygen Destroyer is deployed midway through the film to take down Godzilla and Ghidorah, but it's fired by the US military as simply another weapon of mass destruction, all emotionally devastating subtext lost. Instead, the moment of self-sacrifice comes to save Godzilla: the bomb almost kills Gojira, so Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) goes on a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear warhead and restore the creature. With a Serizawa embarking on a dangerous mission knowing full-well he won't return, and coming face to face with the behemoth as he detonates his weapon sequence, this is an unavoidable mirror of Godzilla 1954. However, the implications are flipped; this is a move to save Godzilla, Serizawa is in awe of a life-giving Titan and the nuclear weapon is a force for good.
The Oxygen Destroyer is a fan-service inclusion, but having it so bluntly deployed by a military that 1954's Serizawa wanted to hide it from highlights how the biggest fear 65 years ago is now a pure fact; we didn't avert nuclear weapons, we simply assimilated their specter into modern life to the point they're the norm. The threat of war is so docile (even under the current political climate), that the weapons can be used as a positive plot device. This is more overtly stated with the death of 2014's Serizawa; Godzilla a far-more-literal God on an ancient plinth ready to be reborn in the nuclear fire.
Again, the idea is evolutionary. Godzilla: King of the Monsters' closing credits suggest that Emma Russell was right and that the return of Godzilla and the Titans has given the Earth a new lease of life, with rainforests restored and life rebalancing. The movie's nuclear bomb is thus a case of us using our technology, once so destructive, to improve the world. Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn't so much rejecting the original idea as much as it is applying the message to the modern world in a franchise with 30 more movies under its belt. We live in a tech-forward society and it strives to show the positives and negatives with an angle towards enabling Earth to develop naturally.
King Of The Monsters Is Updating Godzilla's Legacy
What this discussion so far mainly does is connect the dots from Godzilla 1954 to Godzilla: King of the Monsters. What it doesn't do is take into account what the franchise more tangibly transformed into.
Outside of the ideas raised, on a tonal, visual and story level, King of the Monsters isn't the modern parallel to Godzilla 1954 (that's what Edwards' 2014 movie was). Michael Dougherty's film is the 2010s take on Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. And that movie is nothing like the grim, grounded original. As already teased, this saw the rise of the alien King Ghidorah, with Mothra convincing Godzilla and Rodan (these three had all starred in their own movies previously, including Gojira and the giant bug fighting a few months earlier) to join forces. The plot details are different, but the basic premise and drive - and, per Doughtery, direction - is the same in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
This was the movie where Godzilla flipped from attacker to defender, the one where the core idea of monster as metaphor truly made way for something more visceral. Understanding that the costumes are the draw, there's plenty of fighting and, while Ghidorah's story does provide questions about humanity's place in the world, the themes take a backseat. Godzilla: King of the Monsters follows the same logic, stepping out of Godzilla 2014's hide-the-monster tactic to give big battles and tease a Marvel-like future, but by tying itself back to the original movie manages to have the transition mean more.
The Godzilla: King of the Monsters reviews have found fault in the movie's discarding of accepted ideals, which is a fair complaint only if taking the series as having releases in '54, '98 and '14. From a more complete standpoint, it takes into account how the franchise has evolved and connects it all up, questioning Godzilla's relevancy while ultimately basking in the mayhem.
- Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) release date: Mar 13, 2020