Article by Stephan PP

In this 2-part article I will explore how the Godzilla- and the Bond- movie series handled their long legacy and I will to prove my theory that the former did it better.

Why, you might ask, am I pitting such two wildly different movie “franchises” (awful word) against each other? Well, there are more similarities than you might discover at first glance. Let’s compare.
Both sagas started out around the middle of the last century, (Godzilla in 1955, Bond seven years later), they both started out as straightforward, comparatively serious entries into their respective genres, which are the giant monster flick (that had its roots in King Kong and 20,000 Fathoms) and the spy caper movie (co-founded by Alfred Hitchcock) respectively. They both gradually developed a winning formula that steered them into more escapist territory during the sixties, only to simultaneously go for complete campy silliness during the 70s. Latter development was owed to Godzilla director Jun Fukuda and Bond actor Roger Moore, equally misunderstood and underrated masters in the art of high camp.
Then, in an instance of almost shocking synchronicity, the Godzilla and the Bond series underwent a gritty overhaul in the year 1987 with the entries Godzilla 1987 and The Living Daylights (starring Timothy Dalton as 007) that were supposed to bring the titular characters back to their darker, rawer roots- and in both cases, it worked considerably well. But during the 90s, a hint of levity snuck back into both of the film series and in a case of history repeating itself, ended in excess that simply could not be topped and forced them into a hiatus.
Here is where the development –at least in my eyes- splits into two very different directions. On first glance it seems as if the parallels continue to exist: Godzilla as well as Bond were reinvented in a “hard reboot” (a complete new start, without any ties to former instalments) in the mid-noughties, around the same time the cinematic Batman received a similar treatment.
But while the approach was the same, the quality soon differed wildly. Here I might delve into what is widely considered as a “hot take” or “unpopular opinion”, but I think that the Nu-Godzilla saga is towering (no pun intended) over the Nu-007 entries, when it comes to consistency, the way it handles its legacy and most importantly, sheer entertainment value.
Which is odd, as the lizard from Nippon had to face far bigger hurdles than the agent from the UK. Outside Japan, Godzilla still might have a high name-recognition value, but the actual fandom in Western countries is rather a fringe phenomenon. Add a justly maligned first Americanization by Roland Emmerich from 1998 and the flop of the giant monster flick Pacific Rim just two years prior, and it becomes obvious that director Gareth Edwards had quite a few obstacles to overcome.
For reasons, Edwards’ Godzilla (2015) gets a bad a rap nowadays, but it’s actually a brilliant riff on the first batch of the original Godzilla- movies, anti-nuclear weapons message included. This new iteration makes use of the latest FX- technology to present new exciting visual possibilities the Kaiju- genre couldn’t explore in the past, without burying everything under gratuitous CGI. There are some flaws in the plotting and character motivations, but this is all forgiven once you see the impressive realization of the monster fights that never get dull. But most importantly, Godzilla has become a fully realized character again unlike his personality-free first US-incarnation.
Then, in 2017, Godzilla was followed up by not a direct sequel but an “origin movie” about his furry nemesis, the one and only King Kong. Unlike Peter Jackson’s bloated King Kong remake from 2005, Skull Island is not beholden to the plot of the 1933 original, but carves new and exciting ways by transferring the setting to the 1970s when the Vietnam War was still raging. Director Jordan Vogts-Roberts introduces a completely different style into the saga, using vibrant colors and quick-cutting techniques to create a very comic-booky energy that complements the tone that is slightly more “pop” than that of its predecessor, with great effect.
And I think that’s a sign how smartly the film makers make use of the saga’s legacy: If Godzilla 2004 was an homage to the very early entries from the late fifties, then Skull Island moved the focus to the instalments from the late 60s, when more adventure story tropes found their way into the movies.
Also, the titular monster is again presented as a fully developed personality we can identify with, and as touchingly corny as it might be, that quality is a rarity in times of Transformers and co. Another plus: Although Skull Island is a movie destined to set up a cinematic universe –which it does with panache- it never feels as if it was reduced solely to that function (unlike certain other movies), but is very much its own thing. Apocalypse Now meets Kaijus – Skull Island is fully dedicated to that concept and it ROCKS all the way through.
Sadly, the track record of the reboot is not a flawless one. When Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) was announced, my expectations were enormous, considering it would be the first time the new Godzilla was said to battle a whole array of his classic antagonists, from giant moth Mothra to the three headed dragon Gidorah.
Yet not only based on my expectations, but also seen from a critical distance, as a movie on its own, King of Monsters is simply not up to snuff.
Yet not only based on my expectations, but also seen from a critical distance, as a movie on its own, King of Monsters is simply not up to snuff.
Unlike in the first two instalments, the visuals director Michael Dougherty came up with are pedestrian and make the world seem unimaginative and oddly small-scale, no matter how many giant monsters are crammed into the frame (realized with far lower-standard CGI). What’s particularly painful is that the movie makes no effort to walk that tightrope between reverence to the canon and innovation as the first two did so masterfully. All of the monster designs are simply high-res recreations of the originals, an example of fan-service of the worst, laziest kind. Not to speak of the turgid plotting, the uninteresting human characters and the forgettable, often undecipherable action.
Following this misstep, my Godzilla-loving heart wasn’t too excited over the upcoming release of Kong vs Godzilla, scared that this would end up to be yet another attempt of a nostalgia-driven attempt at a cinematic universe that was bound to be torn apart between the forces of half-assed fan-bait and clunky re-interpretation (see Star Wars). It didn’t help that I could not stand a single movie director Adam Wingard had helmed before that.
Fortunately, I was proven wrong. After a somewhat heavy-handed prologue, the movie quickly develops an escapist pull that is hard to resist, initiated by a brilliant fight scene between the two lead monsters on top of an aircraft-carrier. While the poorly fleshed out characters from the last movie still exist, it doesn’t really matter: it’s the journey of Godzilla and Kong, especially the latter, that really counts.
Of course, the audience would criticize the haphazard plot with all its all-too convenient turns and tropes, while similarly weakly structured Marvel movies always get a pass for some reason. It’s a feeble and silly complaint, because actually the movie just follows the natural trajectory of the series, delving into the heritage of the sillier Godzilla- outputs from the seventies, when aliens, secret ancient societies and other outlandish nonsense were stirred into the monster mélange. It’s clearly reflected in the choice of the surprise second antagonist beside Kong (which I won’t spoil here) and the introduction of the “hollow earth”-realm that opens up a whole universe of story possibilities. This is yet another great example of how to handle a rich legacy, namely recognizing that each of the developmental stages of the saga has its own charm and more importantly, legitimacy. That attitude is diametrically opposite to that of the Bond producers who think that any trace of camp or humor have to be exorcised from the franchise, as if there was something to be ashamed of.
Most importantly though is that Kong vs Godzilla simply KICKS ASS. Forgotten are the weak action choreography, the perfunctory visuals and the ugly FX from King of Monsters, all of these aspects are now of top notch quality. Overwhelming the audience with an onslaught of action without boring them is a rare feat, but Kong… somehow pulls it off effortlessly. Many a movies claim to make you feel “like a kid again” but let’s be honest, that’s usually an empty, cynical promise. Kong vs. Godzilla, this infantile, unashamed celebration of our wildest Kaiju dreams, comes pretty close though.
Next time I will try to demonstrate how Bond did everything wrong what Godzilla did right.

About the Author: Stefan is an expat living in Xi’an since 2019. He wants to share his passion for movies in the “VivaXian Movie Events Group”, showing movies –for free- every Monday! Add his WeChat if you want to join the group.