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Contrary to Popular Belief, There Is Human Character Drama in Godzilla

It’s tempting to write off the franchise as nothing more than a collection of big, dumb action blockbusters. But that hasn’t always been the case.

Getty Images/Toho Company/Ringer illustration

This past weekend, I toggled between two movies: Shin Godzilla, the most recent Japanese installment of the monster franchise, released five years ago by director Hideaki Anno, and Godzilla vs. Kong, the new Hollywood blockbuster directed by Adam Wingard. Shin Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Kong are two very different movies, both thrilling on their own terms, and with varying regard for the humans scurrying beneath these giant, silly monsters. It turns out there’s more than one way to do human character drama in these films.

True to its title, Godzilla vs. Kong prioritizes the kaiju-on-kaiju carnage. Full disclosure: I was rooting for Godzilla; I’m always rooting for Godzilla. He reemerges in the Florida Panhandle, having been in hibernation for several years; Kong is summoned from his observational captivity on Skull Island.The two titans converge on Hong Kong and confront each other in addition to a third menace, Mechagodzilla. The title fight is engineered by the humans: Research organization Monarch rallies Kong, and tech company Apex Cybernetics rallies Mechagodzilla. But otherwise, the humans play slight, ridiculous roles in the story. The disgruntled technician Bernie Hayes, played by Brian Tyree Henry, spouts conspiracy theories on his podcast and investigates a secret underground facility with his teen sidekicks, Madison and Josh, à la Mystery Incorporated. It’s that kind of movie.

My colleague Miles Surrey recently noted that “human characters will never be mistaken for the reason anyone bothers to watch the MonsterVerse”—referring to the Hollywood reboot that Gareth Edwards launched with Godzilla in 2014. Writing for Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz described the humans in the larger cinematic lineage—not just the MonsterVerse, but also the longer run of kaiju titles from Toho Pictures—as “mere supporting players perched ringside, watching titans fight.” I think we’re getting a little carried away here. The humans in Godzilla movies aren’t Dickensian, but they’re not immaterial either. Even the original King Kong vs. Godzilla, released in 1962, is more attentive to its humans than the criticism might suggest. The MonsterVerse may have little to no use for its humans, and that’s one way to make a kaiju movie (or at least one way to watch them). But Shin Godzilla owes no continuity to Edward’s MonsterVerse, and the humans in Shin Godzilla are far more than supportive.

Anno reimagined Godzilla as a contemporary menace; he made the movie in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear power disaster at Fukushima, recontextualizing a monster who otherwise represents the anxieties born from the atomic assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. So Shin Godzilla is an odd political thriller, pitting Godzilla against the bureaucracy of a country with a constitutionally limited military and a perilous dependency on the U.S. It’s not a full-fledged character drama; the bureaucrats, diplomats, and scientists aren’t stars. But there’s a far more palpable sense of human ingenuity and civic spirit in the assault on Godzilla. If anything, Shin Godzilla bears a closer resemblance to the original King Kong vs. Godzilla in its attentiveness to human affairs than the new Godzilla vs. Kong does.

In Anno’s movie, the newborn Godzilla emerges from the sea and rampages across Tokyo. He slithers before he can stomp. He thrashes before he can move or attack with any precision. From his ugly duckling phase, Godzilla matures into his familiar, mature, and terrifying stature in the span of several days. At the height of his powers, Godzilla breathes fire on the streets and unleashes a miles-long laser beam—his signature atomic breath—from his mouth. He fires several more from his dorsal plates; here he’s unrivaled. The Japan Self-Defense Forces can’t harm Godzilla with conventional weapons, and they can’t escalate the assault on him without permission from the U.S. While the government seeks the relevant authorizations, Godzilla flattens the capital and slaughters the cabinet. The remaining bureaucracy has no choice but to thwart Godzilla through human ingenuity.

Shin Godzilla is no less a big, stupid monster movie than Godzilla vs. Kong, but it’s determined to illustrate the social and political disruption in Godzilla’s wake. It’s a situation-room drama lacking big-budget, high-tech command center atmospherics. We’re talking bright lights, water coolers, sad desk salads, and refurbished Lenovos. These characters can’t power-walk 10 feet without passing a Xerox machine. I’ve never been more impressed by a movie’s ability to make me feel like I was back at the office. In Shin Godzilla, Japan lives or dies by the workplace politics and multilateral diplomacy that complicate its military response. The cocky U.S. liaison, Kayoko Ann Patterson, struggles to broker an agreement to help Japan defeat Godzilla. In fact, Godzilla isn’t the problem per se. The U.S. government plans to nuke Tokyo in a preemptive strike in order to neutralize Godzilla because they believe he’ll soon sprout wings and terrorize the West Coast. So the bureaucrats race against the clock to understand the monster’s biology, identify his vulnerabilities, and exploit them with the few tools at their disposal. Godzilla vs. Kong turns to Kong; Shin Godzilla turns to a construction crew.

It’s a matter of taste, I suppose. Godzilla vs. Kong is senseless, but the fights are fun, and the nighttime battle in Hong Kong more or less justifies the entire movie in its neon splendor. Also, Bernie and Madison bonding over a deranged podcast series is a story line after my own heart. Shin Godzilla looks a lot less polished and feels a lot less combative, though Godzilla unleashing his atomic breath on Tokyo for the first time plays as gorgeously as anything in Godzilla vs. Kong. Despite their massive disadvantage, the humans in Shin Godzilla steal the show from the big, dumb monster. No small feat.