Monsters are reflections of humanity. They are manifestations of our fears, but also personifications of the worst aspects of mankind. These monsters have been a staple of storytelling since the earliest myths and fairytales. Film has had plenty iconic monsters, too, but one particular genre has literally stood above the rest: the kaiju film.

Within the last 10 to 15 years, a steady resurgence of kaiju movies has been released in American theaters. While the term “kaiju” does often refer to Japanese films, American studios are embracing these movies for the first time since the sci-fi B-movies of the ’50s. The influence of Japanese kaiju movies cannot be denied. In fact, King Kong, the first true “American kaiju,” returned in KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the promise that he would again face Godzilla.

What has brought us to this renaissance of kaiju films? Is there something about our contemporary culture that cries out for stories about humanity’s futile struggle against inevitable destruction? Or maybe we just like to watch stuff get smashed real good. Regardless, the resurrection of kaiju in American studios is worth exploring because of how it reflects changes in modern blockbuster filmmaking.

The Edwards Effect

From Gareth Edwards’ MONSTERS

In GODZILLA (1954), Ishiro Honda created a monster with a distinct, thematic purpose. Critic Mark Anderson wrote:

Gojira implicitly raises questions about the ethics of the United States and U.S. scientists in pursuing the Manhattan Project and enabling the subsequent arms race that awakens Gojira.”

Honda wanted to confront the destruction that nuclear radiation had caused across Japan. Flashforward to 2010 and the release of Gareth Edwards’ MONSTERS. Here, Edwards created a kaiju film with a similar tone to the original GODZILLA. The film centers on journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who is asked by his employer to locate his daughter Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) in Mexico. In this film, the American-Mexican border is labeled an infected zone overrun by strange alien creatures. In his review, Roger Ebert cheekily commented on the film’s various allegories:

“A massive wall has been constructed to keep the creatures out of the United States, and Air Force planes fire missiles at them. Whoops. I just hopped over one allegory and tripped on another one. There’s an obvious parallel with our current border situation and the controversy over undocumented aliens. And another one with our recent wars, where expensive and advanced aircraft are used to fire missiles at enemies who are mostly invisible. A process of demonization is also going on: Are these beings actually a threat?”

Ebert’s reading of the film is still tragically relevant. The U.S. continues to fight futile wars against unseen enemies and obstinately believes that a big ol’ wall will protect us from…peaceful human beings seeking a better life.

Tragic Monsters: King Kong’s Influence on Godzilla

GODZILLA (2014): Return of a God

Edwards was the first American filmmaker to give kaiju the same thematic weight as Japanese filmmakers like Ishiro Honda. It’s unsurprising, then, that when it came time for Warner Brothers to make another attempt at an American Godzilla they turned to Gareth Edwards.

Here, Godzilla is presented as a force of nature. He is a natural phenomenon meant to bring balance to the world. Following Roland Emrich’s dismal 1998 GODZILLA, Toho — the Japanese film company that created the monster — famously renamed his version as “Zilla.” They claimed it took the “god” out of “Godzilla.” If that’s true, then Edwards returned the iconic creature to his divine status.

With the critical and financial success of GODZILLA, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were able to begin building a kaiju-focused cinematic universe with KONG: SKULL ISLAND. KONG leans more into schlocky monster madness than its more understated predecessor, but it still has interesting things to say lurking beneath the island of monsters in its title.

Kong: Return of the King

Director Jordan Voght-Roberts placed his version of Kong in the final days of the Vietnam War. As such, the conflict between the military and Kong becomes a metaphor for the foolhardy American confidence in militarism. When faced with something they don’t understand, the military machine’s first instinct is to destroy it.

When realizing their conventional weapons are ineffective, they adopt a scorched-earth policy. They want to kill Kong without any regard to the people living on the island. Ultimately, they charge ahead with this plan despite the warnings of the people Kong protects, unaware that their actions will allow even more fearsome monsters to fill the power vacuum (in this case, the skull crawlers).

The fact that Voght-Roberts’ film was both a monster romp and a staunch anti-war film proves the versatility of kaiju films. This renaissance has happened in part because the kaiju genre can create big budget thrills while allowing filmmakers to make artistically fulfilling works.

Money Makes the World Go Around

Dwayne Johnson and friends from RAMPAGE

Warner Brothers and Legendary seem to be willing to let their directors’ unique voices shine through. In fact, the next two installments of their kaiju universe (GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS and the untitled Godzilla vs. King Kong) will be helmed by two cult horror directors (Mike Dougherty and Adam Wingard, respectively). However, studios are, tragically, not built on the visions of auteurs. Let’s discuss the big factor in the success of these big movies: worldwide box office.

The trend of major American films courting worldwide box office became most evident with the Michael Bay TRANSFORMERS movies. The first two films had nearly equal domestic and foreign box office. With the release of TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, the foreign box office practically doubled the domestic grosses. The next film, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, would end up with a foreign box office gross that tripled the domestic. In Box Office Mojo’s stats, the one country accumulating the majority of this money across the films is China.

Pandering Paramount

So Paramount did what any studio would do: they found ways to pander to China in TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT. Abid Rahman gave a pretty concise breakdown of how these steps might have blown up in Paramount’s face. Rahman’s article gives a devastating account of Chinese moviegoers laughing at the absurd amount of Chinese product placement. My personal favorite moment from the article:

“With the audience quickly learning to play spot-the-brand, giggles start rising in the cinema as the Chinese dairy drink Mengniu makes an appearance at Mark Wahlberg’s very-much-in-America scrap yard.”  

Yup, Paramount’s idea to appeal to Chinese markets was to make Wahlberg drink a Chinese brand of milk. The audience of Rahman’s piece was not an outlier. While THE LAST KNIGHT certainly made a lot of money, it ended up being the lowest grossing of the TRANSFORMERS movies. The foreign box office of THE LAST KNIGHT barely made half the amount its predecessor made.

However, this decrease in box office has not stopped other contemporary kaiju films from becoming worldwide successes. From both PACIFIC RIM films to GODZILLA (2014) to KONG: SKULL ISLAND to most recently RAMPAGE, contemporary kaiju movies gross more worldwide than domestically. Truly, big monsters smashing cities and punching other monsters is a universal language.

Revisiting THE IRON GIANT Nearly 20 Years Later

RAMPAGE and the Kaiju Renaissance

With the release and, so far, success of RAMPAGE, it’s worth looking at how it succeeds as a kaiju film. First, the film has a deeper message. Its protagonist, Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), is a bleeding heart animal lover. The film’s villain is a faceless corporation that abuses animals for its bizarre and seemingly pointless experiments. The company is run by Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman, basically playing Ivanka Trump if she didn’t care about PR) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy, basically playing a hybrid of Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, making him the ultimate rich doofus).

Taking the allegory a step further, film critic Walter Chaw tweeted:

“RAMPAGE is about monsters that we have created, that are immune to airstrikes and conventional weaponry, destroying our cities. Luckily, movies aren’t political.”

He also added that the growing interest in kaiju films could become a replacement for the superhero movie. I don’t think the end of superhero films is anywhere in sight. However, the kaiju renaissance does offer an appealing alternative to superheroes. Kaiju films allow for the same level spectacle, as well as creative freedoms for filmmakers.

Whatever the future of the kaiju film brings, I hope the filmmakers remember the history of the genre and, above all else, use their monsters to remind people the importance of humanity.

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