Don’t sleep on monster movies in 2017. After Godzilla kicked us off a few years ago, with a gentle push from Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Gareth Edwards (Star Wars: Rogue One), a number of new kaiju flicks have begun to rise from the ashes of former obscurity, breathing new life (and atomic breath) into the genre that Hollywood forgot.
It may not have seemed like it some short years back, but American cinema was once teeming with giant monster pictures, having contributed to the boom in business early filmmaking in the US once enjoyed. From classics like the original King Kong in 1933 to Godzilla in 1955, and between those two eras a plethora of titanic imitators were born, all trying to recapture the magic of those cinematic beasts. But, while theatrical exploits of these fantastical creatures grew fewer and farther between in the western world, Godzilla and his friends continued to flourish in his homeland of Japan, producing one hit after another, until finally retiring (and returning and retiring again, and once or twice more, for good luck) to hibernate until the next monster boom.
After a few failed attempts, most notably in the Roland Emmerich Godzilla, in which the disaster movie maestro sent Ferris Bueller stumbling through an off-balance romantic comedy guest-starring an iguana with PMS, it seemed kaiju fans would never see a worthy revival of the once-beloved film niche. Then along came a spider… Well, technically, the spider came after the revival, but sue me, I like the reference and I’m keeping it.
While the story may have had some misfires, there’s no doubting that 2014’s Godzilla had style and attitude for days. A tense, visually striking tale that created just the atmosphere from which a new franchise could rise. Which brings us to this year, with the even more stunning Kong: Skull Island, shattering expectations to become one of the first surprise hits of 2017. With some of the best cinematography in modern genre filmmaking, audiences were introduced to a lush world of ancient culture and deadly beasts, including but not limited to that spider we just mentioned. Thrilling, imaginative, and unexpectedly touching, it smoothed the rough edges of its immediate predecessor and delivered the requisite spectacle with just enough heart to hold it all together.
Also, how do you not love the completely absurd image of Tom Hiddleston (Loki, Thor: Ragnarok) running through a jungle kaiju graveyard to save his team, chopping up flying death-birds with a Japanese katana as they politely dive right into its path? Your move, DiCaprio!
A few months later, a little diddy came through that we’re certain many fans skipped out on. In part because they simply didn’t know it existed, but also because it starred Anne Hathaway in a role that seemed to lean a helluva lot more toward Mia in The Princess Diaries than to Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and, depending on who you are, you might not be terribly excited about the prospect of either. The good news is that this film is actually amazing, but it’s not what it may seem like from the outside. And we mean that in more ways than one.
When I first saw press for Colossal, I dismissed it as a bad comedy with a weird kaiju element, but I’m pleased to have heard enough strong recommendations to finally give it a shot. Upon which I came to realize that it’s actually a very thoughtful, relevant fantasy drama with a lot to say, and some creative use of giant monsters. It’s definitely not a traditional kaiju flick, but a satisfying story that enjoys dipping its toe into the giant squid-infested waters. A must-watch for the open-minded who value new ideas and delight in unusual surprises.
Meanwhile, a monster film of a different breed hit theaters in the form of Power Rangers. While we can quibble over whether or not this title belongs in the same category as Kong or Godzilla, there’s no doubting the crossover appeal, and the like-minded origins of some of these titles. It’s no coincidence that Super Sentai, the series upon which the exploits of the Rangers are based, chose to give their color-coded heroes enormous super robots to battle size-changing adversaries. It was a direct play on Japan’s ever-growing love affair with the kaiju and special effects genre that kickstarted Godzilla, Ultraman, and a host of others. Regardless, it’s a movie with a giant mound of liquid gold coming to life, stomping through a town, and wreaking havoc until challenged by a bigass robot. For our purposes, it’ll do.
This cinematic entry into the long-running Power Rangers canon is a surprisingly character-focused tale that, for my money, did not get its fair due at the box office. A charming cast of characters (Godzilla’s Cranston among them) with great chemistry coming together toward common purposes, facing off against… Well, admittedly, the monster part is fun but possibly among the least interesting aspects of the film. The upshot for some of us is that the rest of the picture spun its magic so well that it barely mattered in the end. A footnote to remember for next time. If there is a next time. Come on, there has to be. Won’t someone think of the (man)children?
One universe guaranteed to have a next time, though it was touch-and-go there for a while, is the Pacific Rim franchise. Pacific Rim: Uprising is the sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s love letter to the kaiju and super robot genres, ripped from the brink of production doom by international demand after the room-temperature reception of his 2014 original. Directed by Steven S. DeKnight (Netflix’s Daredevil, Spartacus) and starring John Boyega (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the underrated low-budget stunner Attack the Block), we’re back with more Jaeger bots tangling with deadly, post-apocalyptic kaiju known as… Kaiju. Well, at least the term is directly used somewhere in western film dialogue.
We can doubt whether it’ll make as much dough as that other robot franchise, with its increasing pop cultural awareness and decreasing creative value, but I’m expecting to like it a bit more. If nothing else, it has Charlie Day and Burn Gorman’s mad science duo being their impossibly weird selves. Their nonsense beats the other nonsense every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Beyond that, Godzilla’s roar continues to echo through the halls of Hollywood with at least two more notches to add to his considerable waistline. The first being Godzilla: King of Monsters from Michael Dougherty, who masterminded the cult Halloween anthology Trick r Treat and the Christmas creature-feature Krampus. All he needs is to set his Godzilla sequel at Easter and the holiday trifecta will be complete. “This year, the eggs find you!”
With his canny use of practical effects and clever, old school photography methods, Dougherty’s film is possibly the most interesting of these upcoming projects from a pure filmmaking perspective. It doesn’t hurt that you’ve got Eleven from Stranger Things and the creepy mom from Bates Motel to bolster that cast along with returning star Ken Watanabe.
Despite the fact that it’s been Godzilla’s trademark for years, I still say this next film should have been called “King of Monsters” instead of the G-man’s solo outing. What else do you call a royal rumble between Kong (formerly a King himself) and fire-breathing champ Godzilla, going at it in a showdown several decades in the making? I suppose the simple, to-the-point title Godzilla vs Kong will have to do. Directed by horror aficionado Adam Wingard who, before he was lambasted for the recent Netflix experiment that was Death Note, presided over the marvelous little action-thriller The Guest with Dan Stevens (Legion, Colossal).
At this point, I don’t know which direction to look on this one. As both a fan and a critic of various titles in this dude’s filmography, I’m like a child caught in a grisly custody battle between warring parents. Will I get the loving mommy who spoils me with presents but maybe drinks more than I’d like, or do I get the judgmental daddy who can’t stand any of my interests but has a really big house and lets my friends practically live in his bonus room? This game is too tough to call, folks.
But if that wasn’t enough to sate our appetites in the coming years, there’s also the ridiculous-sounding Rampage, starring none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a primatologist whose gorilla friend goes ballistic and fights monsters, for some reason. Or the ridiculouser-sounding Monsterpocalypse, a board game adaptation from director Fede Alvarez of the wonderful Don’t Breathe. That’s also happening.
Whether it’s an off-kilter contemplation on life or a straight-up, city-stomping monster brawl, from the harrowing to the hilarious, it looks like the kaiju genre, at long last, has a place to flourish again. For how long remains to be seen, but we’ll enjoy it while it lasts.