THE HUMAN SUBPLOT IS THE PLOT
“Monsters are tragic beings,” Godzilla co-creator Ishiro Honda was onto something when he observed, “They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy.” Humanity is at the heart of the best monster stories. It’s not by accident that we identify with the giants; they’re 300-foot mirrors casting a jackal’s reflection back at us with mighty claws and menacing teeth. The death of Kong is formative in the minds of most horror heads. As damp-eyed children, this is the turning point where we realize humanity will only hurt us, and we find a lifelong escape into the world of giant monsters. Plenty of us have caught the bug. Every decade brings a new slate of teeth, claws, fangs, and snarls to the silver screen. America has rekindled their love affair with the city levelers, though this time with their Japanese cousins’ undeniable influence. Grab the highlights from any of the reviews of one of these billion-dollar box-office busters, and you’ll see a lot of ink spilled over “boring human subplots” or “stupid human stories.” In every corner of the internet, this sentiment is parroted so often that you can’t help but wonder if the perfect monster movie might just be documentary-style footage of Godzilla thrashing Gigan in the middle of Tokyo without any of the talky drama to get in the way. This film doesn’t exist. The average amount of Godzilla screen time per movie is only around 14 minutes. If critics and the fandom are correct and the remaining 76-136 minutes of every film are populated by “boring human story,” are all Godzilla and most giant monster movies by extension bad? I don’t think so. What I’m about to say may shock some readers. The human subplot is the plot.
It all starts with beauty and the beast. It’s 1933; Fay Wray is about to lay eyes on the first giant monster in film history. The jungle rustles, the Earth shakes, we see it approaching, a silhouette in the trees. The camera lingers over Wray’s manic contortions. She writhes in terror as her screams crescendo, then, as Mr. Denham foreshadowed on the deck of the Venture, we see it. The world finally gets its first look at the mighty Kong. Willis O’Brien’s dazzling special effects and meticulously planned dinosaur battles are timeless and captivating. Still, as I watched this recently with a few friends, we were all in agreement that the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Wray in the lead. This fact becomes abundantly clear when viewing the sequel Son of Kong when the entire cast sans Wray returns. The result feels dead on arrival. There’s nothing to stir the audience’s emotions until the inevitable downer ending. Part of what makes Fay Wray’s character so compelling is her raw talent. King Kong is a spectacle without the people, that is certain, but it’s the story of an innocent girl swept into a hostile and uncaring world by forces beyond control that hooks the audience, and Wray pulls it off with aplomb.
The horrified screams of the Venture’s crew as the primordial landscape kills them one at a time is chilling. I suggest it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the simple and likely unintended love story driving it towards the inevitable tragic conclusion. Many see Kong as a tragic hero, and various retellings cast him as one, but creators Cooper and O’Brien only intended him to be a monstrous villain. The insidious racial overtones in the original King Kong shouldn’t be overlooked. Kong is a powerful “primitive” forcibly removed from his home where he had freedom and power and taken to America where he is shackled, displayed, and exploited. Anne is the embodiment of the pure American woman, the “perfect victim.” Modern audiences may overlook these themes by ignorance or for comfort, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who actually view Kong as the villain his creators intended. The beast’s connection to the girl gives him a human relatability that audiences can’t help but sympathize with. The Tyrannosaurus scene forces the audience to care about Kong. As he races to Anne’s rescue, her life hangs in the balance. This moment shows Kong is compassionate instead of a vicious brute. The film’s most tragic moment comes at the climax when the ape is gunned down atop the Empire State Building. He touches his wound, looking at the blood in bewilderment, too innocent to comprehend his mortality as he meets his end. It’s the human story that carries the film, and the humanity in Kong makes us love him.
There is no trip to Skull Island without Denham’s picture; there is no quest through the jungle without Anne’s rescue. Conversely, there’s nothing for Kong to fight for without Anne. The girl gives the primordial violence relatable stakes for the audience and makes for an enduring thrill. Kong’s enduring humanity is no doubt part of what makes this story so irresistible to revisit. He’s mighty, but he’s also vulnerable, innocent, and caring. He’s both beast and hero; as such, he’s easy to forgive when he’s throwing people out of skyscrapers because he’s still an animal.
Kong’s humanity isn’t something that carries a through-line for the entire genre. 1954’s Godzilla gives no middle ground between man and monster. He is a walking metaphor for nuclear destruction. The only genuine sympathy the creators afford the creature is through Dr. Yamane’s regret that humanity won’t study the dinosaur and learn his secrets. Godzilla doesn’t have a relatable motivation like love or shared stakes in the human drama; he is disaster-incarnate, the herald of our nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps, if we look to Dr. Serizawa as a metaphorical kaiju, we see the pattern emerge. Dr. Serizawa, consumed with guilt and motivated by unrequited love, agrees to use his “Oxygen Destroyer” one time, then sacrifices himself for the greater good. He represents the dangers of scientific progress as our tragic monster hero with none of the claws or teeth.
In 1964, reaching into their third decade, giant monster films were no longer a nascent genre. Godzilla was hopping into the ring for his third tango with another daikaju in only the second film to bear the now platitudinous preposition versus, in Mothra vs. Godzilla. “Give us back the egg,” Mothra’s six-inch tall Shobijin beseech Sakai and Junko after a colossal egg washes ashore, but the reporter/photographer duo are no match for the commercial forces that have seized Mothra’s progeny for exploitation. Rising from the Earth after being washed in by the same typhoon that brought Mothra’s egg, Godzilla appears as again as death incarnate. The beast seems to be returning from the grave as it shakes the soil from its spine and leers with deadened eyes, laying siege to an unprepared Japan. The behemoth is a ghost, a specter of the past, more on par with his 1954 counterpart than the Godzilla in King Kong vs. Godzilla or Godzilla Raids Again, he serves as a reminder of the destructive potential of humankind and the dark shadow of death that loomed over Japan’s postwar prosperity. Mothra is Godzilla’s diametric equal, the perfect counterbalance. If Godzilla is the past, Mothra stands in as hope for tomorrow. As this surreal spectacle unfolds around our protagonists, they never question the possibilities of what surrounds them; they take everything on faith. Sakai and Junko first must convince Happy Enterprises to return Mothra’s egg; it is noteworthy that Godzilla only rises from the Earth after this request is denied. We see Godzilla assume the mantle of moral scale in this film. Japan must pay the price for the greed of the corrupt businessmen, who inevitably perish in the path of the beast. After failing to return Mothra’s egg, Sakai and Junko must head to Infant Island where they witness the aftermath of nuclear power first hand. As emissaries, the irony is clear as they beg for Mothra’s help appealing to what they call a universal human spirit; the terror they’re asking Mothra to save them from is the same terror that destroyed Infant Island, unleashed by the same forces responsible for Japan’s commercialization. Mothra agrees, but Sakai and Junko are warned the monster is dying, which ultimately happens after failing to defeat the avatar of Japan’s wartime past, Godzilla. But hope is always reborn, two new Mothra larvae hatch, and they send Godzilla plummeting back into the deep. Happy Enterprises serves as a convenient metaphor for the post-war commercialization of Japan as they shun scientific knowledge to capitalize on Mothra’s egg, a symbol of hope and rebirth. Many in Japan feared that the old ways were being lost, and life was being distorted, so in truth, the battle is between three daikaiju, Mothra is hope and potential, Happy Enterprises are the commercial forces seizing Japan, and Godzilla is the haunting reminder of the past. The Mothra larvae fight Godzilla while the symbolic future of Japan hangs in the balance in the form of school children trapped on Iwa island. Godzilla is defeated and our heroes bid farewell to the larvae, remarking that the only way to thank Mothra would be to create a better world built on mutual trust. In Mothra, we see a creature that has more in common with Kong than other massive silver screen insects. Mothra has a connection to humanity as a protector and has messengers to relay its thoughts, and it is not unstoppable as it dies in its battle with Godzilla. As a protector, its motivations are clear, and there’s a middle-ground between what Mothra needs and what Sakai and Junko need in the story.
In 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the world’s most famous radioactive dinosaur was already well-established as a hero. While this is the film that got director Yoshimitsu Banno banned from making another Godzilla film, it’s spiritually more in line with the original than many of its predecessors in the way it borrows from real-world imagery to craft its monster and uses allegory to explore a nonfictional existential threat to humanity. It’s also one of the few Godzilla sequels to show the human toll of daikaiju devastation. When a new pollution-based “smog monster” arrives in japan, multiple plot threads within one family highlight various responses to crises across age groups. First, there’s the child, Ken. As the film opens, we learn his favorite superhero isn’t Superman, but Godzilla. He believes he has a psychic connection to Godzilla and is imbued with a hopeful sense of optimism because he knows Godzilla will come to the rescue. His father, Dr. Yano, is a scientist and is shown struggling to understand this foreign threat. After being horribly scarred by the creature, he continues working until he finds a way to defeat the beast, building the device that ultimately kills Hedorah. Then we have Ken’s older brother, a reckless rock’n’roll fan who spends his nights drunk and likely on drugs at psychedelic nightclubs. His only contribution to the crisis is to plan a party in rebellion against Hedorah to celebrate life which can be read as a clear indictment of the youth counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s. The ineffectual and absurd “celebration of life” ultimately ends when all its attendants die. Each of the multigenerational subplots highlights actual human responses to crises. Children retreat into fantasy with magical thinking and optimism. Adults try to categorize, understand, and predict much like the scientist. Youth are often careless during crises; they haven’t the scars nor the time to be cautious. Yoshimitsu Bano wasn’t illustrating his metaphors with subtlety; he was throwing it at the celluloid canvas in ugly smog-drenched fistfuls with the industrial beast taking the lives of generations. Godzilla takes the worst beating of his nearly 70-year career throughout this movie. For all the monster action this film delivers, Godzilla feels much more dependent on the human heroes, as he defeats Hedorah by powering the failed device crafted by humans, and the living goop is finally desiccated and destroyed. The psychic link to a giant monster is a trope we see repeated occasionally; memorably, all of the Heisei era Godzilla films borrow this element. It works because, once again, it’s easy shorthand to establish a human connection and relate to the monster. Godzilla has become the Earth’s protector, should he fail in the final battle, we’d be forced to watch poor Ken, and his father melted into a skeleton by Hedorah. Godzilla is unable to succeed on his own. Both he and humankind fail to defeat Hedorah on their own, and it’s only through cooperation with Earth’s protector that they finally succeed.
While Godzilla has drifted far from the nuclear themes in the 1954 original film long before he came to Hollywood, the formula started by Kong and perfected by Japan is still with him in the recent American reboots. When the human story of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters starts feeling flat, it’s not because the human characters are boring, it’s that the cast is bloated and the film gives all these people so little to do. They feel more like an audience watching the destruction than actual participants with any stakes in the story. Dr. Serizawa’s sacrifice is one of the standout moments from the film and if anything, serves as a reminder that the human plots are essential to making these things work. 2014’s Godzilla, builds to its cinematic monster clash in a way that frustrated many fans, but ultimately delivered one of the most exciting third acts in a recent Godzilla film where Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Ford fights in parallel with Godzilla, each on their interlinked crusade; Lieutenant Ford against the nuclear bomb, and Godzilla against the MUTOs.
2017’s Kong: Skull Island is the strongest of this new crop, revisiting the classic Kong story with the roles of Kong and the invading Americans reversed. Our human cast and Kong must defeat both vicious subterranean snake lizards and a Vietnam-era military escort gone rogue who has decided Kong is another foreign enemy to be defeated. The film decolonializes Kong, casting him instead as the protector of the people of Skull Island, he’s no longer something to be feared, and his charge of a seemingly egalitarian island people being invaded by Vietnam-era US platoon is blatantly anti-colonial. The film ends with our human heroes vowing to protect Kong by keeping the location of his island secret. The human’s goal isn’t to save the girl but Kong. It isn’t indigenous people who’ve taken him, but the US military. This film is a complete reversal of the original Kong but works for many of the same reasons. Kong has humanity, and our human cast’s fate is tied to his.
There’s an undeniable thrill to watching these titanic terrors turn major metropolitan areas into a wrestling ring. Often metaphors for real-world disasters and cultural anxieties, Hollywood only seems to be accelerating its exploration of the monstrous fables. It’s reasonable to believe there are many classics in the genre yet to be made as daikaiju cinema is poised to continue well into the next century. Fiction has always served as a way for us to process and understand ourselves and the world around us; giant monster movies are no exception. There’s nothing wrong with a story that lets you root for the claws and teeth, but I say why not both? People are the emotional anchors of almost every movie, even if they’re running beneath size 300 feet. Future monster Hollywood monster outings would be wise to imbue their gigantic hero with a sense of human vulnerability and personal connection to the human protagonists. Look, this isn’t Shakespeare; I’m not suggesting great human drama is the draw or even the starting place with these things, but history shows giant monsters work best when humanity is at the heart of the story.