I love Godzilla. I love kaiju in general. Yes, I am That Guy, the one who will stop you when you say Godzilla breathes fire and say “Well ACTUALLY, it’s radiation. You see, Godzilla is a creature of the atom, born out of Japan’s post war anxieties about…” (I’d probably shout the rest at you as you backed away from me.)
I’ve always been a fan of the big monsters stomping though cities and whaling on each other. I watched Godzilla vs. Kong about six times when it debuted on HBO during the pandemic.
Well, I watched about half of it six times. The parts where Kong is trying to chop Godzilla in half with an axe and then throwing a revolving restaurant at him like a frisbee, or where the two alpha monsters team up to destroy Mecha-Godzilla. Those are awesome! I mostly zip through the parts where the human characters talk about things like “hollow earth” or a mute girl teaches Kong sign language, or where a corporation secretly builds a tunnel from Pensacola, FL to Hong Kong. (We can’t get three miles of subway track built in NYC without a decade of environmental impact studies, but you built a 5000 mile undersea tunnel without anyone noticing? Cool cool cool.)
Which is to say, the human characters in these movies are largely afterthoughts. They are sometimes there to help the plot along, but otherwise the main job of a human in a kaiju film is to run away screaming while Godzilla tramples everything in his path.
So, when Apple announced they were creating a spin-off series based on the recent Godzilla movies of the past decade called Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, I was expecting some nifty monster scenes but not a lot else. So it is with no little surprise that I report that the humans characters are pretty compelling, and the show is worth watching just for them.
The show follows Cate (Anna Sawai), who is traveling to Japan to settle the affairs of her late father, Hiroshi. Cate is a survivor of the Godzilla attack in San Francisco (as seen in 2014’s Godzilla), and she is suffering from severe PTSD. She was on a school bus that was teetering on the Golden Gate Bridge as Godzilla crashed through. She escaped and tried to get the kids off the bus, but a lot didn’t make it. Her dreams are haunted by the screams of children and giant lizards. The last time she saw her largely absent father was at a refugee camp after the attack. Once he saw she was safe, he told her he had to go do something and left. His plane crashed somewhere over Alaska.
When she gets to Tokyo, she is shocked to discover that the apartment she expected to be empty is occupied by her dad’s secret family. He has another wife and Cate has a half-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe). They quickly discover that Hiroshi had ANOTHER secret apartment (geez, slow down, guy!) where they learn he was a part of something called Monarch.
In the movies, Monarch is the organization that tracks and studies the giant kaiju that are roaming the planet. If you’re concerned about continuity (and honestly, you shouldn’t worry all that much about it), this show takes place in 2015, one year after the events in the first Godzilla movie. It also jumps back to the early years of Monarch, where a pair of romantically involved scientists – Dr. Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto) and Bill Randa (Anders Holm) – and their military escort Lt. Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) track down the titans, or MUTOs as they call them. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.) I guess “AAAHHH MONSTERS!” wasn’t scientific enough.
Cate and Kentaro find that dear old Dad had a stash of hidden data tapes that they take to Kentaro’s hacker friend (and ex) May (Kiersey Clemons). When she decrypts them, Cate is shocked to see a picture of her grandmother, Keiko (the same Keiko we see in the past sections), standing in a giant Godzilla footprint.
This also triggers an alarm in Monarch headquarters, which causes a pair of agents to chase them across Japan. Which causes Cate, Kentaro, and May to seek help from Lee Shaw, who is still alive and living in a retirement community in Japan. Old Lee is played by Kurt Russell, and it’s a nice touch having father and son play the same character at different ages. Lee is disgusted with what Monarch has become, more concerned with covering up the existence of MUTOs rather than studying them and warning people about them. He joins them, and soon they’re on a quest to find what Hiroshi was looking for.
The show is really good in creating a world that feels lived in and that is dealing with the sudden realization that giant monsters might come stomping through their city. Tokyo has Godzilla Evacuation Route signs everywhere, with batteries of missiles trained on the ocean. During a Godzilla alert, Cate has a panic attack while sheltering in a subway tunnel. There are even conspiracy theorists, who speculate that is was all CGI by the Deep State. (Check out the cabbie’s podcast to learn more!)
The relationships here all feel fleshed out and real. Cate and Kentaro aren’t exactly thrilled to discover each other’s existence, since each one is proof of Hiroshi’s bad behaviors. But as they are forced together, they start to accept each other and bond over their dad’s habits. Wyatt Russell does a great job with young Lee Shaw, as someone who grows to like the scientists he was ordered to protect. The intergenerational connections are being revealed thread by thread, and I suspect that the subtitle – Legacy of Monsters – is going to have layers of meaning.
Oh, and the monsters? They’re used sparingly, but effectively. There’s about one big monster scene an episode and they’re all used to great effect. In the premiere, we see Godzilla destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Cate’s perspective and it truly feels like an ant trying to figure out what is stepping on it. Other episodes show how small and futile humanity is in the face of these beasts. It’s very frightening and one of the few times in the Godzilla movies that the sheer sense of scale really comes through.
This is a worthy addition to the Godzilla canon. The mysteries here are intriguing and the MUTOs are scary. And for once, I actually care about what happens to the humans.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has new episodes each Friday on Apple+. Three episodes out of ten have been released so far.