Home > Reviews > GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS – Bear McCreary

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS – Bear McCreary

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Ever since he first appeared on film in 1954 in director Ishiro Honda’s classic film Gojira, the gigantic amphibious reptile known in the West as Godzilla has become something of an icon, an instantly recognizable element of Japanese pop culture. Godzilla has appeared in an astonishing 32 films in Japan, plus a number of associated video games, novels, comic books, and television shows, but did not make his American debut until the 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich. When that film was a comparative financial flop, audiences would have to wait a further 16 years for director Gareth Edwards’s 2014 film of the same name. The success of that film solidified Warner Brother’s plans for a future franchise, and now we have the first sequel – Godzilla: King of the Monsters – directed by Michael Dougherty from a screenplay by Dougherty, Max Borenstein, and Zach Shields.

The film is set five years after the events of the first movie and stars Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler as Emma and Mark Russell, scientists whose son was killed (off-screen) in the aftermath of the first film’s Godzilla-related San Francisco disaster. Emma works for the crypto-zoological organization Monarch, which tracks down and studies creatures like Godzilla; she is estranged from Mark, and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown) lives with her. In the years since Godzilla was first discovered numerous other ‘kaiju titans’ have also been found, and Emma has been working on a device dubbed the ORCA which she hopes can be used to communicate with them. The Monarch facility where Emma works is attacked by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), and Emma and Madison are kidnapped; these circumstances eventually trigger a mass awakening event, as long-dormant titans emerge from their hiding places, and begin decimating cities all over the globe. With humanity under imminent threat, the Monarch scientists from the first movie – Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins) – track down Mark and convince him to help them locate the long-missing Godzilla, who they believe will both protect humanity from these new titans, and lead them to Emma and Madison.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have virtually zero knowledge of the original Shōwa series of Japanese Godzilla films. I have seen parts of the original 1954 film over the years (but not all of it, and not in the right order), and I happened to watch 15 minutes of the 1956 spin-off film Rodan on TV just a few days ago, but beyond that my experience is sadly limited. As such, the amount of franchise depth and fan service that director Dougherty dropped into his film went entirely over my head, which meant I had no option but to treat it simply as a fun monster flick. I have historically had issues with films which appear to be little more than ‘big things fighting each other,’ as evidenced by my disdain for the Transformers and Pacific Rim movies, but I actually quite like these American Godzilla films. The stories don’t stand up to any scrutiny, and it’s clearly all nothing more than fantastical ridiculousness, but they are technically astonishing, and occasionally offer some truly remarkable and almost poetic visual ideas. One other aspect of the films which have also over-achieved are the scores. The first one, by Alexandre Desplat, was one of the best efforts of 2014, and this new one, by Bear McCreary, is one of the best efforts of 2019 to date too.

Prior to this film director Dougherty had a long standing relationship with composer Douglas Pipes; the two worked together on Trick ‘r Treat in 2007 and Krampus in 2015. As such, when this film was first announced, I was excited at the prospect of Pipes maybe getting his big break on this film – Pipes is an absolutely tremendous composer, and deserves to be working much more frequently, and on higher profile films. However the job eventually went to Bear McCreary, who has been friends with Dougherty for years, and instead it is he whose stock will surely rise off the back of this magnificent score. No-one needs me to tell them about McCreary’s past, or for me to remind them how busy he has been this year in particular, but irrespective of his past successes on TV and in film, it is this score that will likely cement McCreary’s place on the film music A-list for the foreseeable future. If things align correctly, and things play out the way they ought, this score should do for McCreary what The Incredibles did for Michael Giacchino, or what How to Train Your Dragon did for John Powell. It’s that good.

Much like the film itself is a love letter to Ishiro Honda, McCreary’s score is steeped in the Godzilla music heritage established by the great Akira Ifukube. It’s a massive, bombastic, complicated action/adventure/sci-fi work which combines at least two famous themes from the original Japanese movies with two brand new themes, each representing one of the four main kaiju; McCreary takes these themes and sets them up to be performed by a truly enormous orchestra, augmented by Taiko drums, Buddhist chants and throat singers, and an array of solo and specialist instruments. He then augments this with several smaller sub-themes, plus a truly staggering array of vivid action music, that will surely delight fans of that type of writing. McCreary describes the whole thing as a ‘monster opera,’ where voices are prevalent, and as such the very first thing we hear is a song!

The first track on the album is a brilliant new version of the song “Godzilla,” which was written by Donald Roeser (aka Buck Dharma) for the band Blue Öyster Cult, and originally appeared on their album Spectres in 1977. This new version features a lead vocal performance by singer Serj Tankian of the Armenian-American rock band System of a Down. It also features an all-new arrangement by McCreary, who beefs up the original song’s sound with an all-star rock quartet of guitars and drums, the full orchestra, and a bank of Japanese vocalists chanting the names of the various kaiju, as well as the word ‘sore,’ which doesn’t really translate but is sort of an appreciative acknowledgement of Godzilla’s existence. What I find really interesting is that one of the song’s repeated lyrics – ‘history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man’ – speaks directly to one of the movie’s key plot points about environmentalism; it’s remarkably prescient, considering that the words were written more than 30 years before this film was even made.

Three of the themes for the four kaiju act as bookends to the score. The first, the “Godzilla Main Title,” is a brand new rendering of Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla march from 1955. McCreary’s arrangement of the theme is brilliant. Ifukube’s gargantuan, thunderous melody is taken up by the entire orchestra, who belt it out with as much colossal force as they can muster. Just after the one minute mark comes the first appearance of the Japanese ‘kakegoe,’ a traditional vocalization technique that includes grunts and calls and chants and gives off a distinctly masculine vibe. The chants are intended to evoke both the cultural heritage of the character, and to give the whole thing a sense of weight, scale, and power, and they achieve both aims admirably. Interestingly, the massive explosion of brass at the very beginning of the cue appears to have been adapted from another one of Ifukube’s scores, Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira (aka King Kong vs. Godzilla) from 1962; McCreary appears to be using this motif as a sort of brutal fanfare, heralding whichever imminent fight between kaiju we are about to witness, while simultaneously foreshadowing the fact that there is going to be a new Kong vs. Godzilla movie coming out in 2020.

The second main theme is the one for the three-headed kaiju demon Ghidorah, which receives its concert version statement in “Ghidorah Theme”. The most unique aspect of Ghidorah’s theme is McCreary’s use of Buddhist chants and throat singers; their hypnotic monotone is the first thing you hear in the cue, and it brings a quasi-religious, ancient-sounding feel to the piece that is entirely appropriate for the character of Godzilla’s rival alpha, a primordial being whose presence on Earth has inspired monster myths for millennia. McCreary also builds the theme around things in threes, in acknowledgement of Ghidorah’s three heads; he calls it ‘ia prayer to the number three, built from three-note groups structured into larger three-note phrases’. As the theme progresses it is first accompanied by the eerie, ethereal sound of the yaylı tambur – the Turkish long-necked lute that was used so elegantly in the score for 10 Cloverfield Lane – and gradually grows to include a dominant and powerful brass-heavy orchestra, with prominent percussion performing an array of interesting rhythmic patterns.

The third main theme is the one for Mothra, an almost angelic butterfly-like kaiju who emerges from a chrysalis cocoon in the Brazilian rain forest and becomes an ally to Godzilla in the fight against Ghidorah. “Mothra’s Song” is based on the famous piece of the same name written by composer Yuji Koseki for the 1961 film Mosura. Unlike the themes for the other kaiju, Mothra’s theme is almost peaceful and calming, and is anchored by a beautiful melody that dances between strings and flutes, accompanied by tapped percussion. It does grow more powerful as it develops, with notably increased percussion volume, strong brass, a choir, and a hint of electronica, clearly showing that Mothra is not to be trifled with, but overall it’s a welcome change of pace from the thunderous energy of everything else.

The fourth main theme is the one for Rodan, a bird-like kaiju who emerges from a volcano in Mexico and immediately becomes subservient to Ghidorah, doing his bidding and attacking the heroes. Rodan’s theme doesn’t appear until half way through the score (track 11 to be exact), but it’s an absolute belter. Right from the get-go McCreary lays it on thick with screaming brasses, frantic string patterns, and tapped tom-tom rhythms, and these stylistics basically don’t let up for the entirety of the cue. It all becomes very martial and intense, occasionally exploding with raucous horn-led brutality, until the whole thing kicks into an even higher gear at the 2:30 mark when McCreary introduces a fabulous new rhythmic idea to play underneath the howling brass, and then picks up the ‘kakegoe’ singers a few seconds later. The sequence that begins at 2:56 and runs to the end of the cue, is my favorite sequence of the entire score: Rodan’s brass combines with a choir chanting his name and a relentless percussive beat, while McCreary allows his strings to do a series of wildly flamboyant things around it all. It’s utterly magnificent.

The rest of the score is, basically, these four themes, plus the three additional themes (for the Russell family, for the Monarch scientists, and what McCreary called the ‘Ancients Theme’), woven into a series of enormous action and adventure cues, all of which allow McCreary to let rip with every orchestral and choral force at his disposal. And there is no shortage of highlights.

The first cue, “Memories of San Francisco,” is actually the first performance of the Ancients theme, which McCreary describes as being meant to sound ‘primitive and mysterious, an other-worldly echo from a long-lost epoch when these titans ruled the Earth.’ The return of the yaylı tambur gives the cue a haunted quality that is very effective. This is quickly supplanted in “The Larva,” which features a deconstructed version of Mothra’s theme, intelligently using the theme’s orchestrations (but not the fully-realized melody) to depict her initial appearance. The rest of the cue is a sequence of bombastic action interrupted by impressive moments of revelation, tension, and near-horror, featuring a wordless choir, massive percussion hits, frantic strings, and low blatting brass. “Welcome to Monarch” then introduces the Monarch theme, a militaristic piece for brass, percussion, and electronic enhancements that provides a recognizable musical identity for the global conglomerate charged with seeking out and studying the kaiju.

“Outpost 32” is the first part of a three-cue 12½-minute action set piece that introduces the Ghidorah kaiju to audiences. It opens with drama and tension in the strings and percussion hits, and subtly introduces Ghidorah’s theme at 0:42 as the ancient hydra is revealed to be encased in a massive block of ice deep beneath Antarctica, guarded by a Monarch research facility outpost. The music becomes big, bold, and grand as it develops; it blends with several statements of the Monarch theme, and frequently erupts into rich, dense action as Jonah’s forces overrun the base and seek to release the creature. Those of you who appreciate unique instrumental touches will enjoy the inclusion of what sounds like a didgeridoo at around 5:35. The second cue in the sequence is “Ice Breaker,” which builds on and further develops the massive action from the previous cue, and makes excellent use of swirling strings á la James Horner’s Aliens, and some notably powerful brass triplets. The sequence culminates in “Rise of Ghidorah,” wherein the massive monster finally breaks free from the ice and is set loose upon the world; here, Ghidorah’s theme is unleashed fully for the first time, surrounded by more of McCreary’s massive action.

“Old Rivals” underscores the first set piece monster fight, as Godzilla and Ghidorah face off for the first time in thousands of years, and battle for the right to be the supreme alpha of the kaiju. McCreary’s music is a massive collision of Godzilla’s theme and Ghidorah’s theme, the kakegoe vocals battling with Buddhist chants, augmented by a regular choir and some truly gargantuan orchestral forces. “The First Gods” offers a brief change of pace, presenting a second statement of the Ancients theme as the Monarch scientists try to work out what Ghidorah is and where he came from. The music here is abstract, eerie, textural, and rhythmic, with a prominent performance from the yaylı tambur. This cue also offers the first clear and identifiable sound of the choir singing phrases in an ancient Babylonian language; McCreary wrote poetic English lyrics directly relating to Ghidorah’s character, and then had them translated into one of the world’s oldest known languages by a scholar-linguist. The resulting sound is wholly unique and intellectually fascinating; you can read the original lyrics in the album’s liner notes.

Both “A Mass Awakening” and “The One Who is Many” offer further explorations of Ghidorah’s theme, as dozens of different kaiju begin to emerge from their hiding places all over the world, all of whom have been stirred into life by Ghidorah’s presence and, with Godzilla having seemingly been vanquished, his new status as kaiju alpha. The former cue makes use of voices underpinned with crawling, insect-like strings; interestingly, as the cue develops, vague hints of the percussion pattern that plays under Mothra’s theme also begin to materialize, before finally solidifying into a full statement in the finale as she emerges from her cocoon into full arctian glory. The latter cue is dark, moody, and intense, with notably strong use of throat singers, and several interpolations of the Monarch theme underpinned with snare drum licks and electronic beats.

There’s an absolutely stunning version of Mothra’s theme in “Queen of the Monsters,” which begins with angelic vocals performing her song, but slowly builds and builds, becoming bigger, more triumphant, and more impressive as it develops. One of the score’s few prominent performances of the Russell Family theme appears in “For Andrew,” wherein harps and glockenspiels augmented by strings offer a moving, slightly bittersweet remembrance of the son who was killed in San Francisco. The subsequent “Stealing the Orca” appears to contain an action setting of the Russell Family theme to accompany young Madison as she steals the ORCA device from under the nose of Jonah and the terrorists, and heads for the city of Boston to try to thwart their plans. McCreary presents the Family theme on a piano, and surrounds it with chugging strings, big percussion hits, and some contemporary electronica; before ending with some not-too-subtle allusions to Ghidorah’s theme via the throat singing and the Buddhist chants.

The sequence of cues that comprises “The Hollow Earth,” “The Key to Coexistence,” and “Goodbye Old Friend” is a 10-minute set piece that underscores what I am calling ‘the Atlantis sequence’, where Mark, Serizawa, and the other members of Monarch discover that Godzilla was not actually killed in the first battle with Ghidorah, and has actually retreated to a long-lost underwater city to recuperate. “The Hollow Earth” is ethereal, evocative, revelatory, and quite beautiful, giving Serizawa’s underwater journey into the sunken city a sense of mystery and wonderment. McCreary uses strings, electronics, and angelic-sounding Babylonian voices, which give the whole thing a noticeable Lord of the Rings-esque vibe, like the Fellowship first discovering the Mines of Moria. “The Key to Coexistence” is written mainly for soft strings, emotional and thoughtful, and “Goodbye Old Friend” is just beautiful, showcasing the chorus singing emotionally in Babylonian. The lyrics – which, again, were written in English and back-translated – offer a poetic acknowledgment of Serizawa’s personal sacrifice, as he manually detonates a nuclear bomb that will help heal Godzilla’s wounds more quickly.

The finale of the score begins with “Rebirth,” a truly massive statement of Godzilla’s theme which plays as the giant lizard absorbs the energy from Serizawa’s bomb and emerges from hiding to face Ghidorah once more. The cue ends with a purposeful statement of the brutal ‘fight fanfare’ from King Kong vs. Godzilla, clearly showing that, this time, Godzilla means business. “Fog Over Fenway” is the first of two massive action sequences; this one accompanies Ghidorah as he arrives in Boston, having been attracted to the city’s iconic baseball stadium by Madison and the ORCA device. Ghidorah’s theme is the cornerstone of the piece, and there is a great deal of large-scale and complicated action writing, all of which leads into the score’s action climax, the “Battle in Boston.”

This cue underscores the epic four-way battle between Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan, and is near-apocalyptic. McCreary pits different elements from each of the four monster themes against each other in different combinations, depending on who is fighting at any given moment. We get Godzilla’s kakegoe chanting, Ghidorah’s Buddhist monks, and Godzilla’s main orchestral rhythm playing contrapuntally against each other as they fight. Mothra’s theme appears at 2:20 as she enters the fray, and there are several big action settings of her melody accompanied by choral embellishments. Rodan’s wailing French horn theme appears at 3:00 as he comes in to augment the secondary battle, drawing Mothra away from the primary conflict and attacking her separately. The whole thing builds to near-impossible levels of volume and intensity as it progresses, as all four themes reach epic heights, and there are even guest appearances from both the Family theme and the Monarch theme to underscore moments of individual heroism from Emma, Madison, Mark, or one of the scientist-soldiers. The penultimate cue, “Redemption,” offers a brief moment of respite, before the conclusive “King of the Monsters” ends the score with an impossibly epic statement of Godzilla’s theme as he vanquishes Ghidorah and confirms himself as the rightful alpha.

It’s almost impossible to over-state what an accomplishment Godzilla: King of the Monsters is for Bear McCreary. It is, in my opinion, the best score of his career to date, and if the film music gods are smiling it will be the work which propels him permanently onto the list of the most acclaimed and in-demand composers working in Hollywood right now. It’s not just the fact that he respected the musical heritage of the franchise; it’s not just that the new kaiju themes are all unique and memorable; it’s not just that the score has an intelligent internal architecture that applies thematic ideas leitmotivically; it’s not just the brilliant use of so many different vocal styles; it’s not just the creative instrumentation; and it’s not just the intensity of the action material or the number of different percussion patterns he uses throughout the score. It’s the combination of all these things together that makes Godzilla: King of the Monsters so impressive. There are so many composers working in mainstream film music today who seem to be stuck, repeating the same old percussion loops, the same old chugging cello ostinatos, and the same old electronic warbles, over and over again in score after score. This is not what Bear McCreary does; he keeps everything moving, continually changes things around to make them intellectually stimulating and sonically interesting, and he does it with taste and creativity and no small amount of passion. In fact, his love for his craft floods out of every note, and more than anything else this is why Godzilla: King of the Monsters will be in the running for Score of the Year honors.

Buy the Godzilla: King of the Monsters soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Godzilla (written by Donald Roeser, performed by Serj Tankian) (3:10)
  • Godzilla Main Title (2:34)
  • Memories of San Francisco (2:11)
  • The Larva (4:23)
  • Welcome to Monarch (2:54)
  • Outpost 32 (7:03)
  • Ice Breaker (2:33)
  • Rise of Ghidorah (2:59)
  • Old Rivals (3:49)
  • The First Gods (5:18)
  • Rodan (5:23)
  • A Mass Awakening (5:32)
  • The One Who is Many (5:37)
  • Queen Of the Monsters (3:35)
  • For Andrew (1:18)
  • Stealing The Orca (3:04)
  • The Hollow Earth (5:25)
  • The Key to Coexistence (2:18)
  • Goodbye Old Friend (2:54)
  • Rebirth (2:03)
  • Fog Over Fenway (2:53)
  • Battle in Boston (7:51)
  • Redemption (4:11)
  • King of the Monsters (3:34)
  • Ghidorah Theme (2:41)
  • Mothra’s Song (2:10)

Running Time: 97 minutes 23 seconds

Watertower Music (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Bear McCreary. Orchestrations by Edward Trybek, Jonathan Beard and Henri Wilkinson. Additional orchestrations by Jamie Thierman, Benjamin Hoff, Jordan Cox, Jeff Tinsley and David Volpe. Original Godzilla theme by Akira Ifukube. Original Mothra theme by Yuji Koseki. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes, Casey Stone, Johnny Solway and Greg Hayes. Edited by Michael Baber and Daniel Waldman. Album produced by Bear McCreary and Joe Augustine.

  1. Tianze
    June 12, 2019 at 11:51 am

    One thing that bugs me a lot when listening to soundtrack is that the music sounds so dense and loud because of brass, different percussion and chanting. It almost sounds like there are multiple orchestra playing at the the same but in different pace. But when watching the movie, such problem does not exist. In general some bits of the music here reminds me of JW2 from Michael Giacchino. It is a decent work from BM (though my favorite would still be either Professor and the mad man or Rim of the World) And as someone grew up watching Tokusatsu, I sincerely appreciate BM’s effort of incorporating classic themes as well as creating new ones. And finally if Hollywood is going to adapt more of Japanese kaiju franchises like Gamera and Ultraman or Legendary eventually goes for that Gundam live action adaptation, I will be more than happy to see BM back with the baton.

  2. Jim Parham
    June 29, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you for this comprehensive analysis of a huge score that, in itself, is brilliant musical and theatrical composing, revealing mastery of orchestration and compositional technique/brilliance, but also connects generations of movie music culture. As a professional musician, I appreciate the specific praise of the composer’s fine work.

  3. MPC
    June 30, 2019 at 6:52 pm

    You should do a review of McCreary’s excellent score for “Cape”, which was released by La La Land Records in 2011. It’s a wonderful homage to Elfman, Shirley Walker, and Williams with all of Bear’s intricacies and instrumentation.

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