Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Battling beasties can't save this by-the-numbers kaiju film, which favours its bland human squabbles over its massive monster mash.
May 30, 2019
Never forget that the first American version of Godzilla thwarted the titular behemoth by using "an internet". That's the ridiculously awful 1998 film's legacy (well, that and fruitlessly trying to follow in Jurassic Park's footsteps more than its own Japanese predecessors). Deploying the same logic, Reddit should probably be the saviour in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It isn't, but that might've proven more interesting. Continuing the new US-made series that began with 2014's Godzilla and will link up with Kong: Skull Island once next year's Godzilla vs Kong comes around, this 'MonsterVerse' sequel actually does take a few cues from its late-90s American counterpart — more than any movie should, and not to its benefit. Some come through in the story, including a routine finale in a sporting arena. Others are evident at the human level, corralling yet another array of dull, feuding characters scrambling all over the place. But the main similarity is something that all US Godzilla reboots have struggled with: not knowing what to do with its hulking star.
It's unsurprisingly strange to watch people quaking in the famous kaiju's shadow, whether in awe, fear or both, while the film they're in focuses on their reactions instead of the towering figure. King of the Monsters ups the creature factor considerably, giving Godzilla friends (Mothra), frenemies (Rodan) and foes (King Ghidorah) amongst a 17-strong cohort of havoc-wreaking 'titans'. At a narrative level, it doesn't just lean into the idea that more of these giant, city-levelling critters exist — it makes that very notion its premise. Alas, the film prefers to explain that supersized lizards, insects, pterodactyls, mammoths and three-headed dragons are frightening via clunky dialogue and pained faces, rather than offer much monster-on-monster action. Taking over from Godzilla's Gareth Edwards, writer-director Michael Dougherty has a background in horror thanks to Trick 'r' Treat and Krampus, but misappropriates one of that genre's key elements. Watching scared folks react to mysterious bumps and jumps in the night works a treat, all thanks to the powers of suggestion and imagination, however the same isn't true when your whole movie screams "Aaaaaaah! Fucking huge monsters! And so many of them!"
Five years after Godzilla emerged from the earth's depths to battle a massive unidentified terrestrial organism, humans are basically yelling the aforementioned line. The government wants to know how many titans exist so that it can exterminate them. Shadowy outfit Monarch, led by scientists Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), plead that people and Godzilla can live together, and that maybe good ol' Zilly could even save us all. Also working for Monarch in a Chinese facility, paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) appears to feel the same way, creating a bioacoustics system that can communicate with the creatures. When she's kidnapped, along with her technological breakthrough and her teenage daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), another group enters the fray. Overseen by British soldier turned eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance, because every movie has to feature someone from Game of Thrones), their aim is to let all of the titans loose, watch as they do their worst and hope that the ravaged planet is reborn in the aftermath. Thanos would be proud.
Also popping up is Emma's kaiju-hating ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), who once worked at Monarch, has a bone to pick with Godzilla and loves yelling about it while trying to rescue his daughter. And so everyone fights over what to do, with the shouting getting louder as Jonah keeps awakening more and more titans. Human noise isn't what anyone wants from King of the Monsters, though. And if someone does want to watch people squabble in the face of literally existence-shattering critters, the last live-action Japanese Godzilla, 2016's Shin Godzilla, delivered just that in a smart, thoughtful and engaging way. Here, the paper-thin, consistently cliched story doesn't justify so much chatter. Indeed, it feels as if it's been written to slot in beside the big beasty battles, then hurriedly padded out and over-extended when those massive monster melees didn't turn out as planned.
Godzilla and Ghidorah do go head-to-head, more than once. Mothra and Rodan get to flap their wings, and brief clips of other creatures are glimpsed as well. King of the Monsters doesn't completely shy away from its prehistoric giants, but they're never the main attraction — or even much of an attraction at all. There's welcome reverence and respect directed Godzilla's way, however the movie barely acknowledges the character's metaphorical significance, preferring to show its love via a few impressive wide shots instead. And while simply pairing it with its fellow iconic figures in the same picture is inherently exciting, King of the Monsters essentially rests there. When it comes to the film's frays, they arrive packaged in dim, dark, Game of Thrones-esque lighting, blighted by ugly special effects and hardly serving up a spectacle. In fact, the battles feel rushed, busy, and never as fun and lively as you'd expect given the whole titan-versus-titan situation.
Hollywood is never going to admit that it just doesn't quite get Godzilla, but perhaps it should. Or, maybe it should stop trying to style American Godzilla flicks after whatever else happens to be popular recently — Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a clear influence on King of the Monsters, as is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it isn't a coincidence that the film taps Stranger Things' Brown for her big-screen debut. 65 years after the enormous lizard-style gargantuan made its initial appearance in the first Japanese Godzilla, it deserves better than by-the-numbers franchise-extending entries. The kaiju genre deserves better too, but at least it has Guillermo del Toro's great Pacific Rim. The fact that King of the Monsters delivers its most thrilling aspect in its credits — the sounds of the original, exceptional, still rousing Godzilla theme, not the obligatory post-reel stinger — screams louder than the movie's humans, and than Godzilla's own roars as well.
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