Godzilla: King of the Monsters | Michael Dougherty | May 31, 2019
It’s an established fact, 5 years on, that the 2014 Gareth Edwards-helmed reboot of Godzilla was greeted with mixed reception, in part because of the human characters and in part because of how Godzilla was (under)utilized. But that film was the start of Warner Brothers and Legendary’s Monsterverse (which continued with Kong: Skull Island), so of course Godzilla is bound to make another return. This time, it’s Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus writer-director Michael Dougherty at the helm (with co-writer Zach Shields) of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a mid-point, if you will, on the journey to 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong.
King of the Monsters picks up 5 years after the events of the first film, as the world is now aware of the existence of Titans/Kaiju/Giant Freakin’ Prehistoric Monsters. The estranged Russell family – Monarch scientist Emma (The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga), Monarch scientist-turned-animal behavior expert Mark (Kyle Chandler), and daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) – are still coping with the aftermath of Godzilla’s San Francisco battle. Emma’s continued work on an experimental auditory device to control the Titans (ORCA) finally works on a larval Mothra, but the Monarch base where she and Madison are stationed falls prey to a paramilitary group lead by black market Titan opportunist Jonah Alan (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance). The core Monarch team of Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Graham (The Shape of Water‘s Sally Hawkins), and Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) recruits Mark to help find Emma, Madison, and the ORCA, which leads the Monarch team – including more scientists (Ziyi Zhang and Bradley Whitford), military troops (Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Anthony Ramos, among others), and a trailing Godzilla – to a Monarch base in Antarctica … and the soon-to-be-freed three-headed Gidorah. Some globe-hopping and plenty of giant monster fights ensue (including the fiery pterodactyl Rodan), as the humans battle to control the monsters and survive a possible extinction-level event.
With the origin story of Monarch and Godzilla mostly out of the way, King of the Monsters ups the action immensely in comparison to Gareth Edward’s 2014 reboot. That’s not to say that everything about this 2019 Godzilla film is an improvement. The human characters are still lacking depth, and the quiet restraint of Edward’s 2014 Godzilla is all but missing here. If anything, that film gave Godzilla and the MUTOs a certain gravitas. The creatures seemed real and absolutely terrifying in scale. In King of the Monsters, they’re more of the Pacific Rim type of kaiju. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. These movies are made to showcase mass destruction, and King of the Monsters presents these sequences in all their messy glory.
The action set pieces are not the main issue with Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla. The problems arise from the lack of any characters to truly latch onto. Is that necessarily a deal-breaker for a film like this? No, but when much of the film follows these characters, it’s hard not to be annoyed by some of them. Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga are great actors, and they’re honestly great with the material given to them. It’s just unfortunate that most of their dialogue is either exposition or generic quips. No one expects (I hope) Godzilla films to have truly great characters. There are certainly ways to successfully insert human drama into disaster film situations. If anything, King of the Monsters feels more like 1996’s Twister – characters merely reacting to the dangerous situation they’ve put themselves in, while also dealing with their past failures. However, in Twister, Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are together for the majority of the film. That’s unfortunately not the case for King of the Monsters.
Bradley Whitford (in full Cabin in the Woods mode) and Thomas Middleditch do a fine job as the comic relief here. There are some awfully corny lines from them, but you can tell that the actors were enjoying themselves while making this. Although the characters actually have personalities, unlike 2014’s Godzilla, there was still no solid reason to want to spend time with them. In the end, Mark and Emma basically just want to protect their daughter, which is admirable, but it doesn’t create the most interesting plot.
Alas, most Godzilla fans will more than likely be pleased with King of the Monsters. I certainly was. The art direction and colors in the film are pretty spectacular. The big battle sequences are competently shot, although became a little hard to follow in some shots. It’s not as jarring as anything in Transformers, but the “camera” movements could have been a tad less jittery. There are some genuinely beautiful looking scenes here, including an epic moment with Ken Watanabe’s character and Godzilla inside a giant underground cave. For all the faults in the character writing, the beautiful imagery and creative action sequences prop up this Godzilla film to a much more enjoyable level. It’s a dumb and ridiculous monster movie, but in a rather surprisingly earnest way. The big lizard himself is truly awesome in this. There were actually more kaiju action sequences than I was expecting.
There are some great callbacks to the original Japanese films, as well as an overall respect for the cavalcade of monsters that the franchise has made so popular over the decades. Some big summer movies are flat out impossible to enjoy without turning that switch off in your brain. Even then, some are just too ridiculous to fully embrace. This new Godzilla rides the line. It’s not nearly as grounded as its 2014 predecessor, but it’s also not a mindless Michael Bay-hem film. The end of King of the Monsters does set up a battle between Godzilla and Kong, and having not enjoyed Kong: Skull Island, I can’t say that I’m really looking forward to the two behemoths facing off against each other. After King of the Monsters though, I am much more prepared for the enjoyable absurdity of it.