In the first minutes of Godzilla: King of the Monsters we’re transported back to 2014, to replay events from that year’s Godzilla. San Francisco lies in ruins, and we’re set on course for the story of this new monster saga. Right off the bat, we catch an eyeful of ‘ol scaly himself, as if in response to fans disappointed by the lack of ‘Zilla in the 2014 movie. If nothing else, King of the Monsters lets you know just what you’re in for from the get-go.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Director: Michael Dougherty
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Five years after Godzilla’s emergence, the organization dedicated to the research of and defense from these Titans, Monarch, continues to struggle in federal hearings. Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe return as Dr. Vivienne Graham and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, staunch proponents of the “research” part of their organization. Meanwhile, after their son was killed amidst the wreckage of San Francisco, Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) are separated, with their surviving daughter Maddie (Millie Bobby Brown) living with her mother, missing her father. The tattered family is meant to be our emotional anchor throughout King of the Monsters, which quickly throws us into the schemes of an “ecoterrorist” plot to save humanity by reinstating the Titans as the rightful alphas of planet Earth. Charles Dance delivers the goods–as always–as the terrorist leader, though King of the Monsters underutilizes his chops, and its own premise in general.
Look, audiences made it clear with 2014’s Godzilla that they wanted more monster bashing and less people yakking. In this respect King of the Monsters trumps its predecessor in the primaries by far.
With Mothra introduced in our opening scenes, and Monster Zero AKA King Ghidorah rearing his ugly heads as our boy’s big bad, King of the Monsters ain’t short on monsters. Toss in some other sky-scraping sluggers and we’ve got ourselves a regular mess of crumbling buildings, big explosions, bigger explosions, and monster-on-monster brawls.
The good news is yes, King of the Monsters satisfies those slugfest fantasies you might have. There’s some glee in simply seeing the monsters emerge on-screen for the first time, but it doesn’t take long for them to start knocking each other around, with bolts of energy flying across the plains of Antartica, or volcanic ash raining down as the skies are patrolled by winged behemoths. The destruction is plentiful, with monster mash scenes devoting our attention solely to the action, allowing the bout to play out before we return to our puny human protagonists.
In a world where every tentpole blockbuster seems to be pushing grander special effects to dazzle audiences, the show here is indeed impressive. Moody, foggy skies are pierced by Ghidorah’s yellow lightning, or Mothra’s motherly glow. It’s over two hours of colorful creatures, and the film in general looks good.
But if you have ice cream for dinner every day, does it still taste like dessert?
By this I mean to call out King of the Monsters‘… lacking–to be polite–narrative component, the first threads of which we touched upon earlier. Maddie’s conflict over her parents’ separation, and some questionable decisions made by her mother in the film’s first real twist, are supposed to be our emotional core here. Yet for all the hardship this family has endured, and for as much as that hardship motivates their actions in the movie, something about the minute or two of exposition we get in the opening just wasn’t enough to make me really give a hoot about any of them, especially when it all ends up feeling so tired and familiar. Mark goes wild man MIA, and bears a tough guy grudge against Godzilla for killin’ my boy, and Emma buries herself in work for Monarch, throwing on the horse blinders. It all plays out exactly as you’d expect and hurts the film overall. If your movie ends up being just about the Titans punching each other, I’d suggest you boot up Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee for the Nintendo GameCube instead.
King of the Monsters manages to smash and stomp its way to epic scale, yet nearly the entire time I was utterly unengaged by the film, coasting from one set piece to another, due largely to the lack of differentiation and solid pacing. Godzilla in 2014 was a deeply-flawed, almost mediocre film, but I stand by the HALO jump scene being not only the best scene in the movie, but one of the best set pieces of the year in film. It’s a bit of an anomaly, no? Dedicating a significant few minutes to something that could be run through as just another moment of action, pairing ominous music with dramatic wide shots. It’s a unique scene within Godzilla.
King of the Monsters, by being seemingly nothing but crunching and crushing for 132 minutes doesn’t have the differentiation that scenes like the HALO jump brought to the previous film. And to bring the other King into the picture, Kong: Skull Island got by as being a bit of a nonsensical romp because it was so concerned with mixing up its action and injecting a good sense of humor into nearly everything. Skull Island also had a great cast, tearing in where the lines were juicy.
This far into discussing it, I should mention that besides being a dull and by-the-numbers affair, King of the Monsters features a story that occasionally feels like it just isn’t adding up, with characters undergoing drastic actions with repercussions that you and I would understand and consider… before letting the genie out of the bottle, so to speak. Charles Dance’s character says it plainly: “We opened Pandora’s Box, and there’s no closing it now.” Maybe think about it a bit more next time? When the egregious, world-ending fumbles of characters feel this obvious and, plainly, stupid, the experience feels less like a story being told and more like words being smashed together to get us to the next fight.
It might seem silly to lament Godzilla: King of the Monsters for failing to tell a good story. “It’s Godzilla, what do you expect,” one might think. To some degree, the hours of pretty monsters making a mess of the world might be just what someone is looking for: Turn off your brain and zone out. But in a year where we’ve already had a handful of smart, engaging action spectacles that tell meaningful stories, develop characters worth caring about, and deliver knock-your-socks-off action, I’m feeling less forgiving than ever of the “turn you brain off” argument. He might be as big as Mt Fuji, but the big scaly knucklehead’s got a brain the size of a pea.