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Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

DIRECTOR: Michael Dougherty

CAST: Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Bradley Whitford, Zhang Ziyi, Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson, Aisha Hinds, David Strathairn

REVIEW:

I desperately wanted to love this movie. As a child of Godzilla movies, with virtually the entire film series and various action figures of Godzilla and friends (and enemies) in my possession, and as a fan of Gareth Edwards’ lukewarmly-received 2014 film (though I acknowledge it has issues), I followed along with the marketing with hype and attention. Lukewarm-to-negative critical reviews gave me pause, but I’d never really expected a Godzilla movie to be critically-acclaimed. To many critics, these movies are just too inherently silly, and at least outside of his native Japan, Godzilla is really more of a cult following. On the one hand, King of the Monsters does feel pretty much like an old-school Godzilla movie (with all the good and bad that that implies). Alas, it hasn’t gone above and beyond, content to follow in the same basic formula of virtually every other Godzilla movie, giant monsters smacking each other around and levelling buildings, sandwiched in between a ridiculous convoluted plot that primarily exists as a flimsy skeleton to string the monster mashes together and populated by goofy and/or one-dimensional humans scurrying around with inane “drama”. Balancing big monster action with human drama is a tricky act, and Hollywood hasn’t figured it out yet.

We open with a quick flashback to the climactic San Francisco monster-on-monster smackdown from the 2014 movie, during which, we learn, the scientist couple of Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) lost a young son and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) lost her brother. Skipping to the present, and Monarch, the shadowy research organization including Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), his assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), and annoying newbie Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) have uncovered the existence of seventeen more monsters—now referred to as “Titans”—in deep hibernation scattered around the globe. Mark, embittered by his son’s death in a Titan battle, is gung-ho about killing them all, but his ex-wife Emma believes some of them are benevolent, and has developed an “Orca” machine which mimics their echolocation to control them (or something like that). Unfortunately, Emma is kidnapped (or is she?) along with the accompanying Madison, by a band of eco-terrorists (led by Charles Dance) who want to use the Orca to awaken all of the Titans to overthrow mankind as rulers of Earth and restore the natural balance (or something like that). Soon, Titans are coming out of the woodwork all over the place, most prominently a giant moth called Mothra, a giant pteradactyl called Rodan, and an “alpha”, a three-headed lightning-spitting winged dragon called Ghidorah. But someone is coming to challenge Ghidorah for the throne…Godzilla himself.

One of the main criticisms of Godzilla 2014 was “not enough Godzilla”. The same complaint is unlikely to be made here, as we’ve got not only the big green guy (not The Hulk) but also three other classic Godzilla monsters: Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla’s archenemy King Ghidorah. In fact, it almost feels shoving four primary monsters into the same movie is a little too much to do them all justice. Godzilla and Ghidorah get the lion’s share of attention, while Mothra is sadly underused (and basically exists to be a deus ex machina in the third act) and Rodan gets a cool introduction but doesn’t get much to do after that. The global apocalypse goes by too fleetingly and mostly offscreen to generate much of an impact. There’s a great shot of Washington DC laid to waste, but it goes by in two seconds and is about all we see of it. Likewise, Rodan leveling a Mexican village is a memorable sequence but all-too-fleeting. A heroic self-sacrifice lacks as much impact as it could have had because the character in question is so thinly-developed. I felt that Gareth Edwards, for all the complaining he got about being stingy with Godzilla, did an excellent job integrating big CGI monsters and humans scurrying around underfoot. His replacement Michael Doughtery largely abandons this sense of verisimilitude and almost docudrama realism for all-out spectacle and monster-on-monster action. Also an awful lot of the monster scenes take place in rain or snow, making one suspect the filmmakers were concerned about the special effects to obscure them a little. The 2014 film had a more somber, “straight” tone and, while it frustrated many viewers by keeping them waiting for major Godzilla action, I felt there were times when it worked to generate buildup and anticipation (especially in Godzilla’s first landfall in Hawaii and the later Golden Gate Bridge scene). Despite throwing a global near-apocalypse at the characters, King of the Monsters feels more flippant and one-liner heavy. Rarely has a global apocalypse felt so small, when most of it takes place offscreen while we follow around a gaggle of goofy globe-trotters.

King of the Monsters undeniably contains some surefire Godzilla fan-pleasing moments (in my theater, at least one self-professed Godzilla nerd walked out enthusiastically singing its praises). Rodan has been translated faithfully from puppet to CGI creation (I’m a little more iffy on the leggy Mothra redesign). Godzilla’s next opponent, King Kong, doesn’t join in the action, but gets a fleeting cameo. There are plenty of Easter Eggs for fans of the “classic” Godzilla series: “oxygen destroyers”, Godzilla going nuclear, Ghidorah being referred to as “Monster Zero”, and Bear McCreary incorporating a couple snippets of Akira Ifukube’s original theme “Godzilla March”. While Mothra and Rodan are underused and underwhelming, we get three Godzilla vs. Ghidorah bouts, although two are shorter skirmishes until the third act throwdown in Boston (a more original choice for a city besiged by giant monsters, at least). Godzilla’s first appearance in which he makes a light-up “threat display” outside an underwater base, a poignant moment between an injured Godzilla and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (who takes his name from a character in the original 1954 film), and a scene in which Godzilla gives a close inspection of a dwarfed Kyle Chandler, are striking. Unfortunately, the movie is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, scattered striking moments in and of themselves but sandwiched in among a convoluted and flimsy plot skeleton hurtling dull humans from one elaborate action setpiece to the next.

It’s almost superfluous to talk about the cast in a Godzilla movie because let’s face it, no one goes to a Godzilla movie for the humans. Being an actor in a Godzilla movie is a singularly thankless task that consists of swapping exposition and/or cheesy banter with your co-stars and lots of scurrying around like rats underfoot and gawking upwards. To say these aren’t “actors’ movies” is an understatement, and despite a few respectable names onhand, King of the Monsters does nothing to buck the trend (nor does it put much effort into trying). Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen have not returned (not that they made that much of an impression in the first movie) but Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, and Sally Hawkins have, though Strathairn has a fleeting walk-on role and Hawkins being Oscar-nominated for The Shape of Water in between Godzilla installments has not saved her from having, if anything, an even more thankless role here than she did in the first movie. Ken Watanabe gamely tries to maintain his dignity while uttering another “profound” monologue (he doesn’t say “let them fight” this time), while Vera Farmiga also gets a monologue to expound upon her flimsy scheme to “save the world” in one of the more illogical ways ever monologued onscreen (which among more-or-less mad scientists, is saying something). Millie Bobby Brown struggles to generate some semblance of an actual performance while being hopelessly mired in trite family drama—her Madison seems somewhat meant to be the viewpoint character, but never really does much besides serve as a bit of a deus ex machina to facilitate the climactic throwdown—while as her manfully stalwart dad, Kyle Chandler spends the entire time in a vaguely Shatner-esque mode of ultra-serious grim squinting and heroic jaw-clenching. Charles Dance sadly gets nothing to do, Ziyi Zhang (reunited with Watanabe from Memoirs of a Geisha) is onhand to rattle off exposition, monster names, and thinly-developed mythological backstory, and Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford are in a competition to see who can rattle off the most “comic relief” one-liners.

I suppose at the end of the day, King of the Monsters succeeds in emulating a “classic” Godzilla movie (giant monsters smacking each other around and knocking over buildings? Check. Silly convoluted plot? Check. Goofy humans scurrying around? Check), and no one is likely to accuse it of not having “enough” Godzilla. It’s just a little underwhelming and disappointing that while it throws lots of big splashy monster action onscreen, it doesn’t seem to set much priority by anything else.

* * 1/2

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