Expectations are monsters themselves. Having certain, vivid ideas about what you think a movie should be can potentially wreck a viewer’s experience. For example, if you’re going to Godzilla: King of the Monsters expecting a sharp story or multi-faceted characters, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if what you’re looking for is an unabashedly silly royal rumble of giant monsters- buddy, you’re in luck.
Directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus), Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a sequel to Gareth Edwards’s 2014 reboot of Toho’s iconic Godzilla franchise. Where that film took its sweet time building up to the monsters, Dougherty and fellow screenwriter Zach Shields don’t waste a second in getting to the good stuff. The story immediately kicks off with the awakening of three-headed dragon Ghidorah, who intends to become the alpha of all the other giant monsters, or “titans”. What can stop a titan like Ghidorah, you ask? Well, another titan of course!
Enter Godzilla, and here’s where the movie’s virtues start. In design and personality, Godzilla is an absolute unit of a creature, and Ghidorah more than matches him as an antagonist. They’re two vicious, aggressive alphas who, despite their inhumanity, read as fully formed characters with their own tics. Godzilla carries himself like a noble defender where Ghidorah is a snarling mass of malevolence and with every moment that passes the anxiety of what their clash of what they’re going to look like mounts.
Every time the opportunity arises for a monster smackdown, Dougherty delivers. He takes the “boots on the ground” feel of Edwards’ Godzilla and takes it up several notches. The gritty cinematography by Lawrence Sher evokes a heavy atmosphere of a raging storm broken up ever so slightly by flashing lights. Watching these monsters use their raw physicality to pull off some brutal moves against each other may not be considered art, but when the fights feel as visceral as they do here, I could care less about what it’s designated as, especially since it’s taken decades to get American monster movies to evoke the kind of insane action present in the Toho films with a big budget.
Godzilla and Ghidorah aren’t the only monsters present. A scrappy rendition of Rodan figures into the plot alongside a show-stealing Mothra. The latter, the most elegant of the beasts, opens the door to another of the film’s big strengths: its dense internal mythology. Diverging from the vague nature of Edwards’ film, King of Monsters takes its time exploring what makes each of the monsters tick and where they might have come from. Particularly, Zhang Ziyi- portraying twin scientists Ilene & Ling Chen- colorfully distributes some fascinating exposition about the titans that gets the imagination going.
Moreover, the film does a bang-up job of existing in a shared universe, further exploring the Monarch organization that has crossed over between this film, Godzilla, and Kong: Skull Island. The latter film’s title character, interestingly, gets several shout-outs in the film. For some, this may come across as blatant table-setting for the forthcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film. For me, it’s blatant table-setting for the forthcoming Godzilla vs. Kong that just so happens to get me extremely excited.
Unfortunately, not all pieces of Godzilla: King of the Monsters are created equal. Credit where credit’s due: the human characters are a massive step-up from the first film. In that film, they were non-entities, cardboard cut-outs of human beings that leave no impression; here, they’re straight up cartoon characters. Sometimes that works! Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler put a solid amount of their pathos into the role of parents grieving the loss of one of their children, with Millie Bobby Brown making for a decent, if underutilized, daughter character for these two.
The rest of the characters are just wacky archetypes that fail to leave much of an impression. You have O’Shea Jackson Jr. as “gruff army man”, Thomas Middleditch as “neurotic techie”, Bradley Whitford as the comic relief, and, of course, Charles Dance as “British villain”. These are all talented individuals, so it’s a shame to see them reduced down to the bare minimum. Even standouts from the last film, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, have shockingly little to do here.
As much as I gripe about the human characters, however, no human character in any Godzilla film has made much of an impression on me, so this is nowhere near a new issue for the series. The script, too, suffers from the same problems that have plagued the series from the jump.
Dougherty and Shields over-stuff the film with so many storylines that plot threads drop only to reappear later on without warning. Certain elements, such as Charles Dance’s villain, feel completely extraneous while other factors like Rodan and Mothra feel really underserved. It’s cluttered, to say the least. It’s unclear why these movies choose to shove so many characters (notice I said characters, not monsters) into the action, but the over-reliance on ensemble casts without a clear protagonist for Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and most every Godzilla movie out there really hurts the ability to tell a cohesive story. Hell, I didn’t even know until after the movie was over that Zhang Ziyi was supposed to be playing twins!
And yet, in the face of these glaring issues, Dougherty delivers a barn burner of a climax, showcasing everything that makes these monsters so beloved. As the final showdown commences between Godzilla and Ghidorah, the huge scale of the film-making is mesmerizing, invigorating even. As the film closes with a doozy of an ending shot, it reminds the audience about everything wonderful about Godzilla.
That’s why I’m willing to look over so many of this film’s narrative problems- because it’s an authentic Godzilla movie, scales and all. What Godzilla: King of the Monsters lacks in its storytelling abilities, in more than makes up for in wall-to-wall monster fighting goodness. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Long live the king.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is now in theaters.
The film stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, and Ken Watanabe.