Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) left audiences fairly divided upon release and in the years since with viewers typically falling into one of two camps. Its fans seem to feel that the monstrous visuals and action more than make up for any shortcomings, while detractors point to poorly written human characters, a contrived script, monsters seen mostly in darkness or clouds, and Godzilla’s surprisingly minimal screen time as insurmountable faults. Well, depending on where you land, I’ve got good news or bad news.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is more of the same.
It’s been five years since Godzilla, and the Mutos ravaged parts of the world, and a lot has changed in that half a decade. Monarch — the not-so-secret organization tasked with investigating the giant and monstrous Titans — have built dozens of underground bases around the world, each near a new creature that’s been discovered and monitored. The U.S. government thinks Monarch should be under military control, but scientists Serizowa (Ken Watanabe), Graham (Sally Hawkins), and Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) make a far from compelling argument that they are doing just fine on their own. They’ve built some impressive infrastructure in five years, but it’s soon made clear they have no goddamn clue what they’re doing when it comes to these monsters.
Eco-terrorists attack a base just as Dr. Russell (Vera Farmiga) has cracked communicating with the beasts via a digital turntable named ORCA, and they take her, her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), and the device with the intention of awakening all of the known beasts. Next on their list is Ghidorah, a three-headed monstrosity rivaling Godzilla in size and attitude, and their motivation is simple — humanity is a disease, and these old gods are the cure. As the world once more crumbles beneath the power of the Titans, it’s up to Monarch and Madison’s father Mark (Kyle Chandler) to stop them by fighting fire with, well, Godzilla.
Director/co-writer Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, 2007; Krampus, 2015) is clearly a man who loves monsters, and his affection for the beasts comes through in small beats (we get a tease of sorts regarding Mothra’s connection to the twin girls), Bear McCreary‘s memorable and franchise-aware score, and the handful of money shots afforded each of the Titans. They look fantastic at times and can’t help but bring a smile to the face of lifelong kaiju fans who’ve longed to see their favorites back on the big screen with the budget to match. Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, some malformed mammoth dude — they’re all here and ready to party, and if that’s all you’re looking for in a Godzilla movie, then it’s your lucky day. (And you should probably stop reading right here.)
For the rest of us, though, what should be great big fun is instead a remarkably dull and dumb experience. Dull because despite the 130 minute running time the actual monster action is fairly limited, and dumb because the script (co-written by Zach Shields), the story, and the characters are endlessly idiotic and convoluted.
The film offers up plenty of throwaway shots of Titans shambling around and causing destruction, but when it comes to actual fights between the beasties, it shortchanges audiences with only a few meetups. We get some frame-worthy shots elsewhere — Godzilla blasting his breath into the sky, Ghidorah standing atop an active volcano like a god while a church’s cross sits cowering in the foreground, Mothra lighting up the sky — but the fights are brief, heavily reliant on close-ups, and universally shot in shadow, clouds, or other obstructive weather elements. This shit should be cool as hell, but instead, we’re left feeling like the monsters are being hidden behind artificial gibberish simply to make the CG seem more effective. Ghidorah literally travels with his own hurricane. Say what you will about Kong: Skull Island (2017), and I have, but at least it acknowledges that the sun exists.
All of that’s disappointing enough, but viewers hoping for anything extra in their big monster movie are most definitely out of luck. Global geography is treated like it’s flexible as everything and everyone is only five minutes away, the monsters’ scale fluctuates depending on the circumstance, and at one point Godzilla follows a submarine straight up from the ocean’s depths only to stand (!) beside it as if the water was just twenty feet deep before diving under again.
Human characters run the gamut of obnoxious and stupid with only a single exception — Charles Dance‘s lead eco-terrorist Jonah Alan. Sure he wants the Titans to obliterate most of humanity, but the dude has a plan, he believes in it, and he sticks to it. Everyone else spends the film cracking bad jokes (Bradley Whitford), continually saddled with painfully minor exposition (Ziyi Zhang), lacking anything resembling a coherent motivation (Farmiga), looking desperately for the exit (Hawkins, Watanabe), or feeling crammed into scenes for no reason other than why the hell not (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).
The performances are all fine enough, but as with its predecessor, the film seems intent on interrupting the monster action for human drama that we give no shits about. We’re repeatedly pulled away from what should be the epic face-off between Godzilla and Ghidorah to look for young Madison — the monsters are duking it out in downtown Boston, but rather than reward viewers with that spectacle we’re forced to witness a family reunion of characters we don’t care for. It’s doubly frustrating when we know glory and awe are brawling just out of frame.
The script sets the monsters loose — that alone should be more than enough to delight — and then spends most of its time highlighting how clueless the Monarch folks are, how the terrorists really didn’t think things through, and how Godzilla is a punk bitch. Seriously, the film feels like a marathon consisting of watching Rocky (1976) three times in a row and then finishing with the final twenty minutes of Rocky II (1979) as Godzilla is beat down and labeled a loser again and again before finally deciding enough is enough. And speaking of repetitive motions made by Godzilla, he arrives as an actual deus ex machina no fewer than three times. Three times someone’s about to bite it before the notoriously light-stepping Godzilla sneaks up and saves the day.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a bloated experience heavy on uninteresting human antics, contrivance, and nonsensical story beats. The monster action we do get — what should be the core of the movie — is minimal, obfuscated, and treated as a distraction from the real story about humans struggling to find their place in the world. It shouldn’t be this hard to make a good giant monster movie, but for Hollywood at least, it remains the stuff of legends.