2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe, Bradley Whitford | directed by Michael Dougherty | 2 hrs 12 mins |
For a movie about a bunch of giant CGI monsters who pound on each other in the rain, Legendary’s Godzilla: King of Monsters has a lot to unpack. A sequel to a remake, building up Legendary’s Monster-verse (the only cinematic universe beyond Marvel’s that works) and director Michael Dougherty’s first big studio film, King was rolled out with a strategy the opposite of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom giving us as little as possible about the film. I was delighted to see original cast members Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe in it at all. I am also a bit of an outlier in that I loved Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot (and even moreso it’s spiritual follow-up Kong: Skull Island – one of the most fun, cleanly put together big studio blockbusters in recent memory). Most of the things that people hated in Godzilla, it’s patient roll out, it’s willingness to kill off it’s big stars, set the stage beautifully for a sequel.
At least the first half, probably more, of this movie is great fun. King of Monsters has the budget to bring it’s giant monster movie dreams to life and the restraint to roll them out with an interest on their sheer size and the physical effect on the world around them. Dougherty (of the terrific, underrated Trick ‘R Treat and Krampus) settles right into the mood and visual style Edwards established for the franchise. The first act of the film is just right, at once efficiently introducing Dr Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, filling the Spielbergian resourceful child role well) and the film’s newest monster, the giant larva of Mothra. The premise: since the events of 2014 brought monsters to life, Skull Island’s monster center Monarch has built labs all over the world around the eggs or burial sites of various other monsters. Russell has invented an echo translating device that reads their sonic wavelengths and communicates back to them – a device that black market monster hunter Charles Dance wants. Now whoever can control the monsters, controls the world.
We get a few solid twists and turns here – a major one mid-way through so wonderfully schlocky and sold on it’s epic scale that I loved. The film brings an entire series worth of Godzilla’s enemies to the surface – the angelic Mothra, the fire demon Rodan and the three-headed hydra King Ghidorah, The design and weight given to the beasts is excellent with Ghidorah appropriately fearsome and Godzilla makes an appearance to fight them off early and often. I was afraid that this movie will Spider-Man 3 itself into a mash-up of too many villains but King navigates around it well for the most part, dividing up the encounters one at a time in different locations around the world and putting extra monsters on the back burner.
However, as the stakes go global and the movie goes on, any thrills or sense of impending doom slowly gets chipped away by lazy scripting. Any time a character faces imminent death, something else – another monster, another fighter jet – previously unseen in the scene emerges from behind and takes out the threat. Rinse and repeat. A lot. In the end Dougherty gets swallowed up by the scale of it all and the film is gradually undercut by the same problems that has daunted these movies since giant Transformers started battling through Chicago, and Hollywood has yet to satisfyingly solve.
Problem # 1: At the scale of these monsters, they are all too big to make really inventive and satisfying fight scenes. They may bite and slap at each other or fall through a building, but they’re limited in how they can interact with the world. They aren’t exactly going to do par kor their way through an environment throwing punches and driving cars. As much as I like how these movies don’t personify Godzilla – he’s a beast who happens to be on our side because the other monsters are a greater threat – it’s almost impossible to relate to him as a character when the movie wants him to take a heroic role. Godzilla works better in these films as a symbol.
Problem # 2: When the marquee characters are all inhuman beasts, the human characters are always awkwardly shoe-horned in to keep the story moving. In Freddy vs. Jason, the humans used one monster to fight another, in Alien vs. Predator the humans all just got trapped with them and in Transformers machines and humans just became BFFs. In King of the Monsters the scale between these characters is SO different they can barely inhabit the same scene together. There is a solid sequence where Millie Bobby Brown looks out a window into Ghidora’s eye and that’s as close as they can get. Pacific Rim solved this problem brilliantly by having giant mech’s driven by humans. A good version of this weaves the human and monster stories together, making them feed off each other with equally high stakes while not directly interacting. Like how the fight scene at the end of The Matrix Revolutions is connected to the battle of Zion. The cab chase at the end of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 much-maligned Godzilla remake is also a good example of this interaction.
In King of Monsters, the human story becomes more separated from Godzilla as the movie rounds into the finale and it sticks with Chandler, Brown and Farmiga long after it should have turned the film over to the monsters for the final fight. This miscalculation in pace and tone absolutely cripples the finale.
Compare that to the moment in Edwards’ Godzilla when Watanabe (a highlight of this movie as well) says “let them fight” (a moment shamelessly homaged here). It wasn’t just a cool line, it was the starter pistol that turned the movie cleanly over to the monsters and backed the humans out of it. Say what you will about 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island but big special effects driven blockbusters with story structures that clean and perfectly built are rare in a bigger-is-better Hollywood climate. Godzilla: King of the Monsters turns into an overlong mess in an attempt to outdo it’s predecessor.
It’s absolutely tragic given how much I like Legendary’s Monsterverse and the first half of this movie. It’s likely one of those I’ll stop and watch every time it’s on TV, only to be disappointed again and again by the end.