It’s hard to find a popular franchise film more divisive than Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which alienated viewers for a number of reasons when it debuted back in 2014. Edwards attempted to hone in on the horror, in both destruction and in the realization of our cosmic insignificance, that a giant monster like Godzilla or the “MUTOs” would inspire, at the expense of the monster action that fans had come to expect from the franchise. The film is practically stuffed with arresting imagery, such as the strike team’s HALO jump in the skies above the burning ruins of San Francisco, of which only a filmmaker like Edwards could be responsible for, but it failed in one key attribute: The casting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was not the man to lead this film, and his performance helped to suck some of the life out of an otherwise breathtaking experience. Kong: Skull Island, for all of its faults, managed to rectify a number of the character issues that the first Godzilla had, perhaps because of its Vietnam War-era setting, or, more importantly, because King Kong movies have always been able to carve out a niche for their characters that exist in pleasant opposition to the giant ape at its core. This is a harder feat in something like a Godzilla movie, where existential terror is more of the point, rather than the cruelty in humanity’s exploitation of the natural world, but we Americans are always going to give our stars screen time.
So, Mike Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an attempt to straighten out the new Godzilla franchise by making it conform more easily to the conventions of the disaster movie genre, much like Roland Emmerich did back in 1998. Of course, it is a thousand times more successful on that front than the Matthew Broderick vehicle ever was, and its action is stronger at times than in Edwards’ film, but it ultimately feels like a half-measure for this new franchise, meant to please too many people at once, and, in the process, it loses its identity. The stretch-marks of continuity are ever-present across this film’s bloated runtime, as it’s pulling double-duty, attempting to set up the Monsterverse’s first big crossover, hitting theaters next year, and the inevitable Godzilla sequel in the future afterwards, in order to keep the Big Kaijungus himself at the forefront of our collective imaginations.
Godzilla, this time, serves as the main metaphor for the destruction and schism caused by a parent’s change in attitude after a divorce, whether that be in the form of an attraction to fundamentalism or depression. Those parents are played by Kyle Chandler (it is very fun to imagine this being a movie that his character from Peter Jackson’s King Kong is starring in) and Vera Farmiga, who, in the aftermath of losing a child to Godzilla’s battle against the MUTOs in 2014, fell apart. Chandler’s a wildlife photographer who buries himself in his work and his whiskey, and Farmiga’s a scientist for MONARCH, the SHIELD-equivalent of the Monsterverese, who has developed a way to communicate with the “Titans” that are hidden all over the world. Their remaining daughter, played by Stranger Things star Millie Bobbie Brown, is understandably upset about her parents’ separation, but she’s able to follow along with her mother on her travels, and is able to see things that the average human could only imagine, so it’s a pretty good trade mark. One day, we’ll truly be able to understand the havoc that the Spielbergs’ divorce had on American pop culture over the years, but Dougherty feels very indebted to the beard in his checklist-like approach to the emotional material here. It’s sort of acknowledged and never really quite explored, and it feels very performative and perfunctory.
Anyways, after an eco-terrorist group attacks the facility that Brown and Farmiga are staying at and kidnaps them, Chandler’s recruited by MONARCH scientist Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, once again elevating this movie simply by his presence) and G-Team head Diane Foster (Aisha Hinds) to help track down his wife, and to perhaps give some advice about Godzilla’s potential movements. But the eco-terrorists have a plan, of course: Their leader, as played by Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance, wants to resurrect all of the monsters lying dormant beneath the Earth’s crust, starting with King Ghidorah, who is encased in Antarctic Ice (those potentially worried about superbugs coming from melting ice-caps: You should now be concerned about three-headed dragons coming to fuck your shit up as well). So, the G-Team, which comprises a few Special Forces soldiers (including ones played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Anthony Ramos, given fuck all to do here), silent scientists (Sally Hawkins, whose brief appearance here makes it clear that she got the fuck out of dodge the minute The Shape of Water started to get Oscar heat), and comic relief characters (Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford, each competing to see who can give the audience a migraine first), must stop the eco-terrorists from completing their goal. As you probably have surmised, they fail, and the world is basically over. So humanity must turn to their last protector, Gojira himself, in order to save their bacon. There are a few stabs at comparing the Kaiju to climate change, or other eco-disasters, but they’re just glancing blows, which never really stick.
Dougherty feels torn between two impulses: On one hand, he wants to maintain the scale and staging of Edwards’ previous installment, and on the other, he wants to give into the crowd who was angry about the lack of monster-thrashing that happened in the 2014 film. This results in a half-hearted compromise, in which a number of action sequences are set at the ground level that frequently interrupted said kaiju throwdowns. There are moments when the former approach works here — for instance, a Spielbergian interaction between Farmiga, Brown, and the larval Mothra is able to capture the scope and wonder of that encounter from a child’s perspective — but others, like a scene in which our leads, on the diamond of a ruined Fenway Park, have to evade the footsteps of Godzilla and Ghidorah in their final battle, are so hopelessly incomprehensible and ugly that they just take you out of the viewing experience all together. There are times in which it gets incredibly frustrating, as well, such as the moment when, right after said apocalyptic final battle starts, the airplane that our heroes travel onboard swoops into view, and we’re taken away from the action for another two or three minutes, so that we can see our human protagonists ooh and ahh over unknown spectacles that we aren’t privileged enough to see. It’s so frustrating and disappointing that this, of all things, is what the makers of the Monsterverse took away from Godzilla, instead of the pulse-pounding fear and existential helplessness that such a gigantic creature would cause to a species so convinced of our worldwide dominance, which Edwards realized so smartly.
That said, there are still some awe-inspiring moments sprinkled throughout (especially the emergence of Mothra’s final form, which is worthy of the IMAX treatment), especially during the fight sequences. They’re well worth the ticket price for the Godzilla fan, including a special moment near the end of the film that, trailers be damned, I won’t spoil for you here. In addition, Dougherty does have some wild ambitions which manifest themselves in the film’s second half, which manages to take King of the Monsters to some really interesting places (and I mean that literally, as there is a setting in this film that single-handedly saved the movie for me). Had he been able to make his Destroy All Monsters with a studio budget behind it, I imagine I would have enjoyed this a ton more, as he clearly wants to go there! There’s no better proof in the fact that, when liberated from the human POV, he excels at giving some solid monster-on-monster action.
It’s basically Monstermania XXXV, all things considered, so when Rodan and Ghidorah show up for their tag-team match against Godzilla and Mothra at the end of the movie, it’s not going to be too hard to get the crowd to pop. But I wonder if Dougherty would have been better off being able to make his own film, without the heavy producer oversight here: It’s not like the concept of a “monsterverse” hasn’t survived the presence of stylistic filmmaking before. But the end goal here, after all, is to establish the new status quo for Godzilla vs. Kong, and to ensure that your asses will be firmly in those theater seats next March for Monstermania XXXVI, and if you’re entertained in the process by Godzilla: King of the Monsters, well, that’s a pleasant enough side effect.