Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was safe to call divisive, but I remain a fan of it because it made some strong choices. Sure, the characters and the plotting were put on the backburner to Godzilla, and for a good reason, as it hits on the film’s trajectory of exposing the lacking of a human perspective and then embarrassing our egocentric human POV. While at the same time the film was steadily focused on holding the tension and making the payoff worth the wait for a great finale. But some audiences weren’t too crazy about the whole waiting thing, and you can see how Kong: Skull Island, the next movie in Legendary’s “monsterverse,” was a bit of a course correction as it didn’t shy away from showing the monsters and piling on the mayhem. Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, tries to split the difference, giving Godzilla the reverence he deserves while also filling up his movie with a lot of extraneous material. Unfortunately, the result is a bloated movie that delivers the occasional striking imagery and exhilarating kaiju fights, but ultimately spends too much time with its dull, borderline inane human characters.
Picking up five years after the events of Edwards’ film, the world has seen the rise of “titans,” monsters like Godzilla who are being tracked by the organization Monarch, which is currently in conflict with the military that wants to eradicate the titans rather than co-exist with them. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is working on a device, the ORCA, to communicate and control the titans, but she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), who wants to use the ORCA to wake up the hibernating titans and cleanse the planet. Monarch, now a bigger organization with more supporting characters, brings in Emma’s estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), who worked on the ORCA with her, to track the device and get it back. Mark agrees so he can rescue their daughter, but it becomes a worldwide chase as King Ghidorah, a three-headed beast, awakens and begins summoning the other titans to him. Humanity’s only hope becomes the big man himself, the titular, Godzilla.
The Godzilla formula is at once very specific and relatively flexible, allowing filmmakers to put their individual stamp on the familiar story of a giant reptile destroying a city. Previous films in the decades-old franchise have offered awe-inspiring spectacle, biting satire, or, most often, kid-friendly goofiness. With this film Michael Dougherty seems at his most comfortable when the movie is all about Godzilla. Although there’s far too many weather effects like snow and rain that kind of obscure the action, you can still get a great picture in the wide shots of the kaiju doing battle. If you’re a fan of Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, then it’s a thrill to see them rendered as full-blown blockbuster creatures rather than B-movie monsters.
However, when Dougherty goes in for closer shots, he loses his geography and some of his pacing. Occasionally bogged down by human POVs, with the camera peering through portholes and helicopter windows. Throughout the battles there’s also this weird need to keep cutting back to the humans (none of whom we care about), and while the humans help provide a sense of scale, they also break the tension of the brawl. Dougherty does at least wisely pull back for a series of wide shots that remind both the audience and the human characters just how massive these monsters are, and how terrifying it can be when they fight.
Millie Bobby Brown & Vera Farmiga in Godzilla: King of the Monsters
The pacing is a problem throughout the film. Even though King of the Monsters is only eight minutes longer than 2014’s Godzilla, it feels much longer because Dougherty doesn’t have Edwards’ knack for building tension on this scale. Again, perhaps that’s a reactionary move to the backlash to Edwards’ movie, but King of the Monsters exonerates Edwards’ decision to methodically ramp up the pressure. The sequel just piles on tons of stuff, and even though this is a great cast, they don’t, in the slightest, build and develop the characters and their relationships with each other. They just get shuttled from one Monarch site to the next, giving loads of exposition (there are literally multiple characters who all they do, for the most part, is give exposition) witnessing some kind of monster battle, and then they move on.
Because there have been so many different iterations of Godzilla throughout the decades, it’s hard to say what the character’s movies are or aren’t. I see and accept that most people don’t go to a Godzilla movie for a rich narrative or interesting characters, with most people going to see the movie simply to see Godzilla fight. But if the majority of your movie is going to be spent with the people, you may want to make them people worth caring about. The characters can’t be at the forefront of your movie and be an afterthought. To put it simply, the film could have greatly benefitted from slimming down the cast of characters, and give real development to just a few.
King of the Monsters has one goal in the mind, which is to up the count of iconic monsters and to simply, “let them fight.” By this modest and singular goal, the movie kind of succeeds even if the battles themselves could stand to be a little stronger rather than just being more expensive than the typical fights between these monsters. But the stuff that surrounds those fights is a drag. It’s in Godzilla, a CGI creation with no dialogue, that gives the film a bright spot, but then you also have some really idiotic twists that are there to move the plot along and it makes the whole thing feel like a cynical attempt to keep the Godzilla franchise going without any real care or attention to anything beyond the kaiju fights. Some may argue you don’t need more than that, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters proves that you do.