Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
After Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot teased out the King of the Monsters like Spielberg did the shark in Jaws, the chief complaint from the online fanboy contingent was that Edwards should’ve had more of the monster v monster action that so many casual viewers were hoping for. Well, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters will satisfy those viewers with plenty of large-scale destruction, but at the expense of the interesting formal and thematic approaches that made Edwards’ film so compelling. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is fun B-movie disaster-entertainment, but it’s lousy as storytelling, even as the naked cinematic universe foundation that the studio so clearly envisions it as.
Starting with a flashback to the finale of 2014’s Godzilla from a different vantage point, aping the opening of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Godzilla: King of the Monsters takes place five years down the road, with monsters known as titans discovered around the globe. An eco-terrorist organization run by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) steals an experimental device capable of controlling titans in order to unleash them upon a human population that has destroyed the environment. The scientist family, the Russells, consisting of ex-spouses Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) get caught in the middle of this conflict, which mostly involves Godzilla battling other titans like the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah and the giant pterodactyl Rodan and humans wasting time with half-baked plots to intervene.
For all the focus on the monster fights in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (and there are plenty of them), the humans at the centre of the film still command a significant amount of the runtime, with the shoddy family dysfunction of the Russells a perfect example of poor blockbuster writing. This kind of writing insists on injecting human drama into VFX spectacles despite the audience’s active disinterest in the drama. For all the derision that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla has received in the years since its release, Godzilla: King of the Monsters feels like a throwback to that Emmerich blockbuster and other vapid blockbusters of the late 90s, and even Emmerich’s own late sequel to Independence Day in 2016, Independence Day: Resurgence. The scientist family at the centre of the film, the eco-terrorist villains, and the alternatingly snarky and stupid government officials of Monarch all seem like Emmerich-style character types, coarsely drawn and essentially devoid of believable motivation, but without the camp that lingers beneath the surface of Emmerich’s film, enlivening them in the process.
For instance, in the opening, we witness Mark and Emma lose their son, Andrew, during the battle of San Francisco at the end of 2014’s Godzilla, destroying their marriage and filling Mark with a deep-seated hatred of the titans. The scene is meant to clarify the motivation for Mark and Emma throughout the rest of the film, but it only serves to demonstrate how poorly calculated the writing is here. For one, the decision is meant to bear witness to the terrible destruction caused by Godzilla and the other titans at the end of the first film, but the destruction at the end of Godzilla was never taken as tragic; it was exhilarating and fans wanted more of it, regardless of all the implied deaths it caused. Furthermore, the Russells were not in the 2014 film. Attempting to graft our response to the climax of the first film (which is miscalculated on the filmmakers’ part, to be clear) onto characters that were not present in that film is not a means of dealing with the first film’s thematic implications, but a dishonest attempt to make us care about the characters in this film by banking on our fondness for the previous film. It is an unsuccessful retconning and an attempt to add complexity to an element of the film that doesn’t need it.
As well, it bears repeating that no one cares about the humans in these films, which was partially the thematic emphasis of Edwards’ film. Edwards’ film used its structure and formal techniques to showcase how insignificant humans are on a global scale, especially when compared to titans like Godzilla. It also got to revel in the monster action, but in clever ways, manipulating tension to make the climax genuinely exciting.
In our 2014 roundtable of Edwards’ film, I discussed in depth how the film was a deliberate homage to Spielberg’s two biggest blockbusters, Jaws and Jurassic Park, even going so far as to structure certain sequences like key moments in those films, such as how the monorail scene in Hawaii mirrors the T-Rex attack at Jurassic Park’s climax. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not nearly as calculated in its influences. Aside from some parallels to the MCU and especially the DCEU (like the DCEU, the MonsterVerse is co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.), King of the Monsters is not particularly film-literate. Its greatest moments are predictably its monster battles, but many of the striking images in these moments were already shown in the trailers, such as when Mothra first unfurls her bioluminescent wings or when King Ghidorah mounts an exploding volcano and extends its wings in triumph, a cross on a Mexican church framed in the foreground making Ghidorah a kind of antichrist.
To be clear, the action is fun. A battle between Godzilla and King Ghidorah in Antarctica is the kind of goofy, kaiju action that fulfills the film’s promise. But even with the added focus on monster battles when compared to 2014’s Godzilla, the lack of nuance in the presentation of these battles and the oversized focus on the perfunctory human elements saps the film of much of its fun. It makes the mistake that the first film avoided, which is tying the personal crises of the main characters to the monsters themselves, making every moment with the humans an irritating reminder of the monsters that are much more interesting. Furthermore, the battle scenes don’t use suspense to build towards spectacular moments, instead indulging in giant imagery and climax at every turn. If every battle is a world-shattering climax, then no single battle is special.
There are superficial pleasures here and the monsters are fun, especially when viewed in IMAX, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters is such a shoddy work of storytelling that it’s not worth suffering all the tedium for the sight of big monsters clobbering each other. I know that all kaiju movies don’t need to be as restrained or high-minded as Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (just look at Guillermo del Toro’s goofy and glorious Pacific Rim), but I’d rather not be insulted when I seek out entertainment of this sort. I know that liking big monsters is rather juvenile of me, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take whatever crap is given me just for a glimpse of atomic breath. Even childish pleasures can be smartly packaged.
4 out of 10
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, USA)
Directed by Michael Dougherty; written by Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on the story by Max Borenstein and Dougherty & Shields, based on the characters created by Toho; starring Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi.