2014’s Godzilla was a bit of a mess. It was often grainy and unintelligible to watch, and with the exception of a couple of notable supporting actors (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche), it had a largely unexciting cast that never really captured audiences. It also, somewhat shockingly, had surprisingly little actual Godzilla in it — by most estimates, there were no more than nine minutes of the monster shown in the entire 123-minute runtime. It’s a film I enjoyed watching because it’s a Godzilla movie, though not necessarily because it’s a good movie.
Since then, we’ve had a rousing, exciting King Kong movie in Kong: Skull Island that seemed to promise a broader, more monster-heavy future for the franchise, now in the hands of Legendary Pictures and titled the “Monsterverse.” It took a little bit, but now they’re back with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and they’ve clearly taken some of those criticisms to heart. The new film, despite being a good deal more apocalyptic than its predecessor, is also a good bit more fun. This is no surprise considering that director and co-writer Michael Dougherty cut his teeth with the sublime Trick ‘R Treat, and it made the film significantly more enjoyable.
But there’s also a feeling of desperation to the production, as if they wanted to overload on everything to try to compensate for the weaknesses of its predecessors. Unlikable leads? We’ve got that covered! We brought in everyone — Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Bradley Whitford, Millie Bobby Brown, Tywin Lannister, Thomas Middleditch, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Zhang Ziyi, Aisha Hinds, in addition to the returning Watanabe, Hawkins, and David Strathairn. The film is packed with characters, and given its nonstop action, this has the unfortunate side effect of the audience never really getting to know any of them. Yes, you learn about the family dynamic between divorced scientists Mark and Emma Russell (Chandler and Farmiga) and their daughter Maddie (Brown, who is terrific here). But everyone else is essentially defined by a few lines of clever dialogue, which is a shame when you have that strong a set of actors to play with.
That’s not to knock the action, which is constant and almost exhausting. But it does almost feel like overcorrection. There was a certain degree of nuance to the first film, a more contemplative style that was well-used by its director (Gareth Edwards, Monsters, Rogue One). This one? Hell no. It’s a cacophonous horse race from the get-go, and at 132 minutes, that sometimes feels like a long-ass race. The plot is a wild one, featuring the reappearance of the shadowy monster-seeking organization Monarch, government interference, murderous eco-terrorists, weird technology that relies on bio-accoustics, and everything else in-between. The long and short of it is that the various “titans” of the world have been long dormant, but are either waking up, or being woken up. These monsters respond to an “alpha”, and the problem that humanity faces is which alpha will they follow — the benevolent-if-terrifying Godzilla? Or the malevolent, more terrifying Ghidorah, a three-headed, two-tailed behemoth that seems determined to reduce the world to ashes.
What follows is a series of harrowing scenes of devastation, as the monsters rampage across the world and trash everything in their path. Entire cities are laid to waste, while the agents of Monarch try desperately to figure out how to stop them, leading them to inevitably try to team up with Godzilla. There’s a lot happening, story-wise, and unfortunately, a good bit of it is either superfluous or needlessly complex. There’s a Maguffin of a suitcase that holds the key to everything, and it’s chased around the globe alongside the monsters themselves. But despite all this chaos and mayhem, King of the Monsters manages to be surprisingly fun. Kudos to Whitford, Middleditch and Jackson for keeping things occasionally light, a nice compliment to the relentless and often overwrought seriousness that Chandler brings to the table — they make things fun even if you never really get to know them. But more importantly, the film feels like more of a loving throwback to the Toho classics than the first film, as if a bit more of that spirit was present.
If it sounds contradictory — this juxtaposition of global apocalypse with enjoyable romp — it is. And it is at times difficult to reconcile. The fact is that over the course of the film, literal millions probably die, and it’s hard to think of that as “fun”. But at the same time, it’s also … giant monsters. Like, GIANT monsters. And they’re beautifully rendered and animated, with stunning sounds and fluid movements, engaged in well-choreographed battles that feel real. The film is absolutely gorgeous, using far more color this time around, and not filmed exclusively on rainy nights and all of this keeps it engaging and at times, even enthralling.
Yet at the end, I feel I must repeat — sort of — what I said earlier about the first film. I think there’s joy to be found in Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it’s a very good Godzilla film (and definitely superior to the 2014 film). Yet I’m not certain how much love it will garner for those who aren’t fans of the big greenie. It’s exciting and there’s a strange loveliness to be found amidst all the bedlam that these monsters wreak. But it also feels quite bleak at times, and it’ll be up to the individual viewer to reconcile those things. Those of you who grew up with Creature Double Features, who yearn to see these new incarnations of Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidora and their ilk back on the screen? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers