Movie Review: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

Although Godzilla has been around for decades, the current iteration of films here in the United States began in 2014 with the utterly mediocre “Godzilla.”  The film is shot with a fetish for not showing the title creature himself and delivers an awful story, making this year’s sequel a daunting challenge.  Not only does the new film, “Godzilla:  King of the Monsters,” have to keep some of the same basic mythology laid out in the first movie (like the organization, Monarch, which monitors the activity of all these super-sized creatures known as Titans in the film), it has to jettison everything that doesn’t work from that film and enhance the little which does.  Somehow, the new film, which is directed by Michael Dougherty does a more than adequate job, bringing life to the classic Toho characters.

Yes, “characters.” As the title implies, the monsters run wild in this movie, with Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidora all putting in appearances. They are gorgeous looking CGI creatures, with a few shots actually offering memories of rubber-suited glory. Some of the massive scale of the creatures is lost amongst the moving camera and quick cuts, but Dougherty and company do a far better job here depicting the creatures than is done by Gareth Edwards and his team on the 2014 movie.  There is a weight to the monsters fighting and an amazement at watching their actions.  Some shots put the monsters in the background as other things happen in front of them and there’s a sense of veracity to these despite their obviously being fake.

Also a substantial improvement for this movie is the tale of the human characters.  Gone is the lackluster tale of one army man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) just trying to get back to wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child (Carson Bolde) and magically running into Kaiju at every turn.  It is replaced with the less lackluster tale of one man (Kyle Chandler) trying to get back his wife (Vera Farmiga) and child (Millie Bobby Brown) after the latter are kidnapped by an organization bent on releasing the Titans. While Mark Russell (Chandler) may continually come across massive beasts here, just as Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody did in the last movie, it actually makes sense this time.  Russell is cajoled into returning to Monarch to help put a stop to the kidnappers’ plans (they are led by Charles Dance in an underutilized role) and those plans involve a whole lot of Titans.

The twists and turns the story takes do feel relatively rushed, but Chandler and Farmiga bear the weight well.  Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe return for this film as Monarch scientists (as is David Strathairn as Admiral Stenz).  Wonderfully, they both get more to do here than last time as Monarch is a far larger part of the tale.  Certainly some of this is due to “King of the Monsters” needing to lead into next year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” as is Bradley Whitford’s Monarch scientist continually going on about the “Hollow Earth” theory, but it holds together enough to get the Titans fighting, which is the point of the entire affair.

This is not to say that the story isn’t a little silly, but we’re talking about a movie where massive monsters roam the Earth laying waste to cities.  Some silly ought to be expected.

One of the most fascinating aspects of “King of the Monsters” is its understanding of our world and what we, as humans, have done to it combined with the results of the Titans acting upon it.  San Francisco and Vegas, decimated in the last film, have seemingly turned into (at least) partial forests.  The terrorists’ plan of  unleashing the Titans may be wrongheaded but their goal is to have a stable, harmonious, Earth; to have a planet where humans aren’t destroying the environment.

The whole concept of a stable planet and how the Titans affect it is given short shrift in a film which also has to have massive fights, offer up cool technology, and solve the problems of one little family, but it’s a wonderful bit of background.  One wonders how it will be further taken up in “Godzilla vs. Kong” and whatever other movies are sure to come down the line from this one.

This movie, unlike “Avengers:  Endgame” which may have momentarily offered a glimpse at a destroyed world due to the events of a previous film, seems to truly care about such things.  The devastation wrought upon our world feels more important and more real than in the MCU.  It is well conceived and well executed.

We are only three movies into the new franchise at this point (counting “Kong:  Skull Island”), but “Godzilla:  King of the Monsters” is head and shoulders the best of the offerings.  It makes a whole lot more sense than the previous “Godzilla,” features better fights than that film, and is more than the middling “Apocalypse Now” redux “Kong” turns into.  Chandler and Farmiga bring an energy to the movie that is lacking in the 2014 film, while Hawkins and Watanabe offer up pathos.  O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Anthony Ramos, Joe Morton, CCH Pounder, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, and Ziyi Zhang help round out the characters and provide more than a little amusement.

“Godzilla:  King of the Monsters” is by no means a perfect film, but it ought to put a smile on the faces of everyone in the audience. Like its namesake, it is big and loud and angry and one wants to believe that it truly cares about the world at large.

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photo credit: Warner Bros.

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