Godzilla: King of the Monsters* may be one of the most frustrating films of the year. On the one hand, the film is instantly THE definitive benchmark in effects and cinematography within the Godzilla franchise. Director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat) has topped the vision first established by Gareth Edwards. This is a film bursting at the seams with gorgeous, glorious, iconic imagery befit for wallpapers, screensavers, and endless YouTube montages. Godzilla and all the monsters he brings along with him have never been captured with such grand scope. Not since Avatar can I say I’ve been this blown away by state of the art effects.
Which makes the warts of this film, unfortunately, stand out even more. For decades we’ve essentially been making the same Godzilla movie – Godzilla fights big bad monster while humans try to intervene. It’s a simple formula that has proven so sustainable solely because of the popularity of the title character and his many foes. However, filmmakers have struggled to make the human component of these films compelling, or just interesting at all. The original 1954 film, still the best of the series, nailed this part down with a tragic parable about Japan in the aftermath of WWII. Subsequently, the franchise has failed this aspect of the story as the spectacle has increased in scale.
One might bemoan this criticism, stating that people only show up for these type of films for the special effects. Normally I’d agree, there are plenty of great films that rely solely on their visual strengths. The difference is, those films typically avoid or hide their weaknesses, whereas King of the Monsters has those flaws clearly on display. For every exhilarating 5 – 10 minute sequence, it is sure to be followed with 30 minutes of dumb characters making dumb decisions. When the worst parts of your film occupy so much of the runtime, it is fair to criticize it’s execution, even in a film where we’re all here to see CGI creatures bash each other’s heads in.
The film kicks off with a flashback to the destruction Godzilla and the MUTOs leveled on San Francisco in the last film. That’s where we find Emma and Mark Russell (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler), as they try to protect their daughter and search for their lost son amongst the rubble. Flash forward to present day and the couple is now divorced, as their now teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) lives with mom while dad globe trots and studies animals. Emma works for Monarch, the omnipresent organization at the center of this monster cinematic universe. They’ve been studying these titans for decades in an attempt to figure out what purpose they serve and how it affects human life. King Kong is even name dropped, a not so subtle preview of future events.
We soon learn that one of the characters WANTS to release these titans on the world because they feel this is earth’s natural way of ridding itself of it’s apparent virus (namely human overpopulation and war). If you think this sounds ludicrous and contrived, it completely is especially when you realize this character was motivated towards this conclusion due to the loss of their son during the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs. This seems like a cheap way for the film to build sympathy and create an illusion of ‘depth’. There’s nothing about the son’s death that leads us to this path, and the sympathy card could’ve been tossed out entirely and the character’s motivation wouldn’t be any less believable. When Batman’s motivation in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice** feels justified and well written in contrast, you know something is wrong.
As a result of several characters seemingly wanting to watch the world burn, we see the awakening and introduction of several monsters, most notably Mothra, Rhodan, and King Ghidorah. Each introduction is spectacular, with Mothra immediately blessing us with beautiful imagery. Rhodan shows up as if hellfire and brimstone is raining down, which segues into one of the best action sequences of the film. King Ghidorah gets the final boss arrival he deserves, and even Godzilla, who we’re already familiar with, gets a nice reintroduction as our human characters look on from a submarine.
Most of the woes in the screenplay can be forgiven because the film is just so damn beautiful, so visually striking and arresting, and the action is impactful and fulfilling. When people dream up their favorite book properties or classic movies being adapted with modern effects, they think of movies like this. The combination of scale, color, contrast, and picture perfect blocking ensures that you’ll never want to divert your eyes from the screen. It’s an outstanding achievement in digital wizardry, one which will be replayed on the biggest screens possible by film enthusiasts for years to come.
In addition, the cast fulfills the thankless task of elevating poor writing choices. There’s even quite a bit of humor this time, much more than the last film, which leaves you wishing that everyone was a little bit more developed. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the faults of the screenplay still leave a negative impact. I’m stuck here wishing that Bryan Cranston had survived the last film and reprised his role here as so far he’s been the only interesting, well rounded character in these two films. Next year, we will see Godzilla vs Kong, and it’s sure to be a blast. I’m just hoping we have a better human story to watch while we wait on the title fight.