GODZILLA films are rarely balanced affairs between their kaiju stars and human counterparts. The vast majority of Big G movies (excluding the original 1954 entry, 2016’s SHIN GODZILLA, and maybe a couple of others) have scant amounts of monster action in between long stretches of inane human drama populated by characters that no one really cares about. The human element is a necessary one for these giant monster stories for scale purposes—it lets audiences know how big and powerful the creatures are while also putting some semblance of emotional faces and weights to the destruction being caused. Throughout the GODZILLA films, there have been attempts to make the human components at least as close as interesting as the kaiju brawls. This leads to intrigue with spies and assassins, space aliens that look like PLANET OF THE APES castaways, terrible MATRIX rip-offs, and a bunch of labyrinthine plots that are so far removed from making sense that the light from making sense won’t hit them for another seven years. Or there are attempts to make the human element compelling through drama — GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE‘s ghost daughter plot, for example, or all of that terrible schtick from 1998’s GODZILLA — but they rarely work. The human element in GODZILLA films remains a formula to which most filmmakers don’t have a solution. GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS doubles down on that by not only giving the people a lot more screen time but trying out melodrama and action as a means to make the film’s bloated run time interesting as well. It doesn’t work, and it’s only one problem with the film in a sea of many issues.
Following 2014’s GODZILLA, the world is now fully aware of these “titans” that exist on this planet. Godzilla hasn’t been seen in five years while the government debates between ordering the military to wipe out all of the titans or continuing to let the Monarch organization (headed by Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and Thomas Middleditch) continue to monitor and study the colossal beasts. With this backdrop, Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has just created a means of communicating with the titans by issuing specific noises that imitate predators, friends, etc. When she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are abducted by ecoterrorist Jonah Allen (Charles Dance), estranged husband/father Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is brought in with Monarch to find her and not let the communication device be used to manipulate other titans across the globe. Calamity ensues.
2014’s GODZILLA is a flawed movie. Whether it’s the wasted use of Elizabeth Olsen in a meaningless storyline, or drab Aaron Taylor-Johnson appearing at every meaningful moment in the story like a kaiju version of BAND OF BROTHERS, or how long it takes to introduce Godzilla into a movie with his own name on it — issues abound with it. However, to its credit, there is very little unnecessary melodrama when the monsters aren’t around, and the action is usually caused by (or a symptom of) the carnage the giant creatures are causing. And when Godzilla does show up, it’s for a savage fight that feels choreographed but brutal, and all of it is beautifully captured on frame.
GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS, as directed by Michael Dougherty (KRAMPUS, TRICK ‘R TREAT) from a script by Dougherty along with Zach Shields (KRAMPUS), doesn’t have those positives. Not only is the human story so invasive and poorly done, but it is also badly captured in an incredibly inept way. For the first five scenes that Mark is introduced, there are constant shots of pictures with him and his daughter (or it cuts to his face when his wife and daughter are mentioned) to underscore that this man is related to these people — a fact that has actually already been established previously in the movie (thanks to, yes, more photos). And then Mark shows up and becomes Captain Amazing for the rest of the movie — he knows strategy better than the military, can outflank an armed team of mercenaries better than soldiers, knows the science in all sorts of specialties better than everyone else in the room, and constantly has the “crazy idea” that just might work that every qualified leader is only too happy to listen to and obey. If internet fanboys were honest in looking for unearned abilities and sudden talents outshining the rest of the cast in their fictional characters, Mark Russell in GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS is an incredible example.
The plot keeps trying to be action packed for the humans and also full of melodrama involving betrayals and the Russell family’s issues, and it just doesn’t work. If the filmmakers leaned into it more, elevated it to camp with all sorts of nonsense and mustache-twirling villainy — while cutting the screen time WAY down—then maybe this could have been something. So that just leaves the monsters — or, the reason people are coming to this movie (sorry, David Straitharn stans). They are… okay. Every Godzilla entrance is badass and fun and makes viewers feel excited about what’s about to happen. He’s shown off early in the film, and there are more scenes of him and the other kaiju than 2014’s movie (but there is just so much more time devoted to the awful human plot that it becomes a moving ratio). There are some great moments in the fighting and cool elements that deliver on promises of imagining what a Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah fight would look like in the 21st century. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of awkward shots and cutting away. It is the only time in any GODZILLA movie (except maybe 1998?) where I couldn’t figure out the geography of the action; buildings would suddenly pop up to be destroyed but then it would look like a leveled city again, and it was hard to figure out exactly where each creature was at points.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS isn’t without its charms, of course. The titular monster, as I said, looks great and has real personality — it’s just a shame he’s not used as much as people would like. Charles Dance is very catty as the ecoterrorist unleashing apocalypse, which makes his scenes very fun. Middleditch, Watanabe, and Ziyi Zhang are good in their roles and effectively sell their thin characters. Bear McCreary’s score is a great adaptation and update of classic themes from past Toho films, but with newly added percussion and choruses that make it very engaging and pulse-pounding. The f/x are fairly well done when the poor editing and action cinematography isn’t getting in the way.
It’s a hard problem to solve, the human/Godzilla balance. Maybe humans aren’t needed? Maybe we as a people have seen enough disasters (natural and man-made) in just the past two decades to get the suffering and grief and empathy we should be feeling. Or maybe filmmakers need to figure out what type of movie they are telling, with their giant lizard monster in a central location, and build the tone around that. Is it a sober warning about climate change or impending wars? Is it a popcorn bit of entertainment with brawling titans? GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS never knows and tries throwing all sorts of dead-end plot threads and ineffective emotional beats at the audience. Onto GODZILLA VS. KONG next, I guess. Good luck, Adam Wingard; our nerddom turns its geeky eyes to you.
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Tags: Aisha Hinds, Bear McCreary, Bradley Whitford, CCH Pounder, Charles Dance, David Strathairn, GARETH EDWARDS, GODZILLA, Haruo Nakajima, Joe Morton, Ken Watanabe, King Ghidorah, Kyle Chandler, Lawrence Sher, Legendary Pictures, Max Borenstein, Michael Dougherty, Millie Bobby Brown, mothra, O'Shea Jackson Jr., rodan, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch, Toho, Tom Woodruff Jr., Vera Farmiga, Yoshimitsu Banno, Zach Shields, Zhang Ziyi