Godzilla: King of the Monsters is directed by Michael Dougherty, and written by Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Max Borenstein. The film stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch, and Ken Watanabe, The film is dedicated to executive producer Yoshimitsu Banno and to the original Godzilla suit actor, Haruo Nakajima, both of whom died in 2017.
Being a fan of the now 65 year old Godzilla franchise is tricky business. Anyone with a working knowledge of Godzilla's film history knows of the various ups and downs that the world's most famous kaiju has experienced in the decades following his terrifying 1954 motion picture debut. The king of the monsters started off as a terrifying force of nature that represented the greed and destruction that corroded humanity, specifically the danger of nuclear weapons and their harmful effects on the planet. Then came the 1960s and 70s, which saw Godzilla transform into something of a giant monster superhero, saving Earth from the likes of King Ghidorah and various alien species that looked to wipe out humanity. During that time, Godzilla also acted in the roles of a parent and of an environmentalist. Following a ten year rest during the late 70's and early 80's, Godzilla returned to the big screen in 1984, and from there, he starred in a long lineup of new films that saw him battling several older, classic monsters, as well as a whole host of new monsters. America tried to throw their hat into the Godzilla ring in 1998, but if I only tell you that Roland Emmerich was the director of that 1998 film, you can easily guess how it turned out.
What I'm getting at, basically, is that addressing Godzilla's roller coaster film history is to be expected when it comes to expressing your pride as a Godzilla fan. Several of the older Godzilla films, particularly those from the late 60's and early 70's, are lousy displays of cut-rate special effects, horrendous dubbing, and stories that are often as nonsensical as they are hilarious. And while general improvement in production value did away with many of these issues in later, more recent Godzilla films, the fact remains that no Godzilla film in existence is something you'd want to watch in film school when it comes to learning what it takes to make truly great, compelling cinema. Maybe if that cinema was solely based on entertainment value, I would recommend that Godzilla films be shown in film schools, but let's not kid ourselves here, people: Godzilla is not the film franchise to be looking at if you're looking for Oscar-worthy acting and terrific screenwriting.
Okay, so what's I'm really getting at with all this talk about Godzilla's film history is that American film critics, based on their mixed to negative consensus towards Godzilla: King of the Monsters, are clearly not all super passionate Godzilla fans, and to most of them, King of the Monsters is just a summertime action blockbuster that fails in the story and writing departments. The thing is, it's very difficult to rate/grade a Godzilla film as you would any other film, because, well, all the characters present and writing decisions made have to revolve around the monsters in some way. What else are we here to see aside from giant monsters trampling buildings and fighting each other? Vastly developed characters and one of the greatest stories ever told? My friend, you've come to the wrong place if that's what you're looking for.
Giant monsters fighting each other turns out to be what's at the heart of King of the Monsters' story. The film opens by introducing us to the Russell family: Dr. Mark Russell (Chandler), his wife Emma (Farmiga), and their daughter Madison (Brown). Mark and Emma's son died in the San Francisco attack during the 2014 Godzilla, and the family has been separated ever since. Mark now spends his time researching wolves, while Emma and Madison live together. Emma works as a paleobiologist who researches giant monsters that she refers to as Titans. One day, after interacting with a newly hatched larva of the giant monster Mothra, a group of eco-terrorists, led by Alan Jonah (Dance), kidnap Emma and Madison, intent on using the device that Emma used to interact with the newly hatched Mothra: the Orca. The Orca is capable of giving off sounds that can basically control the mood of any Titan.
The organization known as Monarch, along with doctors Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Hawkins), find Mark and inform him of Emma and Madison's capture. Jonah and his men take Emma and Madison to Antarctica, where they free one of the Titans: the golden, three-headed dragon, Monster Zero (and later, Ghidorah). Ghidorah's emergence leads to the awakening of several other Titans, including the flying pteranodon Rodan. As the Titans begin to lay waste to Earth, one atomic-breathing monster must step up to fight Ghidorah and seize the title of King of the Monsters.
The Godzilla: King of the Monsters trailers do not deceive you with what specific monsters make their presence felt throughout the movie. Godzilla is present (duh), as are Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra. All other monsters in the film, aside from those four, are of little to no importance and are given only a few meager seconds of screen time. What you may not be able to figure out from the trailers is that King of the Monsters largely shapes up to be a Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah remake, except without aliens and time travel. Godzilla and Ghidorah square off several different times throughout the film, with the bulk of the screenplay dedicated towards doing whatever it takes to get Godzilla and Ghidorah in the same location. Now, that means there isn't a whole lot of variety when it comes to different monster vs. monster action throughout the film, but what it does assure us is that King of the Monsters doesn't at all have a problem with being bloated or like it's trying to cram too much plot within a 132 minute span.
- The bizarre thing about King of the Monsters is that, despite using the Godzilla theme song and making several callbacks to earlier films (Monster Zero? Oxygen Destroyer? Anyone?), it does something to distinguish itself quite a bit from other Godzilla films: breathing life into its human characters. Yes, you read that right. King of the Monsters makes a concerted effort towards giving its human characters more than one dimension. It's not the greatest character development you'll ever see, but the screenplay by Dougherty, Shields, and Borenstein does a decent enough job of making the Russell family reunion arc run steadily alongside the monster action, without making it seem out of place and like it doesn't matter at all. Giant monsters are what tore the Russell family apart in the first place, so giant monsters will be what brings the family back together several years later. Mark is the self-defeating father who lets his marriage fall apart. Emma tries to find hope and reason in a seemingly hopeless world filled with giant monsters (let's not waste time analyzing her motivations involving the Titans). Madison, meanwhile, is the unfortunate daughter caught in between, unable to decide who she really wants to be with. There's just enough meat to these characters that we can at least care about where they're going and where they'll be when all is said and done. For a Godzilla film, that's a pretty impressive accomplishment.
- We were promised more Godzilla in King of the Monsters after the 2014 Godzilla was criticized for not having enough of the Big G. My personal issue with the lack of Godzilla in the 2014 film was that the movie inexplicably decided to cut away right when the action was heating up, as if they either didn't have the budget to show multiple Godzilla fights or they were too lazy to make them. Godzilla definitely has a lot more screen time this time around, but what truly makes the monster action excel is that the movie has long enough breaks in between each monster throw down, such that each fight feels earned and brand new, and not wasting away with diminishing returns. Granted, just about every fight is Godzilla vs. Ghidorah, but there is no lame, cutting away from the action early, and there is plenty of memorable fight choreography that the action is just about everything you were hoping to see, as opposed to the monsters just running and clawing at each other like angry raccoons. No WWE wrestling. No over-the-top karate moves. A part of me was wishing to see Godzilla slide on his tail and do that special kick he did in Godzilla vs. Megalon, but that's asking for too much.
- I am not going to go through this review and act like there aren't any problems at all with the characters or the writing. King of the Monsters should probably not have been released right around the same time as Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, because midway through the film, Emma gives us a lengthy monologue about why all these monsters are appearing, and you'll quickly realize that Emma's motivations are almost identical to those of Thanos. Meanwhile, other characters outside of the Russell family barely pass the tolerant threshold. Poor Sally Hawkins, bless her heart, is given next to nothing to do in her role except give basic exposition. Charles Dance also is given next to nothing to do, other than just stand around and look villainous. Bradley Whitford quickly establishes himself as the movie's comic relief, with nearly all his dialogue dedicated towards delivering one liners (the movie ends before it lets him get too out of hand). In short, there's not a whole lot to love when it comes to the supporting characters. As for the plot, it's about as logical as you can make it for a Godzilla film that features multiple monsters. So does that mean it doesn't make any sense? Brother, you already know the answer to that.
It's probably a little brash for me to say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a film designed for the most die-hard Godzilla fans, and no one else. Die-hard fans though, will easily notice the nostalgic theme music, the tiny references to older Godzilla films (Monster Zero, Oxygen Destroyer), and the understanding that plot and character are going to take a backseat to the monsters sooner or later. For everyone else, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is probably nothing more than a dumb summer blockbuster that paves the way for 2020's Godzilla vs. Kong, and you're damn right that I'm gonna be there ASAP when that film hits theaters come March next year. I'm hoping that that film will do just as good, if not better than what Godzilla: King of the Monsters does when it comes to its monster action and its human component. The action is top-notch Godzilla entertainment in King of the Monsters, and the effort towards makings its human characters feel important is a lot more than I can say for many previous Godzilla films. The monster designs, for the most part, are suitable 21st century upgrades, and the CGI is as good as can be for a 2019 monster film. It all adds up to a highly entertaining Godzilla film, and the most successful entry in Legendary's MonsterVerse thus far. Will things get better or worse from here on out? Who knows, but for this Godzilla fan right here, he's just happy that all these beloved kaiju are a popular thing once again, and not completely stuck in the past.
Recommend? Yes. It's highly entertaining, even if you're not the most die-hard Godzilla fan.
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