Here’s something you may not know about me: I am a massive Godzilla fan. From the age of three, I’ve loved the apathetic city-destroyer who is both humanity’s biggest threat and greatest ally. And as I grew older, and saw the original Gojira, I learned to appreciate the film series as an anti-war morality play. After 2014’s truly spectacular Godzilla, and the remarkable marketing campaign featuring America’s introduction to King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan, I had high hopes for Michael Dougherty’s newest incarnation Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Unfortunately, the film falls well short of expectations – despite one of the most marvelous technical accomplishments I have seen in a big-budget blockbuster, King of the Monsters fails its audience both narratively and performatively, leaving everyone from fans to casual moviegoers wanting more.
It’s been five years since the destruction of San Francisco, when Godzilla defeated the MUTOs and revealed to the world that monsters exist. Shadowy government agency MONARCH studies these creatures in secret, let by Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), in order to keep tabs on the 17 (and counting) Titans hibernating throughout the world. These include a certain giant ape on Skull Island, a fire-breathing pterodactyl in Mexico named Rodan, a massive butterfly named Mothra, and a hideous three-headed beheamoth named Ghidorah. However, when an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance) unleashes these creatures upon an unsuspecting world, it will bring about a battle to determine once and for all who is the true King of the Monsters. Caught in the middle of it all is the Russell family, who is grieving the loss of a son during Godzilla’s previous rampage: Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), an animal behavior specialist, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a paleobiologist, and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who just wants her parents to get along.
I suppose I should start with what doesn’t work in this film, so strap yourselves in. I think my biggest problem with the film, overall, is the general lack of respect for human life across the board. I’m not saying a big spectacle can’t massacre a few million people to establish stakes – I’m saying that if you’re going to do so, you need to make the cost of human life clear. A perfect example is a scene midway through the film where Rodan causes a windstorm through the streets of a Mexican city, sweeping a mom and son into the air and gripped desperately by two MONARCH soldiers. It’s all very harrowing, except…we never see them again. We have no idea if they live or die. In order for audiences to empathize with the destruction onscreen, and truly feel the stakes of the story, we need to understand the severity of the peril, like the waitress in The Avengers whom we see multiple times building up to her rescue by Captain America, or the controversial Game of Thrones episode “The Bells,” which brilliantly introduced and fleshed out the innocent people of King’s Landing so Daenerys’ destruction would feel more devastating. And while Godzilla: King of the Monsters hints at this level of maturity in its opening scenes, where the Russell family screams for their son Andrew in vain as Godzilla stomps around above them, even this moment feels wasted in the grand scheme of things by a group of characters that in no way care about their dead son/brother. Perhaps the most egregious example of this callousness comes during the first encounter with Ghidorah, when Sally Hawkins’ Dr. Graham is crushed underneath Ghidorah’s tail in the background. Why am I spoiling this plot point? I think the answer is clear from that description: one of the biggest stars in the movie, and one of the only returning characters in this saga, is killed IN. THE. BACKGROUND. As an afterthought. And no character even responds to it. They all just move on with their lives, as if nothing had happened. It’s enough to make your blood boil. Of course, it’s hard to blame the characters for these downfalls: they’re all too dumb to even handle complex emotions. There’s an entire subplot where a MONARCH base is wiped out by the eco-terrorists and it takes several days for anyone to realize they hadn’t heard anything from the base. When given a choice between leaving with the eco-terrorists and her own father, Madison chooses the men she’s seen murder people and tried to release an alien demon because…her dad had a drinking problem? And when one character is revealed to be a villain all along (in a haphazard twist that would have been interesting if it weren’t so lazily and confusingly introduced), their justification is so insane it’s hard to understand, let alone empathize with. I’m not saying a monster movie needs to devote all its time to characters we don’t care about (after all, we’re only hear to see the big dinos punch each other). But if there’s no emotional stakes to draw us in as audience members, then what’s it all for?
Perhaps the lack of likable humans or compassionate sensibilities wouldn’t have been as huge a deal if the script had been better. Unfortunately, King of the Monsters goes the route of so many big-budget action films to come before: lazy screenwriting and baffling decision-making. The screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields throws us straight into the midst of things, with no breath to help the audience understand what’s going on. It’s one thing when Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy drop us in a fantastical world and then let us get acquainted with the world-building; it’s another thing entirely to shout a bunch of scientific words at the audience until they’re beaten into submission. What’s worse is the fact that the dialogue and story that they’ve surrounded this action with is just bad. Every cliché you can think of is thrown into this piss poor excuse of a script – and I’m not just referring to the fact that the film ironically has the same structure and emotional climax as How To Train Your Dragon 3, a film I watched 24 hours before seeing Godzilla. I mean this film across-the-board uses the most irritating, grating clichés you can think of. Clichés like the Big Senate Hearing, one of the most overused action tropes of the 21st century (brought to you by Iron Man 2 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and so on), or the fact that the villains are eco-terrorists (Batman & Robin and Quantum of Solace and The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and…). Characters speak in trite aphorisms that match their personalities – the brainiacs call Ghidorah “an invasive species” while the bookworms call him “a false king.” A wise old Asian man gives advice like, “Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons that created them;” not only is this advice complete nonsense, the character delivering it – Ken Watanabe, a beloved Japanese actor – claims he got it “off a fortune cookie.” I’m not even going to touch the racial ramifications of that sentence. Any time the film even touches on something interesting – like the fact that the characters all go to Atlantis at some point, without even mentioning the fact that they go to Atlantis – the filmmakers just move on quickly, as if there’s nothing important with this storytelling decision. They may casually throw out that Godzilla moves around the Earth so fast because, “Oh, Hollow Earth Theory is actually real” (the line is actually this simple, it’s not a paraphrase), but lord knows we need more scenes of Kyle Chandler sadly looking at photographs. And to make it all worse, these moronic side stories and terrible time fillers force us to wait almost an hour for Godzilla to show up and start fighting. I know that the wait made the original Godzilla better, but now that we know that he exists, and we know he’s going to protect us, the mystery is gone. It just leaves us sitting in the theater shouting, “WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO GET TO THE FIREWORKS FACTORY?!?” By the time the film reaches its conclusion, I found myself not caring about the spectacular fight I was witnessing onscreen, and instead asking a series of questions I knew the filmmakers wouldn’t bother to answer. Why was a little girl trying to lure the monsters away from a heavily fortified position to attack her standing in the middle of an open field? Why are these characters who have been throw around by 200-story creatures and subjected to massive amounts of radiation not dead yet? How did a literal Wooly Mammoth cross the Atlantic Ocean? How did the characters manage to spot another character’s death from the other side of a major U.S. city? And why is the ending somehow both a demented shot-for-shot remake of The Lion King AND a traumatic nuclear explosion over said major U.S. city? Oh, and side note: it’s a little weird that this film fetishizes nuclear weapons and atomic bombs when the series it’s based on intended it to be an allegory for the traumas of nuclear warfare. In terms of story structure, this is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever encountered.
All these disappointments are made doubly insulting, because there’s so much great stuff in this film it’s a crime to see it wasted on mediocrity. On a technical level, this is one of the more impressive films you will see all year. The effects on these creatures are downright awe-inspiring – the reveals of Mothra and Ghidorah are absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography is breathtaking – two sequences in particular where my jaw physically dropped include a shot of the U.S. Capitol submerged in water and a scene where King Ghidorah sits on top of a volcano in front of a cross, a symbol for the Anti-Christ claiming to be a false king (that’s right, this movie has Biblical analogies. If only they’d double down on that). There are several tragic moments that truly make no sense, but somehow have the proper emotional resonance they require. And the sound design is impeccable, making every roar from the creatures, every crack of ice, and every roar of thunder ring out with proper grandeur. But perhaps the film’s biggest accomplishment is its music. The score by composer Bear McCreary is properly bombastic, carrying the weight and the scope of the story on its back. And in an exciting turn of events, while the score had hinted at it throughout, the climactic battle elects to incorporate Akira Ifukube’s iconic Gojira theme, which is easily one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, and which fits in perfectly with the story at hand. Hell, even the anticlimactic ending has a brilliant use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” just for an added sense of fun. This is a technically masterful piece of filmmaking, which just makes you sad when compared to its narrative choices.
As for the acting in this film, there are a few, sparse great performances, but they mostly are drowned out in a sea of terrible acting. Kyle Chandler in particular borders on unwatchable throughout the film. While I usually enjoy Chandler as an actor, here he makes almost every wrong decision an actor could make, allowing his motivations to change every scene and butchering every line read he is given – a fact made worse by the realization that 90% of his lines solely exist to espouse exposition. As for Farmiga, it’s pretty clear from her first scenes that she wanted out of her contract early on, and when the studio said no she chose to perform like there was a gun to her head. However, the worst performance out of the bunch, I’m sorry to say, is Bradley Whitford as Dr. Rick Stanton. Apparently a thinly-veiled nod to Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, Whitford somehow plays the character all wrong, showing up randomly only to say supposedly “funny” lines (they aren’t) and ham it up for the camera. It is one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a big budget blockbuster, and I’ve seen most Michael Bay films and all of the Jurassic World franchise. Most of the rest of the cast does a decent enough job to move the story along. There are a few stumbles from the team of soldiers, including O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, and Anthony Ramos, but they are mostly decent enough to serve as a demonstration of how wasted these three actors are. David Strathairn shows up just long enough to make you say, “Wait, David Strathairn was in the first one?” Despite some terrible lines to deliver, Ken Watanabe is always great in these types of films. Thomas Middleditch does his usual Thomas Middleditch shtick, but it’s mostly less grating than it has been in other films. And speaking of actors doing their usual thing, Charles Dance basically shows up to say snarky, evil lines and menace children – basically the entirety of his Game of Thrones career in one two-hour movie. He does fine, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The only performance that really stands out to me in the entire film is Millie Bobby Brown, who makes her character funny, likable, human, and empathetic in every scene she’s in. The film really should have doubled down on the plot it clearly balked on and just made her the star. Honestly, the one thing I consistently thought throughout this entire film about giant monsters fighting is, “Wow, it must be hard for all these professional actors to know they’re getting out-acted by a fifteen-year-old girl.” She definitely has a bright future ahead of her. Oh, and as a side note about how confusing this film is: the phenomenal actress Zhang Ziyi shows up in this film as a scientist, and apparently she plays twins. I honestly didn’t know she played two characters until I did my usual research for writing this review, and this revelation baffles me to no end.
I guess the best summary for how I felt about Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that I was more excited when I thought this film was 100 minutes long. Had this film cut off the fat, eliminated the unnecessary moments of stupid characters like Kyle Chandler and Bradley Whitford, actually shown compassion for the human element, and just focused on the dinosaur fighting the dragon, this film could have been great. It was technologically worthy enough. Unfortunately, bad storytelling and terrible acting squander any goodwill the cinematography, score, and effects build up. I guess if you’re looking for a Saturday night rental, and you want to see how pretty this film looks in 4K, you could do far worse than Godzilla. But otherwise, watching such a beloved, intelligent film character get wasted on such a lazy story isn’t worth your precious time.