Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by like, seven fucking people
Starring Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga, and Kyle Chandler
Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 because Godzilla ain’t scary, y’all
by Allison Yakulis
I’m going to go ahead and admit right up front that I missed Godzilla (2014), of which this film is a sequel, and will therefore be unable to compare Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) to its immediate predecessor. What I can tell you is that it’s fairly easy to follow this film without seeing the first, and from what I understand there is only a little overlap in characters between the two. While I’m sure there was probably a call-back or two that went over my head, on the whole this movie stands up on its own and is very much its own story.
Having gotten that out of the way, I found Godzilla: King of the Monsters to be just ok. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with what I expect from my humongous monster movies. G: KotM made some good moves in character design and world-building, but it doesn’t manage to score many points with plot or special effects. The overall result is underwhelming.
The story utilizes the classic themes you’d expect from a Godzilla movie, specifically nuclear and environmental fear as well as some reactionary military (and individual) behavior. While the original Godzilla franchise has been analyzed as a metaphor for the destructive side of nuclear power, more recent incarnations will occasionally fold in modern, man-made environmental concerns (among them global warming, overpopulation, pollution, and so on). These are touched on here, as well as providing various characters with the motivation for their actions. It doesn’t really Say Something about these issues, although it tries to act like it does with a big info-dump about how partial destruction will bring future salvation (not unlike Thanos’ rationale in those Marvel Avengers movies). Still, I don’t think you can deduct points for this oversight in good conscience as classic Godzilla flicks also tended to neglect a final moral lesson sometimes.
Another concept that is referenced multiple times in the movie is that of animal and pack behavior, specifically that there is an “alpha” or “king” that leads the rest. This is achieved through giant monster fights, and reaffirmed by the sound frequency of their roars (apparently alphas sound different, somehow. This isn’t fully explained). Some of our friendly nerds happen to have created a device that can emit these sorts of frequencies, influencing the behavior of monsters within earshot. The whole concept is pretty useful as it serves to sufficiently rationalize the giant monster fights, it lets the clever nerds be all clever and nerdy at opportune moments, and it makes the subheading “King of the Monsters” that much more meaningful.
The acting is decent, although the show is frequently stolen by more minor characters. Really, the cast is so large that very few people get to talk at length and usually get but a small scene or two in the spotlight. There are a few standouts for me though. Ken Watanabe reprises his role as Dr. Serizawa from the first movie and he’s versatile as heck, being at turns stately, wry, and heartfelt as the scene requires. While a few scenes try to be touching, Mr. Watanabe is the only one that managed to melt my black little heart. Charles Dance debuts as Alan Jonah, a British ex-military man turned eco terrorist and he (predictably) oozes sinister intent. Definitely a solid choice. O’Shea Jackson Jr. as a military guy employed by Monarch gets most of the laughs with biting sarcasm frequently at the ready. And of course, Bradley Whitford is always a joy in a scientist role in a monster movie. His Dr. Rick Stanton is apparently based off of the popular title character from the television show Rick and Morty (click warning: spoilers for other easter eggs), and his exasperation with everything and everyone around him is also a source of levity.
As for our other stars, the monster designs are tight. They stay true to the rough outline of each character to the point where you probably won’t need the exposition to name them, but also looked sufficiently majestic and bad-ass. A lot of thought went into the updates they made and it shows. Further, some of the movement and expression clearly borrows from actual animal behavior, making it believable in a way that you can feel in your gut. These monsters feel like they could be real.
Unfortunately, this triumph of concept and execution in design really takes a bath when it shows up on screen. G: KotM manages the occasional Really Nice Shot, with one or more of our titular kaiju just really giving it to the camera. However, those four or five poster-perfect moments aside, the bulk of the movie ranges from being just-ok to not-not-that-great to look at. Most of the big battles take place at night and during extreme weather conditions, which results in dark and fuzzy fight scenes. At times it was hard for my eye to follow what was going on, and the action sequences are really supposed to be the main draw here. Interestingly, as something of a side effect this general drabness makes Mothra and her bioluminescence a lot more brilliant, beautiful, and impressive by comparison so...silver lining?
When we’re spending time with our human actors, it’s not really any better. Most of those scenes take place in underground bunkers, submarines, or air ships which do little to add visual interest. Occasionally something cool to look at pops up, but not nearly as often as it should.
I would say the biggest let-down was the amount of restraint shown in employing good ol’ fashioned city stomping. The lion’s share of destruction happens off-screen or peripherally. But folks, this is Godzilla! King of the darn Monsters! I was hoping for a couple of really knock-down, drag-out bouts between giant irradiated monsters with more lasers than a Daft Punk show and more building smashing than Man of Steel (2013) and I walked away feeling like I didn’t get enough of a fix. The brawls are fairly one-on-one, which is fine, I guess, but it’s easy. I was hoping for a Royal Rumble and got more of a standard card. At least one of the trailers seemed to show more monsters than we devote screen time to (yes, Original G and Ghidorah are prominently featured, with some supporting carnage from Rodan and Mothra - anyone else you think you saw is not a star so much as an easter egg. Sorry). It felt like there was only moderate use of lasers, more talk of city smushing than we got to see, and more of an emphasis on limb-rending and the like than I expected from this type of film. I think it misses the mark on what makes Godzilla as a franchise special. I also feel like some of the trailers and the title itself imply more action than the final product was able to deliver.
Overall, this wasn’t a bad way to spend part of an afternoon and as far as summer blockbusters go I’m sure you could do a lot worse. But, see, Japan had a near-monopoly on giant monsters for over 60 years - Toho’s films are the standard for the franchise, and most other movies with oversized monsters mechanical, alien, or ancient will be rightfully compared to them. They’re still at it, as Toho released its own Godzilla reboot, Shin Godzilla, just three years ago in 2016 so it’s not even like this is filling some kind of vacuum. For a film that pays so much lip-service to the “alpha” and the “king”, Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn’t live up to the legacy it comes from or the hype it has tried so fervently to generate.