In a way, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the film that shows us that Warner Bros., the makers of 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, are fully committed to creating a full-on, monster-based cinematic universe that is leading up to Godzilla vs. Kong, set to be released in March 2020. We’re starting to see characters return (entirely from Godzilla, since Skull Island was set in the late 1970s), and learn more about Monarch, the organization that was revealed at the end of Skull Island as being a decades-old group committed to finding and observing a small army of giant monsters called Titans. The monsters exist hidden around the world and seem to be emerging in the present day for reasons that become all too clear.
From director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus), Godzilla: King of the Monsters picks up five years after Godzilla. The world now knows and accepts that these monsters exist and that Godzilla, as infrequently as he may make his presence known, is a friend to the human population, at least for now. As the film opens, we meet Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (a big-screen debut for “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown). The doctor has developed a machine that can simulate the soundwaves that the Titans use to communicate with each other, in the hopes that she can tame the savage beasts if any turn out to be hostile toward humans.
But just when she is in the midst of testing her machine on a newly emerging Mothra, a group of terrorists (led by Charles Dance, formerly of “Game of Thrones”) grab up the doctor and Madison in the hopes of using the machine to spark a global cleansing at the hands (wings, claws, teeth, fire-breath, etc.) of the Titans. Believing that the destruction of the environment has triggered the Titans’ coming out of hiding, the group plots to level most of the pollution-causing cities and machines on the planet. It becomes clear that the monster king that wants to lead the charge against human civilization is King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon that somehow has the ability to regrow a head if one gets cut off. And because this film is intent on matching the exact kaiju lineup from 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, we also get the flying bird-lizard Rodan.
Say what you want about the movie’s plot or human characters, but this creature foursome is extraordinary in their design and epic special effect execution. The scale and awesome power of these monsters is on full display here. And their destructive force is in no way underplayed. Entire cities are laid to waste, and the entire final act of the film sees the absolute flattening of Boston to a magnitude I’ve almost never seen done in a sci-fi adventure like this. There may be a few too many moments when a key human character is about to bite it and Godzilla swoops in to save the day, but it’s a Godzilla movie. What the hell else were you expecting?
I should add that I’ve chuckled heartily at reviews that complain that the human characters in the movie are underdeveloped. Have those people never seen a Godzilla film before? That being said, it’s clear that the screenwriters want some of the characters to stand out and deliver some emotional resonance. To the recent films’ credit, the studio has been bringing in a squadron of exceedingly talented actors from all over the world to populate these recent works.
Kyle Chandler plays Dr. Russell’s ex-husband; the couple broke up when their other child was killed in the monster attack in the previous Godzilla film. Ken Watanabe returns as another doctor who specializes in Godzilla’s behavior (also returning from the last film, in a smaller capacity, are Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn); Ziyi Zhang is on hand playing twin doctors in different locations; Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Aisha Hinds (“911”), Bradley Whitford (Get Out), and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Long Shot) also appear as part of the modern-day monster squad known as Monarch. And indeed some of them get moments to shine—and even sacrifice themselves if needed—during the course of the movie. But none of the human characters in Godzilla: King of the Monsters hold a candle to how involved I was in the fate and character arcs of the Titans.
The only bummer is that Kong doesn’t even merit a cameo here, even though he and Skull Island are repeatedly name-dropped. There’s even a nifty post-credits scene…and still no Kong. But there is a beautiful, intricate score by Bear McCreary that finds ways to brilliantly incorporate elements of previous Japanese Godzilla scores. Director Dougherty does two things really well here: he keeps things moving and he keeps them dark and stormy, as if to imply that even the weather shifts and the atmosphere rages when Titans shake the earth as they fight.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters features a handful of truly rumbling, explosive monster fight sequences, including one near the end where it seems all of the earth’s Titans (minus Kong, naturally) take part in the monster war to end all monster wars. Normally, I’m not one to make excuses or be an apologist when elements of a movie fall short, but I’ve also seen most of the 30-plus Godzilla movies ever made; I get how these work, and the normal rules don’t apply no matter how much you’d like them to. These movies are about monsters being misjudged, structures being flattened under the feet of creatures, and humans being about as disposable or noticeable as blades of grass. King of the Monsters is a solid, powerhouse kaiju story that even manages to find the time to make us like a couple of the human characters as well. That’s a win in my monster book.
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