Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) Review

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

~Review by Grawlix (July 2019)

I’ve probably made it obvious enough by now that I love me some giant monster movies. As such, I was a big fan of 2014’s Godzilla. Yeah, it wasn’t perfect – If I’m being honest, there are very few of the thirty-odd Godzilla films so far released that I would consider truly flawless – but it absolutely stuck the landing. In particular, we finally – finally – got to see His Atomic Majesty realized through the full might of Hollywood special effects, and the result was as awesome as I could have hoped. The film also launched the Legendary Monsterverse (no small feat considering the spectacular failure of Universal’s The Mummy to do the same for their Dark Universe) and so, after a brief detour to the 1970’s and Skull Island, we return to the present for the champ’s first title defense in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

It’s been five years since cataclysmic kaiju showdown of Godzilla (so we’re moving in real time, basically). With the existence of Titans now undeniable, the world is divided on its opinion of them. The Military (and most of humanity at large, for that matter) would understandably prefer to see them destroyed, on account of their boundless destructive potential. Monarch, the shadowy organization that’s been pulling strings throughout the franchise, and is apparently beholden to the US government, though it’s never clear exactly how much, feels they should be preserved and studied, owing to the fact that it was a Titan that ultimately saved the day five years before. And then we have a group of eco-terrorists, who feel that Mother Earth needs go on the offensive against humanity and sees the Titans as the perfect vehicle for doing so.

It’s pretty much a given at this point that the weakest part of any Godzilla movie (any kaiju movie, really) is going to be the human element, though every new one makes a game attempt at being the exception. The first Godzilla tried to defray this with some solid star power. Bryan Cranston led the charge in that one, although the movie decided to pull a Hitchcock and check him out about a third of the way through, which was a ballsy decision for about five minutes and then a lamentable one for the remaining ninety as the human end was left in the hands of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Now, I have nothing against Taylor-Johnson or Olsen. The former was great as Kick-Ass and the latter has been solid as the Scarlet Witch, but their characters in Godzilla were white-toast boring, as if they could possibly upstage a 300-foot lizard.

King of the Monsters doubles down on this strategy. Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga get the top billing as Mark and Emma Russell, a divorced couple who had previously worked for Monarch to develop a frequency generator allowing a limited form of communication with the Titans, though Mark subsequently left the group, owing to stress from their son being killed in the kaiju rumble five years before. Millie Bobby Brown plays Madison, Mark and Emma’s daughter, who has remained with her mother at one of Monarch’s research stations, though she has some (apparently well founded) concerns about her current state of mind. Charles Dance transfers in from Westeros as Alan Jonah, the head of the eco-terrorist contingent. Ken Watanabe returns, cryptic aphorisms intact, as Dr. Serizawa and is joined this time around by Ziyi Zhang as a “mythologist”, which is apparently a real field of scientific inquiry now that ancient giant monsters are roaming the earth.

It’s an impressive cast, though one gets the sense that it might be a bit too bloated for its own good since the script frequently shortchanges what could’ve otherwise been some solid character moments. Chandler is probably best known for his five-year run on Friday Night Lights though he also sports some genuine kaiju cred from 2005’s King Kong, but his character here is your standard reluctant expert with little to distinguish itself despite some well-established motivation. Farmiga has amassed enough awards and nominations to require their own separate Wikipedia page, and though her Emma sets a good deal of the plot in motion, the lack of solid continuity really undercuts a lot of her decisions and their motives. Ditto for Millie Bobby Brown who has shown in Stranger Things that she is capable of some impressive emotional range, and while some of that is on display here, the intrusiveness and poor contexting of the script saps a lot of its impact. Charles Dance’s run as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones demonstrated his ability to make anything seem severe and imperative, but eco-terrorist is not the first thing that his bearing calls to mind and his, of all the characters, his would’ve benefited the most from just a few more minutes of character-based screen time.

Of course, the biggest issue with the human drama is that it’s highly unlikely to be the reason anybody bought a ticket. We’re here to see monsters and KoM has a lot of ground to cover. No less than three iconic Toho kaiju make their American, CGI debuts in this movie, so the prior film’s strategy of building tension for an hour before a big reveal clearly isn’t going to cut it here. Thankfully, director Michael Dougherty knows this. The Titans show up early and often, slugging it out singly or in makeshift teams, with all the attendant collateral damage one could hope for. The effects artists do still hedge their bets, with the usual standbys of water and darkness featuring in most of the kaiju scenes, but the monsters still look great in their movements and expressions. For people who grew up watching guys in rubber suits smash model cities, it’s hard to overstate how long we’ve been waiting for this. Seeing these iconic monster characters introduced with the special effects horsepower of a full AAA blockbuster budget, looking right, sounding right with their iconic roars, using their signature attacks, is nearly akin to a cinematic religious experience.

This might well be the movie’s greatest strength. As opposed to Godzilla 1998, in which Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich practically wiped their asses with the character bible provided by Toho, King of the Monsters was clearly made by fans with a solid knowledge of, and respect for, the characters and lore of the series, and they never miss an opportunity to demonstrate this on screen. The individual references are far too numerous to list, but some of the more noteworthy examples are the Oxygen Destroyer superweapon, a Godzilla near-meltdown, and a pair of twins (sadly underdeveloped) that mirror the Shobijin fairies from Mothra mythos. Even the music is on point, from the usage of Akira Ifukube’s iconic original Godzilla theme, to a version of Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla, that plays over the end credits. Rarely does more than a few minutes pass without some sort of recognizable callback that demonstrates just how much the filmmakers knew their stuff and just how much they wanted to show it off to the fans.

I fully admit to coming into a movie like King of the Monsters prepared to forgive a lot as long as the core spectacle holds up, and I find myself feeling much the same about it as I felt about 2014’s Godzilla. While there are occasionally some solid character moments (Watanabe’s Serizawa probably gets the best of them), they ultimately fall largely by the wayside once the monster action hits its stride. But it’s the monsters that we’re here for, and the monsters deliver. Anyone who has ever been entertained by a giant monster movie, from the east or the west, owes it to themselves to give King of the Monsters a look, but for dedicated kaiju fans, this is mandatory viewing. And if this is the quality we’re to expect from the sequels, then next year’s superfight versus King Kong can’t get here fast enough.

Final Grade: B

There’s no getting around the fact that the human element is the weakest link here. The main cast might be bigger than 2014’s Godzilla, and the plot more complex, but this is as much a hindrance as a boon when the monster battles ramp up. But the monsters… words can scarcely do them justice when they’re on screen in all their glory. Keep your focus on them, and you won’t be disappointed. 


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