by Philip Price
Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga & Millie Bobby Brown
Runtime: 2 hours & 11 minutes
The “pictures” have always been about spectacle and spectacle, especially in this day and age, is what we have come to expect from our picture shows. Spectacle isn’t a dirty word and is often the reason to pay more to be immersed in the movies, but spectacle is best served with a meaningful narrative. There are and can be a lot of variations on the word "meaningful" mind you, but when it comes to movies about giant monsters it doesn't seem to be asking for much for said narrative to at least try and find meaning in the smallest of details, character moments, or even just in the knowing indications of the filmmaking that own up to the fact that the movie itself knows what the audience is really in attendance for; if the focus is going to be the titans at least have a little frivolous fun with the extraneous elements. What is maybe most disappointing about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” though, is the fact director Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”) touches on the potential meaning through each of those aforementioned examples in his screenplay yet never takes them far enough to where any of them connect. Instead, Dougherty’s sequel to Gareth Edwards' 2014 “Godzilla” doubles down on the spectacle so as to please the masses who are coming to this movie looking for more of what they didn't get in that previous film. Again, there’s nothing wrong with spectacle and if that's all you’re hoping this new ‘Godzilla’ flick delivers then you’re in luck, but if you need the human element to help enhance your investment in the monsters then you'll likely be somewhat disappointed-especially considering the grade-A cast in place here. It’s not even that the characters aren’t likable or endearing, but rather that they don’t tend to be consistent in their intentions and/or as intelligent as they’re obviously supposed to be. Dougherty is a guy who knows how to deliver extravagance with a sly side of brazen as has been exemplified in his past works and while there was hope that this unique flavor might be able to transcend the big studio blockbuster system it seems Dougherty's special brand of schlock has been watered down to fit this pre-ordained plan of plain characters doing plot-convenient actions so as to bring these monsters together for a smackdown rather than being allowed the space and freedom to find meaning in any of these elements surrounding Godzilla that might have assisted in his presence feeling both more natural and impactful. That "spectacle" is admittedly grand in moments, but it can't help but feel empty; devoid of any real feeling and therefore not eliciting much of one either.
Things kick off in real time five years after the events of the 2014 film as we are introduced to the family unit at the center of ‘King of the Monsters.’ Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) who were married at the time are now separated after the Godzilla attack on San Francisco cost them the life of their son. Their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), survived and is currently living with Emma who, as it turns out, works for Monarch-the mysterious government(?) organization that is tracking and studying these creatures such as Godzilla and King Kong-and has developed an instrument known as an "Orca" which uses bio-acoustics to send out signals to communicate with the titans and potentially control them, but as you can probably guess by that description things are will definitely not go according to plan. And so, when they don't and an evil militaristic force led by Charles Dance's Jonah Alan invades Monarch's bunker and disposes off all its scientists except for Farmiga and Brown's characters the heads of Monarch-which again include Ken Watanabe's Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins' Dr. Vivienne Graham as well as newcomer Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch)-bring Mark back in, who has since estranged himself from his family in the years since their loss and separation, both out of courtesy and because he too previously worked for Monarch. It turns out that antagonist Alan is ex-British army and is now working to collect DNA from these titans and now requires Emma's "Orca" invention to wake what is known as "Monster Zero" in Antarctica. Mark, Serizawa, Graham, and the whole Monarch crew head to Antarctica to both try and stop Alan from waking this titan as well as rescue Mark's family, but it is here that things begin to get a little fuzzy and the character objectives become even more questionable as the contrivances that occur in order to allow these monsters to meet are anything but natural and as a result, come off as forced by the hands of both the characters and the screenwriters. It is from this point forward that the film becomes a back and forth of sorts between our two groups of human characters as they each either chase Godzilla and "Monster Zero" AKA Ghidora around the globe in hopes of executing two very different strategies with the same end goal of saving humanity. And if you haven't picked up on how this might be possible or what Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields (“Krampus”) are reaching for in their character motivations then let's just say Thanos' ideology seems to have made a lot of sense to Emma.
It's not even that these motivations are terribly disappointing that, in the end, make ‘King of the Monsters’ itself so disappointing, but more that it wastes what are genuinely engaging and interesting characters on such outlandish and rather bland ideas and principles. Chandler's Mark, for instance, is this great voice of reason that we don't often get in this genre of storytelling. Mark serves this story as best he can and the complicated dynamics between him, his daughter, and his ex-wife are admittedly more effective than a 90% of the character work in 2014's “Godzilla,” but that this character is placed in more situations where he has to argue with his ex-wife over her irrational ideas than in moments of heated debate with fellow scientists over the best ways to approach and deal with Godzilla is a tragedy in and of itself. The stuff with Mark and his daughter works because both actors are able to emote in ways where we see that despite not having talked for long periods...that they still understand one another (which I can only imagine will be an asset to next year's ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ which both Brown and Chandler are returning for). Farmiga has always been a strong presence no matter the quality of the film and she does her damnedest with what she's given here, but it is in making the character resort to the obvious in terms of blaming herself for the loss of her son and going the direction of being irrational to make up for the fault she feels rather than wallowing in her own guilt as an outward expression of the understandable mental breakdown she's experiencing that the whole of the ‘King of the Monsters’ is cheapened; coming to feel more like a narrative linked together by predictable tropes that result in a mash-up of several monster-sized titans when the premise has the potential to really ground these events in a terrifying and very human manner. Of course, this is the take one comes away with if what they're wanting is authentic drama infused into their monster movie. It's not lost on me that some (most) people go to a movie like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” fully expecting to turn off their brain and have a good time watching something that can only be appreciated in the way it was originally intended on the biggest screen possible. I understand this mindset and am more than willing to give into that kind of mentality if that is what the movie tells me it wants me to do. Bradley Whitford, for instance, with his gum-smacking, sarcasm spouting Monarch scientist Dr. Rick Stanton along with O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s Chief Warrant Officer Barnes both know what kind of movie they're in and play up the fun/ridiculous aspects to great effect, but as a whole the movie sways between tones without finding an equalizer and therefore failing to get the audience fully invested. Failing, because, the film ultimately doesn't really know what it wants to be either.
All of that said about the human characters though, what does Dougherty make of the main attraction? The titular character? The one God to rule them all? Well, we may see more of Godzilla this time around, but is his appearance more effective is the real question. And the honest answer is that in some moments, sure. Dougherty is absolutely intent on staging some serious monster carnage and for the most part manages to do so in an entertaining fashion. Was I necessarily invested in anything happening between the three-headed alien thing and Godzilla or any of the other flying/crawling/fire-spitting beasts featured in the film? No, not really, but was it fun to watch them go head to head on a giant IMAX screen as they took down cities and natural landmarks with them? Sure. The problem with the monsters in the film though, is much the same with the humans as well: there's just too many of them. And as much as there is a lack of development in the plethora of human characters there is even less in the monsters as the monsters themselves are essentially pawns in the human character's game of, "who can get to them first to best utilize the titans for their own purposes" even though Serizawa explicitly states the opposite in the film...that the humans would in fact be, "Godzilla's pets." In reality, whether it be Godzilla himself, the main antagonist that is Ghidora or any of the other monsters that show up, their purpose comes to be that since they are real and exist and pose a serious problem for mankind they will of course come to serve either one of the two agendas man has decided they will. While I'm not one to make suggestions on how a movie should have been written it would seem more natural and have more at stake that the audience actually cares about if the human characters weren't necessarily trying to dictate the actions of these uncontrollable creatures, but hoping only to survive instead; throw in a few family dynamics and or a love story and there would be enough for us, the viewers, to root for them to stay alive. There is plenty of reason given in the exposition (which is what 90 percent of the dialogue consists of here) as to why Godzilla would want to throw down with Ghidora given the history of the two entities meaning there doesn't need to be any coaxing from the humans involved. This is also coming from someone who has no investment in this series of films and has only seen the 1998 and 2014 versions which only serves to exemplify they do enough here to hint at the mythology and why a re-match is inevitable, so why not just let history run its course? The point being, the film feels so contrived in its effort to get these monsters face to face that it essentially strips much of the joy of seeing them fight away. Oh well, at least it's rarely boring even if you gain nothing from it.