Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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Godzilla, that tall, irradiated, irritable frenemy of humankind, has starred in more films over the last 60 years than James Bond. The latest, subtitled King of the Monsters, is a sequel to 2014's punctuation-free reboot Godzilla, a city-block-buster that conjured tension and a gathering sense of dread—enough, at least, to give its dynamic correction of San Francisco real estate prices some emotional heft. It was thoughtful and somber about its high, mostly offscreen body count in ways films of this sort frequently are not.

 

Right from the start, Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes it clear that it is not going to be another hide-the-monsters exercise like its predecessor. Whereas that movie, which rebooted the king of the monsters for modern audiences, aimed for a more contemplative if stingy approach to portraying the iconic beast, this new film gives us a huge scene -- with a huge monster! -- within its first few minutes.

King of the Monsters is a little more focused on more conventional plotting and character arcs. It plays more like a rock-n-roll monster movie than a quasi-religious end-of-times myth. I liked the characters not because the script was exceptionally well-written (it's a lot more complicated than it needs to be), but because I liked the actors. Since we have the likes of (among others) Ken Watanabe, Vera Farmiga, Bradley Whitford, Aisha Hinds, Thomas Middlemarch, Sally Hawkins and O'Shea Jackson Jr. working us through the plot and character beats, you won't be bored in between monster fights.

The nominal leads of this time-marking entry are Farmiga and Chandler, as a pair of scientists whose marriage could not survive the death of their young son, one of the many thousands who perished in Godzilla's 2014 rampage. Their surviving daughter, played by Brown, lives with Farmiga's character, who's been working on a sonic device designed to communicate with the Titans, or at least calm them down when they're getting violent. No sooner has Farmiga's character witnessed the birth of Mothra, a peaceful winged beast, than her secret base is raided by commandos who kill her colleagues and take mother and daughter hostage, along with Farmiga's dino-phone. (It's called the Orca.) That sends Farmiga's fellows in the "crypto-zoological agency" Monarch off to fetch Chandler, whom they believe can help them retrieve his ex-wife along with her potentially lifesaving invention.

While the parties in this dispute change frequently enough to cause confusion, the basic conflict is between Monarch, who believes humanity must coexist with the Titans, and another faction that just wants to exterminate them. (Among the many other monster films that have run variations on this plot: The Lost World, Steven Spielberg's underrated Jurassic Park sequel, from 1997.)

How is the film as a spectacle? Well, yeah, it pretty much works on that level. Aside from a prologue which shows off the title character right away, the film takes its time revealing its monsters and letting them get down to business. But the whole film has a sense of scale and scope that brings to mind Independence Day (a blockbuster disaster flick with unusually well-sketched characters which is why we still talk about it 23-years later). Alas, aside from a few early beats, the film is mostly from the point-of-view of our protagonists, so in its own way it's as narratively claustrophobic as Avengers: Endgame. But the sights and sounds are a wonder to behold.

The monster fights are mostly in rainstorms, blizzards and fiery wreckage, but you can still make out the beats and choreography. This isn't quite Kong: Skull Island (still the best of these Legendary/WB monster-verse movies) with big fights in broad daylight, but the visual style (not unlike Batman Begins) makes the fights seem more mythic and majestic compared to Pacific Rim: Uprising or Rampage (both of which I enjoy on their own terms). There is a certain restraint to the action, at least until the third act when we get a couple reels of "trailer shots" in one super-smack down. And, yes, we do cut away maybe too frequently to the human drama, but at least there is human drama worth cutting to.

It's not apples-to-apples, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes a Faustian bargain not unlike what we saw with Justice League, The Incredible Hulk and Man of Steel, offering more crowd-pleasing and general audience-pleasing action movies while losing some of the "nothing else like this" distinctiveness and mythic awe of the less well-received (by consumers) incarnations. King of the Monsters will please those who thought Godzilla was lacking in monster action and conventional characters, but by default it's also a more conventional movie. I still think Kong: Skull Island is the best "have your cake and eat it too" movie of the trilogy thus far, but it's to Warner Bros. and Legendary's credit that this Godzilla sequel feels different from the Kong Kong prequel and the previous Godzilla movie.

All of that aside, it looks great, it sounds great. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a fun exercise in giant monster madness that indulges in all the kaiju fights fans and even casual viewers could hope for. It looks amazing while also giving its human characters a chance to stay interesting amid all the battling beasties by providing them with some really cool tech -- and some great one-liners among the supporting players. Unfortunately, the film’s plot is needlessly confusing, and not all that smart at times, and the lead characters could’ve used a little more fleshing out. Still, King of the Monsters course corrects from the 2014 film by giving audiences an abundance of monster action, proving that Hollywood can do right by Godzilla and his fellow kaiju.

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