Written by: Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields (screenplay), Max Borenstein (story)
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Ken Watanabe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“So you'd want to make Godzilla our pet."
"No...we would be his."
"No...we would be his."
Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla was something of a minor miracle. Released during a time when the likes of “grim,” “gritty,” and “grounded” flourished as buzzwords, WB’s resurrection of Toho’s icon only postured at such aesthetics. While it looked like Edwards forged his effort from the same ponderous, somber hellfire-and-brimstone mentality that often dogs blockbuster filmmaking, he actually managed to capture the spirited, four-color spark of the Toho sequels that made Godzilla an icon in the first place. I thought for sure we’d see something akin to The Return of Godzilla, Toho’s own 1984 reboot that returned its star kaiju to its more fearsome roots; instead, Edwards’s film more resembles the earlier sequels that reimagine Godzilla as a formidable, god-like protector of Earth. Its final moments especially reveal the soul of the rousing, crowd-pleasing monster mash lurking within its mannered, somewhat detached craftsmanship, eagerly setting the stage for even more kaiju mayhem in King of the Monsters.
Few people are better qualified to take that baton than Michael Dougherty, writer/director of Trick 'R Treat and Krampus, a pair of demented, fun, old-school monster movies. Turning him loose in the Toho sandbox is downright inspired because if there’s anyone I want to see smashing a bunch of giant monsters together, it’s this guy because I can only assume he knows what the main attraction is here: Godzilla and his kaiju co-stars beating the holy hell out of each other. For the most part, King of the Monsters delivers on this promise: while Dougherty is also invested (to varying degrees) in the human co-stars, this is a movie mostly concerned with capturing the sense of wide-eyed awe that should accompany gods and monsters duking it out with the fate of the planet at stake.
It makes for the best Godzilla film since 1995, mostly because it recalls the films of the Heisei period: sure, King of the Monsters is a little slapdash in its logic and pacing, but it’s also sincerely invested in effects-driven spectacle and mythos. Less a standard sequel and more a reverent addition to a sacred canon, King of the Monsters simply feels like a big damn deal. Long live the king, indeed.
Set five years after the previous film, this follow-up reveals a world living in the shadow of dormant titans. Monarch, the government agency responsible for tracking and studying these beasts, has established outposts around the world, where scientists toil away at either subduing or harnessing their subjects. Most prominent among them is Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost her son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage and has dedicated herself to creating Orca, an audio device capable of emitting frequencies that will render the titans docile.
A successful test on a giant Mothra larva provides some hope for a breakthrough in human-kaiju relations, at least until a group of eco-terrorists headed by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) assaults the outpost, steals the Orca, and then kidnaps Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) for good measure. Enter estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), an ex-Monarch researcher who rejoins the outfit in an effort to rescue his family—with an unlikely assist from Godzilla himself once Jonah unleashes scores of titans upon the earth, including Ghidorah, a 3-headed monster and rival alpha predator.
If it sounds like King of the Monsters dwells on its human characters and features a lot of plot getting in the way of the story, that’s actually true, at least for a little bit. Like Edwards, Dougherty isn’t in a hurry to just deliver mindless monster action. He dedicates the first fourth of the film to establishing the Russell’s intimate familial dynamics and the larger politics surrounding the Titans’ existence and continued survival, threaded here through an enormous cast of characters, including the returning Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), and William Stentz (David Strathairn). More debates rage (Mark is insistent on destroying the beast the killed his son), while Jonah’s own terrorist motivations become clearer, all of it acting mostly as a white noise prelude to what you’re here to see.
And even Godzilla’s first collision with Ghidorah—which comes weirdly early in the film, all things considered—unfolds under a cloud of confusion. Not only do they clash in a murky, chaotic snowstorm, but it also comes after a baffling character decision that needs to be literally unpacked with a 5-minute long Skype speech soon afterwards. As you watch this smackdown between Toho’s long-time rivals, a voice nags at you, insisting that maybe they’re somehow blowing it with King of the Monsters.
The mayhem is fine if not a bit too muddled and confusing, so much so that a major character’s death has to be confirmed on-screen in the aftermath. It’s disconcerting, to put it mildly—here we are, in the third Monsterverse entry, and you start to wonder if it’ll be limping into its big Skull Island crossover, an event you can’t forget about because this one turns Kong into the Poochie of this series: even though he’s not on-screen, there’s numerous references to him to remind viewers that the real main event is yet to come. You’re left briefly hoping that WB didn’t overlook the momentous occasion on hand here because it’s been several years since fans have seen Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah.
Thankfully, these concerns don’t linger for too long; with its human affairs settled and in order, the film is free to unleash monster mayhem. Dougherty and company seemingly hedge their bets by assuming you’ll put up with some clunky plot mechanics and some serviceable human drama as long as they also deliver all of the cool shit, like Rodan emerging from an erupting volcano and easily wiping out an entire fleet of jet fighters. Save for one poignant, pivotal scene towards the middle, King of the Monsters mostly goes all-in on spectacle from this point forward. It’s simply a big movie, as Ghidorah’s re-emergence inspires a global swarm of kaiju in addition to the four Toho mainstays, prompting the humans to look around, beneath, and even beyond the globe to piece together the burgeoning mythology that’s downright reverent of the lore.
While I was absolutely hooked the moment Rodan effortlessly chomped down a parachuting jet fighter, the speculation about Ghidorah’s extraterrestrial origins and an excursion to a lost, crumbling civilization swallowed by the ocean’s depths just sealed it: King of the Monsters is an ambitious adventure film unafraid to embrace weird possibilities and a sense of profound wonder. It’s not just about pummeling your senses into submission with giant monsters; it also wants you to imagine a world full of sublime wonder and terror.
No scene captures that quite like the mid-movie exchange between Serizawa and Godzilla himself, which is immediately one of my favorite scenes in any summer blockbuster from the past few years. Just as he was in Edwards’s film, Watanabe is the soul of King of the Monsters, the dignified conscience of mankind that respects the balance and order of nature. Without him (and this scene in particular), this film would likely feel like a hollow monster brawl; however, Serizawa’s unyielding faith and sincerity rightfully elevates Godzilla to a plane reserved for mythological gods.
You feel awe not only for his destructive capabilities but also for his capacity to assume the mantle of Earth’s protector. Ziyi Chang (in a dual role that will make any Toho devotees reflexively smile) does the same for Mothra, albeit to a lesser extent; the effect, however, is the same, as the creature takes her rightful place as queen of the monsters, further creating the impression that we’re watching some grand, epic theater unfold on the screen. Like the best Godzilla movies, King of the Monsters sounds tremendously silly but works in earnest to make a believer out of its audience with its sincere, heart-on-its sleeve approach. It feels like it’s about something, even if that something is its own universe and mythology.
To that end, it comes as no surprise that King of the Monsters reserves most of its reverence for its gigantic monsters and their colossal smackdowns. While Dougherty has a somewhat irritating tendency to cut away to the human action during the climactic battle (it doesn’t help that the Russell family never rises above “functional”), it’s often jaw-dropping nonetheless since the ground-level views capture the scale of these monsters’ size in the fog of war. I like especially how tactile it all feels: in an era where digital carnage and action sometimes feel like weightless pixels, this film retains the substantial, gritty texture of both Edwards’s film and Toho’s Heisei period productions. It’s effects-driven spectacle that doesn’t sacrifice a sense of real-world tangibility.
Dougherty and DP Lawrence Sher don’t shy away from the necessary wide shots either, as King of the Monsters is bursting with huge hero shots that seem fit to print on both a comic book splash page or a canvas tableau. Fittingly, this is a film that’s unafraid to appeal to the lizard brain that craves cool, badass stuff, like huge monsters spitting atomic lasers and lightning at each other. It’s not that it’s asking you to leave your brain at the door; rather, it’s asking that you fully embrace the primal regions of your brain and enjoy the sheer widescreen theatricality on display. King of the Monsters constantly coaxes you to look up in wonder and lose yourself in the astonishing sight of gods clashing. Maybe it’s not what Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata had in mind when they hatched Gojira as a somber, horrifying atomic-age allegory, but it’s certainly become embedded in the franchise’s DNA in the decades since, and King of the Monsters gets that in a huge way.
That being said, none of this is a license to completely tune out the occasional, nagging missteps. The script is oddly paced (it feels like the first half of the film should build more patiently towards Ghidorah’s emergence) and relies on some questionable shortcuts (a terrorist organization’s almighty weapon probably shouldn’t be easily swiped by a child); the size of the cast reduces most of its characters to supporting roles, where they’re little more than ciphers for smart-ass dialogue and quips that don’t always land; Dougherty sometimes feels a little bit too in love with the steel blue hues that saturate the screen and needlessly obscures the action under a shadowing coating.
However, King of the Monsters absolutely nails what it has to, leaving these concerns as nitpicks that keep terrific film from being a completely transcendent experience. Knowing that a crossover looms next year has the effect of softening them too: some of these cast members will return and will hopefully have a bit more to do, and hopefully moving to Skull Island will provide some sunnier locales for clearer monster action. I know that sounds like a cop-out, almost akin to saying this movie is little more than a stepping stone to the next chapter in the story, but there’s something to be said for a damn sturdy stepping stone that sets the table for what should be one of the biggest monster mashes in history.
Besides that, King of the Monsters does a damn fine job of outrunning its flaws all on its own; as I write this review, I still hear those concerns nagging at my brain, but they’re easily drowned out by Godzilla’s iconic roar and the rousing renditions of some equally iconic Toho theme songs. With these and other subtle nods, Dougherty has crafted a love letter to a mythology that’s been dormant for far too long; more than that, he’s also crafted a Godzilla film that takes the best of the franchise’s various eras: the colorful, unabashed, monster rally imagination of the Showa period, the genuinely impressive effects and aesthetic of the Heisei period, and the ambition of the Millennium period—all while retaining the faint specter of the social consciousness that’s often guided this series. To merely shoulder 65 years of mythology is astounding; to embrace it and give it new life is nothing short of astonishing.
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