Five years after Godzilla leveled half of San Francisco, an outpost for the global monster-monitoring outfit Monarch is attacked. Scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped along with Russell’s experimental device ORCA, which can communicate and even influence giant monsters. Once this technology is used to awaken the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, it sparks off a rise of multiple ‘titans’ including the volcanic bird Rodan, the giant insect Mothra, and the return of Godzilla himself.
2014’s giant monster remake Godzilla finally gets a sequel in
writer/director Michael Dougherty’s explosive, messy, and effects-driven effort
Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Proving that sometimes more actually is more, this faulty and uneven effort
does benefit from the increase in named ‘kaiju’ in terms of upping the action
and improving the all-round quality of the film. It still does not manage to
successfully develop a must-see summer blockbuster, but it does at least pick
up the pace compared to Gareth Edward’s pedestrian effort.
The same overall problems do remain, however,
just in a less egregious fashion. Writing remains the Achilles’ heel, with a
relatively silly narrative and risible dialogue interspersed between the
expected scenes of giant monster mayhem. Doherty and Zach Shields’ script
shifts the human focus from a separated family to… well, okay, to another
separated family, but this time they do come better framed within an ensemble
of Monarch employees racing to contain a worldwide crisis. Plotwise the film
takes itself much less seriously than its predecessor, which is a positive
sign, but what replaces that dour take is still badly under-motivated and
poorly expressed. Charles Dance plays a radical eco-terrorist: we know this
because other characters say he is, and he is given no real opportunity to
demonstrate this or suitably reveal his motives. Other characters are saddled
with the most stereotypical of motivations. A surprise development at the end
of the first act sees one trusted character be revealed as a villain. This is a
bold move, but said character spends the first 30 minutes as an audience
viewpoint and as a result the twist jars badly. Other characters undertake
numerous actions to push the plot forward, but there is no internal motivation
that quite makes sense.
The result is a terribly messy story that collapses under scrutiny. There should be a question asked every time a scene of the human characters is written: is this scene more interesting than Godzilla punching a giant monster in the face? If the answer is no, then the scene really should be replaced with a better one – or it needs to step out of the way and let the monster fight take control. There are essentially three key scenes of monsters fighting here, which feels like more than in the 2014 Godzilla – indeed more than several other Godzilla films – yet the paucity of strong human scenes still make it feel like are being under-served.
Fans of giant monster movies will not have
come to the film for a human story, of course. Dougherty frames his four
monster protagonists brilliantly. Tom Woodruff’s revised designs for each are
exceptionally good, and they are captured in atmospheric and dynamic ways from
scene to scene. The sound design is particularly brilliant, returning
Godzilla’s own roars to the 1954 Japanese original and finding fresh takes on
Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mothra at the same time. The film’s main draws –
devastating battles between the titans – are distinctive and inventive.
Dougherty has been given an almost unfair task in taking the deliberately
fantastical and ridiculous set of monster characters, and giving them a sense
of realism and weight. I am a particularly keen fan of Mothra, and had doubted
any director’s ability to faithfully reconcile the more serious tone of
American cinema with a rainbow-coloured giant moth, but Dougherty succeeds
marvelously. The same goes with Ghidorah: a three-headed gold alien dragon that
has never seemed so terrifying. They are shot from dynamic, powerful angles,
and they have a palpable weight and power to them.
Here is the ultimate problem though, and it addresses not only the bad screenplay but also the film’s commercially disappointing performance in cinemas: all three American attempts to develop a Godzilla feature (1998, 2014, and 2019) have suffered from being mainstream ‘tentpole’ releases. Godzilla is iconic, but the character’s actual films are comparatively niche. They do boast a healthy, dedicated audience of fans in Japan, but they have never been what Hollywood professionals describe as ‘four-quadrant’ hits – films appealing to men and women both young and old. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) was only the 44th highest grossing film of its year in Japan. Shin Godzilla (2016) fared much better, grossing $75 million in Japanese cinemas and only topped that year by anime phenomenon Your Name, but it was also the first homegrown Godzilla picture in 12 years and brought a resonant element of social satire with it.
Conversely, the American Godzilla films are
bankrolled to the equivalent of Star Wars
and The Avengers. They are structured
and financed as four-quadrant blockbusters, yet broadly retain the same style
and narrative conventions of their Japanese cousins. They are being advertised
as big screen epics without epic storylines. Put simply: Warner Bros is
spending too much money. Budgeted at $60 million, and the story quirks and weak
characters would not stand out so visibly. Budgeted at three times that amount,
and the studio is simply setting itself up for failure. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is definitely a disappointing film,
but it is not about what was delivered, which is simply a particularly pretty
replica of a Japanese equivalent, but what the studio continues to promise.
What is needed here is not reproduction, but rather reinvention: an
American-targeted Godzilla film rebuilt from the ground up.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.