‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ Review: A Monstrous Failure
If one were to imagine the worst possible location for a blockbuster action sequence, it would be hard to conceive of a more visually disadvantageous setting than a blizzard at night in the middle of Antarctica. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, that is not a hypothetical. That’s where the first big monster fight takes place. In Antarctica. At night. In the middle of a freaking blizzard. It’s so hard to see what’s going on that after one of the major characters is killed, the film cuts to a computer screen with the character’s picture on it and the word “DECEASED” written under their face in giant block letters just to make it clear what happened.
And that’s one of King of the Monsters’ better sequences. The first film in this new Godzilla series wasn’t a masterpiece but it at least it surrounded its bland cast of human characters with truly horrifying sequences of monster mayhem. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is as narratively incomprehensible as it is visually, with an even-more-talented roster of overqualified actors tasked with carrying the film’s insipid story and trying to make their characters’ bizarre decisions seem halfway plausible.
That includes the heroic Vera Farmiga, whose Dr. Emma Russell sets a new standard in terrible movie parenting. Emma works for Monarch, the government agency that monitors and studies the world’s monsters (called “MUTOs”). She builds a device that can communicate with — and perhaps even control — MUTOs with a couple of touchscreen clicks. Mom of the Year candidate that she is, she even brings her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown) with her to the profoundly dangerous underground laboratory where she’ll test the gadget on a captive MUTO for the first time.
Emma and Madison spend maybe 12 seconds in their lab before everything starts going haywire. The power fails, a giant larvae smooshes some guards, and then a group of ecoterrorists breaks in, kidnaps Emma and her daughter, and takes their new monster communication device. That sends the leaders of Monarch, including Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), to seek out Emma’s estranged husband and former partner in monster sciencing, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). He’s supposedly the only one with enough knowledge of Emma’s research to find her. And with Emma’s device awakening more and more MUTOs all over the globe, it may be up to Godzilla (playing himself) to save us all.
Mark seems destined for a tearful reunion with his wife, which had me excited for the prospect of a movie about Godzilla, the 200-foot-tall dinosaur marriage counselor. Alas, it is not to be. Instead, the plot’s logic begins to break down faster than polite society when a three-headed-dragon begins marching through a major metropolitan area. The characters from Monarch are introduced in a government hearing where they plead with Congressional leaders not to make them a branch of the military. Then they spend the rest of the movie acting like a branch of the military, flying around the world in a magical jet with a group of elite soldiers in tow (including a completely wasted O’Shea Jackson Jr. who gets nothing to do but bark orders in crowd scenes). One member of Monarch even plays their own identical twin — albeit so briefly and with so little explanation that some colleagues I spoke to didn’t even realize the actor in question had a dual role and just assumed the film was so shoddily edited that one character appeared in two places at once by mistake.
The new monsters — including giant pteranodon Rodan, massive moth Mothra, and three-headed Ghidorah, who might rival Godzilla in the power department — are impressively detailed, at least on the occasions you can see them through the darkness of an Antarctica blizzard or various other clouds of schmutz. And Godzilla remains an intriguing presence; part divine protector, part angry god furious at mankind’s destruction of their planet. The problem is that Godzilla barely appears onscreen until the final act, and doesn’t appear at all for the first 45 minutes. In his place, we’re forced to follow the human characters from a secret base to a secret plane to a secret submarine — all of which look exactly the same: A dimly lit control room filled with computer screens.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters was directed by Michael Dougherty, who has gained a solid reputation in recent years directing cult horror films like Krampus and Trick ’r Treat. I‘m not sure what happened here, but something went very wrong along the way to the multiplex. The characters — particularly poor Vera Farmiga’s monster scientist — behave so irrationally that Godzilla and his simple, clear motivations feel downright human in comparison. The last movie this big saddled with a story and characters this bad was Independence Day: Resurgence.
Not that it matters. Legendary’s “Monsterverse” will roll on anyway. Next summer, the studio will release Godzilla Vs. Kong, uniting the two most famous kaiju in history. I assume it will try to outdo King of the Monsters’ set piece in a blizzard at night in the middle of Antarctica by setting the explosive climax between its title characters in deep space in the middle of an eclipse.
-King of the Monsters has more talented actors than it knows what to do with. David Straithairn has two scenes and maybe six lines reprising his role as a Navy admiral from the first Godzilla, and Joe Morton has exactly one scene and then vanishes, never to be heard from again. (Also, according to Wikipedia, he’s playing the older version of one of the characters from Kong: Skull Island, but how you’re supposed to know that from the film itself I have no idea.)
-Speaking of Kong: If you’re hoping for a direct teaser setting up next summer’s Godzilla vs. Kong, you will have to instead make do with several fleeting references to him and Skull Island.
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