Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review
Few figures in cinema loom quite as large, both figuratively and literally, as Godzilla. With 34 films spanning 65 years his name is synonymous with giant monster, AKA kaiju, action. In 2014’s Godzilla we got the latest attempt to bring the scourge of Japan stateside, directed by Gareth Edwards. Some found his “less is more” approach to be frustrating, wishing for more monster action, but I saw it as an effective way of both giving Godzilla’s screentime that much more impact and emphasising his role for much of that film as a dispassionate force of nature. My only real issue with Edward’s film is the way that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody always managed to be in the right place at the right time, but found the rest of it thrilling, visually stunning, and just the right groundwork leading into this new American Godzilla franchise, dubbed the Monsterverse. Then came Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island in 2017, which had a very different mood to Godzilla, but was a greatly entertaining film with stunning cinematography and still felt connected to the world that been set up. The stage now set for more Monsterverse, many were curious over the next step.
Well, one thing is for certain, nobody is going to be complaining about a lack of monsters this time around, as Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an all-out giant monster bash the likes of which we have never seen.
Some time after the events of the monster attack on San Francisco, the organisation Monarch led by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), work to prevent the destruction of the giant creatures, Titans, believing they are key to the natural order of the planet. Not everyone agrees, including Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), whose life took a tragic turn in the aftermath of Godzilla’s fight with the MUTOs. When his wife, Emma (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), are kidnapped by the sinister Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) whose own interest in the Titans is less than benign, it sets in motion an awakening of more Titans; some a force for good, others an embodiment of destruction.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a lot going on in. While Edward’s Godzilla was natural disaster in tone, and Kong: Skull Island was based around survival and war, this movie is full-on apocalyptic. It emphasises widespread destruction whilst also dealing with humanity’s relationship with the Titans and the attitudes towards them, both positive and negative. It’s epic in scale with visuals to back it up. All the monsters and monster fights look amazing, and in that sense it is everything you could want from this kind of film, as we get the kind of fights that simply weren’t possible in the Japanese Toho films due to limitations of technology.
The rest of the plot, the human element, isn’t the best it could be. It gives us the mythology and some basic character arcs and that’s about it. That is not to say that any of the cast are bad, more that none of them are compelling enough to latch onto. Millie Bobby Brown is solid, and far less annoying than similar child characters in monster movies of the past, you believe in her the wonder with which she regards the Titans. Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa, named for the original Godzilla’s director Ishiro Honda and one of the main characters from that film played by actor Akihiko Hirata, gets a lot more to do this time around and is great, delivering a sense of dramatic weight with utmost sincerity. There is also a moment outside the big battles involving him, one that beautifully echoes back to a moment with his namesake in the original film, that may be one of my favourite moments in any Godzilla film.
There isn’t a perfect balance between the monster and human elements to the film - for that you would be better off with either the original Godzilla, Mothra vs Godzilla from 1964, or more recently Shin Godzilla, which used the monster as a wonderful satire of government responsibility in the face of crisis. Ultimately, the wider plot exists to facilitate the monster sequences, and sometimes that’s okay. The use of audio biotechnology as a means of communicating with and controlling the Titans is pure techno-nonsense, but is very in-line with a recurring scenario in the classic series where various kaiju are placed under some form of mind control.
Just be glad it wasn’t the giant cockroach people from M Space Hunter Nebula in Godzilla vs Gigan, that would have probably pushed the sci-fi a little too far for a lot of people. In fact, there are many little things in the film that will feel familiar to long-time Godzilla fans, but what’s great is that they all have something added to them to serve the plot. It’s clear that director and co-writer Michael Dougherty knows his stuff. Though one that I think could have been done better is with Zhang Ziyi’s Dr. Chen and an element of her character that links back to a bit of Mothra’s mythology.
The visual design of the new monsters is great, as is the effects work bringing them to life. They feel tangible in a way that CGI sometimes struggles to achieve, and some shots are so amazingly framed that they leave you in awe. The big guy himself, Godzilla, looks just as impressive as last time, still this towering powerhouse that has an air of a weary warrior about him. Rodan, many times dismissed as simply a giant Pteranodon, looks like a winged being of living fire. Mothra takes her rightful place as the Queen of the Monsters and has been given a more battle-ready upgrade from her classic slightly cute design, but still looking every inch the protective deity she has always been. Ghidorah looks phenomenal; majestically mythical and dangerous with lightening breath and rattlesnake-like tails, and wonderfully visualised with each of the three heads being separately motion captured to add that extra element of life to the character.
Unfortunately, this does not extend to the other Titans that make brief appearances. They are not confronted, much less named out loud (although I am certain one we see is meant to be Kumonga the spider kaiju), and while it may seem odd to comment on when there is so much going on in the movie, it still would have been nice to get more of a sense of the Titans outside of the big four that get focussed on. Bear McCreary’s score is great work, and some of the stuff that he does with both Akira Ifukude’s original Godzilla theme as well as elements of Mothra’s song by Yuji Koseki is nothing short of magnificent. I had goose bumps, particularly during one major Godzilla entrance.
As much as it pains me to say, there are issues with the film. It drags in more than a few places and thinks too hard about some areas of the plot will leave you with nitpicks. Mark and his Godzilla issues are potentially interesting, but he comes across as irritating a lot of the time just repetitively shouting about his ex and daughter, and you have to wonder at just how bad the villains are at keeping an eye on their own hostages. Also, there are chunks of dialogue that are stupid to the point of hilarity. Charles Dance is appropriately sinister, but ultimately does little more than set himself up as an ongoing human antagonist for the series. Vera Farmiga’s talents feel under-used, which is a shame as I generally enjoy her work. Yet, despite all that, there is still so much joy, excitement, and entertainment to be found. I can be willing to set that stuff aside, but not everyone will feel the same.
Godzilla still reigns in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but just remember that there may be a contender for the crown in the near future.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens in the UK today.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
Dir: Michael Dougherty | Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga | Writers: Max Borenstein (story by), Michael Dougherty (screenplay by), Michael Dougherty (story by), Zach Shields (screenplay by), Zach Shields (story by)