Directed By: Michael Dougherty
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Starring: Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and a Bunch of Humans
It's been about a week now since I've seen Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third entry in Legendary’s slowly-unfolding cinematic franchise known as the MonsterVerse, which began with 2014's Godzilla and continued with 2017's Kong: Skull Island. I've been thinking about the film over the course of the week, having been unable to write about it on release weekend, only to find myself in a rare situation wherein I’ve found myself struggling with what to say.
I'll admit, I've never been a huge Godzilla fan. I've seen a handful of the dozens of movies that have come out of Japan since 1954 as part of the big guy's legacy, and know enough about some of his fellow kaiju, like Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, that I'm not completely in the dark, but rather than an emotional attachment to Godzilla as a franchise, I have more of a mere appreciation for it by virtue of the character being a part of pop culture. It doesn't help that the first time Hollywood tried to tackle the character in 1998 with Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, the result was terrible, something I saw in theaters and – despite being part of the target audience as a nine-year-old boy – hated, and put enough of a sour taste in my mouth to avoid when they tried it again in 2014.
King of the Monsters is set five years after the first film, which saw Godzilla well and truly enter the public stage. Since that time, other monsters, which have come to be called Titans, have been discovered, monitored by the Monarch organization. Some, like King Kong, are active; others, like the winged Rodan, are simply in a long slumber. The world, however, is divided on their existence, with many wanting the Titans exterminated and others believing that humanity can co-exist peacefully with them – or, at least, tentatively friendly ones like Godzilla – because it's their planet and we just happen to live on it.
But as with all debates, there are radicals, in this case a team of eco-terrorists lead by Jonah (Charles Dance), who kidnap Monarch member Emma (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) as part of a plan to awaken all the sleeping Titans, set them loose on the Earth to battle one another, and cull humanity as punishment for its own neglect of the planet. One such Titan is Ghidorah, the worst of the worst, who is awakened and immediately sets out on a path of devastation and death, and soon the fate of the world is put on Godzilla's shoulders as the two Titans go head to head to see who truly is the King of the Monsters.
Though I'd seen Kong: Skull Island in theaters – and enjoyed it, for the record – I hadn't seen Godzilla until right before seeing the sequel. For what it's worth, and without getting too deep into it, I had a good time with it, even if Skull Island is far and away the better movie, in my opinion. But what really had me wanting to see King of the Monsters wasn't its promise of crazy monster fights. Instead, it was two things: The fact that Dougherty both wrote and directed the film and the fact that he had loaded it up with such a great cast.
Aside from helping write one of my favorite comic book movies of all time, 2003's X2: X-Men United, Dougherty also wrote and directed Trick 'r Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015), two films I absolutely adore that are made with such clear, tongue-in-cheek passion that I couldn't help but be excited to see what he could do with something like Godzilla. Unfortunately, Dougherty's own voice seems lost here somehow. It comes out now and again through a one-liner or a visual gag, sure, but he's clearly at the mercy of a studio that doesn't want to stray too far from what a Godzilla film should be, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, restraint keeps King of the Monsters from becoming something like the 1998 film; on the other, its lack of real identity comes across as though it's holding back on what could truly make it stand out.
Despite all the spectacle – of which there is plenty – there's a sensation that Dougherty's wings are clipped a bit, and that translates over to the cast as well. As I said, it's a great roster: Aside from Farmiga, Dance, and Brown, the film's got faces like Kyle Chandler, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Zhang Ziyi, and Ken Watanabe. Watanabe in particular gets to take part in one of the film's standout scenes late in the film, but everyone else often just feels there, their characters either too thinly written or underdeveloped to the point that whether you like and root for (or against) them comes less from the writing and more from whether you personally like the actors or not.
Of course, most people coming into a movie called Godzilla: King of the Monsters undoubtedly care more about, you know, the monsters, and to that end, the film delivers in spades. Godzilla gets a lot more face time than he did five years ago. Mothra and Rodan turn up alongside a number of Titans from across the globe, the former in particular bringing with her some pretty great imagery that makes it sting all the more that she feels woefully underused when all is said and done. And the three-headed Ghidorah is handled pretty well, a true nightmare on screen; when he and Godzilla clash, it's pretty slick – for lack of a better word – simply because it’s so entertaining in its modest ambitions of just being cool for the sake of being cool.
Unfortunately, one of the things Ghidorah brings with him wherever he goes in the film is a massive storm, which means that scenes he appears in are always pretty dark and ominous. That would be fine – and fitting – were it not for the fact that the rest of the film also adheres to that style. Compared to the vibrancy of Kong: Skull Island, the visual palette of King of the Monsters tends to feel like it was chosen by someone who discovered their favorite colors by staring at concrete and asphalt.
There are moments throughout the film that are truly gorgeous, like Mothra emerging from behind a waterfall, spreading her glowing wings, or Godzilla and Ghidorah squaring off amidst a literal hellscape, but they last mere frames, painterly in their singular execution only to be lost amidst shots that don't compliment them. In many ways, it keeps in line with the grim, gritty style set forth by its predecessor, but with Skull Island having set a visual bar for the MonsterVerse, it's disappointing to see King of the Monsters fall short of it.
Taken all together, all this undoubtedly sounds as though I really didn't like the film, and yet – despite its faults – I still enjoyed it. It ties Godzilla and Skull Island together in some fun ways and sets up next year's big Godzilla vs. Kong film, for instance, and there's always enough forward momentum that I rarely found myself losing interest, even if the film starts to feel the weight of its runtime in the final act. I can imagine someone who has been a lifelong fan of these monsters would get a lot more out of the experience of seeing it than, say, the average moviegoer, especially since this film does treat Godzilla's legacy with reverence, but it also doesn't feel essential enough to recommend to everyone.
Let me put it simply: If you liked 2014's Godzilla, you'll probably really dig this. If you were underwhelmed by that film, particularly due to its restraint in action and the minimal presence of its own titular character, this one offers up so much more to enjoy. If you didn't like it, nor are you a fan of big spectacles about giant monsters leveling cities, then King of the Monsters really offers nothing that's going to change your mind.
Pick a Month: