Godzilla: King of the Monsters (United States/Japan, 2019)

May 29, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Godzilla: King of the Monsters Poster

Emerging from the loud, overlong spectacle that is Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I was struck by the disheartening realization that what I had just seen owed more to Transformers than kaiju. Although the movie takes great pains to pay homage to 65 years of Godzilla history (even going so far as to appropriate music from the original Toho classics), the relentless manner in which it pummels the audience is so like what Michael Bay perfected in his soulless robo-movies as to be almost indistinguishable. Scenes of devastation – admittedly necessary to any Godzilla film – are lovingly presented in all their detail, ignoring the vast human cost. Evacuations are briefly mentioned but there’s no escaping that the death toll in this movie must be over 1,000,000 – perhaps by an order of magnitude. The problem with Transformers has always been related to the fetishization of destruction – and that’s exactly what happens here.

One of knocks on Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla (of which I am a fan, although I acknowledge some shortcomings) was “too little Godzilla.” I thought the long buildup was appropriate and generated anticipation for the big reveal. This time around, there’s more Godzilla and he’s joined by three other classic Toho monsters: Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. Missing in action, because he’s being held back for the next movie, is King Kong. This creates a problem for the filmmakers that they’re never able to solve. Kong is mentioned on several occasions but (save for a short clip from Skull Island) never shown. It’s a little like the tap-dancing done by Iron Man 3 to justify the absence of the other Avengers.

The obvious reason why anyone would see Godzilla: King of the Monsters is to watch skyscraper-sized creatures beat each other up. That’s been the appeal of kaiju since the ‘60s and ‘70s when every new Godzilla movie featured him taking on some new opponent. Later on, the movies turned into campy monster-fests and Godzilla even got a son! King of the Monsters takes these WWE-style smackdowns more seriously than Toho ever did; this is a somber film that touches on themes of eco-terrorism and genocide. The undercard (Rodan vs. Mothra) is underwhelming, but the headline bout (Godzilla vs. Ghidorah) lives up to its billing. It goes three rounds, although only the final fight is shown in its full glory. For reasons known only to him, director Michael Dougherty elects to present parts of the kaiju death-match literally in the background. There’s also a lot of rain and/or snow, which makes me wonder whether there was sufficient concern about the special effects that some degree of obfuscation was deemed prudent.

The success of any monster movie is in large part dependent on what happens during the breaks and downtime between the red meat battles. No one expects great plotting or strong character development in theses productions but there are ways to keep viewers engaged when the focus isn’t on Godzilla or the other Titans. Whatever those may be, they have eluded Daughtry. He gives us flat characters traipsing through a dumb narrative. Okay – even those sins might be forgiven (or at least forgiveable) if he didn’t spend so damn much time on them. I recognize the need to have human beings in a movie like this and it helps if the actors are at least moderately recognizable. But too much screen time is devoted to the trite, lackluster family drama of Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), and their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). And rarely has such a stable of Oscar/BAFTA/Golden Globe nominees – Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, and Charles Dance – been so utterly and completely wasted. (I’m still confused by why Zhang played two roles but I guess I may not have been paying close enough attention.)

There is, by the way, no reason to give a synopsis of the film because the bones of the story are unnecessary. All you need to know is that when the big boys come out to play, things get destroyed. They blow up. People die in large numbers. The monsters fight each other. They go nuclear. What more do you need to know? Who cares whether a young girl is caught between her mad scientist mother and Godzilla-hating father? Who cares whether an eco-terrorist looking like Tywin Lannister is out to reboot the homo sapiens species?

Transformers isn’t the only dumbed-down Hollywood spectacle that came to mind watching King of the Monsters. I was also reminded of Twister. Many of the film’s beats involved the implacability of fighting a force of nature. Before the Godzilla franchise turned into a kid-friendly cash cow for Toho, it was intended to be a serious, adult-oriented metaphor for what happens when human beings tamper with forces beyond their wisdom (thematically similar to Frankenstein). Gareth Edwards brought back a little of that five years ago. In King of the Monsters, however, we’re given a full-blown sermon about the relationship between the awakening of the Titans and Climate Change. I guess we’re in an era when the concept of subtlety no longer exists. Metaphors are most effective when no one pauses, erects a neon sign, and provides a long-winded explanation.

I desperately wanted to like this movie because, as a kid, Godzilla was a part of my pre-teen years. There were things about King of the Monsters that I enjoyed, most of which had to do with the battles. Those are well-executed and it’s impossible to deny the frisson I felt during the first Godzilla/Ghidorah clash. For kaiju fans, the movie offers its share of goosebumps moments. Overall, however, there’s too much clutter – most involving human “drama,” inane politics, and lunatics who believe the solution to the world’s problems is to wipe out most of the people. Watching King of the Monsters involves enduring less-than-interesting stuff while waiting for the good scenes. (For those who are wondering a about a post-credits scene, there is one. It’s short and surprisingly does not involve King Kong. It’s also completely unnecessary and probably not worth sitting through ten minutes of names unless you like Bear McCreary’s score.)

The nostalgia factor associated with Godzilla: King of the Monsters is arguably higher than that of Aladdin, at least among men of a certain age. The film will also be popular with kids. But there are too many gaps in the cross-generational/cross-gender appeal for the movie to emerge as one of the 2019 summer movie season’s big winners. Some will argue this is all set-up for next year’s Kong/Godzilla rematch. After watching King of the Monsters, however, I sadly find myself less excited about that outing.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (United States/Japan, 2019)

Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 2019-05-31
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Mayhem, Destruction, Profanity)
Genre: Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1