‘Godzilla’ sequel no king among monster movies

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

3/10 Godzilla: King of the Monsters tries to be almost everything to almost everyone. Unfortunately, the one thing it isn’t trying to be is a giant monster movie for people who just wanted to watch a giant monster movie.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters focuses on the Russell family, parents Kyle and Emma (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). The family was torn apart in 2014’s Godzilla when Madison’s brother was killed during the monsters’ rampage through San Francisco. Now, five years later, Emma Russell has developed a sonic device that can control Godzilla and the other “titans,” but she, Madison, and the device are all kidnapped by eco-terrorist Col. Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Kyle Russell, who had been helping his wife develop the device but turned to drink after their son’s death, is called in by Monarch, the secret government organization that handles giant monster business, to help track the device down and rescue his family.

Emma Russell awakens several other monsters, including King Ghidorah and Rodan the Fire Demon, and they have fights with Godzilla, but that’s mostly in the background – Warner Bros. knows that nobody came to see monster fights and wanton destruction. The Russell family dynamic is what really matters here.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters needs to be three or four hours long. I almost feel bad talking about it based on the theatrical release because there’s so much more that it could be. It’s not just a matter of it needing that runtime to do everything it wants to do, it’s a matter of what this movie is. This is a movie about skyscraper-sized dragons that breathe radioactive fire and lightning. This is a movie has a giant pterodactyl that lives in a volcano and something called an “oxygen destroyer.”

This is a go big or go home movie, one that needs desperately to follow through on writer/director Evan Dougherty’s promise to “take the gloves off.” This movie needed to be silly – I mean, it is silly, they try to turn Godzilla into Jesus Christ – this movie needed to be gaudy and excessive and oversized in a way that parallels its main attractions. Instead, it’s a considerate 132 minutes, and the gloves are still on tight.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a wild scramble to wrangle every possible expectation that could be put on 2019 blockbuster. There is of course the need for Godzilla to relate to some kind of natural disaster to conform to his history as a manifestation of Japan’s national trauma in the wake of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which dovetails into the half-hearted attempts of many recent movies to incorporate Climate Change into the plot. But King of the Monsters also pulls in the Darker and Grittier craze that started with 2005’s Batman Begins, the emphasis on human drama that seems to have been driven by strictly weather-related disaster movies – and by 2010’s Monsters, which was such a direct inspiration to this series that they brought in the same director, Gareth Edwards, to handle Godzilla, though he backed out from doing King of the Monsters – and weirdly, several tropes straight out of the DC Extended Universe.

As atmospheric phenomena follow our monster heroes, reinforcing them even further as forces of nature, Dougherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher form a consistent aesthetic out of murkiness, and later, out of blinding lights.

It’s not weird when you understand that, in the U.S., Godzilla belongs to Warner Bros., the same company behind the DCEU, and it views both properties essentially the same way – as expanded series of reliable tentpole movies. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the “Monsterverse” equivalent of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not necessarily in terms of quality or ambition, but in terms of the obvious attempt to balloon the series’ scope in a single movie. King of the Monsters also weirdly lifts its opening scene, in which the new main character sorts through the rubble of the last movie’s climax, directly from Dawn of Justice. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a studio mandate.

Warner Bros. has corrected for the criticisms of other, completely unrelated movies, but not for the criticisms aimed at King of the Monsters’ own 2014 predecessor – this movie is still severely lacking in monster action. There are many more monster-vs-human sequences then there are monster-vs-monster, and when the creatures do come up against each other, the fights are frequently cut away from to follow the Russells or the military, sometimes even framed as literal background to the human characters.

Dougherty’s and Zach Shields’ script, particularly the dialogue, is a major problem. Aboard Monarch’s helicarrier knockoff, the human contingent aimlessly speculates their way into major plot discoveries repeatedly. It’s about the only way King of the Monsters conveys information to its audience, and it makes up just about the only thing some of these characters say at all.

Smoke and fog and ocean water are used for some spectacular silhouette shots, particularly of King Ghidorah. Oh, what a gorgeous shot.

Even if you accept that this is the way information needs to be conveyed in this movie, it’s done weirdly. There isn’t one character who does all the exposition or one character who does all the speculation, it’s all of them together, finishing each other’s wild leaps in logic like a hive-mind of Hollow Earth theorists. No one develops much of a relationship with anyone, so there’s no particular conflict or tension within the conversations themselves. Everyone who’s there has some sort of job, so it’s conceivable that they were better differentiated in the script, but in the final edit they’re bizarrely uniform.

Also uniform is who’s coming up with the important ideas – it’s Mark Russell, in all instances. It’s a shallow and, in context, mildly racist way to make Russell more endearing and his family’s plotline more central, wasting a spectacular cast. The best performances are from Brown, who is relegated to a pitifully small role, and Dance, who plays the sassiest eco-terrorist who ever did kidnap.

Given the international origins of Godzilla, the diversity of the cast, the importance of international dollars and the obvious corporate influence on this movie, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn about dramatically different versions of Godzilla: King of the Monsters exist for different markets. In America, the most prominent characters are Russell and explicit Rick and Morty knockoff Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), but a British cut could focus on Jonah and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Far Eastern cuts could focus on Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi).

Additionally, a focus on different characters would have left the movie with entirely different themes – Russell’s expertise on pack predator behavior patterns drives the plot, with Godzilla’s and Ghidorah’s quarrel staged as two rival alphas vying for dominance. Other characters bring ecological, paleontological, mythological and religious viewpoints on what’s going on. I want to hear more about those.

LÄMP!

It’s not that the unerring focus on the Russells’ family dynamic is a bad thing. The base idea is fantastic – traumatized by the loss of their son, Mark and Emma arrive at clashing views on Godzilla’s place in their world, with Mark wanting to see him killed and Emma wanting to embrace him. With Godzilla as a versatile metaphor standing in for nature, fate and God itself, and with one remaining child caught between them, it has extreme potential as a story about coping with topical overtones about climate anxiety. But a lot of people walked out of the 2014 film wishing they’d seen more monster fights, and I left King of the Monsters feeling the same way.

More specifically, I left King of the Monsters wishing the monster fights had meant something, and with this family drama overpowering everything else, they easily could have. Make Godzilla’s and Ghidorah’s struggle for control and authority an explicit metaphor for Mark and Emma’s struggle, with breath weapons like spiteful marital barbs, Mothra and Rodan standing in as their children. This wouldn’t bring the monster fights into the visual foreground – that obviously needs to happen anyway – but the metatextual foreground as well.

What is she smiling about? There’s this idea running through these movies that destruction caused by the “good” monster is something to be looked forward to, even as the movies go to lengths to otherwise paint destruction as horrifying. It doesn’t work at all.

I guess all I could realistically expect from Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that it be pretty, and it is, in its own way. There’s a wonderful blue vs. red thing going on, with one color tied to Godzilla and Mothra and the other to King Ghidorah and Rodan.

You rarely get a good look at the monsters, and that’s a good thing, because their design leaves a lot to be desired. Godzilla’s textured exterior stands out against Ghidorah and Rodan, who look smooth and untouched by their years.

Just as Godzilla did five years ago, Godzilla: King of the Monsters stands out as a unique and bold solution to the problems posed by a Godzilla movie, but audiences don’t want those problems solved. We just want a normal Godzilla movie.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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