Directed by Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, and Milly Bobby Brown
The term “dumb fun” gets thrown around a lot when describing a film like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s often a blanket defense to shield a movie of this kind from any legit criticisms as unnecessary because “you’re supposed to turn your brain off.”
While I’m certainly not against indulging in cheap escapism I feel this defense often misreads the quality of a “dumb” movie as there are tons of films with bonkers plot-lines and themes that still hold up to strong criticism. A movie can be dumb and still make sense and an action movie can still be bombastic without bludgeoning a viewer with poorly contrived plot devices.
(A large percentage of super hero films and the MCU as a whole fall under this category.)
While “King of the Monsters” certainly isn’t short on spectacle and dazzling visual effects, its plot is more than just a little half-baked; it’s raw as hell with little coherence that will do more to takeaway from the movie’s best moments than enhance them.
The dazzling, kaiju-sized action will be enough for a large percentage of fans I imagine, and certainly kept me mostly entertained throughout the two-hour, fifteen-minute run-time but it’s not enough to lift the final product beyond being just ok.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” takes place five years after the events of the first film as we are introduced to Dr. Mark Russell a former Monarch scientist who specializes in animal behavior and communication. Russell has fallen out with his wife and daughter after Godzilla’s attack on San Francisco tragically took the life of his young son but after an eco-terrorist group bent on reviving the other titans of the Earth kidnaps them both Russell is brought back into the fold to help save the world.
The one big takeaway I’m sure most fans can agree on after leaving the theaters is quite clearly the giant monster scenes are some of the best in the genre’s history.
(I mean, nothing against traditional dude’s in rubber suits, of course.)
The special effects team which combined some motion-capture suit acting along with stellar CGI creates hyper realistic giant monster movement while also hearkening back to some good ol’ fashion WWE style kaiju on kaiju brawling. Yes, again, the plot leaves a lot to be desired here but the kaiju action more often than not starts before your brain hemorrhages too hard from trying to make sense of character motivations and thematic messaging.
Though I would’ve preferred less of these battles in the dark and/or rain the cinematography does create some truly awe-inspiring moments that will wow even the most uptight of viewers. It’s truly impossible not to find some joy in these scenes and for most die-hards fans this will be more than enough to satisfy.
(Me often times during the battles in my theater seat.)
Unfortunately for this die-hard the screenplay is lacking to say the least.
First, before I continue, I want to make something very clear; I have no problem with a film being “dumb.” More specifically I don’t have a problem with it being “unsophisticated.” A film like “John Wick” for instance is not a very sophisticated movie. Hitman loses wife, then dog gets killed so he goes on a murderous rampage to avenge both. The difference is despite “John Wick” having no art house message to tell at least you are never confused and/or irritated by the messaging and motivations of the characters in that plot and it never distracts from the meat of the film which is of course the action.
Many of Godzilla’s Showa era films (which this movie mostly pays homage too) are like this and they work fine because again the plot moves the story along in a simple but effective way without detracting from its best parts, namely the Kaiju-sized wrestling matches.
“King of Monsters” unfortunately mostly fails on this level.
(I can honestly say the same thing about “John Wick Chapter 3″ as well but I’m not going to get into that today sigh but hey pew, pew!)
About a third of the way through the film the plot’s wheels spin wildly out of control and the mostly cognizant story up to that point goes up in atomic flames. You’ll spend more times asking questions than just sitting and enjoying yourself and it’s a real detriment to an otherwise spectacular giant monster throwdown.
The film largely wastes the talents of a hugely talented cast because of this between Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Milly Bobby Brown and Ken Watanabe. All of them do well with what they have to work with but the script really needed far less characters to work efficiently and unfortunately the acting talent here alone is not enough to lift a script that has very little clear direction. Character motivations and pathos seem to be dropped at a whim and the film’s final moments contradict a lot of the plot movement from earlier in the film.
(The ending of this film in a nutshell…)
Again a plot doesn’t need to be sophisticated to be good but it should AT LEAST make sense and work with the action, not against it.
There’s some interesting world building here and there but large sections of it are inexplicably and quite literally blown to smithereens on occasions and it will make you wonder if there was more fascinating story layered underneath it all.
Despite my gripes I would say it’s still mostly forgivable how bad the story is because of the aforementioned kaiju brawling but there is one unforgivable moment in this film and it symbolizes a much larger issue I have with the American interpretation of Godzilla.
Godzilla is often viewed in a pretty straight-forward manner by most fans; he’s a giant, fire-breathing reptile here to wreck cities for two hours and not much more than that. For the longest time I mostly saw the big G-man in that way as well and for what it’s worth I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying Godzilla films on purely a superficial level. After all, a large percentage of Godzilla’s filmography is largely schlock.
(Fun schlock, of course.)
But eventually as I got older and grew more into my half Japanese-American identity my view on Godzilla became a lot more nuanced especially after seeing the 1954 original without the American re-dubbing and editing.
If you haven’t seen the original Japanese “Gojira” do yourself a favor and give it a watch right now. The 1954 classic is a masterpiece of post-atomic bomb era story-telling in Japan and at the time a long overdue allegorical discussion of what happened during WWII in that country. However you may feel about the use of the atomic bomb to end the war you cannot say that the results weren’t horrifying and tragic and its radioactive aftermath is still felt in Japan today.
In the US radioactive waste creates super heroes like the Hulk, Spider-man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In Japan it creates Godzilla, a monster that is less a force of nature as these newer films describe him as but more the embodiment of dread, a vengeful God looking to bring about Armageddon to the sinful world. It played on very real fears about the hydrogen bomb and the escalation of weapons of mass destruction at the time and its message is still relevant.
(The 1954 film is not meant to be “dumb” and/or “fun.”)
Now, I don’t have a problem too much with changing Godzilla into a super hero for this series. Afterall, the Showa era films it largely takes inspiration from depict Godzilla mostly in this light anyways but if you’re going to do that you can’t go slapping the face of the darker, more vindictive “Gojira” and its theme in the process and it does that in just one scene.
About half way through the movie, Godzilla is duking it out with King Ghidorah off the coast of Mexico when the US military gets involved by unleashing their brand new weapon: the Oxygen Destroyer. Those who have watched the 1954 original know this as the weapon that eventually kills Godzilla.
Those that understand the original will probably see why I find this scene unforgivable.
The use of the Oxygen Destroyer in the original 1954 film is not supposed to be a triumphant moment even when it kills Godzilla; it’s supposed to be a dark moment that gets to the core messaging of the film’s story. The Oxygen Destroyer represents the next level in mass destruction in the movie; a weapon more powerful and more terrifying than the atomic bomb that created Godzilla. Its creator Dr. Serizawa (who is NOTHING like the Serizawa in this series) is reluctant to use it because he understands what terrible power it carries and what it might do in the wrong hands. In the end he sacrifices himself and his research by purposely detonating the weapon along with himself to kill Godzilla.
The way this weapon is brought up and tossed out immediately in this story feels like a cheap fan servicey moment that winks at the audience going “hey remember the Oxygen Destroyer?” It is both shocking and frankly a tone deaf and fundamental misreading of what that weapon is supposed to represent in the larger Godzilla canon.
(What I felt like doing to the writers after this scene in the film…)
It might seem small to other fans but it really speaks to how America has misappropriated Godzilla each time they have gotten their creative hands on him to fit a comfortable narrative regarding weapons of mass destruction. Just watch the dubbed version of the 1954 film and you’ll understand what I’m getting at.
It’s extremely problematic, even it represents a tiny moment in the larger and again confusing plot of the movie and would’ve been better off left on the editing room table.
(Thank you for baring with my mini rant here if you read this far…)
It should be said that I don’t hate this movie, however, warts and all. The kaiju-sized action set pieces make the price of IMAX largely worth the money and I certainly enjoyed it more than the 2014 film at least. I feel “Kong: Skull Island” is a superior modern monster flick in almost every way but as far as cheap escapism goes you could do far worst “King of the Monsters” at least.
But the plot’s often baffling, confusing and problematic choices unfortunately keep the film’s best parts from being enough to rise above simply mediocre and that’s a real disappointment.
I’m still waiting for a truly satisfying high production value take on Godzilla but given the fundamental misreading of the big guy’s much more nuanced background by Hollywood perhaps I should stop looking to the West to figure it out.
Welp. At least there’s always “Shin Gojira”…
3 out of 5
Hopefully Kong adds some much needed charisma to this franchise once he gets his big ape hands on Godzilla…