Of my many cinematic regrets, not seeing Garth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ on the big screen towers over my other qualms. Procrastination, always a thief of time, can also be a thief of joy. Edwards’ 2014 film angles the titan as an awe-inspiring deity impossible to comprehend but deserving of our worship. Edwards did not think us worthy enough of the full splendor of Godzilla, feeding him to us in bits with an infectious sense of sweeping wonder heightened by Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score.
Fast forward to 2019 and director Michael Dougherty has taken the reigns of the Toho studios centerpiece, with ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’, in a Marvel-ised cinema space. This means cinematic universes, Easter Eggs, team-ups, post credit scenes and lots of epic action. And I must say this film succeeds where it kind of matters most; delivering on truly stunning monster-disaster movie that even takes time to awe us with artfully composed frames that somehow defy the earth bending carnage surrounding it.
We have a rich mythology of gods and titans to do all the heavy lifting narratively and boy does the screenplay milk them for increasingly rich ideas. But for some reason, ‘King of the Monsters’ still trips itself up by also leaning heavily on woefully underwhelming mortals.
Granted, audience avatars are necessary to spark the plot to life so it would be, for the most part, unreasonable to suggest a monster movie without people (but really though?). In ‘Godzilla’, the human characters always felt like they were on the periphery and never really had a firm grip on the new reality being crafted by monsters. In contrast, there is too much string-pulling in ‘King of the Monsters’ by humans, opening the door to chaff and contrivances that marred the monster fest audiences turned up for.
All the humans have some ties to the top-secret Monarch Initiative. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins return from the previous film but they are supporting a new top bill. Flying the flag of the humans are a broken family consisting of two Monarch scientists, Mark Russel and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Grief weighs heavy on the fissures because they lost the fourth member of their family, Madison’s older brother, during Godzilla’s epic battle with the MUTOs in 2014.
The cracks also extend to how the two parents respond to the new reality with monsters. Emma channels an eternal human hubris with her belief that the likes of Godzilla can be controlled and she develops a special sonar device that can communicate and manipulate the monsters. Mark, on the other hand, wants all monsters destroyed.
And yeah, more monsters have shown up, emerging in response to man’s ravaging of the environment to restore balance. But nature’s ways are not quick enough for some. Enter Charles Dance’s Colonel Alan Jonah, a former British Special Forces veteran turned “eco-terrorist” who seeks to tilt the scales in the monsters’ favour and spark a mass cull of humanity as punishment for how we have treated the environment. In simple terms, he is a Thanos stan.
The key to Jonah’s plan is the awakening of the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, sizzling with elemental fury and ready to challenge Godzilla as earth’s alpha predator. The monsters are clearly the conduit of this film’s core delights; both visually and intellectually.
Christian themes weigh heavy in the conception of Godzilla’s clash with Ghidorah. The fine details have you wondering if the three-headed beast is the returning messiah to judge the race that actively worked against the standards of Eden. Overthink things (like I did) and its clear Godzilla is flying the banner of mother earth in that way Darron Aronofsky assigns some agency to nature in ‘mother!’. In the other corner is Ghidora, who stands in as the next incarnation of the humanity-ending floods.
Crazy? Probably, but hear me out. Consider the significance of Ghidora’s three heads, part of the same body but still distinct, and how they clearly channel the trinity; particularly in when one head is chomped off but regenerates like a certain someone we know. Then there’s the point about Ghidora being otherworldly; haven fallen from the skies. The monster has been treated with a terrifying reverence reserved the most fearsome of entities whose name is not to be spoken in vain. Throw in the breathtaking shot the ravaging Ghidora perched on an erupting volcano with a cross in the foreground and the sermon is complete.
Alas, we are to root for Godzilla; the custodian of mother earth and restorer of balance as Ken Wantanabe reminds us time and time again. The only alter worth bowing to is the one that furthers nature’s agenda. This is a point drummed home again and again as if fearing audiences scampered into ‘King of the Monsters’ with the dogma of nuclear angst. There is a sequence where Farmiga’s character gives us a ridiculous bout of exposition on man’s environmental sins and Dance drones on about humanity being a virus but there is little tact to the message, no matter how important.
But it isn’t the soapbox moments that make the humans an actual virus eating away at attempts at competent storytelling. It’s that they are just so drab and forgettable when they aren’t annoying us with exposition necessitated by needless plot points. The core cast comprising Chandler, Farmiga and Brown acquit themselves well enough and there is the vague sense Mark is spiritually tethered to Godzilla, who is a spectre of grief that seems to haunt him. Their family dynamic, however, ticks the mere melodrama box and never really overcomes a certain crippling plot twist sure to make the film much worse on a second viewing.
I really don’t want to dwell on the negatives and how they cramp the style of what should have been a riveting monster fest. Supporting Godzilla and Ghidora are close to a dozen other monsters including the fiery pterodactyl inspired Rodan and almost angelic Mothra which awes with its luminous intensity in some of the films most lavish visual moments.
Dougherty isn’t operating in the echelons of Gareth Edwards here. The inch-perfect restraint that made ‘Godzilla’ a quietly outstanding spectacle that channeled silent cinema is missing in ‘King of the Monster.’ That doesn’t keep it from standing out as a dazzling display of craft with jaw-dropping scale, especially in the moments when some of the monsters, Rodan in particular, become the embodiment of ravaging natural disasters that evoke moments of large scale sweeping terror.
I’ll still look back fondly on the theological beats of ‘King of Monsters’; where sacrifice once again gives humanity a chance at a reboot only we aren’t meant to be fishers of men but sowers of more trees I guess. Lacking subtlety, yes, but ‘King of the Monsters’ will never be mistaken for lacking earnestness. It demonstrates some thoughtfulness about its themes but not enough give real heft to the story and elevate proceedings from what is ultimately Kaiju pulp.