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Minor Spoilers for Godzilla: King of the Monsters to follow
For as long as Godzilla has existed as a character (65 years!), so too has existed the small, inadequate humans around him that filled the void found between smashy smashy monster action. From Raymond Burr to Matthew Broderick, from Mothra’s twin Shobijin to a sadly underused Bryan Cranston, humans have been constantly plaguing Godzilla the character, and likewise Godzilla the franchise. Either they’re trying to stop his rampages or seemingly aid him in defeating newer, deadlier monsters, all the while making audiences cry out “Just get back to the monsters, already!”
You may be asking why I’m focusing so much on the humans in this review for a film that literally has dozens of monsters causing destruction around the earth. The reason is simple. Even though this might be the most gorgeously photographed, insanely destructive Godzilla film maybe ever, its biggest hindrance is the same thing that has hindered all Godzilla films before it: the humans.
Set in seemingly real time after the events of 2014s Godzilla (and well past the Vietnam-era setting of Kong: Skull Island), Godzilla: King of the Monsters finds the humans of the secret monster research group Monarch trying to maintain the balance between Godzilla and the many other titanic creatures across the globe, including Mothra, Rodan, and the biggest, baddest of them all, King Ghidorah. Between all of it is eco-terrorism, nihilistic dreams of ending the world, plenty allusions to Kong, and full-blown science fiction world building.
On a smaller level, KOTM finds Dr. Mark Russell joining Monarch to help find his wife, Dr. Emma Russell, and their daughter Madison, after having suffered an exceptional loss between them. Emma and Madison have been kidnapped by a group of… mercenaries? Terrorists? It’s never really made clear beyond the fact that they are a group that wants to use the Russell’s titan communication technology to awaken every monster on Earth to restore it to it’s primeval balance.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking there isn’t enough Godzilla in those two paragraphs. Don’t worry, the big guy is in there, traveling around the globe with Monarch in pursuit, both with the goal of taking down the seemingly otherworldly King Ghidorah, who’s reigning like an alpha creating a posse of monster minions around the globe.
Here’s the thing, the humans, for the most part, do their jobs admirably. Personal favorites like Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown all put in strong efforts as the strained Russell family. Returning from the 2014 film, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn bring a level of class to the whole thing, even if they’re sometimes lost amongst the shuffle of new humans and monsters.
The newer additions to the human cast don’t register very much, mostly serving as exposition machines or as someone who can yell ‘oh shit!’ when bad things happen. Quality actors like Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson, and Zhang Ziyi go through their motions, leaning into their strengths when they can. The best addition by far is Bradley Whitford, whose sarcastic, drunkard of a scientist serves as a fairly funny chorus to comment on the insanity happening around them.
Enough about the humans, does the monster action and destruction satiate the needs of kaiju hungry audiences? Well, it does and it doesn’t.
To be clear upfront, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is filled with some of the most breathtaking monster designs and action that I’ve ever seen on film. It is simply astounding to not only see creatures like Godzilla and Ghidorah portrayed with state-of-the-art Hollywood effects, but to see them filmed so lovingly. It’s clear from the way these beasts are presented that director Michael Dougherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher hold an immense amount of respect and love for these creatures.
The film is, in a word, gorgeous to look at. There are moments that you could pause the movie, print out the screen as it appears, frame it, and call it art. Hell, you could spray paint the same images onto the side of a van and it’d be just as awesome. Full, revealing shots of Godzilla, et al, are amazing to take in, and KOTM certainly earns its existence with the number of iconic images it produces. The destruction on display is equally awe-inspiring. There are kaiju fights in KOTM that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before on a sense of scale that is, frankly, so big it’s hard to even fathom at times.
Equally impressive are other technical aspects, such as the booming, sound design and the phenomenal score by Bear McCreary, which satisfyingly brings back a number of classic motifs and themes from Godzilla films of the past. The movie takes you to places you don’t expect, and the production design by Scott Chambliss is astounding, taking the audience from high-tech government helicarriers to the depths of extinct subterranean cultures.
For all of the dynamic visuals, badass monsters, and utter and complete destruction on display, it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in the exact same things that bog down every Godzilla movie: the humans and the plot surrounding them.
On one hand, it is a necessary storytelling device to put moments of calm and levity between moments of adrenaline-fueled action. On the other, KOTM doesn’t do anyone any favors with a globetrotting plot filled with characters doing stupid things like blowing up ice caves while they’re still inside them, or leaving important technology alone for anyone to steal. Listen, I’m well aware of the futility of arguing logistics and leaps of believability in a movie that has monsters tearing apart cities. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t distracting, especially when KOTM focuses a not-insignificant amount of its runtime to these humans and their nonsense.
There’s something to be said about a husband, wife, and child dealing with grief and loss in different ways during the destruction of kaiju warfare. KOTM gives it its best effort to make things like that matter, but they just fail to connect, serving as an annoying distraction. Likewise, the life expectancy of these characters is also borderline unbelievable, with several characters surviving seemingly deadly encounters several times over. I love seeing Godzilla and Ghidorah class and destroy Boston, it’s amazing! Yet, for whatever reason, seeing characters who are literally scurrying at the feet of these titans seemingly avoid oblivion is just one leap of logic too far, at least to me.
There’s also the matter of the world-building on display. Connecting both 2014's Godzilla and the previously mentioned Skull Island with this film sometimes comes off as a bit clunky, if not enjoyable. They certainly lay the seeds for an all-out monster bonanza next year, even if this one seemingly serves as a main course all on its own. It’s fun to hear and see the name Kong pop up here and there, even if it’s part of that clunky exposition mentioned earlier.
The Final Pop
Godzilla: King of the Monsters contains some of the most satisfying, awesome, and visually impressive kaiju action ever committed to film. With so many awesome scenes of Godzilla-on-monster action, it’s a shame that it falls victim to the same human and plot-related issues that have seemingly plagued the franchise for decades.