Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was divisive, but I liked that it made strong choices. Yes, the characters and plotting were secondary to Godzilla, but the film was very focused on holding the tension and making the payoff worth the wait. But some audiences weren’t too crazy about the whole waiting thing, and you can see how Kong: Skull Island, the next movie in Legendary’s “monsterverse”, is a bit of a course correction as it doesn’t shy away from showing the monsters and piling on the mayhem. Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, tries to split the difference, giving Godzilla the reverence he deserves while also filling up his movie with a lot of extraneous material. Unfortunately, the result is a flabby, bloated picture where the only thing that kind of works are the kaiju fights.
Picking up five years after the events of Edwards’ movie, the world has seen the rise of “titans”, monsters like Godzilla who are being tracked by the organization Monarch, which is currently in conflict with the military that wants to eradicate the titans rather than co-exist with them. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is working on a device, the ORCA, to communicate and control the titans, but she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), who wants to use the ORCA to wake up the dormant titans and cleanse the planet. Monarch, now a bigger organization with more supporting characters, brings in Emma’s estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), who worked on the ORCA with her, to track the device and get it back. Mark agrees so he can rescue their daughter, but it becomes a worldwide chase as King Ghidorah, a three-headed beast, awakens and begins summoning the other titans to him. Humanity’s only hope becomes the big guy, Godzilla.
When the movie is all about Godzilla it seems like Dougherty is at his most comfortable. Although there’s far too many supporting weather effects like snow and rain that kind of obscure the action, you can still get a great picture in the wide shots of the kaiju doing battle. If you’re a fan of Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, then it’s a thrill to see them rendered as blockbuster creatures rather than B-movie monsters. However, when Dougherty goes in for closer shots, he loses not only his geography but also his pacing. There’s this weird need to keep cutting back to the humans (none of whom we care about), and while the humans help provide a sense of scale, they also break the tension of the brawl. Additionally, the fight choreography isn’t all that impressive. There’s no unforgettable shot like Godzilla breathing atomic breath down a monster’s throat.
The pacing is a problem throughout the film. Even though King of the Monsters is only eight minutes longer than 2014’s Godzilla, it feels much longer because Dougherty doesn’t have Edwards’ knack for pacing and building tension on this scale. Again, perhaps that’s a reaction to the backlash to Edwards’ movie, but King of the Monsters vindicates Edwards’ decision to methodically ramp up the pressure. The sequel just piles on lots of stuff, and even though this is a great cast, they don’t really get to build characters or have relationships. They just get shuttled from one Monarch site to the next (it always has to be a Monarch site so that we can avoid Internet thinkpieces about how the monsters killed innocent civilians), they witness some kind of monster battle, and then they move on.
Because there have been so many different iterations of Godzilla throughout the decades, it’s hard to say what the character’s movies are or aren’t. I accept that most people don’t go to a Godzilla movie for rich narratives or interesting characters, but if the majority of your movie is going to be spent with the people, you may want to make them people worth caring about. The characters can’t be at the forefront of your movie and be an afterthought. The film could have greatly benefitted from slimming down the cast of characters, giving real development to just a few, and cutting the runtime by at least half an hour so that the immediacy of the problem matches the stakes of stopping Ghidorah before he destroys the world.
King of the Monsters has one goal in mind, which is to up the count of iconic monsters and “let them fight.” By this modest and singular goal, the movie kind of succeeds even if the battles themselves could stand to be a little stronger rather than just being more expensive than the typical fights between these monsters. But the stuff that surrounds those fights is kind of a drag. You may get a bright spot like Bradley Whitford as a surly scientist or Ken Watanabe adding a bit of gravitas, but then you also have some really idiotic twists to move the plot along and it makes the whole enterprise feel like a cynical attempt to keep the Godzilla franchise going without any real care or attention to anything beyond kaiju fights. Some may argue you don’t need more than that, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters proves that you do.