Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Five years ago, Gareth Edwards brought the second American reimagining of one of Japan’s most cherished exports, Godzilla, to life. Godzilla (2014) was a dignified and well-crafted science-fiction thriller that treated its towering monster in the same vein as the shark in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Ridley Scott’s Alien. To some, this approach was precisely what the Godzilla franchise needed after so many years of unmitigated camp from previous installments; however, to others, the big G-man was sorely missed whenever the film’s remarkably dull human characters took control of the story. Warner Brothers and Legendary Entertainment have somewhat listened to the complaints of the critics and audiences and asked Krampus director Michael Dougherty to double down on the monster mayhem and craft an epic as grand and ridiculous as Godzilla, himself.
Years have passed since Godzilla’s destruction of San Francisco, and the world is still adjusting to the new truth of living, breathing monsters. Everyone wants answers, and all fingers point to Monarch, the mysterious organization that has been studying creatures like Godzilla for decades. Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Emma Russell, a Monarch agent who has just created a device that will control Godzilla and the other monsters with an “alpha signal.” Russell and her daughter Madison, played by Stranger Things breakout star Millie Bobby Brown, believe that this alpha signal will lead humanity to a future where it can live in harmony with these Titans. However, great achievements in science and technology rarely gain the attention of the right people in movies.
With the sheer amount of action, spectacle, and mythology that’s on display in every minute of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I have no doubt most fans of the city-stomping lizard will be quite pleased. Dougherty returns Godzilla and the other monsters of the franchise, such as King Ghidorah and Mothra, to their titanic forms once worshipped by ancient civilizations. The human characters explore and learn about the roles these creatures played on this planet before the written word. Seeing Godzilla as this ancient deity gives a substantial amount of weight to the wrestling matches he and the other monsters perform on land and in the air.
One of these days I’ll need to look back at the Japanese Godzilla films and see if their human characters are as one-note as the ones in King of the Monsters. Admittedly the acting in Godzilla 2 is far more energized than the grounded-but-still-mundane performances of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen in Godzilla, but the characters are just as forgettable. No one ever behaves realistically enough for us to genuinely care for them. Every person’s job in this movie is always to keep the plot moving no matter what and every scene is filled to the brim with expositional dialogue. For a film about gargantuan animals kicking the crap out of each other, the visual stimuli almost don’t outmatch the soulless exchanges of King Ghidorah’s backstory and Mothra’s abilities. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an entertaining piece of cinematic fluff. The challenge of creating a Godzilla picture that is both equal parts monster mayhem and compelling human drama is still waiting to be answered by someone. For now, Godzilla has yet to knock Warner Brothers’ monsterverse flat on its face.