Review - 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'
Director Michael Dougherty has a passion for Godzilla and the kaiju genre unmatched by most filmmakers. Once I heard Dougherty was taking on King of the Monsters in Garreth Edwards’s stead, I was immediately on board and filled to the brim with glee as Trick ‘r Treat has become a yearly Halloween rewatch as well as Krampus for Christmas. Watching interviews and reading articles with Dougherty, you see and hear that the man knows his Godzilla. Listening to him talk about the first home movies he made being kaiju films, his loving tweets to fans, and then projecting his wild theories about his own film, it warms a kaiju lover’s heart to see a Godzilla movie in the hands of someone so devoted to the King.
Dougherty’s love burns brighter than an atomic blast and leading up to King of the Monsters’ release, the trailers, clips, and even the beautiful score by Bear McCreary, which pays homage to Akira Ifukube’s timeless themes, you’d see how this movie couldn’t be anything but special. And in many ways it is. There are spectacular larger-than-life fight sequences between ancient gods, you have global scale disasters exemplifying the destructive capabilities of these creatures, you have an expanded lore with high concept sci-fi aesthetics and adventurous globe trotting. You’ve got callbacks to the Toho films of old. You have Mothra, Rodan, and King FREAKIN’ Ghidorah. Holy moly, my mind is reeling just from typing this as never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we’d have the big three kaiju in a single film, made by a hollywood studio no less.
That’s why it pains my heart to say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is anything but king.
When I don’t want to see a Godzilla film a second time in theaters, something’s up. It could be that I’m getting older and more jaded and my own expectations get in the way, but I expected no less than an all out kaiju smackdown. And while I got my wish, I wasn’t engaged at all with the fights themselves. Dougherty tries to tie in the monster conflict with the human just as much as Garreth Edwards did in Godzilla 2014. While a larger battle between gods is happening above, we’re also witnessing the fallout on a ground level using hand held cameras following the characters we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in and it just doesn’t work.
Not to say that the action is bad, it’s pretty good and the monsters designs look amazing. When you can see them. And it’s not at night. And it’s not snowing or raining. And there isn’t just random debris or particle effects everywhere. And the shaky cams don’t keep cutting between humans and monsters. It’s absolute chaos. I get that they wanted to simulate how being around these monsters would be a warzone, but man, I just want some uninterrupted monster fights like the Toho films, the first Pacific Rim, or even Kong: Skull Island, which had some great kaiju fights taking place in daylight.
Even the first prize fight between Godzilla and King Ghidorah felt lackluster. You’ve got this beautiful wide shot of the two squaring off against one another in the snow, almost like a painting (one of many shots I want so badly on my living room wall) and as soon as the fight starts, the camera cuts to the humans at the ground level while the battle rages on above. And it’s like, “Not this AGAIN.” While it isn’t as groan-worthy as Godzilla 2014 when it kept cutting from the action directly to some little snot nosed kid sleeping on the couch, it still offsets a great emotional build up just to see that fight from someone else’s perspective instead of an omniscient camera. And they do it throughout the rest of the film, with a few bright spots here and there where we do get some good monster-on-monster moments like Godzilla choke slamming Ghidorah or Rodan and Mothra duking it out in midair. But that’s just it, they’re only moments.
While it was a fine attempt to make the humans the central heart of the story in Godzilla 2014, it failed due to the charisma vacuum of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the random killing of Bryan Cranston in the first act, the only character everyone was emotionally invested in. This one however, there’s no one to really latch onto and the film is constantly jumping from one character to the next with no real arc to speak of. Everyone is an incompetent buffoon in this movie and there’s only a few likable people in the bunch besides Bradley Whitford, whose comedic timing is as impeccable as ever, Ken Watanabe, and Zhang Ziyi, whom I honestly just miss seeing in movies. Ken Watanabe has a lot more to do but even he’s played for a moron as he’s always got this perpetual facial expression of constant bewilderment like he did in the last film. Sally Hawkins is wasted. Our main stars: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown don’t add anything new to the mix and Kyle Chandler’s character with no experience in handling these creatures instructs this organization that’s worked with them for decades on how to do their jobs and of course, he’s right about everything. It’s so dumb.
With Millie Bobby Brown’s rise to stardom, you’d think she’d be the main character and a perfect audience surrogate to introduce a younger generation to Godzilla but she’s underutilized as I only remember her screaming most of the time or arguing with her mom. The only competent humans are the ecoterrorists led by Charles Dance whose sole goal is to release the monsters to wipe away humanity and hell, they barely have to do anything as the dominoes fall perfectly in place for them while the heroes keep tripping over themselves.
The storytelling also does too much of one thing: telling. So much of King of the Monsters is characters telling you what’s happening instead of the film actually showing you. *SPOILERS* There’s a moment in the second act where Godzilla maybe dies and it’s supposed to be a big moment but there’s no emotional weight because the characters are reading his vitals on a computer instead of showing the audience how damaged or weakened Big G really is.
Even at twenty-nine years old, I still get emotionally invested in non-human characters more often than even the human characters. I still cry at the end of Terminator 2, The Iron Giant, and even at Godzilla’s death in Destoroyah. Am I emotionally insecure? Hell yeah, but I often see the “monsters” as more human than the humans and those movies do a great job portraying them as such. I want so see how badly Godzilla’s hurt, I want to see him struggle, I want to feel that pain with him so it makes his return that much more triumphant. Not be told how to feel. Let me be able to discern what these beings are saying without words, much of how I wish all of Wall-E was a silent film.
Can we also stop having the monsters make eye contact with the humans? For a movie that touts them as gods, they sure do love getting face to face with their human buddies. We can’t be friends with a hurricane and the way this movie posits that we can really detracts from the original message that man shouldn’t meddle with nature, we prepare for the worst and stay out of its way.
The real MVP of this film is Bear McCreary’s beautiful score, incorporating Akira Ifukube’s original themes, and adding some new brilliant touches to them. Never would I ever have expected to hear ‘Mothra’s Song’ in a hollywood film and it’s done so lovingly. They didn’t include the vocals, but you can bet your butt I was singing along “Mosura ya Mosura!” The touches that Bear does add to these themes really makes them even more fist pumping than you’d expect. You’ve got taiko drumming, chanting, and epic choirs, making every monster moment that much more visceral and engaging. Even the Blue Oyster Cult cover of ‘Godzilla’ with Serj Tankian on vocals is rad and a perfect fit for the end credits. The album itself has been on repeat all week and I really don’t want to switch it.
It pains my heart to dislike a film that pays homage to my entire childhood and the Godzilla mythos. Everything in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a love letter to Toho and the men and women behind the sixty-five year legacy of the King and I will always love it for that. I may not have enjoyed it as a film to the extent I wish I had, but the little girl in front of me at my IMAX screening who was bouncing up and down in her seat when Godzilla makes his entrance at the final battle made it all worth it.