Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Though the rematch between monster movie icons King Kong and Godzilla lies just around the corner, our buildup to Godzilla vs Kong wouldn’t be complete without a look at its direct predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. With a five-year gap from Hollywood’s previous Godzilla film, Godzilla (2014), the film also doubles as a celebration of the franchise’s 65th anniversary and the first Hollywood Godzilla to feature other Toho kaiju. Though King of the Monsters generally pleased Godzilla fans, critics were harsher, mainly citing issues with the story and characters. After finally getting a chance to watch it ourselves, in 3D no less, we find ourselves agreeing more with the critics.

Five years after the events of Godzilla (2014), when humanity learned of the existence of Titans, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) witness the birth of Mothra at a Monarch base. Mothra is agitated upon awakening, but is calmed with a device called the Orca, which emits frequencies that affect Titan behavior. When all seems calm, however, a group of eco-terrorists led by Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) attacks the base and abducts Emma and Madison while Mothra flees. Former Monarch employee Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is approached by Monarch scientists Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) to help track them down. Mark agrees to help in spite of his initial reluctance over his past with Godzilla, but his quest to save his family and retrieve the Orca leads to run-ins with not only Godzilla, but the newly awakened King Ghidora and Rodan as well.

While King of the Monsters does a better job at balancing the stories of the humans and the Titans, the film is still bogged down by rather slow pacing. It takes about half the film for all of the main monsters to make their formal appearances and properly set up the stakes that drive the second half. Even when things finally get moving, one major plot point relies on the “Hollow Earth” theory, which received very minimal foreshadowing through a passing mention in Kong: Skull Island, and the human villain’s main motivation is rather eye-rolling. Not only does their exposition on their plan involve a heavy-handed environmental message, it’s one that incorporates the “humans are the real monsters” message that doesn’t feel particularly original in its execution. On top of this, three of the human characters are presented as important to the story and the events of Godzilla (2014), but the audience gets next to no context outside of the opening sequence, which makes it harder to get attached to them from the start. Not even all of the great acting from everyone involved can do much to save the writing for the human side of the conflict.

On the other hand, the giant monster battles are a visual spectacle and easily the real reason to watch the film. King Ghidora feels like a real threat against both Godzilla and humanity at large and it’s satisfying when Godzilla can finally, explosively, gain the upper hand. Mothra and Rodan also impress visually, but they’re not written as well, since Rodan feels like he’s just there and the buildup of Mothra’s arc didn’t have too much payoff. It also doesn’t help that during the final battle in the last third of the movie, the dark lighting and some of the editing choices can make some of the action harder to follow than it should be.

The monster battles are visually impressive, but darkly lit.

Hardcore Godzilla fans will also find something to like in Bear McCreary’s great score, as it incorporates themes from composer Akira Ifukube’s work on the Godzilla franchise. The credits also feature a cover of “Godzilla” by Blue Öyster Cult, itself a tribute to the iconic kaiju.

Given the storytelling issues vs the spectacle of the fights, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is better viewed as a tribute to the Toho Godzilla films than it is beyond that context. You may as well watch this film if you’re going through the MonsterVerse, especially since Skull Island is referenced heavily during the end credits montage, but there are better Godzilla films out there.

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