Going into Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I expected off-the-charts monster clashes and not a lot else. Instead of posters littered with human characters, we’ve got a spotlight on the sort of cast audiences have longed for since 2014’s relatively Kaiju-less Godzilla. Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah – and really, what else do you need?
For less than half the movie’s run time, my wish was fulfilled, either by witnessing the slow reveal of each monster or watching them engage in full-on combat. For the other more-than-half-ish, though, I was engaged in an internal battle of my own: how much does the good outweigh the bad?
The joy you get out of Godzilla: King of the Monsters may depend largely on how much goodwill it earns from you with the kaiju clashes. What’s the exchange rate for boring human drama to nostalgic monster fights? Is every 1 minute of Mothra worth 5 minutes of Kyle Chandler frantically yelling about his daughter? How about 10? The value of that kind of currency will vary from one person to the next, but the answer to these kinds of questions is a basic litmus test for whether this film really works.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters employs a sort of nesting doll approach to conflict. The largest in scale and easily the most engaging is the battle of the Kaiju, pitting Mothra and Godzilla against Rodan and Ghidorah. Move down a layer and you’ll find the least interesting, most convoluted plot: that of various government entities, including Monarch, a special unit researching the Titans (e.g. monsters), and even environmental terrorist organizations. Each has a different opinion and approach in how to best handle the potential threat from the Titans. This piece of the story somehow, almost impossibly involves both the most exposition and the least amount of clarity. It’s a major but mostly needless obstacle to telling this story, filled with boring McGuffin chasing at best and complete nonsense at worst.
In the final layer, we have the the drama surrounding a family torn apart by tragedy and, well, Godzilla. This is the part of the movie that could have worked in different circumstances. Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown do their best to make us care about this family, but the effort falls flat as it gets trapped in the underpinnings of that second layer of plot previously mentioned.
But, like I said, it’s not all bad. Because then you have the kaiju. In 2014’s Godzilla, the lack of appearance from the titular character was the main complaint I heard from people who were unsatisfied with the film. This is, fortunately, not a problem here. Monarch spends most of the film’s running time tracking and chasing Godzilla, and this time we even see enough of him to see glimmers of personality. Mothra is also well-served by this movie, getting moments in battle that are pronounced enough to almost make her feel more human than the film’s leads. On the other side, Ghidorah and Rodan are mostly served up as pure monster menace, with an even elaborate bit of Ghidorah’s back-story woven into the central plot. It’s clear that director Mike Dougherty is a fan of these creatures, and he does them justice.
I also thought the visual effects looked good here, though I could understand complaints that they’re a little murky: the film uses lots of Earth tones for the Titans and the biggest fight scene is portrayed in the dark and in the rain (not unlike Pacific Rim). But I thought those choices helped the film light up more drastically when special powers or brighter colors were used, and everything was still crisp and clear. Small snapshots within the film were artful enough that you could see how gorgeous each moment would look as a still. The music only adds to the nostalgia factor, and fans of the older movies will recognize some of the themes of Bear McCreary‘s score. I would add that if you’re interested in seeing this, I expect the big-screen experience would be vastly more rewarding than waiting to catch it at home.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters poses several questions about humanity and the burden we put on the Earth and our environment. Do we deserve to reign over this Earth if we will destroy it in the process? I’m not sure it was the intent, but I walked away from the film with a clear feeling: we really don’t need the humans after all. Just bring on the kaiju.