King of the Monsters offers the campy pleasures of an old-school Godzilla sequel, despite going overboard with its relentless kaiju battles.
After a five year absence, the MonsterVerse's Godzilla has finally returned for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Gareth Edwards' Godzilla reboot launched the kaiju franchise in 2014, and embraced a fairly serious tone reminiscent of Ishirō Honda's original 1954 classic. By comparison, 2017's Kong: Skull Island moved away from Edwards' restrained direction in favor of a far more colorful and rip-roaring MonsterVerse adventure set in the 1970s. This brings us to the property's third installment, which aspires to be even goofier and more action-packed than either of its predecessors, in ways both good and bad. King of the Monsters offers the campy pleasures of an old-school Godzilla sequel, despite going overboard with its relentless kaiju battles.
The film takes place in the present-day MonsterVerse, where people are still adjusting to the reality that god-like creatures exist. In the wake of Godzilla's San Francisco battle with the MUTOs, Monarch paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has developed "The Orca": a machine that allows for auditory communication with these Titans, and could be the key to humanity's survival. However, when she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are taken by ex-colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) and his eco-terrorist group, it falls to Monarch and Emma's erstwhile husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), who helped design The Orca, to rescue them. Before long, though, they realize Alan and his organization have a bigger goal in mind - one that involves awakening King Ghidorah, an apex predator and Godzilla's ancient nemesis.
In a way, King of the Monsters hews closer to the Japanese Godzilla sequels of the 20th century than either of the previous MonsterVerse films. The movie benefits from having Michael Dougherty onboard in this regard, as the writer-director (who also helmed Trick 'r Treat and Krampus) brings a horror-comedy touch that compliments the heavy-handed environmental themes and human melodrama here. At the same time, the narrative by Dougherty and his writing partner Zach Shields leaves something to be desired, even by the standards of the larger Godzilla franchise (where plot has traditionally been a secondary concern to spectacle). The resulting film is one that's already dividing people over whether its strengths in other departments make up for its shortcomings in this area.
Following a quick prologue (which establishes the Russells' backstory), King of the Monsters wastes little time getting to the thing Godzilla fans love most: the Titans wreaking havoc on the planet and/or fighting one another. These brawls are typically impressive in their staging, as Dougherty and DP Lawrence Sher (The Hangover trilogy, War Dogs) bring them to life in a way that combines the realism of Edwards' Godzilla with the expressiveness of Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island. In doing so, the film draws from a vivid color palette (arctic blue, desert orange, rainy grey) that serves to distinguish these various throw-downs visually. The sequences are further energized by Bear McCreary's bold score, which uses an eclectic mix of instrumentation (including, taiko chanting and drumming) and re-imagines both Godzilla and Mothra's iconic themes to positive effect. Problem is, because King of the Monsters never stops upping the ante when it comes to spectacle, it starts to become more exhausting than exhilarating by the time the third act rolls around.
As mentioned, though, the main flaws lie with King of the Monsters' thinly-drawn humans and storylines. The broken family plot at the heart of the film is cheesy at best and laughably flat at worst, even with people as talented as Brown, Farmiga, and Chandler trying their hardest to elevate the drama into something poignant. Fortunately, the movie is even more of a true ensemble piece than MonsterVerse entries past, and the other members of Monarch are far more entertaining than the Russells. King of the Monsters' heroes are all fairly archetypical (there's the awkward nerd, the sardonic tech specialist, the no-nonsense military leader, and so on), but are buoyed on the big screen by a distinguished cast that includes Bradley Whitford, Zhang Ziyi, Aisha Hinds, and O'Shea Jackson Jr., along with returning Godzilla costars Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn. Nevertheless, it's Ken Watanabe who once again steals the show as Godzilla's number one fanboy, Dr. Ishirō Serizawa, and reveals there's nary a silly line of dialogue he can't deliver with gravitas.
Overall, King of the Monsters delivers on its promise of spectacular kaiju skirmishes and paves the way for even more to come in next year's crossover event, Godzilla vs. Kong. At the same time, the film is arguably messier than MonsterVerse movies past and struggles to balance competent human drama with satisfyingly destructive mayhem. This accounts for the sequel's polarizing reception so far; depending on how one looks at it, King of the Monsters either compensates for its storytelling problems by offering extra helpings of monster fights, or knows exactly what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Still, whichever way you cut it, there's enough that works here to please most kaiju fanatics or anyone in the mood for a big, ridiculous, blockbuster thrill ride that's worth checking out on the largest screen available.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 134 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language.
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- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) release date: May 31, 2019
- Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) release date: Mar 13, 2020