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Review: Godzilla, King of the Monsters (2019)

Lacks the dramatic resonance of 1954’s Gojira but offers king-sized entertainment for those willing to go along for the ride.

We live in the era of fan-service film-making, which Godzilla, King of the Monsters embraces for better or worse – mostly for better. Clearly conceived and executed as a response to the carefully restrained, slow-burn buildup of Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla, the sequel dispenses with any semblance of subtlety, offering a superabundance of monster-bashing action that may leave those with weak constitutions reaching for the smelling salts, while the rest of us glory in the excess.

Not all the news is good; for everything gained, something is lost. For all the crap thrown at Max Borenstein’s script for the 2014 film, Godzilla was a model of narrative construction, which showed us just enough to make its plot points and then move on. More importantly, it was not so much a Godzilla movie as a movie with Godzilla in it, meaning that there was an attempt to justify the action within the narrative as opposed to just assuming, “This is the kind of stuff that happens in a Godzilla movie.” This yielded interesting dividends, in terms of treating Godzilla as something novel, amazing, and unexpected – dividends which the new film neglects to cash, because it assumes fans will accept the familiar clichés for their own sake.

Nothing better illustrates this difference between Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters than the reaction – or lack thereof – to Godzilla’s displays of power. In the 2014 film, the spectacular moment when Godzilla’s dorsal spines light up as he delivers a blast of nuclear breath is justifiably famous, but equally amusing is the response from one onscreen witness: “Holy shit! What the hell was that?” In the sequel, Godzilla delivers an even more pulse-pulverizing blast, and the onscreen reaction from the characters is…well, non-existent. It’s just a thing that happens in a Godzilla movie – not even worth mentioning. This creates a slightly ho-hum effect to action that would blow the audience away to an even greater degree if we saw the characters blown away by it (well, in some cases they are literally blown away, but not in the sense I mean). Along these lines, the casting of Ziyi Zhang as identical twins doesn’t register in a significant way because it’s simply there for the fans to say, “I know why they did that!” (In case you need me to explain it, the old Toho movies included identical twin fairies who worshiped the island god Mothra, one of Godzilla’s most popular rivals.)

Godzilla King of the Monsters 2019 Review
After emerging from a volcano, Rodan swoops into action.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters Review: Same Old Stories

That said, Godzilla, King of the Monsters completely sticks the landing as a roided-up version of an old-school Godzilla film. Unconstrained by the need to justify any of its inclusions, the film tosses in anything and everything it wants, sustaining itself on a seemingly endless adrenalin rush, moving with the unbridled exuberance of a fan jumping from one favored wish-fulfillment to the next. Fortunately, the potentially convoluted hodgepodge is streamlined by assuming audience familiarity: like Toho’s Heisei era Godzilla movies, the American production quickly and even off-handedly introduces its monsters and weaponry, without belaboring their origins and nature, except to the extent it impinges on the plot.

The story is a melange of ingredients from previous films. The worldwide appearance of monsters (or “Titans,” as they are called here) echoes Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla: Final Wars. The resurrected monsters joining forces to confront a threat suggests the “sacred beasts” from Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack; the particular Kaiju Quartet involved (Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, Mothra) reprises the cast of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. Monarch, the organization tracking the Titans, is essentially a contemporary version of G-Force and other groups that have dealt with Godzilla in the past (although they don’t have any Mazer Canons, there is a plethora of military hardware, including flying fortress, nuclear sub, and even an Oxygen Destroyer – yes, an Oxygen Destroyer, the use of which turns out to be an epic disaster).The fate of Monarch scientist Dr Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) plays like an inversion of his namesake’s in the original Gojira (1954). Near the end, a supercharged Godzilla seems to be reaching a critical mass that will cause a nuclear explosion, as in Godzilla vs. Destroyer. The environmental themes seem lifted from Godzilla rival, Gamera, as seen in Shusuke Kaneko’s 1990s trilogy.

This last element gives the film a peg on which to hang its monster action. It might be a stretch to pretend that the environmental concerns in Godzilla, King of the Monsters are rendered with any great sophistication, but presenting the Titans as monumental forces of nature provides some much-needed thematic resonance, which the film takes a step further, presenting Godzilla and the other monsters as mythical, almost god-like beings – so gargantuan and so far beyond our control that we must regard them with awe if not outright reverence. One suspects that this last element may be a sly rebuke of the fan-base, who (figuratively at least) really do worship Godzilla and will accept only films that conform to the tenants of their faith. (In a similar fashion, Star Trek Into Darkness had a laugh at the Trekkies, portraying a primitive culture worshiping the Starship Enterprise.)

Speaking of rebukes, the film embeds another one, more stylistic than thematic in nature. Like its predecessor (and like many modern genre films), Godzilla, King of the Monsters is presented in grim and murky tones that emphasize the awesome nature of the creatures on-screen. This offends the sensibilities of a certain segment of fans who want their fantasy films to be fun and bright. In what can only be seen as a giant f.u. to these viewers, the script posits that King Ghidorah (Godzilla’s rival alpha) travels surrounded by his own self-made storm, guaranteeing that every time he shows up, the screen will be filled with clouds and rain. (And as an aside, let us not forget that the 1954 Gojira cloaked its monster in shadowy, low-key lighting during its nighttime raid on Tokyo. If anything, Godzilla, King of the Monsters hearkens back to this approach.)

Occasionally, the embrace of beloved clichés goes too far, becoming repetitious. I lost track of the number of times Godzilla appears out of nowhere to save some human character at the penultimate moment, and the film re-does the death-and-resurrection bit from Godzilla 1985 and Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1993) not once but twice. At least that provides an opportunity for the script to joke at is own thematic pretension in likening Godzilla to a god: “He fought for us. He died for us,” says one character, while another murmurs, “Jesus!”

As for dramaturgy, the screenplay’s plot mechanics, motivations, and characterizations are functional; they exist mostly to serve the monster action, but they get the job done. Once again, the story centers on a nuclear family split by the predation of a nuclear monster (seen in a prologue set during the HALO jump in Godzilla – a scene that serves a narrative purpose far more clearly than the gratuitous flashback in the overrated Pacific Rim). We get another male lead (Kyle Chandler as Mark Russell) trying to reunite with his wife and child, though that ultimate reunification may or may not take place. As before, the military wants to kill the Titans, while Monarch wants to preserve them.

What’s new this time is that the resurrection of the monsters is not accidental but the work of eco-terrorists led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, doing his best imperious Christopher Lee performance). Unlike Godzilla, which worked overtime to subvert expectations (the monster that killed Sandra Brody was not – surprise! – Godzilla), Godzilla, King of the Monsters mostly treads upon the expected road, but there is at least one clever plot twist regarding the motivations of a major character, and although none of the cast is given much opportunity for tour-de-force acting, they do their best with what was written, registering emotional conflict (Vera Farmiga as Dr. Russell), delivering amusing one-liners (Bradly Whitford), explaining monster mythology (Ziyi Zhang), and even evoking a surprising amount of pathos (Watanabe, who gets the best dramatic moment).

Godzilla, King of the Monsters Review: Mon-Star Special Effects

Of course, the monsters are the true stars. Each one of the main Kaiju Quartet is given its moment to shine, though the focus remains mostly on the battle between the film’s two “kings,” Godzilla and Ghidorah. (King Kong sits this one out; he is mentioned but not seen, presumably waiting in the wings to challenge the winner of this championship bout. A few other Titans are briefly glimpsed.)

Godzilla King of the Monsters Review
King Ghidorah, the rival to Godzilla’s throne.

Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra have never looked so spectacular. Though the computer-generated imagery is not always convincing, there is a wonderfully craggy detail to the texture of the reptilian hides; the exception is Mothra, who is rendered in angelic colors and grace, although she also manages to look fierce and dangerous during her aerial attacks. There is also notable work expended on making the creatures seem not just large and monstrous but also incredibly powerful: Rodan is enhanced with glowing embers which, combined with his emergence from a volcano, give him the look of a living piece of lava; near the end, the radiation emanating from a turbo-boosted Godzilla is literally melting objects as he walks past.

The special effects somewhat follow the format established in Godzilla: there are none of the silly CGI flyover shots like the ones that glutted Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2004). The camera often assumes a ground-level point-of-view, with many shots combining humans and monsters in the same frame, to convey scale. However, Godzilla, King of the Monsters goes considerably more over-the-top, with extended battle scenes that put the camera in the middle of the action – that is, eye to eye with the warring Titans. The impact is vertiginous but in a good way, portraying the immensity of the monsters more convincingly than most previous kaiju epics.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters Review: Conclusion

As mentioned, Godzilla, King of the Monsters can be likened to numerous predecessors, but spiritually it seems closest to 2004’s unjustly derided Godzilla: Final Wars (though with monsters much more front and center). The new film is not quite as bat-shit crazy as Final Wars, but it has the same go-for-broke attitude, filling the screen with as much action as the running time will allow. The result may lack the dramatic resonance of Gojira‘s somber anti-nuclear message, but it does offer kaiju-sized entertainment to anyone willing to go along for the ride.

On a final note, like Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla, King of the Monsters sets up a sequel with a post-credits sequence, but more intriguing than this last tidbit is the ending of the film proper, which aims to quite literally live up to the film’s title, suggesting that a new Reign of Titans is beginning – a benevolent reign, judging from headlines flashing across screen during the closing credits, though for how long is an open question. A brief dialogue exchange at the end suggests why a Kong-size intervention may be necessary to dethrone Godzilla:

“Good thing he’s on our side.”

“For now…”

Godzilla, King of the Monsters Rating

Bottom Line

Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty’s roided-up sequel offers exuberant fan service at the expense of dramatic storytelling, but the multitude of monster battles delivers king-sized entertainment.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters (2019, Warner Bros, Legendary Entertainment). Directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Doughterty & Zach Shields, from a story by Dougherty & Shields and Max Borenstein. 131 mins. PG-13. Release Date: May 30, 2019 (actual); May 31, 2019 (official). Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr, David Strathairn, CCH Pounder.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.