By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown
Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields
I may be the wrong person to objectively review GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, because it brings out the two opposing sides of my movie-loving personality. Every time the film critic in me wants to point out its flaws, my inner 10-year-old keeps telling him to shut up.
Essentially, this is a movie that anyone who grew up loving the Japanese kaiju pictures, and has wanted to see what one of Toho’s monster rallies would look like with a $200-million budget and the latest CGI technology, will not want to miss. Some purists will understandably balk, and note that there’s too much time spent with the people in favor of the monster action—though they should be reminded that such was the case in some of the original Godzilla classics as well. (Don’t believe me? Watch DESTROY ALL MONSTERS again sometime. It’s still a great movie, but it does require a certain amount of patience.)
There’s certainly a lot more city- (and other environment-) smashing going on in KING OF THE MONSTERS than in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 GODZILLA, which launched Warner Bros. and Legendary’s MonsterVerse. Many people were put off by the way Edwards played hide-and-seek with his ostensible star, but I admired the way his movie was presented as a ground-level apocalypse drama, rooting us with its human characters by often witnessing Godzilla from their distant or partially obstructed points of view. Edwards, I believe, brought back the sense of mystery and menace Godzilla possessed in the original 1954 GOJIRA, and that dissipated out of the subsequent movies as they became targeted at young audiences. KING OF THE MONSTERS, which Michael Dougherty directed from a script he wrote with Zach Shields (the two receive story credit with Max Borenstein, also the original writer on Edwards’ film), effectively continues that tack in certain shots, while in general plunging us into the thick of battle between Godzilla, the other “Titans”—as they’re collectively called here—and the puny human forces trying to stop them.
As Dougherty’s film opens, several years have passed since the Big G demolished most of San Francisco, and his rampage still haunts now-estranged scientists Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga), who lost their son in the attack. Emma’s one of the monster-watchers in the Monarch organization, which has discovered and been monitoring a number of buried, dormant Titans around the world, including one code-named “Monster Zero” (part of the welcome fan service Dougherty and Shields sprinkle throughout the movie; be sure to stay to the end of the closing credits). She has developed a device called the ORCA, with which she has combined the audio emissions from various Titans and can be used to communicate with them, possibly pacify them—or awaken them. Needless to say, a machine with such potentially world-shaking applications is coveted by a nefarious sort, namely eco-terrorist Dr. Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), and his attempts to get his hands on the ORCA get the plot off and running.
The latter word is meant literally, as a good deal of KING OF THE MONSTERS is devoted to its characters fleeing or trekking from one place to another in an effort to halt the Titans’ emergence and marauding. Mark, who’s been off studying more prosaic wildlife, is called back into action, and the ongoing tension between the Russells becomes writ large as the story develops, with their daughter Madison (STRANGER THINGS sensation Millie Bobby Brown) caught in the middle. Yet one key character’s motivation for setting a potentially disastrous scenario in motion, and the attendant dialogue, just isn’t convincing, which undercuts the movie’s attempts to give an emotional spine to the spectacle. (Chandler’s presence reminds that Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, in which he co-starred, remains the very-high-water-mark of the modern CGI monster genre, in part because we could be intrigued by and care about its people as much as the big ape.)
There’s also too much strategizing, as the movie spends a lot of time with other assorted military types and scientists, such as the returning Dr. Serizawa (the welcome Ken Watanabe) and comic-relief wisecracker Dr. Stanton (Bradley Whitford), trying to figure out solutions to each new problem. Of course the instinct is to go big and long with this kind of epic, but a little more narrative economy might have helped maintain stronger interest in between kaiju battles. By the time the movie heads under the sea and introduces a whole other mythology into the playbook because why not?, you get the feeling Dougherty and Shields threw in every idea they had for this scenario, and never went back to winnow them down to the best ideas.
So OK, that’s the adult critic talking. Now the eternal child comes out: The monster stuff is absolutely awesome, fully delivering on the promise of restaging the classic Toho brawls with all the digital technology a huge budget can buy. In particular, the three-headed Ghidorah’s eruption from his underground prison and his subsequent battle with Godzilla, as the tiny people scurry and struggle to get out of the way, is as intense and thrilling and powerful a setpiece as has been staged in any effects megapicture this century. (I also dug the throwaway bits where those three heads seem to have differences of opinion.) Fans will thrill as each new iteration of the classic bestiary—also including Rodan and Mothra—makes its appearance; a few new creatures are introduced as well, albeit largely confined to the movie’s sidelines. As if their enormity and destructive capabilities aren’t enough, Dougherty drenches their scenes with maximum ominous atmosphere, from frigid Arctic darkness to hellish volcanic eruption, and lots of the inevitable storm clouds and rain. In this incarnation, Ghidorah even brings the bad weather with him, traveling in the midst of a self-generated tropical storm.
It’s all supremely thrilling, and delivers the goods one expects from a movie like this, even as the stuff in between sometimes taxes the patience. (And occasionally begs credibility, in terms of how the key characters manage to make their way through and out of so much cataclysmic devastation alive.) Of course, you didn’t watch the old Godzilla movies for the deep human drama either, but KING OF THE MONSTERS devotes so much time to it, it’s a shame that it doesn’t always register as it should. Just go in with the patience of a (pre-Internet) child to sit through the scenes of people talking to get to the good stuff, and you’ll enjoy GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS just fine.