Another film to add to my personal collection of “so bad it’s good” (see Assassin’s Creed) Godzilla: King of the Monsters is cinematic Ronseal – it does exactly what it ought to given the name, and anyone expecting depth is an idiot.
Five years after the world became aware of the existence of Godzilla during his brawls with other creatures in the US, shadowy organisation Monarch continues to find other monsters in stasis. Due to nefarious actions, hordes are released including the terrifying Ghidorah, leaving a ragtag bunch of humans to try to find (and ally with) Godzilla.
You’ll have noticed I made zero mention of the characters in specifics there, and that’s as it should be. Director Mike Dougherty (director of excellent Halloween anthology Trick ‘r’ Treat) co-wrote this with Zach Shields and Max Borenstein, and it’s safe to say none of these three are adept with characterisation. But that doesn’t matter, because they nail the idea of a B-movie so perfectly that I could not have given less of a shit about the humans when there are massive monsters destroying everything and smacking each other about.
The 2014 Godzilla was a mixed bag that over time I’ve come to quite like, simply because it takes a really ground level focus on the brainmelting appearance of giant crazy creatures in a facsimile of our world. King of the Monsters, ostensibly in the same universe, detonates most of that but offers connective tissue (not least to the fun and knowingly ridiculous middle film/prequel Kong: Skull Island).
The director and writers hang one family’s travails to the throughline of this film (and hire some great actors to play them) but it was never going to be about them. I harp on because reviews for this from some publications and sites that should know better drove me mad (this post on Birth.Movies.Death articulates my opinion perfectly).
Suffice to say – the human stuff is as deep as in any disaster or B-movie. We’re not there for that! We know what to expect from a Godzilla movie, and while the 2014 movie was very cleverly, sombrely staged, just looking at the posters or promotion for this would have shown you it’d be more “fighty”.
Dougherty uses his horror background to imbue monster larks with a creeping suspense and tension, but recognises that now this world is familiar with giant creatures, there’s less need for the awestruck horror of Gareth Edward’s part one. So instead we are treated to untold levels of citywide destruction, bruising conflicts and a surprisingly strong sense of nihilism and wry humour.
I say nihilism because this does more than most monster films to show that these creatures (Godzilla included/especially) could give less of a shit about us ant sized creatures at their feet. These are the most “alpha” predators ever, so of course they don’t care! Dougherty stages action and CGI smackdowns with real heft, and the script is sprinkled with a lot of smarmy wit and quips that made this feel very, very 90s at times – again, not a problem!
I also very much enjoyed the more mystical, esoteric and frankly insane mythological turns delving into the history of the creatures, which felt so refreshingly zany and nuts as to separate these types of films from the “rooted in real life” bananas they often aim for.
It’s technically all over the place, though there is an epic, excellent score by Bear McCreary that resamples and re-records old themes from the original Japanese films, using choirs and drums to evoke a sense of immensity (he also masterminds a cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Godzilla song for the end credits, sung by System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, which felt charmingly 90s/00s but worked nonetheless).
The film looks good sometimes, cinematographer Lawrence Sher trying his best against the billions of pixels – see the poster above for an example of where this all comes together – but there are lot of murky, dirty, poorly lit fights that mean it all feels cheaper than the 2014 film’s intelligent use of locations and doomy photography.
However, a lot of that might be down to the haphazard and jerky editing by editors Roger Barton, Richard Pearson and Bob Ducsay, who ably try to combine the 2014 film’s tendency to cut away (oftentimes infuriatingly) with front row seats to these colossal barneys. All this results in is an often jerky and non aligned series of scenes at times, though the average cinemagoer won’t notice nor care.
And finally the special effects – while often incredible (some of the destruction and some of the monsters is/are incredibly realised), they are also intermittently naff! When the monsters are shown in an almost biblical, awe-inspiring way effects are op notch, but at other times it feels like a definite drop in quality has taken place.
An over the top use of greenscreen when not needed also distracts, while Hollywood’s tendency to stage big CGI action scenes in cloudy and murky weather continues here, disappointingly. On the whole though, most monsters have heft and identities, thanks to the incredible motion capture work. We’re all inured to city destruction in cinema now (that’s probably a concern), but battles have a real crunch that makes it feel like the world is being levelled – and like the 2014 film, mass death is not sugarcoated.
I’m not going to waste too much time on the cast as it’s just not worth it! Vera Farmiga is OK in a strange genius scientist role struggling to deal with loss and responsibility, while ex Kyle Chandler – in the same boat – is the “broken man who wanted to walk away but nevertheless outsmarts this room full of geniuses with every suggestion”, a predictable archetype. Farmiga’s role does become more interesting as events transpire though.
Millie Bobby Brown is much more assured than in Stranger Things, and probably one of the only actors required to actually act here who can. Ken Watanabe serves mainly as a connection to the previous movie and to Godzilla’s Japanese origins, providing a quietly tortured and empathetic (to the monsters anyway) head of the strange Monarch agency.
Bradley Whitford provides overbearing comic relief (based on Rick and Morty, so as a non-fan some humour fell dead for me), though effortlessly projects know-it-all smarm. The best of the rest include O’Shea Jackson Jr’s quipping soldier (inheriting dad Ice Cube’s comedic sensibilities); and Charles Dance, absolutely hamming it up as the “eco-terrorist” antagonist; the actor’s plummy Brit stereotype deployed with devilish relish.
What more can I say really! You know whether you want to see this or not – and you know what you’re in for. Either see it or don’t, but monster/action film lovers owe it to themselves to see the carnage. Just don’t expect good characters or performances (except from the monsters).