Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Godzilla returns to the big screen with King of the Monsters this week. More than stepping up the action in incredible ways, the sequel expands the universe while wearing it’s (oftentimes goofy) heritage on its sleeve. Come inside to check out our full review!
King of the Monsters takes place five years after the events of the previous Godzilla movie, and the differences between the films are apparent from the start. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot (more than the average bear), and think it did some solid things to bring the Kaiju icon into the modern era. These films just serve entirely different purposes.
Where that film served as mostly a re-introduction to Godzilla and the monstrous world, King of the Monsters dives fully into the kaiju madness without looking back. It’s evident from the film’s opening that we’re in for an all new kind of adventure this time around. The film opens in San Francisco, showing what the new human characters, Doctors Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) in the midst of Godzilla’s first destructive battle from the previous film.
The result is the loss of their son, Andrew, a tragedy that follows them in the years to come and guides their ultimate actions in the story. As we jump forward in time, we see a world that’s changed. While Godzilla hasn’t been sighted since those events, the world of monsters has been unveiled and humans are struggling to catch up.
Monarch, the secretive agency from the first film that sought to keep the knowledge underwraps, is now in the public eye and facing increased government scrutiny. There’s a debate brewing about what should be done with the other “Titans” they’ve located and contained around the world. The military is in favor of obliterating them, ensuring they cannot wreak destruction in the same way as before, while Monarch seeks to find a balance with the creatures.
Dr. Emma Russell is a scientist in charge of studying the Titan Mothra. When the larva awakes she deploys a new device she’d been developing: the Orca. It’s an experimental piece of technology that utilizes soundwaves/patterns of the various Titans in an effort to control them. From enraging them to calming them down, the Orca serves as the primary “MacGuffin” in the film.
The ability to influence Titans via something that fits in a briefcase is obviously something a lot of people would be interested in...Namely a group of highly trained mercenaries led by Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah wants to level the playing field, bringing balance back to the world by unleashing the Titans and has been working counter to Monarch to do so.
Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) find themselves wrapped up in Jonah’s plans, which prompts Monarch to bring in Mark to help recover the device and his family. This family dynamic (their estrangement and struggles) forms the crux of the human storyline and pulls us all around the planet from one monster battle to another.
Before long Monster Zero (King Ghidorah) is unleashed and his coming awakens other Titans all around the world. The apocalypse is coming and Godzilla may be humanity’s only hope for survival...I don’t want to go much further as I want to keep this review spoiler free (there are a couple interesting twists), but as the Titans awaken around the globe it becomes an all out brawl for supremacy where humans must learn to coexist with Godzilla to survive.
Human and Monster Drama
One of the main complaints in the previous Godzilla movie was the emphasis on the human storyline rather than monster action. In this, King of the Monsters does a significantly better job of balancing things out. The kaiju are front and center of the action with plenty of eye candy for you to drool over.
If you’ve seen the trailers you have a small taste of the insane action the film brings overall. The sense of scale in the monster scenes is impressive, and no matter how many times you see Ghidorah or Godzilla on screen (it’s a bunch, thankfully) it still feels awe-inspiring.
The framing and cinematography in these moments are like works of art, highlighting the power of these creatures and the beauty inherent with them. The action is impressively blocked out and never shies away from the big moments. There’s an insane amount of “holy shit” moments where the audience gasped and marveled at what was taking place.
The designs of the various monsters are reminiscent of their classic designs, though they’ve been updated to stand out. Rodan’s fiery nature is highlighted in the way his wings seem perpetually dipped in flames, while Godzilla is slightly tweaked (bigger arms/hands and feet) to accentuate his predatory features. Mothra leans more into the bug elements of design, but still retains that ethereal goddess-like feel.
They’re impressively animated and presented in a way that feels in line with their old-school designs (some of the flying looks almost EXACTLY like the old puppets on a string). They’re far more emotive, however, giving the various Titans more of a personality. While this seems like it wouldn’t matter, it actually adds a great deal of depth to the battles. When you can see them grimace, look determined, or even cower there’s a more personal investment in the action unfolding.
The human drama element, however, is where the film stumbles most. The acting, all around, is pretty great and Stranger Things fans will be happy to know that Millie Bobby Brown’s first big screen outing is pretty great. She shares many scenes with some well known, and long working actors but doesn’t feel overshadowed in the least. I was particularly happy that Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa returns and has a significantly improved role in the story this time.
That said, the human side of things doesn’t always click in the film and too often these scenes are nothing more than setups to get to the next monster, rather than move towards an overall point. I mean, if you took the humans out of the equation the events would largely play out the same. Couple this with characters making some strange choices and heavy exposition dumps and there’s something to be desired in this area…
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the ideas this part of the film presents. Seeing how humans have reacted to the destruction caused by Godzilla’s arrival was great and brought a sense of realism to the fantastical. The deeper exploration of the overall kaiju lore made my geeky heart happy, and manages to bring those elements to a new generation in a fresh way that works and could lead to fun stories down the road.
In a lot of ways, the human storyline feels very similar to the old-school Japanese films. It’s sometimes goofy, dumps a lot of info on you at once, and doesn’t always make sense. It’s forgivable because the monster action is the primary focus, but it prevents King of the Monsters from being anything more than over-the-top popcorn fun.
Embracing the Past
There’s an ungodly amount of nods and callbacks to the original Godzilla franchise. Not only do these work as cool Easter eggs for long-time fans of the series to spot, they do a great job of establishing the greater “MonsterVerse” and the stories to come.
I don’t want to list them all here (part of the fun is seeing them yourself), but Mothra fans have some cool connections, there’s a bunch of Kong: Skull Island stuff going on, and a plethora of monsters to spot. My favorite thing, however, is the film’s soundtrack. The score lovingly incorporates Akira Ifukube's iconic monster themes, blending them seamlessly into the modern soundtrack.
In this, and many other ways, Godzilla: King of the Monsters proudly displays its 65 year heritage. It honors the past while carving out its own future that’s so bright it needs sunglasses. While elements of the story needed work, between how the action was shot and the implementation of Godzilla’s vast lore, the film feels like a giant step forward in the Monster-Movie genre and the new standard to which all of them will be held to.
If you’re looking for an exhilarating film to kick off your Summer movie season, King of the Monsters fits the bill. It’s a brilliant return to form for the iconic kaiju and I can’t wait to see more of this world in action. See this on the biggest screen you possibly can.