Woof. Whenever I’m assigned to review a film, and that film reveals itself to be quite poor, I often start with a contrarian stance. I might say Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a terrible movie, sure. But I’d also explain how its silly elements could have coalesced into a good Godzilla film in different hands. That’s what I usually do, anyway.
Not today. Not here… This is a no man’s land: an absolute cultural cemetery. Godzilla: King of the Monsters must be buried deep. If you’re reading this, you should leave knowing not to venture down to the local cinema — not even ironically — for this particularly film. None of this stems from any sort of pop culture allegiance. I’m neither a fanboy nor an antagonist of Kaiju culture. I am simply a fan of you, dear reader, and your time. And if I care about any audience at all, that alone sets me apart from Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
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In 2014, Legendary Pictures rebooted the Godzilla franchise (in its 30th iteration) with Godzilla. The ensemble cast production had a globe-trotting vision of huge monsters that could only be stopped by a slightly huger monster. The human drama played out in meaningful ways that mostly existed parallel to the arc of demigods wrecking cities. It was weighted and clever and scary. It was precise in every choice it made. Now, Legendary is expanding its MonsterVerse, setting up more Kaiju stories and a forthcoming Godzilla vs. Kong crossover slated for next year. The stepping stone between those points is Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
As such, I went in prepared for one of those lesser Marvel films. The kind where you know they need to give a character some screen time before the next big, shared universe story. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is worse than one of those movies made just to check boxes. Because this particular checklist has nothing on it.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters follows a family in the aftermath of Godzilla. The husband and wife team of Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has built a device they hope can communicate with and/or control the various titans that keep wrecking havoc on the earth. If the post-Kaiju invasion story sounds reminiscent of Pacific Rim: Uprising, well, a lot of this film does feel copied directly from its buddy’s homework.
Meanwhile, a shadowy organization attempts to subvert the government and go full, unregulated Avengers on the extraordinary creatures threatening the planet. Unfortunately, a group of self-described eco-terrorists are way better at shadowy subversion, and they keep waking up new monsters from inside the earth, or under glaciers, or wherever gigantic dumb things might live. There’s a plan here, I guess, but it doesn’t even make sense to the people explaining it. And oh, they do explain their plans at length — like Bond villains. Whenever there’s a moment of silence to take in the devastation wrought on-screen here comes more exposition.
Millie Bobby Brown (of Stranger Things fame) is here, too. She’s the daughter of the couple that built the universal translator. Even playing a normal teenager, she still has fewer lines of dialogue than she does on Stranger Things — where she plays a half-mute telepath with zero social skills.
Brown’s only purpose in the film seems to be walking around and touching things that should not be touched for any reason: large ice walls, large monster faces, science experiments, and even the broadcast system in Fenway Park. They are all extremely touchable. If you need a teenage girl to touch things while looking confused by why touching them is going poorly, Brown’s character is your gal. This is disappointing because Godzilla: King of the Monsters should have been a chance for her to show off her acting range. Instead it sticks her back within the limitations of weirdo kid.
The film is here to introduce more big ol’ monsters into the expanding world of Godzilla. Classic creatures Mothra, Rodan, and a three-headed dragon named King Ghidorah all gum up the works. What happens next? They’re mostly ignored in favor of unleashing another dozen Kaiju. So. That somewhat dilutes the audience’s investment. Godzilla himself is actually taken out of play very early on, so we’re stuck with a film about an unending series of big-name actors playing indistinguishable scientists. The “action” alternates between that and the various monsters killing assorted army dudes.
None of this would necessarily sink a Godzilla film. A good entry in the series always focuses on the creatures and their creature arcs, while secondary human stories provide context. And the innumerable scientists bumble through so much futile resistance that, paired with a better action film, the unimportance of humanity in the grand scheme of things might an amusing foundation.
But King of the Monsters isn’t that self-aware, nor is it offset by interesting set pieces. The people here all do things because the movie knows they need to do something. Where and when they succeed or fail is entirely random. This becomes the most obvious criticism of the inhuman part of the film, as well. Godzilla is certainly never the “King” of any monsters. In fact, most of the monsters seem to collide by accident. Monsters battle because they need to do something — anything — to justify the film’s existence.
The 2014 Godzilla made certain to inject the audience with so much kinship for the radioactive lizard that both his defeats and victories felt like tearjerkers. Even the chaotic antagonists he fought had ridiculous relationships that imbued them with, if not humanity, at least animal empathy. It’s impossible to explain why anything in this film does what it does, or how. And I’m not being an ass here! I’m willing to engage with almost any film on its own terms. That’s what I’m doing here, in good faith. I doubt even children ready and willing for just bright lights and loud noises would find anything to enjoy in Godzilla: The One That Sets Up More Stuff. It’s awe-inspiring in its blandness.
Making the end of the world boring would be one thing. But final the nail in the coffin is that the few ideas King of the Monsters does choose to develop are antithetical to the very foundation of Godzilla. [BRIEF SPOILER TO FOLLOW!]
The Real Kicker
After spending most of the second act dead, Godzilla gets resurrected by Ken Watanabe (I don’t remember his character’s name). Watanabe sacrifices himself to detonate a nuke that resurrects our semi-hero. Yes. A Japanese character… In a Godzilla film… Blows himself up with a nuclear warhead to save the day.
I was simply gobsmacked. Between the “eco-terrorists are the real villains” setup and the “nuclear bombs are actually good” reveal — in a series that’s a giant metaphor for the horrors of nuclear power — it’s hard to read as anything but outright reactionary propaganda. Maybe there’s a world where this was some kind of subversive twist, were the movie in better hands, but those better hands were nowhere near Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
What takes Godzilla: King of the Monsters from simply bad to outright tragedy, however, is that it had everything it needed to succeed. The budget is there, the cast list is sprawling, and the first film bought miles of goodwill. It is Godzilla, for gosh sakes. Even a bad Godzilla movie is usually a fun time. So who raced this through production to push out a first draft film that feels based in a completely different universe than the one it exists to bridge? In trying to build a legacy, this movie threatens to bury it.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is nothing but noise and light, and can't even make that enjoyable. It only stands out when it actively undoes everything good about Godzilla and his gigantic peers.
- With appropriately set expectations, this could be a laugh riot
- The movie has visuals and sound and is 130 minutes long
- Someone spent $200 million on this wowwwww
- Monsters punch each other and that’s never all bad
- Still pretty dang bad
- An embarrassment for all involved (except Bradley Whitford)
- Devoid of meaning, except for when actively undermining Godzilla’s most basic themes